FOR AN A-LIST celebrity Clive Owen plays it pretty quiet, so it’s not altogether surprising to find him, tucked away from the cameras and stylists, in the bedroom of a hushed, plush suite at the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong. A bell rings and a black bow tie, placed respectfully on a wooden tray, is hand delivered. But this is the only sign of Hollywood hauteur during the actor’s interview with Prestige.
He’s starred in blockbuster movies such as Closer (2004), Duplicity (2009) and Sin City (2005), and appeared with a bevy of glamorous actresses ranging from Julia Roberts to Julianne Moore. He’s deserved, given such status, a certain amount of indulgence, yet aside from coffee ordered “not too hot”, his demands appear to be few. It’s like he’s a celebrity pretending not to be.
Owen says he attempts to lead a normal life. Born the fourth of five sons of a country-singer father, who left home when the young Owen was just three years old, the actor grew up in a working-class area in the British Midlands. Although headstrong, he discovered a passion for the stage from school plays, rejecting his other classes and failing his exams, doggedly determined to make acting a career on his own terms. Set stubbornly against drama training, he only auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Britain’s most prestigious acting school, after collecting dole cheques for two years. Looking back, he says, he was amazed he got in.
Soon after graduating, Owen, playing Romeo with the acclaimed Young Vic theatre company, met Sarah-Jane Fenton’s Juliet. Next year the couple, who have two teenage daughters, Hannah and Eve, will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary – an accomplishment even for those not dealing with the travel, pressure and scrutiny that accompanies a Hollywood career.
In talking to the man, it becomes clear that his art is still where his heart is, but, by and large, his personal life is off-limits. When conversation moves beyond the acting life, his speech slows and his green eyes flash warning signs, revealing a hint of the furrowed, shrewd characters he often plays on screen. There’s been the cool, calm writer in his 1998 movie breakout Croupier, the smooth valet Robert Parks in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001), the demonic doctor Larry in Closer (for which Owen was nominated for an academy award), the crumpled political activist Theo Faron in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 sci-fi dystopia Children of Men, and the brooding private detective Dwight McCarthy he played in the Robert Rodriguez- and Frank Miller-directed action thriller Sin City. Looking over his roles, it’s clear that Owen has both the freedom and the wisdom to work with directors, writers and producers of the highest regard. His new lead, as Doctor John Thackery in the Cinemax series The Knick, pairs him with Steven Soderbergh.
A brooding gaze, a dusky baritone and dark good looks may suit the intelligent characters he favours, but they also make for seismic charisma on screen. Magazine credits like Sexiest Man on Film, however, are titles he’d prefer to ignore.
Not that this dedication to craft means he doesn’t know how to have fun. He loves a good bet during a night at the races, and on home turf in London he joins his friends for nights at the local. Indeed, in high spirits today, the interview begins with good humour. “Would you like to come into my bedroom?” calls Owen, grinning as he emerges from the room, all 188 centimetres of him filling the door frame. The bow tie makes its second appearance, now slung across the collar of his white shirt. He beckons. It would seem Clive Owen is almost ready for his close-up.
CAN I USE THAT LINE YOU JUST SAID: "COME INTO MY BEDROOM"?
If you make it clear I was joking!
YOU'VE BEEN DESCRIBED AS SUAVE, SMOOTH, STOIC, EVEN “EVOKING VERMEER”. WHAT WOULD YOUR FRIENDS SAY IF THEY HEARD YOU DESCRIBED LIKE THAT?
I don’t think I could repeat it; the language would be too ... er ... they certainly wouldn’t describe me like that. Ask my kids. I’m like the joke in my family. My kids would look at that list and laugh.
ON SCREEN YOU SEEM TO EMIT THIS EFFORTLESS “SMOULDER”. THERE'S A SHORT FILM YOU VOICED FOR JAEGER-LECOULTRE RECENTLY IN WHICH YOU'RE ALL LOW AND HUSKY, TALKING ABOUT WATCH MANUFACTURING. CAN YOU JUST TURN IT ON? AT A BAR IF YOU WANT TO GET SERVED, DO YOU CHANNEL “THE SMOULDER”?
I don’t order a drink at the bar the same way I would voice-over a film, no! That was what was required for that film. When I’m acting I never think, “Oh, I must smoulder.” I never think of myself as being a “type” of actor.
SO YOU AREN'T COMFORTABLE WITH THE SEX-SYMBOL STATUS?
I don’t think about any of that.
