Clive Owen Talks About Making His Broadway Debut in ‘Old Times’

Clive Owen has chosen Fanelli Cafe in SoHo as the place to submit to an interview, and there’s a logic to that. He’s the star of “The Knick” — a television series set in Lower Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century that has featured opium dens and race riots — and Fanelli sits in a 168-year-old building that at various times served as brothel, African-American boardinghouse and speakeasy.

History, though, isn’t the reason the venerable bar has become a favorite of Mr. Owen’s as he’s spent more of his time in New York recently. His piercing gray eyes soften for a moment as he contemplates the pint of Guinness that’s been set in front of him at just the right temperature. “It’s very good here,” he says reverentially, in a tone usually reserved for announcing important putts. “I’ll tell you what, it is very good.”

He’s brought along a fellow Englishman, the actor and director Douglas Hodge, to check out the quality of the stout and to talk about the Harold Pinter play “Old Times,” which they’re in the middle of rehearsing.

The Roundabout Theater Company revival of the play, which opens at the American Airlines Theater on Oct. 6, is a milestone for both men.

Mr. Hodge, who won a Tony as an actor for “La Cage Aux Folles,” is directing in America for the first time. And Mr. Owen, whose intensity, technical polish and striking good looks have been showcased in films like “Croupier,” “Closer” and “Children of Men,” not only will be making his Broadway acting debut, but he’ll also be appearing onstage for the first time in 14 years — and in his first Pinter play.

“It’s been a long time,” Mr. Owen said. “A hell of a long time. I’d come close to doing other plays, and I really did feel that if I didn’t do this one, I wasn’t sure when I’d go back.”

“It took me a while to say yes,” he added. “I kept the play with me, and every time I dipped into it, I kind of got it. I responded to it, and that never waned.”

“Old Times,” which had its only previous Broadway production in 1971 (starring Robert Shaw, Rosemary Harris and Mary Ure), is an intimate, enigmatic three-character play that builds in mystery and sadness across its short running time. Mr. Owen plays Deeley, who is married to Kate (Kelly Reilly). They’re visited by Anna (Eve Best), an old friend of both, and as the three reminisce about their shared past, the ground becomes increasingly uncertain — who did what to whom, who is even actually onstage.

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The action of the play is in the rises and falls and silences of Pinter’s cryptic, poetic, highly charged dialogue. “What we’re doing a lot of the time is following the music of it,” said Mr. Hodge, who worked with Pinter and has directed many of his plays. “Old Times,” he said, marks the beginning of Pinter’s transition away from the “murky, horrible” psychological territory and the drawing-room structure of earlier plays like “The Caretaker” and “The Birthday Party”; its shifting chronology and possibly fantastical narrative elements “break the format,” demonstrating a new freedom in Pinter’s approach.

“It’s much more elusive to know when you’ve got it right,” he said. “Although you do know when you’ve got it right. There’s a feeling when it’s working, it sort of elucidates itself.”

Mr. Owen picked up the musical metaphor for Pinter’s language. “It sings, it plays,” he said. “And even though it’s lean and economical and often the sentences are short,” he continued, snapping his fingers for emphasis, “it’s mercurial. It’s not flat and steady. It’s a little overwhelming at times, you go, ‘Wow.’ ”

After planning to direct a 2012 production of “Cyrano de Bergerac” at the Roundabout but then deciding only to act in it, Mr. Hodge told Todd Haimes, the theater’s artistic director, that he would like to return and direct “Old Times.” It struck a chord: Mr. Haimes credits a successful 1984 Off Broadway production of the play, starring Anthony Hopkins, with saving the company at a time when it was in bankruptcy.

“It really was the turning point of our return to solvency,” Mr. Haimes said by phone. “It is kind of emotional to be doing it again.”

Mr. Haimes and Mr. Hodge agreed that it was important to cast a British actor — “there’s something about the rhythm and inflections of Pinter that really make it better suited,” Mr. Haimes said — and Mr. Owen, they say, was their first choice.

