The horse has a hard-on. A big, curling, reverse-banana hard-on that bobs itself into existence just as they saddle the big slug. We’re twelve minutes from post, and I’m thinking three words: can’t be good. There’s three of us, betting the horses at Longchamp, that arbored and beatific Parisian racetrack, on a Sunday afternoon. Mike the horse guy, him in his expensive tie and mud-brown coat, concurs. He shrugs, gulps, twists in his shoes, hisses. “That doesn’t bode well for us, boys,” Mike the horse guy says. And I figure, Good. All bets are off.
Clive Owen, however, is genuinely nonplussed. He appears a kind of lookout, squinting over the top of his sunglasses, muttering a bit, lifting his lip, mouthing a single, silent word. He’s mulling this fabulously ill-timed erection, which dips so far as to touch the ground. There’s a Stella clamped in his left hand, racing form folded under his arm. He’s got that Clive Owen stare going, a brooding glower, a sinister peek, the pointy end of the handsomeness spear.And when Owen looks, when his gaze picks a subject, as it finally falls, all of its weight attaches to the moment, so it seems as though he’s gazing with the uncrowded appreciation of a junkie. When he speaks, there’s a comma of realization before every turn of phrase, just at the mouth of every utterance, as if he were waking up in his own body just then. This has the effect of making him seem genuinely stunned — a little hurt even — by the very circumvolutions of the human planet. The guy studies the world before he speaks. But just now, he seems delighted to be mute. God help me, Clive Owen likes this horse, boner and all.
See, here’s the problem: He’s betting with my money. Having waited out the first four races without so much as a huff at the program, with all his handicapping acumen pent up for this, the fifth — a mile-long Group 1 tick featuring a bunch of bigwig winners from all over the continent — Owen’s now eyeballing the even-money favorite. And what’s worse is, he’s finger-flipping a lump of my very own cash — my cold roll, my bread and butter, my stake — in his flawless, handcrafted trouser pocket.
Eleven hundred euros for the day, which I’d given him after the first race, figuring he’d treat it like his own — assuming he’d take a bite now and again, couple hundred here, couple hundred there, knock out a few winners, take the occasional heavy stab, box a couple of exactas, and call it a day.
No guarantees, he told me.
No problem, was my retort.
Except one. Absolutely no payback, no reimbursement from the magazine. My money here. He could lose it just as well as I could, but, you know, a lot of ropes get pulled aside for a movie star — they get tips. I had it figured as a kind of edge. And he Chunneled his ass all the way from London with his very own wiseguy, Mike, a big, mustached equine mensch, who knew every jockey and trainer in the joint. Clive Owen was the inside man. How bad could the bleeding get? I’d get nine races out of it, glom on to the tips he got from every trainer and jockey who wanted a howdy-do from a celebrity before a race, then — worst case — walk away with a couple hundred left over to buy some perfume for my girlfriend at the duty-free. Best case, he turns out to be a savvy high roller, and I wakeboard his winnings, triple my money, and split the profits, even if I was just the pocket change of his action, a pop-gun echo of his betting success.
And now, here he was, Clive Owen, forty-four, the cagey doctor in Closer, the worn-out savior of the human race in Children of Men, and, now, the intrepid Interpol agent in The International, about to lay it all, every vile little euro-penny, on one race, on the horse with the hard-on: Henrythenavigator. One bet. It’s giving me the big-time willies. Then Owen speaks, voice cold and sandy as a beach road in winter, tilting his head, asking his horse guy for a little heads-up: “How’s that, Mike?”
“His mind’s not on the race, is it?” Mike says. Owen is shoulder to shoulder with me, speaking out of the side of his mouth, not twenty yards from our horse. Behind us, Mike the horse guy offers his gems, then murmurs into the guts of his cell phone, doing who knows what — pulling his bets on the other side of the Channel, raising the alarm for his slag buddies at the bookmaker’s shop in Dublin or wherever. Everyone in the racing world gets the word. The horse has a hard-on. Kill the action. But Owen doesn’t seem to register.
“A horse can’t run on five legs, now can it?” Mike snorts. Then we’re all laughing.
