WHEN fame first came knocking for Clive Owen, he was ill-prepared for the unwanted attention it brought to his private life. This time round, the laid-back star is taking it in his stride
There’s something very reassuring about Clive Owen. Such is the aura of quiet confidence he carries, you can imagine him being very calm in a crisis, unflappable even. It’s just after 2pm when he arrives in the hotel room for interview, dressed in a navy suit and white shirt, unbuttoned to reveal a silver chain nestling around his neck. He has a pot of tea delivered. And he speaks in such a warm baritone voice, you can’t help but be instantly soothed. Ridiculously, ruggedly handsome, his features make a mockery of the fact he turns 48 in October.
Owen also seems remarkably together for a man who has glided in and out of Hollywood with ease, in films like Sin City, The Bourne Identity and King Arthur (in which he played the round-table legend). Owen doesn’t really do scandal, doesn’t do tittle-tattle and doesn’t seem to carry an inflated idea of his own image. The Times called him “the first male movie star this country has produced since Cary Grant” (with, presumably, apologies to Jude Law). Others have pegged him as a pin-up. “If I went around thinking I was a sex symbol,” Owen purrs, “I’d be on very dodgy ground.”
It took Julia Roberts to nail it, though. The two starred in Closer, Mike Nichols’ searing take on Patrick Marber’s play of sexual misadventure, before reuniting for espionage romance Duplicity. “George Clooney is obsessed with Clive,” she explained. “Every good-guy actor talks about Clive as one of their favourites. Because he’s English, because his successes have stood on the shoulders of his talents alone, and because he hasn’t been carried away by popular culture.” Playing an arrogant version of himself on Ricky Gervais’s comedy show Extras is about as far as Owen has got when it comes to getting carried away by popular culture.
His latest film, Shadow Dancer, is arguably his best role since 2006’s apocalyptic Children of Men. Directed by James Marsh, who made the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, it’s a taut drama based on true events. Set in 1990s Belfast, it tells the story of Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough), an active member of the IRA who is forced to turn informant in order to protect her son. “I just think it’s a great predicament to start a movie with,” says Owen. “She’s given an option: you never see your kid again and spend a long time in prison, or you come and work for us.”
For an actor who specialises in morally grey characters, Owen is perfect casting as Mac, Colette’s MI5 contact, who becomes increasingly conflicted as the story unfolds. “One of the strengths of the film is that everybody is in a difficult position,” says Owen. “I think he has spent a long time reeling this girl in. He says, ‘We do this together. As soon as you step over that line, I’ll be there and I’ll be watching your back.’ And I think that’s genuine, and I think very quickly he realises that his superiors are prepared to compromise her and sacrifice her, and he develops a conscience. And that’s very understandable.”
Like anyone in their 40s, Owen remembers growing up in a time when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were a nightly item on the BBC Nine o’ Clock News. He even toured a play to Belfast when he was younger. “It was a war zone,” he remembers. “It was helicopters and soldiers on the street. It was a tough place.”
Was he concerned for his safety? He shakes his head. “It was a really fascinating week. We met a lot of people,” he says, though he can’t help but recall one particularly jarring incident. “I do remember walking down the street and suddenly this troop of soldiers jumped out of a van and I thought I was in the middle of something. And it was just a drill.
“They used to do these drills, just to keep reminding people of their presence. And they would literally jump out of a van, go down the street, hit their points … It’s very disconcerting if you’re not used to it. I remember travelling at night and you would have to go through police blockades. But that was the norm then. I grew up thinking that’s what Belfast was like. It was a troubled place.”
Owen took on Shadow Dancer almost in spite of himself. He had just finished playing author Ernest Hemingway in the forthcoming movie Hemingway & Gellhorn when the role of Mac came up. “I was going to have a break. And I wasn’t really looking for anything, and then this came through,” he says. “I couldn’t really not do it.”
Still, it’s one thing Owen had vowed he would never do again. “I found myself a few years ago doing a few [films] back to back and I realised I wasn’t comfortable with that. It wasn’t fair on the films you’re doing. You need to give them proper time.”
He also doesn’t think it’s fair on his family life either. He and his wife, former actress Sarah-Jane Fenton, live in north London with their two daughters, Hannah, 15, and Eve, 12. “When you are working, it’s so intense and all-consuming. My kids are now 12 and 15, and if you’re not careful, and you’re doing film after film, you don’t see them grow up. Suddenly, all that time is gone. I think it’s very important … When you do make a film, it’s so consuming and it often takes you away from home, and I think it’s important to redress that balance when you can.”
From the outside at least, he and Fenton seem to operate as a mutually supportive partnership. “I couldn’t bear a marriage in which one partner hinges on the other,” he says. “My wife needs her freedom just like me.”
They met in the late 1980s, Owen playing Romeo to her Juliet in a Young Vic production of the Shakespeare play. Their relationship “took a bit of time” to come together, he says. “We were doing a seven-month tour of Romeo and Juliet all over Europe. And there was an apprehension there about getting involved, because if it went wrong it would have ramifications for the whole production.”
