A last-minute change in Clive Owen’s interview schedule moves my meeting with him forward by half an hour, meaning that I must bolt across town like Road Runner to arrive punctually for the rejigged slot. So I am hardly at my most composed as I tumble into the hotel room where the dapper 45-year-old actor is reclining in an armchair. But let’s not kid ourselves. Which male on the planet, even on a great day, even in the sharpest Ozwald Boateng number, and with the light striking his best side just so, could dream of outclassing the spiffiest man in cinema? This is, let’s not forget, the man who spent 10 years being talked up as the next James Bond, but seems somehow too smart for that slightly fogeyish role.
Owen rises to shake my hand, graciously distracting from my flustered arrival with a bright smile and some well-practised small talk. His unblinking stare can be intimidating on screen — Spike Lee cast him in the 2006 thriller Inside Man because he considered him the only actor capable of going toe-to-toe with co-star Denzel Washington — but in person he is warmth personified. He looks stylish, but relaxed, in a black suit and white shirt, and it strikes me that even his most spontaneous holiday snaps must resemble the covers of the glossier men’s monthlies. I’m reminded of an old David Mamet line: “The guy’s so cool, when he goes to bed, sheep count him.”What is most striking about Owen’s latest film, The Boys Are Back, is that this brooding gadabout type is nowhere to be seen. In fact, were it not for the effortless intensity that is one of his trademarks, you would think he had been too busy with a L’Uomo Vogue photo shoot to make it on set, and had simply sent along his rumpled kid brother in his place. Owen plays Joe Warr, a harassed widower raising his young son alone in Australia, and trying to juggle parenting responsibilities with a career in sports journalism. The picture is tenderly directed by Scott Hicks (Shine) and inspired by the poignant memoir by The Independent’s parliamentary sketch-writer, Simon Carr.
The movie represents the biggest departure you could imagine for Owen, short of him dressing in drag or playing a Transformer. Even the most compelling actors can leave you feeling you’ve seen everything they can do, and there has been a sense in Owen’s recent films that a certain steely familiarity was creeping in — a death knell for any actor who aspires to be flexible or adventurous. After the various shades of espionage on offer in Derailed and The International, or even the more light-hearted Duplicity (which reunited him with his friend and Closer co-star Julia Roberts), Owen was in danger of acquiring the sterile whiff of the first-class cabin. He needed to get himself mussed up, as he had done a few years back in the grimy futuristic thriller Children of Men — and fast.
There were signs that he was already on the case. He was game as Agent 006 (“one away from the big time”) in the remake of The Pink Panther, and played himself as an arrogant berk in Extras (“Ricky Gervais pitched that to me on the phone, and I pissed myself laughing. I just said, ‘Tell me where to show up’”). Still, The Boys Are Back has arrived not a moment too soon. Goodness knows it’s hard to smoulder in the middle of a pillow fight. “I knew this was going to be completely different from anything I’d done before,” Owen says with what sounds like a sigh of relief, as he leans forward with elbows on knees and hands clasped. “For starters, there was the little one, which I knew would bring out something new in me.” The little one in question is Nicholas McAnulty, who was just six years old when the movie was shot. This sparkly-eyed whirling dervish plays Artie, Joe’s younger son, whose grief over his mother manifests itself in unpredictable ways. (Harry, an older boy from an earlier marriage, played by George MacKay, now 17, joins the chaos later in the story.)
It is Artie who is the catalyst for his father’s decision to prioritise abandon at every turn: “Just say yes” becomes the domestic mantra as the nipper finds himself permitted to do everything from dive-bombing into the bathtub to riding on the bonnet of his dad’s speeding 4WD.
“The thing about a kid of that age is they’re not acting,” Owen explains. “They’re immediate and instinctive, and that demands that I have to get in there and be all those things too. I could arrive on set with whatever thoughts and feelings I had about a scene, but everything depended on what this six-year-old was coming at me with.” He admits this is generally a stretch for him. “I don’t think I’m particularly good at improvising. I’m much better if you give me great lines, and I’ll try hard to make it look like I’m improvising.”
Owen, who has two daughters, Hannah, 12, and Eve, 10, with the former actress Sarah-Jane Fenton, says he responded to the script primarily as a parent. “Having kids myself was a big part of it. I recognised so many of the situations from my own experiences. When you see family movies, they’re usually taking place in this little bubble, this cute cocoon, which is like, ‘It’s kinda tough but, hey, we love each other.’ It was so important to me that we explored the tougher side.” He worked with Hicks and the screenwriter, Allan Cubitt, to make the father-son relationship as plausibly fraught and messy as possible (“I can’t write,” Owen says, “but I can smell when it’s wrong”). Watch the scene where Artie has a hissy fit in the back of the car while a flummoxed Joe looks on and you see what Owen was aiming for. “I said, ‘Make it hard for me. Make it really hard. It’s not just that the kid is in a bad mood. Give me nowhere to go.’ Because I’ve been in that scene. I’ve been there with my little girls. It doesn’t make me a bad parent, but…” He gropes around for the words to finish the sentence. “In those moments, I did not know what to do.”