The jockey pads by, reaches a hand out to Owen. “How are things, then?” Clive says. The rider looks up — because Owen is long in the bone, light but not without heft — and grimaces, ekes out a smile, looking just a little sick. The guy is blown up so tight, you could pop him with a pin. “You know,” he says. “It’s just comply or die.” Now me, I’m almost looking for bad signs, and this can’t be good. I’m thinking Owen will see it too and drop this harebrained, all-or-nothing bet. Even money, my ass. Mike the horse guy picks up on the jockey’s anxiety. He takes in a breath, holds up his phone as if it were an idea, and says, “Let me see what I can find out.”
But Owen laughs, the weightless, overloud delight of a guy who likes every detail of the world. “Good luck, then,” he says, patting the jockey on the shoulder. Good luck? Isn’t it bad luck to say “good luck” to a jockey? It’s a jinx, I’m thinking. Rejinx. Double jinx.
Owen stares at the little guy as he walks away and does an admiring headshake, as if staring at Jordan striding up the stadium tunnel for the last time. He’s got this thing with sports, this deep bond with the spectacle, which brings out both the boy in him and the reflective citizen. He does not mind showing awe. “I had to ride a horse once,” he says. “In King Arthur. I said I could ride, but I had to call for lessons on the day the deal was signed. I started out on this little chunky thing and slowly moved up. It was months of work. On the first day, the director chose a horse for me and it was this big Arabian, well bigger than anything I’d ridden, with this clop, clop, clop walk. Bigger than any horse I’ve ever seen really. Christ, it was intimidating. First day I had to gallop across a field in full profile. You do it. You have to. Big, big horse.”
Nine minutes to post now. All eyes are on Henrythenavigator. He’s a big horse, too. The air is cool, but there is a shaft of sun cracking through the moldering French clouds. The track is a little wet. It seems that Clive Owen likes this horse, boner and all. He says, “You want a drink then, Tom?”
At a racetrack in Paris, a writer gave a movie star $1,600 of his own money — not Esquire’s money. His. It seemed like a good way to find out about a man, letting him bet with your cash. It was. It wasn’t a great way to win, though.
I liked French Charm. I really did. In the first race. But when Owen and I met, it was five minutes to post, and I couldn’t get him to pay attention to my prognostications as he ambled out of the VIP entrance and handed me my clubhouse badge. Black suit and tie, undershaved, smiling. He looked me up and down, noted that I carried no umbrella despite the threat of rain, saw my tip sheet peeking out from my coat pocket, my own wobbly translations scrabbled around the edges. “Well, you’re all set,” he said, turning on his heels, smiling broadly, using his eyes like a line to pull me to shore. There he was. Three-thousand-dollar suit hanging on him like a curtain of God. Clive put a hand on my shoulder immediately, and when I demurred, when I asked, “Do I need a tie?” in the rarefied air of the owners’ box, he wrinkled his brow as if he were actually fond of me, this within thirty seconds of laying eyes on my corpulent, ragged form, and said, “No, but you might need a whisky, though. Let’s have a go.”
This is what guys do at the track, vest themselves in one another’s company. Inside the gate, I handed him my roll. He introduced me to Mike the horse guy, a real operator, a guy in the know in the upper-echelon European racing scene. Right away I urged Owen toward an 8 — 4 box in the first (the bettor picks the first and second horses to finish the race, in either order), French Charm and Palme Royal. Mike squinted and shook his head. And Owen wanted nothing to do with it. “I’m not here to bet on a maiden race,” he said. “None of these horses has ever won a thing. That’d be throwing your money to the wind. I want to respect you. I’ve got to do you a service here, don’t I?” He tapped the cash in the middle of his palm. “I’ve got to respect the sum.”
When Palme Royal edged French Charm, after I spot-on called the race, I was not saying one damned thing. Even a monkey can smoke out an exacta once in a while. But I did want to meet his eyes, to register that I had called it.
The thing about looking at Clive Owen is this: There is an immutable openheartedness to his face — fearless, not fawning — in the way he looks back at you. He looks like he belongs. He doesn’t screen out a thing; he doesn’t fear.
I like foolish ego. In the second. And despite the fact that I make a case for the horse wearing beigeun losange et gros-bleu, Owen still won’t bet. He’s only interested in Mike getting us into the paddock to get an early look at Henrythenavigator. We amble from one spot to the next, up into the broadly empty loge section of the grandstand, then back down into the splendid oasis of the dressing area. I’m strolling with a guy who has a serious amount of my money, while I’m calling winners and knowing damned well he’s not going to make a bet — which, of course, means Foolish Ego should be a lock. She wins, too, going away. “Nice, nice call, Tom,” Owen says. No shit, Clive.
