Posted on Thursday, February 19th, 2009 by Kevin Kelly
I can still remember the first time I saw Clive Owen in a movie. It was around 2000 and the film was called Croupier, and Owen starred as a struggling writer trying to write a soccer novel, and ends up turning back to his old life as a “croupier,” or dealer, in a casino in London. It was a British film with a modest budget that was about one of my favorite things: gambling. I’m a sucker for movies about gambling and con men. The plot was fairly standard stuff, but Owen really made this movie stand out as suave actor who bordered on looking bored sometimes, which isn’t meant to be a criticism of the guy. He’s just able to pull off that cool demeanor and really seem like he’s nonplussed by what’s going on around him.
Shortly after that, I received a DVD full of the BMW short films that Owen had starred in as “The Driver,” and not long after that he was in Gosford Park and The Bourne Identity, and his career was off and running. However, not many people know much about his history, because he was literally one of those “blink and he’s there” actors. He’s starring in the The International with Naomi Watts, which opens this weekend, and even though he hasn’t been on the American film radar for ten years yet, he’s already made quite an impact. We’ll check out his backstory and talk about some of his memorable film roles in today’s GeekBomb. The fuse is already lit, seek cover after the break.
“All the world’s indeed a stage…”
Owen was born in Coventry, Warwickshire in 1964, the fourth of five sons born to Pamela and Jess Owen. Owen had self-described “rough” childhood, and his country-western singer father abandoned the family in 1967 when Clive was three years old. He was later enrolled at the Binley Park Comprehensive School in his hometown (check out his 1976 class photo here, Owen is the kid in the back with the crazy hair). When he was 13 years old he played the role of the Artful Dodger in Oliver!, although he really hadn’t been bitten by the acting bug just yet. However, after graduating and working odd jobs (including as a house cleaner) for two years, he decided to apply to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, home to actors like Anthony Hopkins, Diana Rigg, Kenneth Branagh, Ian Holm, and Helen Mirren. He didn’t make it in the first time around, but was later admitted and studied there for three years. He graduated in 1987 with a class that included fellow student Ralph Fiennes.
After the ADA, Owen auditioned for and won a slot at London’s Young Vic Theater Company. Situated near the prestigious Old Vic theater that was the first home of England National Theater, Owen performed in a number of classical plays, including Romeo and Juliet where he played Romeo and Sarah-Jane Fenton played Juliet. Owen later married Fenton in 1995, and they are still married today and have two daughters. Despite being clasically trained on the stage, Owen wanted to pursue a life in front of the camera. While still with the Young Vic, Owen had first television role as a policeman in the UK’s Rockliffe’s Babies in 1987 and his debut film performance came in 1988 with Vroom. Vroom starred Owen and David Thewlis, probably best known to American audiences as Remus Lupin from the Harry Potter movies and Knox Harrington from The Big Lebowski. They played two Brits who restore a classic American car and head off on a road trip.
Owen had found his calling, and for the next several years he bounced between British television and films, appearing as detectives, investigators, and as a leading man in period dramas. In 1990 and 1991, he appeared as the lead Derek Love in Chancer, a British series about a lovable con man, and later played private detective Nick Sharman in the series Sharman. Interestingly, he left Chancer during the height of its popularity for fear of being typecast, and went on to appear in films like Close My Eyes where his character has incestuous desires for his sister, and a stage role in Noel Coward’s Design for Living where he played a bisexual. He also starred in the cutscenes in the 1996 video game Privateer 2, which is a very distant sequel to the Wing Commander series. But despite almost ten years as a film and television actor while continuing to work on the stage, he hadn’t broken the ranks and received notice abroad, especially in Hollywood. That was about to change for him, but not for almost two years after one of his most noticeable early performances.
Croupier + BMW
1997 marked a turning point for Owen’s career. He appeared on the London stage in Closer, which became an enormous hit. Seven years later he’d star in the Mike Nichols-directed feature film version of that play, although he’d play the part of Larry instead of the role of Dan that he’d played on the stage, and earn a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. The part of Dan would go to Jude Law in the movie. He also appeared in Bent beside Sir Ian McKellen, Mick Jagger and Jude Law as a gay prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. He had caught the eye of director Mike Hodges, who had helmed such films as the classic Get Carter from 1971, and the schlocky Flash Gordon in 1980. Hodges cast him as the lead in Croupier, where he appeared with his brown hair dyed blonde, and fortuitously wore a tuxedo. While the film was considered a flop in the UK, it became a sleeper hit two years later when it was championed by Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman’s marketing man, Mike Kaplan.
What’s ironic is that Kaplan almost didn’t get a chance to even see the film. Hodges had completed the film in 1998, but couldn’t get a UK distributor for it. The British Film Institute happened to be doing a reissue of Hodges’ Get Carter, one of the best UK crime films ever made, and they reluctantly agreed to distribute Croupier as part of the deal. However, only two prints were struck and those “limped around the country, hardly seen by anybody” according to Hodges. He sent a video copy of the movie to Kaplan, who loved it so much that he ended up spending a year trying to get distribution for it without getting paid. He ended up getting Shooting Gallery to distribute the movie, and it became a sleeper hit in the states, grossing $6.2 million dollars in the US, making it the biggest independent film that summer.
