Interview: Clive Owen

Longer stuff
September 15, 2012

Clive Owen would be perfect to play Clive Owen in a movie about himself. Usually when you meet someone you’re used to seeing on screen, they’re completely different to how you’d imagined; less charismatic, more diva-ish, friendlier, more intense, shorter, older, more obnoxious. But in Owen’s case, you get exactly what you expect.

He’s Clive Owen; every bit the urbane, detached, impossibly sharp figure he cuts on camera. While his career has zig-zagged from genre to genre, period to period, fantasy to reality, the thread holding it all together is his unmistakable air of nonchalance; his slightly laddish, working-class-boy-done-good swagger.

Our interview had been a long time in the making. He lives in a leafy part of north London but a meeting there was out of the question. We came close to catching up in Switzerland but that fell through. Eventually, six months later, we settled on Venice. And there is something appropriate about Venice; something opulent and timeless that befits meeting one of the biggest movie stars, not just in Britain, but in the world.

Sitting in a wood-panelled speed boat, racing towards the Hotel Cipriani, one of the most revered establishments in Venice, everything appeared to be suitably glamorous. Except it hadn’t been a very glamorous morning; quite the opposite. My flight had landed an hour late and the water taxi had dropped me off at the wrong hotel. Owen’s people weren’t sure he was going to stick around. So my entrance to the Cipriani was the kind of panicked half-run of a man who suspects he may already be too late. And there, as if to provide the starkest possible contrast, was Owen, sitting under a parasol in a secluded terrace, immaculate in a gleaming beige Armani suit (“I own plenty, believe me. Plenty”), casually sipping a cold drink as if he’d just stepped off the set of his latest movie.

He looks every inch the Hollywood star: broad, rugged (rather than chiselled), a faint scar across the bridge of his nose. He is so at home in a suit that it’s hard to picture him in anything else. Something about Clive Owen in jeans doesn’t compute. “Even in my youth, I’ve always been most comfortable wearing a suit,” he says in a  voice that belongs on screen, with just a hint of working-class Coventry in it. “That’s always been my style; I don’t think it’s changed that much.” Even now he’s approaching 50? “Hey, don’t say approaching 50, I’ve got three years left. I’ve always been a big fan of Armani. The thing I love about his clothes is that they don’t follow fashion, they’re timeless and elegant.” When we met, the Venice Film Festival was gearing up: you’d be forgiven for thinking that was why Owen was in town. But you’d be mistaken. He was there for something far more important than that: an ultra-exclusive watch event, where he could satiate his lust for the classic timepiece.

“Watches are a real passion. I’ve been into them for as long as I can remember. As soon as I started acting, I bought an antique Rolex and one of those Steve McQueen Tags. Then I got into Jaeger LeCoultre in a big way [he’s wearing a Duometre Chronographe], started buying lots of their watches. I became what I guess you’d call a ‘friend of the brand’.” You can see why he’s such a big fan – they certainly fit the “Clive” look; that trademark tailored suit/open collar he wears like a second skin. “I don’t really like to take risks with my style. I like things that are classic and refined. I don’t particularly want to make a big statement. Not since I was a young man have I bought something, looked at it when I got home and thought ‘Oh, God, no’.

“A lot of making movies is about presenting yourself – it’s part of the job. It’s the same on set – the most important thing is that what you’re wearing looks right, that you’re comfortable, not just something somebody has put on you. You can have the best costume in the world but it’s got to feel right, even down to the shoes you’re wearing. These are big things to me. It’s got to feel right for me and right for the world I’m inhabiting. There’s always a day when the props guy comes in and you really have to take care – it’s the beginning of building a character.”

He’s right – you can’t imagine Owen being caught with Jon Snow socks or a mis-matching tie. He brings to mind the matinee idols; the Bogarts and Sinatras. And like them, you don’t know that much about him. He’s married to a girl he met in a play – literally the Juliet to his Romeo – has two kids, Has never been tempted to move to LA. (“Never. I could have moved to New York once but then I had kids. There just isn’t enough space there”). In a celebrity culture where over-sharing is practically mandatory, his detachment stands him apart from his peers. Earlier this month Shia LaBeouf announced that he sent videos of him and his girlfriend having sex to a director to land a role, and said he sometimes cries at the sound of his father’s voice. Owen would be uncomfortable telling you what he eats for breakfast. “I don’t really like to talk about myself. I want to keep my private life private. The work is the public side of it and me and my family is something separate. “I’m not a great fan of actors sitting around discussing everything they’ve done. I’ve always enjoyed just watching movies – I don’t need to know the ins and outs of every process that went into it. There were days when you didn’t know much about actors, when they were kept away from all that and were just, you know, in the films, and it gave people the opportunity to really embrace the movie.”

Owen’s attitude stems partly from his formal drama training, where the “work” always comes before the “talent”.

“British actors of my generation went to drama school and did three years of theatre training, and when we left we did everything – TV, film, stage – because we couldn’t sustain working in films. We just didn’t make enough, so we ended up working wherever we could – that was how you made a career. American actors have always been lucky enough to have a big film industry. I’ve worked with some who are fantastic and their process is phenomenal but drama school gives you a mindset where you turn up ready to work: you read the script, you rehearse, you get ready.”

Owen is currently waxing lyrical about his latest movie, Shadow Dancer, a dark, tense thriller set against the backdrop of the latter days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It’s directed by James Marsh, the man behind Man on Wire and part of the excellent Red Riding trilogy. Even here, wearing a cheap deconstructed suit, he’s still the coolest guy in the movie. I wonder if he’ll ever play a nerd? “Well, I never want to play a part because it’s ‘cool’. There has to be good writing, something interesting about it. Weakness fascinates me. I’m interested as much in a character’s problems as much as I am their strengths. Conflict is always the most interesting thing to play.” He  gets that in spades as Shadow Dancer’s Mac, a conflicted cop who strays a little too close to the void.

Next up is Blood Ties, a cop drama set in 1970s New York, where he faces off against his brother, who is part of an organised crime syndicate (“I’m certainly not very cool in that one”). Other upcoming projects include Words and Pictures, in which he plays a school teacher, opposite Juliette Binoche (“I can’t wait. I’m a massive fan of hers”). He’s also looking forward to a trip up to the Sunderland’s Stadium of Light, where he’ll be Martin O’Neill’s guest of honour when they host his beloved Liverpool (football, alongside “the work” and watches, completes the hat-trick of things Owen is at ease talking about, despite his team’s dubious start to the season). So: a world famous movie star; style icon; guest of honour at football stadia across the land. What more does he want? “I don’t know, really. Things just evolve naturally – I’ve been really lucky. I don’t go looking for roles, I just see what happens. I’ve been thinking about going back to do some theatre work – it’s been ages and I’ve been reading some good stuff recently. Theatre is all I wanted to do when I started out. It gets harder the longer you leave it so I want to go back.”

As our interview strays beyond its alloted time, Owen gives the subtlest rub of his eyebrow (although, I guess, not quite subtle enough) and his people whisk him away. As he leaves, he confides he is off to an important meeting, although he won’t say who with “in case I jinx it”. With the festival in town and every filmmaker worth his salt in Venice, it’s not a great leap of faith to assume he’s meeting a director. Owen needn’t worry – wearing a suit that sharp, whoever he’s meeting doesn’t stand a chance.

First published in City A.M. Bespoke