There were two options for a writer to see Clive Owen stripped to his passions: this or soccer. But one of those would mean going to a soccer game, and really, that’s like visiting an oil refinery. It’s loud, it’s big, and it smells. Some people do think soccer is important, Clive Owen certainly being one. He’s a straight nut for the Liverpool red-and-white; it’s a condition of being him. “It’s questionable, really. A man caring so much about a team,” he says. “It puzzles my wife, my stubbornness in this. I think she wonders why men care so much about a game. She wonders what the world would be like if they put their energy into something that means something.” He raises his eyebrows on this last little couplet, rolling the weight of the words, considering the possibility. “She makes room for it. My whole family does. I’m at it in front of the television, on satellite, and I’m very loud, thrashing about. That’s a pure thing, that club. Not really explainable, really. My family endures. They don’t understand it.” He thinks about it a little, casts his gaze toward the parade of horses for the second race. And it seems to occur to him that he doesn’t care. He laughs. “But my wife’s never even been to a soccer game, so who is she to say?”
The French don’t seem to give a shit about horse racing. The grandstands are still unpopulated, the betting lines short. The only real mass of people is in the paddock, and Owen shoulders right in. No one, save the occasional newspaper photographer, seems to pay him any mind. He turns and says, “Outside of being home with my family, I prefer a crowd. At a soccer match, the big crowd, the singing, rocking around, it’s urgent as hell. There’s a ritual to it. I want to be in that mess. And no one bothers me. At a soccer game, everyone’s eyes are on the pitch, aren’t they? They don’t care about some fucking movie star. They have their eyes on the right thing. They watch the battle.”
I like Battle Paint. In the third. But Owen and I sit this one out, too, nestling into the top of the owners’ box, while Mike goes to scout the late developments on Henrythenavigator. I recall that I’ve seen some of this before, some version of this version of Clive Owen. There’s an otherwise forgettable scene in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men in which Owen’s character ends up at the dog track. Dogs make light progress around a track, and there is no sound except the great exaggerated pant of humanity, everyone pulling for a number. Come on, come on, hold on. And as the greyhounds near the finish line, the camera pans up the grandstand to Owen, eyes blank and receptive as a dinner plate, who grips his winning ticket in desperation’s fist. He wins, but he looks for all the world like a loser.
I remember thinking, That’s not all acting. He’s a track guy. No wonder they always put him in a trench coat, set him on a half-beard, let him loose, out to wander the world in a haze of anger and defeat. In Closer, the anomalously moral masterpiece, it’s a trench coat, the half-beard, and the simmering promise of ferocity. In Shoot ‘Em Up, an overstylized suckfest, it’s the trench coat, the half-beard, and a look of professional confusion. Now in The International, we get the trench coat, the half-beard, and a dark steel cable of retribution stretching from New York to Istanbul. All this might make him seem humorless and invulnerable. But it’s just that he doesn’t access his feelings when you ask him about movies. They’re tasks for him. “I do a lot better if I sit around and think about a character for a couple of months,” he says. “Before I climb into him for a run, I’ve just sat on my ass thinking about him, just reading, plodding around my house, driving my girls to school, fixing eggs. Like that. There’s not a lot of transformation in it. I’m still just a driver to my children.”
Mike Nichols, who directed Closer, thinks of it as a sort of ruddy professionalism. “Clive’s the best example of the actor stripped of the cum-Strasberg, cum-Actors-Studio torture of emotion,” he says. “Here’s a guy who comes to work, gets his coffee, knows his lines. Then someone will say ‘Action,’ he’ll terrify everyone in the room, then we cut, and he picks up his coffee again. It’s a job.
“Clive is full of feeling, don’t get me wrong. But what you see onscreen, that rises out of the components of the job, and he does each of them superbly. It just doesn’t occur to him to feel the part in advance of doing it. British actors are utterly different animals. You talk to a British actor and he’ll tell you about the night before very matter-of-factly: ‘I fucked her three times.’ They don’t care about your reaction. And you’ll say, ‘Hmm, you fucked her three times. How did it feel?’ and they’ll be blank. ‘Feel? Feel? What’s feeling got to do with it?’ They don’t cart around their emotions about the job. They have lives. Clive has to go home at the end of the day, he has his family. That’s where his feeling resides.”