“Clive has the right sort of age,” said Mr. Hodge (Mr. Owen is 50). “Also, a little bit of a kind of — gutter, along with the class. There’s a kind of street-fighting side to Pinter where they just get the gloves off and go for each other. Quite heterosexual, quite robust, not overly arch.”

That gutter quality — an ability to suggest layers of opportunism, cynicism or sadism beneath a sexy, highly polished surface — has served Mr. Owen well in movie roles like Jack, the cold-fish casino employee in “Croupier” (1998), a British flop that became his first American hit, and Larry, the angry dermatologist in “Closer” (2004), for which he received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. It has fueled speculation in the past that he was a candidate to play the ultimate suave brute, James Bond, though he has said that he was never approached about the role.
“He has an ease of confidence, a masculine ease about him that, as an actor, is so watchable,” his “Old Times” co-star Ms. Reilly (most recently seen in “True Detective” on HBO), said by phone during a break in rehearsals. “And when he’s not acting, he’s at ease with himself, and it makes you go all comfortable.”

His résumé, however, is short on the sort of uncomplicated, heroic leading men usually required by Hollywood blockbusters.

“Obviously I’ve made the choices along the way,” he said later at the cafe, working on a second pint after Mr. Hodge had left. “I love conflict. I never like anything too straightforward. I don’t think it’s truthful.”

“When I read, for instance, the first episode of ‘The Knick,’ I was hugely excited about it,” he continued. “It felt like a tightrope walk. How do you play a lead character that’s so out there? It’s difficult, it’s not comfortable. That, to me, is a joy. I never believe it’s about you getting to a place where everybody likes everything you do, but if they understand it, or they empathize with it, can see why you did something, that to me is the job of acting.”

Mr. Owen finished shooting the second 10-episode season of “The Knick,” Steven Soderbergh’s Cinemax drama, in New York in May, then went home to London for a couple of months before returning to start rehearsals for “Old Times.” In the series, which has its season premiere on Oct. 16, he plays John Thackery, a pioneering surgeon whose brilliance is accompanied by an imposing ego, an opium addiction and the reflexive racism of the time.

“It was something that came up time and time again,” Mr. Owen said of Thackery’s sometimes brutal treatment of Algernon Edwards, the equally accomplished black surgeon played by Andre Holland. “It was the one thing that really upset and shocked people. The writers were very clear, they’d done a lot of research. It would have been a total disservice if I was the one liberal white doctor. It’s important to show that this was what life was like in 1900.

“And it was important to me that that relationship does develop and does change. Thackery is a crazy character, and at times he’s appalling and behaves appallingly. But he is a great doctor, and he’s passionate about forwarding the world of medicine, and as soon as he realizes that this guy is great at what he does, everything falls away and that becomes the most important thing.”

Just as Mr. Owen’s career has not followed a prescribed path, his personal life has also deviated from what might be considered the typical celebrity-actor script. He’s been married for 20 years to the actress Sarah-Jane Fenton, and they and their two teenage daughters avoid the cameras when possible. On his one day off in his first two weeks of rehearsal for “Old Times,” he celebrated a daughter’s birthday with a walk through Central Park.

 

“There was a period when I was younger where things were opening up, and I did a number of films back to back and suddenly realized that this didn’t feel right,” he said. “And I changed the rhythm of it. If I went away from home for a long period of time, I went home for a long period of time. If I went away and shot a film, I went back home and spent that time with my children; I put that time back in there. That generally has been the rhythm for quite some time for me.”

That decision has meant taking on fewer major roles than other actors of his stature, but he said that he has never felt that he’s missing out.

“No, it’s quite empowering, to be able to take your rhythm and be able to say, ‘That’s what it has to be,’ ” he said. “I’ve done it. And sometimes people have waited and said, ‘When can we go?’ And other times they haven’t. It was learning to be able to say no. I had to be brave sometimes and say no.”

Source: The New York Times

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