Is Clive Owen the new Cary Grant?

Alongside Kate Winslet, Clive Owen is now one of the few Brits with real tinseltown clout. Kevin Maher talks to the Coventry-boy-turned-sex symbol about fame, family and celebrity fans.

Clive Owen might just be the first male movie star that this country has produced since Cary Grant. Yes, there have been talented actors in between, including Hopkins, Fiennes and Day-Lewis, plus a couple of reputable James Bonds. But Owen, a 46-year-old RADA graduate from Coventry, has emerged in recent years, like the male Kate Winslet, as that rarest of British subspecies – a bona fide Hollywood player, a leading man, a star.We know this because of his roles, go-getting heroes such as Dalton Russell, the soft-spoken criminal mastermind in Spike Lee’s Inside Man, or Louis Salinger, the suavely dishevelled Interpol agent hero of The International. But we know it also from the quiet power that he wields within Hollywood. For his new movie, for instance, the romantic comedy-cum-corporate thriller Duplicity, he coaxed Julia Roberts out of semi-retirement with a single phone call.

“I was in LA, so I just called her up, met her for lunch and said, ‘I’ve read this really great script that could be brilliant for us to do,’” he says, describing Duplicity’s sassy tale of former secret agents Claire and Ray, a couple inept in love, but extremely adept at scamming white-collar titans. Roberts, who had dropped out of the movie business to mother her newborn twins, had done cameos in Ocean’s Twelve and Charlie Wilson’s War, but had yet to return to centre stage. “She then told me she was pregnant again, and not in the mood to do any movies whatsoever,” Owen says, groaning. “But a year later, she called, ready for work, and said, ‘Let’s do it!’”

The resulting film is fantastically old-fashioned and unfolds like a Hepburn-Tracey screwball romance, but with a dollop of industrial espionage on the side. It mostly coasts on the easy chemistry between Owen and Roberts, and boasts some whip-smart dialogue scenes. “If I told you I loved you would it make a difference?” Ray asks in a climactic third-act showdown. “If you told me, or if I believed you?” comes Claire’s withering reply.

Owen, typically, is protective of his relationship (platonic, of course) with Roberts, one that began five years ago when they starred together in the film version of Patrick Marber’s Closer. That movie’s highlight is a ferocious nine-minute scene in which Owen’s angry Larry rails against the infidelities of Roberts’s Anna with a spewing torrent of expletives. “I remember seeing Julia after it came out,” he says. “And she was really p***** off that everyone seemed to enjoy that scene so much. She said, ‘All we need to do is find a film where you abuse me from start to finish and people will have a cracking night at the cinema’.”

Roberts, conversely, is a big Owen fan, and announced recently, “George Clooney is obsessed with Clive. Every good-guy actor talks about Clive as one of their favourites. Because he’s English, because his successes have stood on the shoulders of his talents alone, and because he hasn’t been carried away by popular culture.”

So much for the commercial. In person Owen can often be confounding. He has a big booming baritone laugh that he employs with judicious efficiency, casually deflecting unwanted inquiries with a trademark rat-a-tat chuckle. Today, in black suit and tie, and beaming comfortably from behind a pot of tea in a Knightsbridge hotel suite, he is in exemplary form. Thus, he will discuss subjects that might discomfit other actors – his relationship with his wife Sarah-Jane and his daughters, Hannah, 12, and Eve, 9. But he giggles nervously around topics that are normally common currency in star circles.

His burgeoning status as a Hollywood sex symbol, for instance, is charmingly dodged with, “Hahaha, I don’t consider myself to be that. It’s never an issue for me, hahaha!” On playing a shallow arrogant version of himself in the Extras Christmas special, he says, still chuckling, “I did it because it was a funny scene. And I don’t take myself too seriously.” And on why he was driven to perform in the first place, he announces: “I don’t like to examine what I do, why I do it, and the process that occurs when I do. I don’t know.”

What he does know, thankfully, is that it began in earnest at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry when the pre-teen Owen, already smitten by school plays, joined the Belgrade’s youth branch. “The man who was running the theatre at the time was Michael Boyd, who is now running the RSC,” he explains. “So that’s the kind of influence I was getting at a very young age.” Owen, the fourth of five boys raised in a working-class home, says that his family, including his mother and stepfather (his biological father left home when he was 3) tolerated his acting, but only as a passing phase.

He has spoken previously of his “rough” childhood, and I wonder if growing up with four rambunctious brothers was somehow formative, for his acting and his life? A pause. A smile. “Well, it’s very different from being in a family of women, which I am now! Haha!” He then adds, unprompted: “I’ve never been one of those fathers who wanted to try again for the boy because he’s got girls. I’m very happy being around girls.” Is that, then, a reaction to the all-male environment of your childhood? Another smile. “I’m just crazy about my girls,” he says. “And I don’t need anything else!”

After two terrifying years on the dole in Coventry, where he regularly asked himself, “Am I as deluded as everyone says I am?” Owen silenced the naysayers by winning a place at RADA. His peers were Ralph Fiennes and Jane Horrocks, but while they became swiftly successful, it took Owen more than a decade of hard graft (including a turn as the dreamboat hero of the TV series Chancer) before he finally hit paydirt in Mike Hodges’s Croupier. That movie, he says, was the turning point. A huge success in the US, it ultimately taught him that, “It was impossible to sustain a career in British movies alone. If you want to open up in movies, you have to have something that makes some sort of impact in America”.

It’s this epiphany, perhaps, this unselfconscious understanding of the industry, more than luck or savvy role choice, that drove Owen onwards, through The Bourne Identity, Closer and Sin City, to mainstream Hollywood stardom and leading-man status, while Fiennes and Co simply became fine British actors. Even today, he speaks in hushed tones when he describes his Inside Man co-star Denzel Washington as “a real film star”, or remembers how he felt at his first Oscar night, “You’re surrounded by these legends you grew up watching. You’re talking to the likes of Warren Beatty, and the history of movies is all around you.”

Off-screen, of course, he married the actress Sarah-Jane Fenton. They met at the Young Vic (she was Juliet to his Romeo), and she gave up her career to look after his – which, after Duplicity, will include the Australian family drama The Boys are Back in Town, and then a well-earned sabbatical. He speaks glowingly of her, and of his children, and their life together in Highgate, North London. And as he continues the breathless panegyric, talking about his fears for his children whenever he leaves the country, and his hopes for their futures, with or without acting, I’m reminded of another recent Julia Roberts soundbite, in which she tried to sum up Owen’s star quality. “The thing about Clive,” she said, “is that 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.”

And maybe that’s it. Maybe there is no conflict in Owen, no hidden childhood secrets, no laughing agendas. Maybe, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there’s no there there, just the aching plenitude of perfect contentment. Or maybe Clive Owen’s greatest performance is playing himself: Hollywood star, family man, nice guy.

Duplicity is released on March 20

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