Not long afterwards, Owen’s career went into overdrive when he was cast as yuppie car wheeler-dealer Stephen Crane in the ITV drama Chancer. “That was a big break for me at the time. That really was. A couple of years out of drama school, and I landed that.”
The problem was he became a tabloid target, his life and relationship with Fenton coming under considerable scrutiny (notably when they split for a time before reuniting to marry in 1995). “Because I was young, I did find it difficult when I got that kind of attention,” he sighs. “Everybody wanted a piece of me.”
One newspaper even dug up his estranged father, a former country and western singer who had walked out on Owen when he was three. “That kind of attention is very intense,” he says. “Plus, when you’re on TV, it’s worse. I would argue that a soap star in England would have a harder time than Tom Cruise going about the place.”
While Chancer lasted two series and 20 episodes, the end must have come as a relief. Rather than gain further TV exposure, he wisely steered his career towards film, starring in Stephen Poliakoff’s acclaimed 1991 incest tale Close My Eyes. I ask if he can see the turning points in his 25-year career. “I always think there are probably three big gear-changes in my career,” he replies. “One was getting into Rada. I was unemployed in Coventry. So that was a huge thing, starting the whole thing really. Croupier was a huge thing, because it was the first film I did that made an impact in America. Suddenly, it opened up movies there. And I’d say Closer was pretty important. It was a great piece of material, with a great cast and a great director. I think about those as being key.”
Certainly, this is an accurate self-assessment. Hailing “from a very working-class family” in Coventry, the fourth of five boys, he was raised by his housewife mother and his stepfather, a British rail employee. He failed all but one of his O levels, and it was only because of a kindly teacher that he was allowed to re-sit them while studying A-levels. He had already discovered acting, after being cast as the Artful Dodger in a school production of Oliver. “From a very young age, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
While he set his sights on Rada, he was initially advised to lower his target. After heading for north London’s Mountview Theatre School, he suddenly took a dramatic U-turn. Quitting school, he returned to Coventry – then in the grip of massive unemployment – to go on the dole. “The highlight of the week, the only thing I had to look forward to, was signing on every Friday,” he recalls. “I would get up around lunchtime and go to the pub and eat rubbish like bags of chips, then just sit around or sleep. It sounds ridiculous but you have no energy for anything. I was a slob. I had no girlfriends. I was a real layabout.”
It was only after two years of collecting benefit cheques and eating junk food that he decided to apply for Rada; he was immediately accepted. If that was fortunate, so was Croupier. The 1998 Mike Hodges film had died a death in Britain, but then found a life in the US; a film noir, with a tuxedo-sporting Owen playing a novelist who gets a job in a casino to inspire his next book, it spun his career on its head.
Rumours that he would play the next James Bond mixed with real-life offers – notably to work with Robert Altman on Gosford Park. Unlike the Chancer years, fame didn’t phase him this time. “Suddenly there was this wave, and it opened up in America. But I felt like I’d already been through it. It didn’t throw me off. I had an idea of what it was about.”
By the time Closer rolled around, Owen received the acclaim of his peers, winning a Bafta and a Golden Globe and gaining his only Oscar nomination to date (losing out to Morgan Freeman in the Best Supporting Actor category).
In more recent films, genre pieces like Intruders and Killer Elite haven’t exactly tested his talents, so it’s little wonder he jumped at the chance to play Hemingway. The production took six months, Owen’s research going above and beyond. “I read everything, went everywhere Hemingway went,” he notes. “Went to Cuba, and saw his house in Paris. I did Hemingway’s Paris, did Hemingway’s Spain.”
Sounds like you became him, I say. “I didn’t drink as much,” he quips.
Dealing with Hemingway’s relationship with Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman), who became his third wife, the film spans their time together, from their first encounter to the end of their marriage, in 1945. “They go and cover the Spanish Civil War together,” Owen explains. “He was making a documentary. She, for the first time, was there as a war correspondent. They got together. He left his wife for her. He dedicated For Whom the Bell Tolls to her, and then they travelled, went to China and eventually ended up buying a house in Cuba together.”
The film, made by HBO and will be screened on Sky later in the year, drew mixed reviews when it premièred in Cannes. “An over-long period piece that’s earnest and handsome, true, but strangely inert,” claimed trade paper Variety, which said Owen was “reduced to snarl and swagger” for his part. Still, not everyone agrees. Owen has just been nominated for an Emmy for his role – the first of his career – that pits him against fellow Brits Idris Elba and Benedict Cumberbatch.
He has since finished Blood Ties, a crime story with Marion Cotillard and Mila Kunis, and there’s talk he will reprise his role of Dwight in Robert Rodriguez’s proposed sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. After what might be considered several fallow years, it’s an exciting moment – maybe another turning point. Not that Owen gets overly excited.
Quietly, he seems to have it all – the family, the career and the fame – under control. “There’s something to be said for it happening later in life, generally. It’s very difficult when you’ve got some 19-year-old kid thrown into it. No one teaches you how to deal with it.” Maybe he could give lessons.
• Shadow Dancer is released 24 August; Hemingway & Gellhorn is on Sky later in the year
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