The stroll around the graveyard seems fitting, as Owen can sometimes appear a little moody. But the 44-year-old star of Sin City, Children of Men, and Inside Man has a sound reason for feeling a little below par today: He’s just stepped off a plane from China, where he was attending a screening of Duplicity at the Shanghai Film Festival. Jet lag doesn’t handicap Owen the way it might a pretty boy like Robert Pattinson. In fact, the heaviness apparent in Owen’s eyes and the roughness of his stubble enhance his signature look. As he walks past the elaborate tombs of writers and actors (Karl Marx, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, are buried here), the moist gravel marks his box-fresh gray sneakers. Parts of the graveyard are overgrown with foliage, but Owen plows on regardless, eventually coming to a clearing, where he examines a tomb that sits beneath some overhanging trees. He reads out loud: “John and Elizabeth Owen of Lower Clapton, London.”
Distant relatives, perhaps? “Oh yes,” Owen jokes. “We’re everywhere!”
The actor has lived in this upper-crust suburb for almost 20 years, but this is only the second time he’s crunched the paths that snake through the cemetery. He recalls just a single grave from his previous tour, back when he was a drama student: that of the bare-knuckle fighter Thomas Sayers, whose bones are faithfully protected by a mournful dog carved from stone. On this visit he takes his time, stooping to read the lively inscriptions. “Look at this one,” he says. “Emma Wallace Gray, died 20th of October, 1845, in the 19th year of her age, from the effects of fire, her dress having accidentally ignited 10 days previously.”After finishing the tour, Owen stands in the main courtyard and watches as a lame fox saunters around, oblivious to the human beings nearby. “I’ve got loads of them in my garden,” he observes. He makes a mental note: “I’ve got to bring the girls here,” he says, referring to his daughters, Hannah, 12, and Eve, 10.
We walk down a steep hill to the café, one of his favorite hangouts. Owen is wearing trademark Owen-wear: a gently worried linen suit and an open white shirt. There’s something solid about him. This may explain his success as an actor, the way that he inhabits his roles so adroitly: As we’re not aware of his foibles, we’re inclined to give credence to every dramatic skin he slips on. But his well-documented reticence in interviews may conceal a slight nervousness. It’s hardly unusual for actors not to enjoy cross-examination, but Owen’s concerns seem more attuned to something else. Perhaps he harbors a fear that his humble beginnings will upend him, and that one day he may wake up to find that his charmed life has been snatched away.
By rights, his sort of career trajectory shouldn’t have happened to a boy with his background: a childhood of scrimp-and-save and cultural undernourishment. He grew up in Coventry, an industrial city in the heart of England that was all but destroyed by German bombers. “It was a very, very working-class family,” he says as he takes his seat at the café. His parents split when he was 3, and he was brought up—the fourth of five brothers—by his mother and stepfather.
“It was fine,” he says, trying to shift the subject moments after it’s raised. “It wasn’t an unhappy experience—everybody struggled.”
He failed his school exams and could have ended up like some of his friends, hanging around shopping malls getting into trouble. Fortunately, he had joined the local youth theater; he told one teacher he was keen to get into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), London’s premier drama school. The response was not positive: “Clive, you’re a working-class kid from Coventry—let’s get realistic,” he was told. And then, after two bleak years of unemployment, Owen did something outrageous: He applied to RADA. Even more outrageous, he got in.
While Owen sits at an outside table at the coffee shop, which is also frequented by fellow locals Hugh Laurie and Bill Nighy, the only attention he receives comes from an Eastern European waitress whose unfamiliarity with English leads her to ask for £500—around $830—for two cappuccinos and some fizzy water.
“It’s all about how you conduct yourself,” Owen says when asked how a movie star can live such a seemingly normal life. “I’m quite good at getting on with my thing. I feel I’m pretty nifty; I can spot trouble coming. I’ve been in certain situations where people have been drinking a lot.” He pauses. “It’s going to get a little uncomfortable now and then.”
Scott Hicks, the director of Shine and Owen’s new movie The Boys Are Back, says that he has noticed something similar. “I’ve walked with him through [London’s] Soho, and occasionally someone will notice him, but he doesn’t turn on this high-wattage projection, and people respect that,” Hicks says. “I get the impression that he’s content with what he has. That’s a rare quality in the movie world, where no matter how much people have got, they want more.”