This is how it works. Ask Owen a fairly banal question — why did he choose The International?, which I did during the third race, even as Battle Paint, my latest pick that Owen didn’t bet on, bore down on the wire — and there’s a gear-and-tackle sensibility to his answer: He wanted to work with the director, Tom Tykwer, who directed the frenetic Run Lola Run. “That’s as plain as it is,” he says. This seems like less than an answer, like maybe he’s begging off the movie in some way. “It’s really the era of directors right now.” The horses finish. “I also like Berlin. It’s a young city, despite everything. A lot of artists. I wanted to be there for a while.” He points to the track. Battle Paint has faded. “Was that your horse?”
“It would have been my horse if we’d bet it,” I say.
At a track, every minute between races is a chance for either knowledge or action. You seek out a tip, scrub through the form for insight, or make your way to the window. You don’t amble. There are no breezy, carefree strolls at a track, unless, it seems, you are Clive Owen, who doesn’t even want a glance at the tip sheet as we return to the saddle ring. I can’t figure this guy. I mean, we’re three races in. I’d rather he lose my money than sit on it.
Maybe he’s absorbing the undercharged atmosphere, the overly cool, enervated energy of the French. He walks with his hands in his pockets, raising an eyebrow now and again, talking about the races in Ireland. “It’s not one bit like this,” he says, scanning the sparse crowd. “It’s packed out, for one thing. Everyone there’s got a stake, everyone is pressing in for a look at the horses.” Owen agrees to an interview with a French television crew that spots him. He discusses the weather, looking elegantly dispossessed, as if he had just found himself at the track by accident. It is a kind of style. He is cool.
“George Clooney is obsessed with Clive,” says Julia Roberts, who stars with Owen in the upcoming Duplicity, as she did in Closer in 2004. “Every good-guy actor talks about Clive as one of their very favorites. Because he’s English, because his successes have stood on the shoulders of his talents alone, because he hasn’t just been carried away by popular culture. He’s almost the most free of all of those guys. People just allow him to do what he does.”
Is he a little trapped by the brooding, the trench coat, the half-beard?
A long, long pause.
“I don’t think there’s anything about Clive that seems trapped to me,” she says. “The only surprise about Clive was how absolutely ferocious he could be on camera. When we shot Closer, he used to make me cry. He’s a kind of emotional terrorist, so vicious. The thing about Clive is the happiness and security he has in real life is what allows him to go into a room and grab everyone’s attention effortlessly. The secret is, everyone is really attracted to contentment.”
I like Soul City. In the fourth. I want Owen to make this bet, so as soon as he breaks away from the television crew, I pile up the reasons: This is Paris, a kind of soul city. Soul City sounds like Sin City, a movie he was in. He laughs that big loose-jawed laugh you see only once in a while in his movies. He’s legitimately capable of showing happiness, even on a drizzly afternoon in a city far from his family. “Here we are,” I say, “doing a little soul-searching at the track. You have to show me a little soul.” I feel like I’m begging my dad for the keys to his Buick. It’s cracking him up. Going in, I’d assumed he’d be a brooding, distant presence. I’d assumed Mike the horse guy was there to run interference; movie stars do that with writers. I’d expected to find Clive Owen fixed in a glower.
But Owen is laughing openly at my tropes about the soul. “You think I’m showing you my soul?” he says. “That’s ugly business.” He laughs. “Not a chance you’ll see my soul. Give that thought right up.”
“It’s an Irish horse,” I say, groping for some cross-Channel pride. Owen is Welsh. “I’m hitting like mad,” I say. “Just throw down a hundred.”
Owen looks over my shoulder at the racing form, this great wash of four-point-font French. It’s clear to me that he’s looking at this as a job, too, this betting with the writer’s money. He takes it seriously. He’s prowling the paddock, pressing in, asking the horse’s owner, asking the trainer, asking Mike what’s the best plan. He slides from one end to the other; he belongs. I’m begging Clive Owen to pay attention to me. I like Soul City. “Hedge it, then?” he says.
Yeah. Sure. Lose and you can put an even thousand on Henrythestinkingnavigator. Either way it will be a large chunk. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t favor hedging much,” he says. “I don’t want to take the focus off our task.” He hooks a thumb over his shoulder, gesturing toward the paddock where we just left Henrythenavigator, glancing down at us all bug-eyed and scary.
