Interview Clive Owen's latest movie, The International, may be his biggest, most mainstream one yet. Here, he talks about choosing roles, the financial crisis and his chance at James Bond.
Man for all seasons
The name's Owen. Clive Owen. Brooding and square-jawed, the 46-year-old star is one of modern cinema's most mercurial leading men, with a 20-year career that has pinballed between art house and multiplex, feast and famine. He is currently that rarest of beasts, a stage-trained Brit with the rugged appeal of a Hollywood action man.
How did he manage it? Don't ask. "There is no overview and master plan," Owen says in his soft, gravelled baritone. "But, more and more, it's follow the director. Find the best director. That's where you have the best time." Germany's Tom Tykwer is certainly a highly regarded director, with crossover hits including Run Lola Run and Perfume in his portfolio. But his latest film, The International, is his most mainstream effort yet: a jet-setting financial thriller about corrupt bankers, corporate villains and underworld assassins.
The International stars Owen in his most high-profile role so far, as an obsessive Interpol agent determined to bring down a sinister cartel of Eurobankers. Naomi Watts and Armin Mueller-Stahl co-star, but it is Owen's film. His haggard, dogged anti-hero Louis Salinger pursues powerful villains from the snowy streets of Berlin to the rooftops of Istanbul, pausing in between for a spectacular gun battle across the coiled white tiers of New York's Guggenheim Museum. He dodges a lot of bullets.
Kinetic sequences like this confirm Owen's reputation as the thinking movie fan's action hero, but he shrugs off this limiting label. "That's not how I see myself at all," he sighs, preferring to stress his dramatic credentials. "I don't see any difference between the Guggenheim scene and four pages of dialogue. I've got to do the same thing. I've got to inhabit the character and, for me, doing a scene like that is not about me running around looking like an action star but to try to be what Salinger would be in that situation."
Given its Berlin connections, street-level chase scenes and Eurocentric locations, The International has inevitably been likened to Matt Damon's Bourne trilogy. Owen even had a small role in The Bourne Identity, but he would rather draw parallels between Tykwer's film and classic post-Watergate thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View. "I don't go into a film thinking of other characters or other movies," he says. "If anything, this film is inspired by films of the 1970s. It wasn't inspired by the Bourne films. It's a different animal and the whole global financial institution at the centre of the film is unlike anything in Bourne. It was more inspired by those paranoid thrillers of the 1970s."
Despite Owen's protests, The International owes more to Jason Bourne than James Bond. And that's a moot point. Although once widely tipped as the next 007, Owen now insists that he was never a candidate for the role, and he has certainly been fulsome in his praise of his alleged former rival Daniel Craig. Once Craig was firmly ensconced in the Bond tuxedo, Owen claimed those persistent rumours were basically a smart marketing gimmick: boosting his brand, turning a negative into a positive.
"My career in Britain was in pretty bad shape at the time, but my agents pretty much built me a new one in America by playing up the Bond stories," he has said. "All I had to do was keep on telling people I was never going to be Bond. I'd like to think I made it on talent, but it's really just dumb luck." This sounds a little disingenuous. But whatever the truth behind the 007 gossip, it worked. Owen is overdoing the modesty a little, however: long before "dumb luck" propelled him to Hollywood and beyond, he built a solid career as a serious actor. In the late 1980s he attended London's prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), studying alongside Ralph Fiennes. In the early 1990s, he became a household name on British television in the long-running drama Chancer.
Owen went through a lean patch after he left Chancer at its popular peak, fearing he could become typecast. But his career finally moved into high gear when the low-budget noir thriller Croupier, directed by Mike Hodges, became a sleeper US hit in 1998. He earned further acclaim playing both male leads in Patrick Marber's caustic relationship drama Closer on stage and screen, the latter of which landed him an Oscar nomination. Marber praised Owen for shunning the "terrible flaw" that afflicts many actors: a "sentimental need to be liked by the audience".