WHAT DRAWS YOU TO A ROLE? YOU'VE PLAYED EVERYTHING FROM VILLAINS TO AGENTS TO GOOFBALLS.
The thing that’s always been important to me is that I trained in the theatre, and right from when I was at drama school it’s all about playing lots of different parts. Your last year of drama school you want a variety of roles – to test yourself, push yourself in lots of directions. That’s still the same. I still have the same instincts.
HOW DOES A YOUNG MAN FROM COVENTRY END UP A HOLLYWOOD MOVIE STAR?
People used to say acting is a very precarious business: “Are you sure?” “Are you cut out for it?” To be frank, some people aren’t. Some people start in the acting game and they hate the in and out of work, and that other people determine if they’re going to work, but I was always a really great fan of the idea that tomorrow a script could arrive that could set me alight, the possibility of change, the potential that something great could be out there.
WERE MOVIES ALWAYS YOUR DREAM?
When I left drama school I only wanted to do theatre. I wasn’t interested, really, in TV or film. That was the reason I got into theatre, because I liked doing plays. And then when I was pretty young, just a few years out of drama school, I landed a TV show that changed things a lot for me.
THAT WAS IN PRIME-TIME BRITISH SHOW CHANCER IN 1990, WHICH MADE YOU A HOUSEHOLD NAME IN THE UK. DID IT BRING MORE FILM OPPORTUNITIES?
For 10 years in the UK I did small films, theatre and TV, because most English actors do everything. Certainly in those days, you couldn’t sustain a career in movies in the UK because they didn’t make enough movies – they made a handful a year. I used to occasionally go to LA on the back of some small film I was in, and I’d do meetings, but I’d come straight back home. It wasn’t something I was chasing, but then I got lucky.
I did a tiny little film called Croupier that became a cult hit in America. It was kind of the cool little indie film of that year and it changed everything. The whole film thing opened up. But it wasn’t my aspiration, it just happened that way.
IT HAD SUCH A TINY RELEASE. HOW DID IT GET SO BIG?
The original release of Croupier didn’t even have a poster – that was the kind of release it got, there was no real release! It was destined to go straight to TV, and it was only through a guy, who has since become a good friend of mine because I kind of think he had a lot to do with my career changing, called Mike Kaplan. He came from a background in marketing. He’d marketed Altman’s films and [Stanley] Kubrick’s films and fell in love with this little film, and championed it, got a release for it, found a poster for it and created a whole life for it. Out of that it got great reviews and he sustained it for months.
WHAT DID YOU SEE IN THAT FILM? WHY DID YOU WANT TO DO IT?
I knew Mike Hodges, who directed it, was good. Mike Hodges did the original Get Carter, which is often regarded as the best British film ever made.
YOU CHOOSE TOP PEDIGREE DIRECTORS AND WRITERS TO WORK WITH. HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHAT'S BEST FOR YOUR CAREER?
I never ever choose something because I’m shaping a career. Career is for when you look back, it’s the series of individual choices of movies that I’ve made that make up what that is. It’s not something where I think I want “that” kind of film or “that” kind of part. I’m lucky enough that I get sent scripts and I read them and I relate to it or I don’t and there’s no shaping of that really. It’s about that thing of wanting to do as many things as possible and take on that challenge of different things in different environments.
SO WHAT HAPPENED WHEN YOU WERE SENT THE SCRIPT FOR YOUR NEW MEDICAL DRAMA, THE KNICK? WERE YOU LOOKING TO GO BACK TO TV?
To be honest, I wasn’t sure. I know TV is very popular these days, it’s a very strong medium, but I wasn’t sure that was something I wanted to do.
STEVEN SODERBERGH HAD JUST ANNOUNCED HIS MOVIE RETIREMENT BEFORE AGREEING TO DIRECT THE SERIES.
Soderbergh was a big attraction. I got a call – I know him a little bit – and he said he had this script for a TV thing. He got the two writers on the phone and they pitched me the whole story, the arc of where I was going to go. It’s set in the world of medicine in 1900 in New York, and the script blew me away. I rang up my agent and said, “Oh my God, it’s brilliant.”
YOUR CHARACTER HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS AN ARROGANT RACIST ADDICTED TO LIQUID COCAINE AND OPIUM. YOU ALSO SPORT A MOUSTACHE. NOT QUITE SO SMOULDERING?
There’s no time to smoulder in this – I’m too busy doing operations or being high on drugs! I play a genius doctor who’s a drug addict, inspired by a real doctor called William Halsted who, they found out, with a group of doctors from New York at that time had literally made discoveries that we’re still benefitting from now. They learned more in five years than they’d ever learned previously.