“You are cracking the picks,” he says, mulling.
“Just a hundred,” I say. “Soul City in the fourth.”
Mike the horse guy shrugs. A hundred-euro bet is like a bug on the bus window to him. “The owner said strong,” he says. “That’s not so bad to me.”
Owen nods. All right, then. He tiptoes himself upward, looks for a window, then wades into the crowd. When he returns, he’s got the ticket — a hundred euros on Soul City to win — between two fingers, wrapped around a beer for each of us. Good guy. Four minutes to post. He’s smiling broadly, sipping his beer, looking upward, and the sun creeps in a bit. “We should go have a look, Tom,” he says.
Minutes later, we’re in the loge, just the three of us. As Soul City comes down the pipe, Clive and I start beating the seats in front of us — “Come on, come on” — until it hits the pole, and we start cheering, really whacking each other on the shoulders, and he’s a strong guy, and the horses press on, but Mike stays focused — Owen and I are looking at the wrong marker. “Next pole, next pole!” Mike says to us. Owen and I look to each other in an unwitnessed double take and chime in, shouting, “Next pole, next pole!” And Soul City hangs in there. Pays 3 1/2 to 1. Owen shakes my hand, as if the whole thing were my doing. “Well done. You should have got a piece of that, Mike,” he says, nudging my shoulder. Mike lifts his cell phone and shrugs, giving nothing away.
I don’t like Henrythenavigator. Owen sure does. I don’t like the deferential treatment, the cool buzz that runs through the heretofore somnambulant French gallery. I like Goldikova, the Irish horse, who’s the other hot ride in the fifth. Henrythenavigator is a Breeders’ Cup selection. He’s won four straight Group 1 races. Of course they’re all here to see him. Of course they’d come all that way to have a look. I wonder if maybe they’re both going to bet a boatload of money on this horse, Clive and Mike, and that my thousand euros is mere pocket change to them. Owen hasn’t once even looked at the money I gave him nor seemed to care about the tips I provided. His face — shit, that could be happiness, that could be fear. He’s either amused or feeling trapped. He could be about to blow up or about to blow away home. He’s giving nothing away.
Spike Lee, who directed him in Inside Man, told me about the power of that face: “I used Clive because he’s one of the only actors that Denzel Washington can’t mow down. He just stood right up to him. Clive’s number-one thing was, how long did he have to have the mask on? You know, I couldn’t blame him. The face is his instrument. And Denzel, he didn’t much like the mask, either. It was hard for him to do a scene where Clive’s face is covered. Clive is a lot to react to, you know?”
The trainer lays his saddle blanket over the horse’s back like a priest’s vestments, keeps his hands on the horse’s shoulder and hindquarter to calm it. He holds that position for a minute until I realize I’m watching some kind of Irish horse whisperer.
That’s when I have an epiphany: Owen’s money is already down. Son of a bitch. “Did you lay your own money on this race?” I say. “How big?” Clive Owen looks at me with a flinty cast. And the sentiment is cold and still somehow friendly; it is obvious and at the same time startling. “Now,” he says, “I’m not ever going to tell you that, am I?”
It’s then I see that his breeziness has been an act. He was focused. Even with my money. Biding his time for only this.
“Christ, you have a big bet down, don’t you?” I say.
Clive Owen’s smile is a brilliant camouflage. It’s as if someone is shining a light in my eyes. New version: the scary one. The emotional terrorist. “Mike made the bet already,” he says. “He phoned it in for us.” And my grand, well, that just went along for the ride.
Fair enough, I think. Action is action. Then the reaction ripples through the crowd at the sight of the troublesome horse joint. Mike starts groaning at the sight of the weighty tumescence. Owen bites down on a grin or a curse, looks at me, and raises his eyebrows comically high. He isn’t backing down. “We’re all in,” he says. “It’s the way we’ve been going since we got here, isn’t it? I mean, we came to bet on the horse.” (This horse, incidentally, would come in fifth. Fifth.)
The horse has a hard-on. Twelve minutes from post, and I’m thinking three words: can’t be good. There’s three of us, betting the horses at Longchamp. “That doesn’t bode well for us, boys,” Mike the horse guy says. And I figure, Good. All bets are off.
But the bet, Owen tells me, is still on.