Movie fans are used to seeing British actor Clive Owen playing intense characters, whether they’re action heroes, outlaws or law-enforcement agents. But in “The Boys Are Back,” Owen switches gears with a character he rarely plays on screen: a family man in a kid-friendly film.
“The Boys Are Back” (based on Simon Carr’s autobiography) tells the story of a British sports journalist named Joe Warr (played by Owen) living in Australia. Joe’s wife dies of cancer, leaving Joe to raise his 6-year-old son Artie (played by Nicholas McAnulty) as a single parent. Meanwhile, Joe’s estranged teenage son, Harry (played by George MacKay), from a previous marriage arrives from England to live with Joe and Artie, leading to more family drama. Joe must ultimately find a way to be a good father while coping with the stresses and grief of being a widower.I recently sat down with Owen in Toronto, where “The Boys Are Back” had its world premiere at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. Owen has been getting a lot of rave reviews for “The Boys Are Back,” with some of the reviews saying that that it’s his best performance since his Oscar-nominated role in 2004’s “Closer.” Here’s what Owen had to say about being a family man on screen and in real life, what made him cry, and what he knows about the sequels to “Inside Man” and “Sin City.”
There have been so many family dramas made into movies. What’s different or original about “The Boys Are Back”? Why should people see it?
I think it’s a very honest and beautiful examination of the ups and downs of parenting. I think it’s an unusual family drama in that it’s not the cute, wholesome thing we’re used to seeing. It’s dealing with a lot of difficult sides, and that is what I responded to. I was very interested and keen to explore parenting in a very real way. Sometimes it’s very hard, and no one’s to blame … It’s ever-changing and a constant negotiation, bringing up kids. And I thought the script really examined that in a great way …
I think it’s a terribly moving family drama that will resonate with people on a whole number of levels. At times it’s very moving, and other times it’s full of life and very spirited. And it’s been really beautifully put together … It’s very moving and not in an obvious, overly sentimental way. It’s very delicate and sensitive and human. It’s a very human drama.
The characters you play in movies are usually brooding types who aren’t fathers. What motivated you to play father in “The Boys Are Back”?
I’m a parent of two girls and I always see [parenting] as separate from films. I go off and make films and then I go home and be a dad to my girls. And suddenly, there was a script that explored that [having to work far away from home] — a big part of my life — and explored it in a beautiful way. And I wanted to do that.
And it was also wanting the challenge of working with a kid that young. I’ve worked with kids, and I actually quite enjoy it. But it’s a challenge, because they’re not that exposed to acting and they’re the real thing at that age. It’s unpredictable and kind of raw and immediate. And I thought it would be a really lovely thing to make that work. I said to Scott [Hicks, the director of “The Boys Are Back”], “Find a great 7-year-old boy. That’s the big step in making this film, because it’s hugely important in this one.”
How did working on location in Australia inform your work as an actor?
To be honest with you, it was only after I saw the film that it absolutely made sense. But when I saw how strongly beautiful the area was, I was like, “Hmm. Aha.” The film is a family drama, and we were in one of the most beautiful areas I’ve ever been in my life. But when I saw the film, I saw that [Scott Hicks] used [the location] really brilliantly, because you have this emotional scene with me and young Nicholas [McAnulty] and … it made it even more moving in a way against that backdrop. It was important to have the whole Australian [landscape]. He [Scott Hicks] understands it and that’s why he was perfect to do this [movie].
Did you get to take your family with you on location while you were filming “The Boys Are Back”?
Yeah, they came — not for the whole time — but they came. I had one of the best times with the outdoor life, the space, the wildlife. Both [of my] kids say it was the best time they’ve had [with me on location].
Can you talk about your role as an executive producer of “The Boys Are Back”?
It took two or three years to get the film together. It had mostly to do with Scott’s and my scheduling, being committed to other things and finding the right time to do it. And I was very involved in the script in those early days. It just made sense from that early stage to get involved in that way as well. It was very much a collaboration.
Speaking of scripts, are you happy with the types of scripts that you’re getting at this stage in your career? And do you want to do more family dramas?
To be honest with you, I’ve had the most brilliant time, the people I’ve worked with and the material. The shape of my career is about the choices I make. I’m lucky. I get offered a lot of different stuff. This is the stuff I’m attracted to. There’s no great career plan, there’s no “I want to do this” or “I’m missing this.” Someone sends you a script, and it’s about your attraction to it. It can be anything at any given point. There’s no plan. There’s nothing I feel I’m missing. The way it happens is I get sent a lot of scripts and I’ll respond to some of them.
What kind of audience do you think will have the strongest reaction to “The Boys Are Back”?
