His Work Speaks for Itself


One of the great paradoxes of motion pictures is the almost electric attraction audiences have to screen actors who are gifted at stillness as opposed to, well, being in motion. Think of Steve McQueen's blue-steel impassiveness or Clint Eastwood's granite stoicism or, even, Marilyn Monroe's luminous incredulity. Grab the frame, hold the frame and you, too, can be a legend.

British actor Clive Owen has been showing more and more audiences that he's just as gifted at showing a lot without saying anything at all.

In "Greenfingers," which opens Friday in Los Angeles and New York, Owen plays Colin Briggs, a sullen convict transformed into a dedicated and prodigiously talented gardener.

At the movie's pivotal moment, when Colin discovers that he's made violets grow in barren surroundings, the camera catches his face shrouded with a striking blend of shock at what he's done, awe at what nature has yielded and--perhaps faintly--some grief over all the years he's lost before coming upon this small miracle. Put them all together and you have what Fergus (David Kelly), Colin's septuagenarian cellmate, characterizes as "love at first sight."

Owen knows there's art and craft involved in achieving such effects. "But I don't like to think about it too much," he said recently in a Manhattan publicist's office. "I think if you overanalyze, [a performance] can go bad. I'm never interested in listening to actors talk about how they 'got there,' wherever that is. The most important thing is what's on the screen. You watch a movie, see the thing and you either buy it or you don't."

So far, Owen's most celebrated display of his less-is-more agility is "Croupier," Mike Hodges' sultry, atmospheric character study of a novelist who works as a dealer in a swank London casino. Although made three years before its American release a year ago, "Croupier" became last year's most stunning independent-film success, attributed in large part to Owen's cool assurance and laid-back magnetism. The film's U.S. triumph was so resounding that it was re-released in Great Britain this spring, setting off another wave of appreciative reviews and some more-than-idle chatter about Owen being considered as a potential James Bond.

For the moment, Owen's way too busy to think about stuff like that. Since "Croupier," his career's been very much in motion, with prominent roles in two forthcoming, highly anticipated films: As a valet in Robert Altman's murder mystery, "Gosford Park," and as the bad guy chasing Matt Damon in "The Bourne Identity." He's also got a recurring role as the Driver in a series of short thrillers produced for the Internet by BMW and directed by such talents as John Frankenheimer, Ang Lee, Guy Ritchie and Wong Kar-Wei.

And then there's "Greenfingers," whose script by American director Joel Hershman was inspired by a New York Times article, published three years ago, about the gardening triumphs of inmates at a progressive British corrections facility.

"The last thing I wanted for the lead was a stiff-upper-lip type," Hershman says. "I was looking more for strong-and-silent, an old-fashioned movie presence like Mitchum or Lancaster, a tough guy with a lot of dignity and restraint. When I was researching the movie, I met one [convict] who had this quality, and Clive to me fit the bill. He has that quality that the classic American movie stars [have]. He doesn't have to do very much on screen to convey a lot of information. He's just there, bringing his own truth to the part."

He's More Easygoing in Life Than on Screen

In person, Owen is more animated and easygoing than the brooding, reserved persona he wears in both "Croupier" and "Greenfingers." Indeed, he seems energized by the post-"Croupier" trajectory of his career and is up for just about anything that comes his way. Does that include James Bond?

"It's very flattering to be talked about in that way, and if someone's considering it, that would be fine," he said. "But years ago, I made a decision to stay in the U.K. as opposed to putting together a career here because the stuff that was coming my way in this country were smallish parts in not very well written movies.

"I see a lot of big-budget movies here that are made in such a way that they'll put [high-profile] people in [to generate publicity or to justify the budget]. But it's hard for an actor to be good in them. I think to be very good in a small film is more important than being part of a big film just for the sake of being in it."

Born 36 years ago in Coventry, Owen says he can't remember a time when he didn't want to be an actor, despite the skepticism of those he grew up with. After a stretch of unemployment, he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

"Very intense training," he says of his academy days. "But until recently, RADA had no courses in how to perform in front of a camera. It was all theater. And since most of the first jobs you get are in TV, it's hard to adjust to those demands.

"But I was very lucky because less than a couple years after graduating, I landed a lead role in a big TV series called 'Chancer' [1990], where I played this cocky, arrogant wheeler-dealer. That was a great training ground for learning how to work in film."

Many more British TV roles followed, including a recent stint as a near-blind police detective in the series "Second Sight," which has been broadcast on these shores on PBS' "Mystery" series. He still yearns to stretch himself as a screen actor, referring to his work in the BMW series as "a kind of film school in itself."

Nevertheless, he maintains his ties with the stage, "doing a play," he says, "every two years." He'll soon be starting rehearsals for a London revival of Peter Nichols' 1967 play "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg."

"It's nice," he says, "to go into the theater. It's healthy to do different things, stage and screen, like exercising different parts of you. You need to stay in shape if you're in it for the long haul."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World