Clive Owen has made many first-class films in many different moods. He played an embittered servant in Robert Altman’s English murder mystery “Gosford Park,” a bullying seducer in Mike Nichols’ acidic romance “Closer,” an amused bank robber in Spike Lee’s caper “Inside Man,” a reluctant savior in Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi drama “Children of Men,” and a hardboiled detective in Robert Rodriguez’s “Sin City.”
In his new romantic comedy, “Words and Pictures,” he dons the scruffy beard and drooping corduroy jacket of an alcoholic English teacher, and is redeemed by the tart-tongued love of the new art instructor, Juliette Binoche.
Teachers played a large role in his development as an actor, he said. Owen, born in Coventry, England, in 1964, is the fourth of five brothers in a working-class family.
He fell in love with performing in his mid-teens, he said by phone. “I joined a youth theater in my hometown that was attached to the local repertory theater. I was incredibly lucky, bizarrely, because this theater was run by a guy who eventually went on to run the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is considered one of the greatest theater companies in the world. And he started with our youth theater. That was the influence I was getting at that age.”
Acting has played a huge role in his personal life, as well. He met his wife, actress Sarah-Jane Fenton, while they played the leads in “Romeo and Juliet” at the Young Vic Theatre in 1988.
In his movie career Owen has been guided by a roster of outstanding filmmakers. “Mike Nichols is one of the great actors’ directors,” Owen said, “not only a brilliant director, but a super-smart human being. I learned as much from him as from any director.”
In his new film, directed by Fred Schepisi, it’s Owen’s turn to enlighten and inspire. His briskly humorous instructor introduces a herd of mulish students to the rich prose of John Updike and James Agee, awakening the drowsy by throwing books to, or maybe at them. He was surprised when the shooting schedule required him to jump into those big scenes straightaway, without a chance to get to know the young actors’ personalities. “It was quite a start, the whole first four or five days with me in my classroom, teaching my kids. You always like a film to ease in so you get a handle on the people around you. Luckily they cast some very good kids, and quickly we got into a very good groove.”
Owen, who has starred opposite Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Keira Knightley, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Aniston, Julianne Moore and Naomi Watts, has some firm opinions about what makes for good screen romance.
“What attracted me to this film was that it’s based in reality,” with two flawed, difficult characters building a relationship. “If I feel it’s fake, I’m not crazy about it. I’m not a fan of films that try to be charming for effect. You want the charm to come from the actors playing it, or from dialogue that’s really well written. You could play my character with a big soft center and very sweet, but he’s a difficult character struggling with his own issues. Juliette’s character arrives and challenges him.”
That’s why Owen committed to the film five years earlier and stayed with the project through its tangled development process. “That journey from someone who is beaten down at the beginning of the film and re-engages with his passion for language and teaching is one of the reasons I wanted to do it.”
Another was a physically challenging scene in which his character moves through a radical mood swing in about a minute. Exuberantly drunk, he uses his tennis racquet to lob balls around his home, wrecking his possessions. He goes from giddy, childlike hilarity to utter despair and depression as David Bowie’s song, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” blasts on the soundtrack. Owen, a Bowie fan, helped get that song, his favorite, into the film.
“That was great,” Owen laughed. “We put on that Bowie track and they basically let me demolish the place. To go into that room and be given complete freedom to smash everything was a really enjoyable half an hour.”