Clive Owen: good guy, but with an edge

The hotel-room door opens. Clive Owen is sitting inside in the semi-dark, the only figure at a large round table. He doesn’t stand up when you approach, but somehow he doesn’t seem rude. It’s something about his relaxed alertness and the steady way he regards you as you enter: You’re here to talk about him, you both know it, why pretend otherwise? He’s handsome, utterly masculine, though slighter than you’d think. In conversation he’s quick, his baritone voice rich but not posh. Though he answers every question you ask, many of the replies are short – to the point and no further.

Owen, 47, is this way in films, too. He’s exceptionally good at playing characters who watch – they say little, but their eyes take in everything. This makes them dangerous. (We know they’re up to something, but what?) And that makes him a very interesting leading man. Even when he’s playing heroes – see King Arthur , Elizabeth: The Golden Age , The International , and one of my favourite films, Children of Men – we’re not entirely certain they’re good guys.“I remember some Hollywood guy saying to me early on, ‘Just remember, Clive, it’s all about likeability,’” Owen says. “I thought, ‘It’s so not about that.’ And I’ve done the opposite ever since.”

So Owen is the perfect choice to play a grieving husband and struggling father in the new drama The Boys Are Back , directed by Scott Hicks ( Shine ). Despite the too-jaunty title, the movie works hard to be clear-eyed and unsentimental. Owen’s character, Joe, a sportswriter, reeling from the swift, unforeseen death of his wife, makes a lot of mistakes with his young son (Nicholas McAnulty, refreshingly eccentric) and his estranged teenager from a previous marriage (George MacKay): He loses his temper, orders too much takeout, offends those who offer help. You get the feeling that, despite Joe’s enormous love for them, the boys aren’t quite safe with him – which they aren’t, the movie admits, because life isn’t safe.

“Yes, there’s an edge to Clive, isn’t there?” Hicks agrees. “I love that, because there’s a rawness to the character, and a toughness. But there is also this other element, which you don’t often see from Clive, which is vulnerability. Joe is devastated, and then he covers it over. But it’s always just under the surface. I think Clive carries that incredibly well. He has a great stillness about him. He can captivate your attention by appearing to do almost nothing. And I didn’t want somebody who’s going to make it too demonstrative and externalized. Let’s keep it in, contain it.”

Owen pushed that tension even further than the script (based on a memoir by Simon Carr). “I made it more difficult for myself,” he says. “I’m a parent, and I know there are times when it’s hard. I’ve seen plenty of movies where families are terribly cute and nice to each other and it’s all very healthy. I haven’t seen many films that really explore the difficult, tricky times. Kids before they hit 8 or 9 are manic/obsessive. They’re slightly crazy. They get into their funks and they’re hard to navigate through, and I wanted to explore that. So when Nicholas has his tantrum in the car, I was like, ‘Make it hard for me.’ Yes, Joe’s fallible, but I think if you’re honest, people will relate to it.”

Born working class in Coventry, England, Owen at 13 played the Artful Dodger in a school production of Oliver! “and became addicted to acting,” he says. He joined his hometown youth theatre, “though I didn’t really get serious until about halfway through drama school” at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He joined the Young Vic theatre company, where he played, among other roles, Romeo. His Juliet was Sarah-Jane Fenton; the two married in 1995 and have two daughters, Hannah, 12, and Eve, 10.

“There’s no question that up to this movie I’ve considered parenting a big part of my life, but as separate from my work,” Owen says. “I go off and make movies, and then I go home and I hang with my girls. And suddenly there was this opportunity to explore that side of me. Guys who work 9 to 5, if they give their kids a bath every night, kids love that. It’s routine, they know where they’re at. With me, I can be home for months. Every day. Going to school, doing everything. But there’s always a little nagging thing that at some point I’m going to take off, and when I go I disappear.”

This time, however, his wife and daughters spent a few weeks on the set in Adelaide, Australia. “It was pretty amazing, the whole experience,” Owen said. “They loved Australia, the outdoor life, the wildlife, the sense of space. They very much felt part of this movie. And it’s one of the rare ones I’ve done that they can watch as well.”

His daughters are “just beginning to be aware” of his fame, Owen says. “Until recently, they just thought it was weird that strange people who we didn’t know used to talk to me on the street. Now they’ve got some idea of what it’s about – they want tickets to the Harry Potter premiere or whatever.”

Owen laughs, and why not? He’s sitting in the catbird seat, and he knows it. “I do get a lot of scripts,” he says. “The shape of my career is up to me. I’ve never had a plan. I’ve never gone, ‘I need to do this or that kind of film.’ But I’ll never take it for granted. I feel privileged every time I go off and make a movie.”

“Look, I’ve had different experiences with stars of Clive’s magnitude,” Hicks says. “Their presence can cast a long shadow, the sense that the big kahuna’s here. Clive is really relaxed, very at ease. He’s intensely serious about the work and the preparation, but he loves to have a laugh and a good time. He’s comfortable in his own skin, and he radiates that.”

And despite the gaggles of women I watched parade themselves before Owen during the recent Toronto International Film Festival, his ego seems firmly in check. “My days at home consist of my girls rolling their eyes at me,” he says, grinning. “My oldest one’s gotten into the habit of going” – here he tsks his tongue and drawls like a teenager – “‘I wish they could see what you’re really like.’”

Trust me, honey, they’d love it.

Source: The Globe and Mail

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