Talking about his children now, he sounds confident about their emotional needs. “Did you see Coraline?” he exclaims at one point. “I adored that film. Took my girls to see it — twice — and they loved it too. Some of the reviews said it was too scary for kids. No! It’s healthy-scary. It’s scary, but it’s nurturing. Kids need that so badly.”
This understanding of child psychology clearly informed Owen’s work in The Boys Are Back. “The scene where Joe is saying to the kid, ‘Look, your mother might not be around for much longer’ — I cried every time I read that. It was deeply upsetting. What’s great is how true it feels when the boy is asking ‘Will she still be here at dinner time?’, and so on. Having seen my girls go through that age, I have to say this: kids are crazy. They are! They’re manic, they’re obsessive, they’re slightly loopy. You don’t sit down with them at that age and have a logical conversation. They’re still processing the world in quite an abstract way.”
In its portrait of a man forced by the burden of single parenthood to grow up, The Boys Are Back makes an interesting comparison with the roles for which Owen is best known — ambitious, single-minded, sometimes downright callous men, predominantly loners and misfits. There is the wannabe novelist who stumbles into a real-life pulp plot in Croupier (1998); the butler still nursing the scars of childhood abandonment in Robert Altman’s country-house mystery Gosford Park (2001); the taciturn hard nut hunting his late brother’s tormentors in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003); and the slickly efficient crook in Inside Man, a role to which he will return in the sequel.
If these parts were strong but silent types that would have suited Steve McQueen or Alain Delon, there was nothing so seductive about his award-winning portrayal of Larry, the cruel and cutting dermatologist in Mike Nichols’s 2004 film Closer. Owen had already played Dan (Jude Law’s role in the film) in the original National Theatre production of Patrick Marber’s uncompromising play. “Every night, I took that bloody whupping from Larry,” he practically spits, referring to the lashing Dan receives in this notoriously profane work. Recast on film as his own former aggressor, he seemed to take an obscene relish in the freedom to be savage.
Even his first high-profile job, playing a yuppie with a conscience in the early-1990s British television hit Chancer, capitalised on the hint of amorality in his overcast features. Owen was raised in Coventry by his mother and stepfather; his biological father, a country singer, had walked out on the family when Owen was just three years old. At 19, he enrolled at Rada, where he met Fenton. They played opposite one another — first as Romeo and Juliet, then as the siblings Claudio and Isabella in Measure for Measure — and eventually married in 1995. “I was crazy about theatre,” he says. “It’s all I wanted to do.” Then along came Chancer: “My first big break. I loved it. But there was something about doing hours and hours of TV, and being offered all these series — it pulls so much out of you. It’s possible to expose yourself too much.”
Fortuitously, he was offered the part of a man conducting an affair with his sister in Stephen Poliakoff’s Close My Eyes, a candid film that left him exposed in a more literal fashion. I wonder if this disquieting movie felt to him then like the statement of intent it appears to be now, nearly 20 years later. “Yeah, weirdly, it did,” he admits. “I was having some doubts about going down that primetime TV route, then this came along. It felt right. I remember The Sun had this headline: ‘Chancer Owen in Incest Shocker!’” He unleashes a thunderous laugh. Our glasses of water tremble, Jurassic Park-style.
It was another seven years before Owen got his authentic breakthrough with Croupier. Even that happened almost by accident. “They say it’s always the one you least expect,” he says with a smile. The film had been virtually disowned in the UK. “Film4 hated it,” Owen recalls ruefully. “It played for a week at the National Film Theatre. There wasn’t even a poster.” But the producer Mike Kaplan, a former publicity man for Stanley Kubrick, championed the picture in America, where it attracted rave reviews. “Everything I’ve done since then is because of Croupier,” Owen says. It’s doubly encouraging that his subsequent Hollywood success should have come from such a complex and unfathomable performance; even after multiple viewings, it’s hard to disentangle the character’s morality.
“I’m always at my most comfortable when I’m confusing people,” he declares cheerfully, roaring with laughter again. “It’s more important to me that the audience believes in the character than that I’m likeable or charming. I never worry about upsetting people.”
Source: Times Online