According to Owen, when the film hit big in America, that’s when things began to open up for him, “It was the first thing I’d made that had an impact in America, so it opened up things in terms of films, and suddenly I was meeting people.” There was so much buzz around the film that there was even talk of Owen getting an Oscar nomination, but the film ended up being disqualified when the Academy found out it had already been seen on Dutch television. He also noted that the tuxedo he wears as his working uniform in that movie was all important as well, “If I hadn’t worn that tux in Croupier, I’d still be begging for the parts Robson Green (a popular BBC television actor) turned down on cop shows.” That tuxedo not only help get his name whispered around as a possible new James Bond years later, it caught the eyes of some producers who were looking to produce a series of ambitious short films for BMW.
When Owen was initially approached about the BMW series, which was called The Hire, he didn’t want to do it. He thought it didn’t make sense to go from a well-performing film into what amounted to a series of commercials. However, once he’d read the scripts he was intrigued by the concept, and was also impressed with the big-name directors they’d lined up for the project. The first one of these, entitled Ambush, was directed by John Frankenheimer and appeared on the BMW website in April of 2002. Seven further installments would appear from directors Ang Lee, John Woo, Wong Kar-Wai, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guy Ritchie, Joe Carnahan, and Tony Scott. Owen plays a mysterious and suave character in each one known only as The Driver. For several years BMW distributed a DVD through their website and at dealerships featuring the films, but in 2005 they removed them all from the web, and now you can only find the DVD on eBay or on Torrent sites.
He hit Hollywood bigtime following The Hire, appearing in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, as the cool and evil Professor in The Bourne Identity. In 1002 he reteamed with Mike Hodges to star in the unappreciated I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, where he plays a gangster investigating the death of his brother, and opposite Angelina Jolie in Martin Campbell’s Beyond Borders. He was offered the leading role in Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, but only after Russell Crowe, Mel Gibson, and Hugh Jackman turned it down. Fuqua wanted Daniel Craig for the role, but producer Jerry Bruckheimer vetoed him and Owen got the part. Since then went on to star in the Robert Rodriguez / Frank Miller directed Sin City, and he’s rumored to be coming back if Sin City 2 ever happens.
Around 2004, it was rumored that Clive Owen was being considered to step into the Bond shoes, mostly for his turns in both Croupier and the BMW The Hire films. However, Owen claims he was never even approached about the role, “Bond was the best thing that never happened to me. I was never in the running but the more I said so, the more people thought I had it in the bag.” Most of the rumors stemmed from UK SkyNews poll in 2005 where he was picked as the people’s number one choice to step into the role, but it looks like producers don’t care about polls any more than most politicians do. Or so they say. The same month that the poll came out, producers announced that Daniel Craig would be taking the role, and Owen seemed to be happy with the choice, “They have cast a really serious actor and I think that when the film comes out everyone will see what a great choice he was.”
Owen went on to parody his choice as James Bond in pretty much the only shining moment in 2006’s The Pink Panther, with Steve Martin. Martin, as Clouseau, overhears Owen using “spytalk” in a casino, and Owen tells him that he’s MI6’s Agent 006. “One short of the big time,” remarks Clouseau. There’s an extremely over the top action sequence where 006 escapes, and Clouseau is left looking like he’s the hero. It’s not the first time Owen would poke fun at his public persona. In the Christmas Special for Ricky Gervais’ terrific HBO series Extras, he plays a fairly snotty version of himself who considers himself far too good to sleep with a period prostitute, played by the very downtrodden Maggie. It’s a pretty hilarious scene, and you know Owen is making fun of himself, but you have to feel sorry for that older woman at the end of the scene. Ouch.
He followed up his Panther cameo with his largest grossing film to date, Spike Lee’s Inside Man. Although Owen wears a mask for virtually all of the film, he turns in a stellar performance, and a sequel was announced that would feature both Denzel Washington and Clive Owen back in their starring roles. 2006 also saw the release of Children of Men, which is far and away my favorite Owen film. Set in the near future when mankind can no longer reproduce, Owen stars as a sort of anti-hero who never fires a gun while struggling through the horrific events in the film. The movie reunited him with Inside Man costar Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Owen also served as an uncredited writer on the project. According to director Alfonso Cuarón, “He got involved in this project with Tim and myself, we locked ourselves in a hotel room, and first we went over his character. And he had so much insight that we decided, Tim and myself, that Clive should be involved with the rest of the writing process, even if it was not about his character.”
Owen’s next film was the completely over the top ballistic fanboy movie Shoot ‘Em Up, and I have to admit I’m not a fan of this one. Owen’s deadpan demanor in this one just seemed phoned in, and it contains some of the cheesiest lines in all of filmdom. “Talk about shooting your load,” and so on. I know, I know, I’m sure some of you love this movie, but I just can’t get behind it. I did, however, like the little nods to The Hire that the movie had in it, like the “Ride of the Valkyries” ringtone and the two different BMWs that Owen drives. He followed this movie up with a return to period pieces in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. After The International, he can be seen in the con man movie Duplicity, and will also be in the Australian film The Boys Are Back In Town.
If you haven’t seen Croupier or any of Owen’s BBC television series appearances, they’re well worth seeking out. The jury’s still out on The International, but you can’t go wrong with digging out some of the movies on this list, with the exceptions of The Pink Panther (oh, how I wish that one scene were on YouTube) and Shoot ‘Em Up. My money would be on Croupier, Gosford Park, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Inside Man, and of course, Children of Men. He once said, “I don’t ‘do’ emotion. Emotions are overrated. I’m more interested in creating a presence,” and he definitely does that. But do you think he’ll ever star in a comedy? That’s something I’d like to see.