Owen is unusual in another way—he’s a leading man without a franchise. Christian Bale has Batman, Matt Damon has Bourne, Shia LaBeouf has Transformers—even Clooney has the Ocean’s series. They can do smaller projects that pique their interest safe in the knowledge that their Hollywood identity is bolstered by a bona fide blockbuster payday. And most actors at that level embody a particular brand, whether it’s based on intensity, sex appeal, or physicality. Owen is harder to classify. He’s taken roles in costume dramas like Elizabeth: The Golden Age, yet he’s also embraced popcorn fare like Sin City—his choices seem to reflect a desire for both range and longevity.
Owen is not the kind of actor to talk for hours about his “craft.” He says he doesn’t obsessively prepare for roles. And those who have spent time around him describe his affability and his love for making mischief. Julianne Moore, who starred with Owen in Children of Men, says that the actor who turned up on the first day of rehearsals was not the earnest presence she’d seen in Gosford Park. “I certainly wasn’t expecting someone so funny,” she says. But at a screening party, “he said, ‘Listen, there’s a friend of mine here, and I need you to play a trick on him.'” His friend had bought some trousers that apparently could be worn by either a man or a woman, and Owen begged Moore to walk up to the man and exclaim, “Oh my God! I have those trousers too!”
Owen’s bonhomie may stem from his having been found by fame later in his career—he was 37 when his first hit movie, Croupier, was released in the United States. He’s also in a stable relationship, having been married to the same woman for 14 years.
Owen met his wife, Sarah-Jane Fenton, in a rehearsal room: He was cast as Romeo, she—inevitably—as Juliet. “Yes,” he says, “a cliché. I fell in love with her the minute she came in. She was late, she had these glasses and a pile of secondhand books, and there was something about her straightaway.” She gave up acting not long before they had their first child, and she is now training to become a therapist. “There’s no regret or resentment,” Owen says of the different paths their careers have taken. “She always smiles and looks at what acting can be like, and it’s a relief to her that she’s not doing it.” I ask him about the Hollywood-versus-real-life dilemma, balancing the needs of his career with the guilt of being away for long periods.
“There have been times in the past when it’s become clear that there needs to be a break,” he says. “Too much working. Too much going away. You just stop. As things have opened up for me, I call it. I say, ‘I’m sorry, you want to film then? I can’t do it.'”
Owen’s latest movie is one of the few his children will be able to watch. The Boys Are Back is the story of a sportswriter who, when his wife dies of cancer, struggles to raise his sons—an endeavor that at times results in conflict. “When we were casting it, everything pointed to Clive,” says Greg Brenman, one of the film’s producers. “It needed a character at the heart of it who was sensitive and volatile at the same time, and solid and unpredictable at the same time.”
Part of this role came naturally to Owen. “I knew those scenes very well,” he says as he finishes his coffee. He’s talking about his own family drama, which involved his relationship with his dad, who sought him out when he was 20, after a 17-year absence. “It was a very bizarre experience, looking at someone you’ve never known and going, ‘Oh my God, that’s my father.'”
The kid in the film displays a lot of anger—was that something he experienced?
“When it comes to that personal stuff, I don’t think it’s something to be put out there and be expressed in public,” Owen says.
At the end of the afternoon, he walks back up the hill to his home and his family, and to a pile of new scripts. He has some passions in his life—listening to Bowie, driving his sports cars—but his greatest love (apart from family) is classic movies. He collects old movie posters and helps support an old picture palace near his family’s retreat on the eastern coast of England. As his film choices suggest, Owen knows a good script when he sees one. But for the first time in years, there is nothing definite in the pipeline. A lot of what he’s reading is “not very good,” he says. “And these are films that are funded and ready to go—expensive movies. You’re amazed that people are funding them. I start to think it’s me—that I’m being too choosy.”
Remembering our earlier walk in the cemetery, I ask if that might be the epitaph he’d like for himself. He dodges the question but comes up with something better: the way he’d like to be regarded while he’s still alive.
“I got in a cab in Glasgow years ago,” he says. “And this quite surly cabdriver says to me, ‘You’re that actor, aren’t you? You get paid to lie, don’t you? That’s what actors are, aren’t they? Professional bullshitters.’ It had quite an effect on me. I fucking get paid to lie. . . . I walked out of there and I spent a bit of time thinking about it. And then I realized I think it’s the opposite: It’s an opportunity to tell the truth. I try to do that in everything I do. And whether you like a movie I’m in or not, I want you to believe me. More than admire me or think I was brilliantly skillful, I want you to believe me.”