Hollywood producer Don Simpson once said that every successful film has to have “a pits moment”. For Clive Owen, it’s clear when that moment was in his career. “Signing on, again, in the early Eighties, after two years on the dole in Coventry – that was my pits moment,” he says. “I had spent years dreaming about becoming an actor and nobody had taken me seriously. I’d begun to think that they might be right.”
They weren’t. Today, the 45-year-old Golden Globe and Bafta winner commands more than £3.5 million a film, making him one of the most successful British actors of the past decade. He has won critical acclaim for his roles in small gems such as Stephen Poliakoff’s Close My Eyes and Mike Hodges’ Croupier as well as for arguably less nuanced performances in blockbusters – Children of Men, Sin City and King Arthur – satisfying film buffs and moneymen.“The best moment of my professional life,” he says, “was walking out of a restaurant having had lunch with Mike Nichols, who had just cast me in the film version of Closer. I’d done the play seven years before and loved it, so I literally floated out of there thinking that somebody, somewhere, was looking out for me.” For the first time since our interview began, 10 minutes earlier, Owen smiles. It’s not a polite smile or one of those off-the-peg celebrity barings of teeth, but a bespoke smile that assures you this one is just for you.
Were it not for that smile the man sitting opposite me could be a businessman or diplomat. Like his face, Owen’s black suit is handsome and well-cut, but unremarkable. It’s this unassuming demeanour and general likeability that makes him stand out from his colleagues, his very presence seeming to reject the notion of celebrity. “Look,” he shrugs when I point this out, “I’d argue that even the biggest movie stars could go into a bar and sit quietly and unscathed. You can draw heat or not: it’s about whether you are willing to play the game.”
Owen doesn’t play the game, but on-screen few could deny that he draws heat. His new film, The Boys are Back – the story of journalist Simon Carr’s struggle to turn his wife’s death from cancer into an experiment in the “free-range” parenting of his two young boys – reminds you that there is more to his repertoire than the brooding tough guy with the deadpan delivery. By turns bleak and life-affirming, the film sustains itself by the quality of the acting.
“I knew a few pages into the script that I wanted to do the film,” says Owen. “As a parent, I found it so terribly moving. The dialogue my character has with his five- year-old boy about the fact that his mother is going to die devastated me. The idea of having that conversation with my kids is just …,” he closes his eyes and shakes away the image with his head.
Owen talks frequently of his daughters (Hannah, 12, and Eve, 9) with actress wife, Sarah-Jane Fenton, whom he met aged 19 playing Romeo to her Juliet in a Rada production. Despite roles opposite the greatest beauties in Hollywood – Angelina Jolie, Naomi Watts, Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman – the actor’s career has remained scandal-free. Has he never felt tempted by the women he has worked with? He opens his arms wide in a mock thespian gesture.
“When people tell you how lucky you are to have kissed so-and-so, it comes back to that whole cliché: there are 50 people in the room and flesh-coloured underwear involved, which is deeply, deeply unsexy, so it’s all very technical. I joke my way through those scenes.”
Owen’s vanity alone seems to have been affected by the industry he inhabits. As the face of Lancôme men’s skincare, it’s a professional hazard. “I don’t do facials or any of that stuff, but my workout regime does tend to depend on whether I have to take my top off in my next film,” he laughs. “Because otherwise I know I’m too heavy.”
Mention his sex-symbol status, however, and he squirms. “I’ve never looked at myself in the mirror and thought ‘hey’,” he points pistol fingers at me. “I think it was Stanislavski who said, ‘beware of the actor who looks in the mirror all the time.’ He was right.” Which explains why he isn’t a fan of the surgically enhanced acting contingent. “You see these actresses who have had Botox or something else done, and it takes you out of the film,” he says. “It’s a constant reminder that they’re actors. And there is just this one face – isn’t that odd?”
Owen grew up on a council estate in the mining village of Keresley, near Coventry. His country singer father walked out on his mother when Clive was three and the two have remained estranged since. Having left school with one O-level, he signed on for two years – until the day he decided to apply to Rada. “I couldn’t believe it when I got in,” he says.
He got his big break at the age of 26, playing Stephen Crane in the ITV series Chancer. From that moment, he insists, he has had “no real regrets at all.”
For now, Owen is busy contemplating a return to theatre. “I’ve missed the stage recently, and I want to try and get back there,” he says. “I’ll be terrified, of course, but I’ve always found the first few days of filming really scary too. Every time I think ‘This’ll be the time I fall flat on my face’. Because there are no rules to making great films: you can put a great director and a great cast in with a great script and it doesn’t necessarily amount to anything.” Watching himself in a new film for the first time is more torturous still, he admits. “I get terribly nervous so I have to watch it on my own and I always, always think it could be a lot better.”
The Boys Are Back is released on Friday.