This lack of vanity has certainly paid off in the broad range of roles that Owen has played this decade: a wily bank robber in Spike Lee's Inside Man, a roguish Sir Walter Raleigh in Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a cynical reporter in Alfonso Cuarón's dystopian fable Children of Men, a comic-book gunman in Michael Davis's Shoot 'Em Up - and so on. Though usually an action man, he is often less than heroic.
"One of the things I'm proudest of in my career is how varied it is," Owen says. "I made Children of Men, Shoot 'Em Up and Golden Age in one year - that is pretty eclectic. That is a group where you can't put any two of them together and I like that. I want to keep as varied a mix as possible. Ultimately, it's about an instinctive response to the material and the director." Owen's biggest film yet, The International is essentially an old-fashioned bubblegum blockbuster in modern clothes. But its timing could hardly be more fortuitous, striking a timely note of apocalyptic cynicism about the shadowy forces behind the global financial crisis. "This is the very essence of the banking industry," one of the film's characters observes, "to make us all slaves to debt."
This, Owen claims, is a key point of interest for audiences everywhere. "Everyone can relate to that," he says, "from people who haven't got much to people who really have a lot. Because we know the moment you owe the bank money, they are hugely powerful in your life. The big questions in this movie are: do banks use our money appropriately? Can you trust them? Are they corrupt?" Owen claims the current economic downturn has not personally touched him yet. "I'm not very financially savvy at all," he shrugs. "I don't deal in stocks and shares, so there was nothing to go up or down."
It is easy to be laid-back about your financial future, of course, when you have recently joined the A-list ranks of multi-million-dollar salaries. "They don't pay me. I do it for free," Owen says with a dry smile. Owen denies living an ostentatious lifestyle, but he defends the stratospheric scale of superstar paychecks. "You have to remember that however obscene stars' salaries are at times, it's a business and they wouldn't get that unless they were making it for someone. Studios aren't dumb. They aren't going to overpay actors. Seriously adept financial people must think it's worth laying out that amount for that person, because they think they are going to get it back."
In marked contrast to most of his roguish loner characters, Owen is a domesticated animal, with a low-key family life in London. He met his wife, Sarah-Jane Fenton, 20 years ago when both were at RADA: she played Juliet to his Romeo, onstage and off. They married in 1995 and have two young daughters, Hannah and Eve. It is family that keeps him in Britain, despite the potential career perks of moving to Hollywood.
"I love living in London and the family is very settled there," he explains. "And there is kind of no reason to move. Maybe years and years ago, when they made more films out of LA, but it has become such an international thing now. I could relocate my family to LA and end up leaving them there while I travelled around the world making movies." During his Chancer fame, when he enjoyed pin-up status among millions of British women, Owen briefly became a target for tabloid gossip. Press reports revealed that his father was a country and western singer who left the family when Owen was three. They met again only once, when he was 19. Raised in working-class Coventry by his mother and stepfather, Owen later claimed his devotion to his daughters is "a direct result of not having had a father figure of my own".
Fatherhood, Owen says, rules his work schedule. Shooting during the summer holidays is out. "Each film is now around school time," he nods. "They are of an age where you can't just pull them out of school and take them with you wherever you go. They are very settled in school so we work it around their holidays, and they come and visit whenever possible. My wife is the one who allows me to live this life of going off exploring and doing movies, because she holds the family together. So I am totally indebted to her."
Owen is the first to admit his urrent spell in the superstar premier league may not last. The credit crunch can affect any business, even Hollywood. "The studios are definitely tightening belts and laying people off," he says. "But even in big recessions people go to the movies, so there is something secure in that. My fear is that in times of recession people also tend to become more conservative. The studios might just try to find formulas that work, and be less adventurous."
Owen pauses, reflecting on his career. "You don't go into acting if you like solid, secure, dependable living," he shrugs. "I love the fact I could go anywhere." Indeed. And even if the acting roles dry up, Owen could always try a career in banking. "No!" he laughs. "You might get shot!"