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Clive Owen is Rare and Refined

The actor opens up about his career and his upcoming role in the film Gemini Man with Will Smith

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One might say Clive Owen is a contradiction. He has all the attributes of a leading man—he’s charismatic and tall, with soft blue eyes, floppy hair, and a booming voice. And yet there is something understated and everyman about him. You could almost imagine an alternate reality with an alternate Clive, in which he worked at a law office or ran strategy meetings. He is exceptionally warm, gracious, and accessible, until he isn’t. He has a charm that can cut through any tension, but he can still deflect any probing journalistic inquiry with his deep laugh and curving smile.

It’s interesting to speak with an actor at this stage of his career, long past the days of auditions and tedious callbacks. “I work all the time, as much as I want,” Owen tells me, when I ask if he ever feels pressure to constantly stay in the limelight and keep up with this industry known for its mosquito-like attention span. When we speak, he is three-quarters of the way through a run on the West End stage, performing eight times a week in the leading role of the Tennessee Williams play The Night of the Iguana. It’s his first time front and center on the London stage in 18 years.

Confined spaces have an inherent drama, and in this Williams play, the setting is the veranda of a battered hotel in the Gulf of Mexico in 1940. Owen and the two female leads are caught up in various stages of desperation and despair. Approaching it from a 2019, post–Me Too perspective, the plot raises a few questions. Particularly the part of Shannon—performed by Owen—who, among his checklist of failures, finds himself embroiled with a naive American girl just shy of her 17th birthday.

Clive Owen

Clive Owen

When I ask Owen if he had any reservations about the role or the message of the play, he bats away my scrutiny with ease. “The character in the play is not holding anyone up as a role model,” he says. “No one is saying that the way Shannon behaves is something that anyone thinks is OK. The play’s not about that. It is about troubled people that are flawed and living in desperation. You’re never going in there saying that what Shannon does is to be held up as the right thing to do. That is not what the play is. Amazingly, the audiences who come, they seem to totally come on the journey with it. The beauty of Tennessee Williams’s writing is that he is writing about the gray areas.”

In a way, there are gray areas in Owen’s own career, as he has consistently resisted any pigeonholing or typecasting. He’s not simply a matinee idol, an action star, an indie darling, or a romantic lead—although he could have been any of these. Instead, his Hollywood arc is a varied one, full of complexities and enigmatic twists. “As an actor, you have to sit on what you have and your strengths,” he says. “That is the way forward. My career has been littered with very big movies, very small movies. It’s an eclectic mixture of work. And what I have learned is that the best career move is just to be good. Whether it be small or big. Find something that you feel you can be good in. It doesn’t matter if it’s not a film that is going to explode everywhere. Being good is what people react to.”

Clive Owen

Clive Owen

Owen is good. And oh, so watchable. He can enliven even a minor role. Take his cameo in Ricky Gervais’s series Extras. Owen’s scene is him postcoital with a prostitute. But when presented with his costar, Owen takes one look at the actress and spews, “I’m not very happy with this… I wouldn’t pay for that.” And when that extra is switched out for another, he interjects, “Oh, f*** off! I’m Clive Owen. That’s mental!” It’s a sliver of a scene, but it’s pitch-perfect. It solidifies the actor’s comedic dexterity as someone who sees the lighter side of life.

There is also a singularity to Owen. His very first film was an English road movie called Vroom! back in 1988. There was only one snag to this big-break moment: Owen couldn’t drive. On the first day of shooting, the actor had to admit he didn’t even have a license. But instead of quitting, he took lessons on the side.

From globally recognized franchises to caustic indies, Owen’s résumé is packed. For every King Arthur and Bourne Identity, there is an elegant period piece, say, Gosford Park or Elizabeth: The Golden Age. He can do buoyant comedies—The Pink Panther—alongside moody features—Closer and Croupier, the noir thriller that helped make his name in America. Later this year, he will play the ruthless boss alongside Will Smith in Gemini Man, directed by Ang Lee and cowritten by Game of Thrones’s David Benioff. “The amazing thing about doing a film like Gemini Man is that Ang Lee is at the forefront of everything that is happening technically in film and is very aware of everything that is possible,” he says. “But at the same time, he is a true artist. So if you are going to do a film of this scale and on this kind of subject matter, he is the perfect person.”

On the subject of perfect candidates, back in the early 2000s, the rumor mill began to hum that Owen was on his way to being named the next James Bond. It seemed to fit: His roguish charm, his English accent, and he does look at ease in black tie. But it never came to be. It’s such a lingering notion that Owen is still asked about 007 in practically every interview he does.

Clive Owen

Clive Owen

What I wanted to know was not so much how 20-year-old gossip continues to affect him, but, as we move into yet another era for the franchise—the hiring of sizzling screenwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the possibility of a black female 007—what was his take? “I’m not following all that because the whole hype around that is always a wave of something and ‘This is the next thing. And this is the next thing.’ And then it will be what it will be. I think it’s important to keep up with the times, and that franchise has always managed to keep going through different eras, and you have to be smart to do that. I think there is an opportunity there to make some great decisions and to push it into the next stage.”

Worlds away from dry martinis and suave special agents, Owen grew up in a working-class family in Coventry, about two hours from London, as the middle child of five brothers. His father was a country and western singer who left town when Owen was just three. The two remain estranged. His mother worked as a railway ticket clerk and remarried swiftly. The arts weren’t a huge focus at home, but at school, Owen was cast as the Artful Dodger in a production of Oliver! and something clicked. His academic record was murky, and Owen spent two years on the equivalent of welfare after leaving school. But through it he found a local youth theater, applied to one—arguably the best—drama school in London, was accepted, and suddenly everything changed.

Looking back on it, Owen isn’t sure whether it was harder then or now for actors of diverse ethnicities and classes to break into the industry. “What I do know about, because I think it would have affected me, is that the process of a young kid getting into acting school now is very different.” When Owen was one of the 17 students accepted to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, alongside Ralph Fiennes, he did a three-minute Shakespeare speech, a three-minute modern piece, and that was that. “Now you have to do five recalls, you dance, you improvise, you sing, and I look back and think, Would I have got in under this sort of structure and system?” We will never know for sure, but I can’t help thinking that this is precisely the type of humility, that sense of self and searching, soulful spirit that makes Owen the quality actor he is today.

Owen is always looking outward and toward the next big thing. “There is an awful lot of stuff being made, especially with the whole explosion of TV work,” he says. “Now, whether that at some point bursts, I don’t know, but certainly at the moment it feels like it is a pretty good time to be an actor.”