That’s why I responded to the film so strongly, because anyone who’s got kids can relate to this film. But it resonates on a whole number of levels: anyone who’s lost anybody, anybody whose parents separated, anybody who’s been estranged from their kids, anybody who’s experienced the ups and downs of being a kid, anybody who’s been on their own with kids —and that’s all part of our lives. We’re all connected to that in some way. So I think it’s a very relevant and resonant theme.
How does playing a father to two sons compare to being a father to two daughters? And how did being a real-life parent affect the way you played your Joe Warr character?
There’s no question that it’s different for people who’ve got boys. There’s no question that my response to the material is because of the fact that I am a parent and that I could relate to it. The first time I read the script, I cried. The scene where [Joe Warr] with the little boy and says, “You mom might not be around much longer” is devastating to me. I found the piece very moving, largely because I’m a parent and I could put myself in those positions. Every time I read the script, I would get moved by it. It was well-written, so it didn’t take much to get upset about certain things in the movie.
In the movie, Joe Warr has a very loose set of rules around the house, such as he doesn’t expect the boys to clean up too much after themselves and he lets them get into play fights. Are you that lenient in your own home?
No. I’d argue that days with Dad are different from days with Mom. I don’t know why, but they just are. He [Joe Warr] only takes it so far. But again, that’s what attracted me: He’s fallible, and he’s trying to make the best way. There is some truth when he says that we [as parents] don’t listen enough and aren’t open and are quick to say no to our kids. The scene where [Artie] jumps into the bog: Yeah, he’s going to get wet, but is it really that tragic? And look at all the fun he’s going to get out of it. But eventually [Joe] takes it too far, and eventually it crumbles.
Can you talk about the challenges of being a father and having such a rewarding but demanding career?
The most difficult thing about it is that there’s no routine. I could be at home much more than most dads. I can be home in my down time, not doing a movie, for three or four months. I can be there every day, take the kids to school, everything. But underneath is the knowledge, for me and for them, that at some point I might disappear again. And when I go, I go somewhere else, like another country.
Now, if you work 9 to 5, and you only see your kids for a half hour in the evening, they can trust that and know that. They like routine; they like to know where they’re at … Even though I spend more hours [with my kids] than most dads can ever dream of spending with their kids — because I do have a lot of down time; it might not look like it, but I do — it’s that unpredictability that is the hardest thing.
But there are huge upsides to what I do. I didn’t go abroad until I was 19. My kids have been to Africa, Australia, and had the most incredible experiences. It’s a privilege in other ways. You just go about it the best you can.
What do you like to do the most in your down time?
I mostly hang with the girls. I have to put the time in there, because if I’ve been away doing a film, I want to be around. So I do a lot of the school runs and I’m very active in their life. I’m pretty crazy about football, so I watch a lot. I’m a big Liverpool fan … My girls have become Liverpool fans.
Have you taken your daughters to see the Liverpool team play?
I took them last year for the first time, to two games: an away game and a home game. It’s slightly confusing my wife. For years, she’s rolled her eyes about my generally men’s obsession with football and how they can put so much into a sport like that, with all the other things going on in the world. And suddenly, my girls are talking about Steven Garrard and going to football matches, and she doesn’t quite know what’s happened! [He laughs.]
What do you think about “Big Brother”?
I’m not into reality TV shows at all. In fact, I’ve got quite a problem with them. I don’t like them at all.
What is some of the best advice your parents gave you that you’ve passed on to your children?
I just think you navigate the best way you can. The way I bring up my kids, it’s very important to me that they’re not spoiled. It’s very important that they’re polite and respectful and that they appreciate things. And you just try to make the home as comfortable and as safe as nice as you can.
How old are your kids now?
Ten and 12.
Have they seen “The Boys Are Back”?
It is one of the rare films [of mine] that they have watched.
What’s next for you?
I’m not sure. There are a few things floating around. I haven’t committed to anything. I’m taking some time off and reading a lot and seeing what I want to do.
Can you talk about any the movie sequels that you would like to do?
Well, there are a couple out there: Spike [Lee] is talking about doing another “Inside Man.” They’re working on a script, and he gives me a little update every now and again. He’s very keen to go on that, and I would be too, because I adore him and I had a great time on that movie. And there’s been talk of a “Sin City” sequel ever since we did the first one. God knows when that will happen.
What do you think about the Toronto International Film Festival?
I really like coming here. I think it’s one of my favorite festivals. I love the fact that the people who live here are very much part of it. The cinemas are full of people; there’s a real appetite for it. I like film festivals anyway. I’m not one of those that’s jaded about film festivals. I love the celebration of film and lots of people going to the movies. I know Toronto very well. I’ve actually got friends here. I shot a movie here.
People say Canadians tend to be nicer than a lot of other nationalities. Any thoughts on that?
Can people be too nice? I’m not too sure of that. [He laughs.]