STILL, THE OPERATIONS ARE FAR FROM WHAT WE'D RECOGNISE TODAY. MEDICAL KITS LOOKING MORE LIKE A CARPENTER'S TOOLBOX, WITH HAMMERS AND SAWS.
This was a time when people weren’t even wearing gloves to do operations. The reason people started to wear gloves in operations was because they were putting the instruments into the sterilising stuff and their hands were getting hurt. It wasn’t a clinical thing. It was to protect them. Gradually from that they realised that hygiene was a factor. Operations were performed in theatres. Surgical theatres had audiences watching.
WAS IT DIFFICULT PERFECTING THE “DOCTOR SPEAK”, THE NAMES OF THE BODY PARTS AND MEDICAL PROCEDURES AND SO ON?
It was possibly the hardest thing doing the operations and saying, “Now I’m going to ...” because I’m not a doctor. But that’s my job.
YOU'RE OBVIOUSLY NOT SQUEAMISH?
No. You can’t be on this.
THERE'S SO MUCH BLOOD AND GORE ...
The operations were gory. You know, you were lucky to come out of one alive. There’s one operation where I bore into someone’s skull because they think that was a way of releasing pressure from the brain – with a hole in the head! It’s pretty wild stuff.
NOT YOUR AVERAGE TV MEDICAL DRAMA.
It’s very, very exciting, very edgy. Soderbergh used electronic music on it. It has an energy that feels totally fresh and relevant even though it’s 1900. It’s unlike any other period thing you’ve ever seen.
YOU TWEETED DURING FILMING THAT IT WAS EXHAUSTING. WAS IT LIKE MAKING A 10-HOUR MOVIE WORKING WITH SODERBERGH?
He lights, he operates, he directs, he edits. He was brilliant. It’s very challenging work and he moves quickly, we shoot a lot every day. In a lot of the operations you’re not only addressing the other doctors, you’re also addressing the audience, so there’s a lot of demanding elements. You don’t get a lot of takes, but challenging is good. That’s the best work.
WHAT'S IT LIKE BEING A BRIT ON SET IN AMERICA? AMERICAN ACTORS SAY ENGLISH ACTORS SWEAR A LOT.
Ha ha. Fuck ’em!
YOU FILMED ON LOCATION IN NEW YORK, AND THE SERIES HAS BEEN SIGNED FOR SEASON TWO. IS IT HARD BEING AWAY FROM YOUR FAMILY?
I learned quite a few years ago that I have to dictate the rhythm of that. I know that if I go off and do The Knick, after that I go home for a while. The danger would be if I get offered a nice film and I decide to go off and do it. That would cause problems.
YOU'VE BEEN MARRIED 20 YEARS. DOESN'T HOLLYWOOD COMPETE WITH A MARRIAGE?
We’ve known each other such a long time. It might have been different if one partner was very successful when you meet, but because we go back way back when, not really. The hardest part is travelling, of course.
YOU TURNED 50 LAST MONTH. ARE YOU WORRIED ABOUT AGEING, OR AT LEAST AGEING ON FILM?
The beauty of being an actor is that as you get older it’s ever changing. There are always parts to play. That journey is easier for men.
DON'T YOU ALL GO THROUGH MIDLIFE CRISES AND BUY SPORTS CARS OR RETIRE?
Do we? Don’t women have mid-life crises?
WE DYE OUR HAIR AND TAKE OUR HORMONES AND PRETEND WE'RE YOUNG.
Hmm. I don’t think I’m going to have a mid-life crisis ...
I DIDN'T MEAN BECAUSE YOU'RE TURNING 50!
No. It might be when I’m 70. My older-mid life crisis!
WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE ACTING WHEN YOU'RE 70?
I love what I do, that hasn’t stopped. It’s odd. When I first started out, when I was young and I got a script that I really, really liked, it’s like everything becomes engaged. That still happens. I’ll be reading a script and I’ll be reading and reading, and then all of a sudden a great one comes along, and it all stops. Everything just comes alive.
PHOTOGRAPHY RICHARD RAMOS AT FAST MANAGEMENT
STYLING RUTH DU CANN
GROOMING DORKA NIERADZIK
PRODUCTION FRANCISCO ANTON-SERRANO AT FAST MANAGEMENT
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS KU PO LUN AND GORDON LO
ALL CLOTHING OWEN'S OWN