February 13, 2020
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Movie star. Tough guy. Family man. Gemini Man costar Clive Owen is one of Hollywood’s most durable players. Just don’t call him a sex symbol.
Bomber jacket, Salvatore Ferragamo; T-shirt, Hugo Boss; pants, Giorgio Armani; Master Grande Tradition Tourbillon watch, Jaeger-LeCoultre.
A parlor game to try at your next dinner party: Mention the name Clive Owen in the company of otherwise sophisticated, polite, culture-loving adults and watch as the heat in the room starts rising.
I casually noted to a group of friends over drinks that I would be interviewing the English actor, most recently seen opposite Will Smith in the sci-fi action movie Gemini Man and best known for films such as Mike Nichols’ Closer (Owen received an Academy Award nomination for that 2004 romance drama), and Alfonso Cuarón’s political thriller Children of Men. The response required everything in my arsenal to stop blushing.
“Oooh, I’ve been in lust with that hot man since those BMW commercials,” one woman (OK, it was my own wife) said, referring to an early 2000s series of ads in which Owen smoldered magnetically at the wheel of a Z4 roadster. Owen was the face of Lancôme men’s products, too, for a while.
“We need him to be James Bond,” my friend Lennon said, as if the future of the polar caps depended on it. To be fair, Owen has spent 20 years saying he’s not interested in being 007 (“For me, Sean Connery is the real James Bond,” he likes to say).
“Ask Clive-y”—Clive-y?!—“what it’s like being the sexiest man in the world,” Lennon’s sister chimed in, and she was 100% not kidding. That prompted a brilliant new request from Lennon:
“Ask him to take off his freaking shirt!”
One might think that at 55 Owen would be at ease with such fuss. In an early aughts review of Croupier, the noir-ish casino drama that first brought the actor to attention in the United States, The New York Times praised the “sharp, cynical intelligence that rolls off the screen in waves whenever [Owen] widens his glittering blue eyes.” (For the record, Owen’s eyes are mostly green, but still. The same review likened him to Michael Caine in his prime.) And that was tame. Another critic once dubbed Owen a “super tiger sex commando” and “brusquely gentle British love ninja.” Then there was the moment in New York a couple of years ago when a public figure accustomed to far greater hysteria broke protocol to out himself as an Owen fanboy.
“I was at an event with Barack Obama and when I walked over to shake his hand, he pulled out his phone and took a selfie with me, even though there was a no-selfie rule,” Owen says, still stunned even now. Apparently, the former president is a huge admirer of The Knick, the Cinemax series set in gas lamp-era Manhattan in which Owen plays an opium-addled surgeon. Owen has a selfie somewhere on his phone, too, but he’s not happy with it. “My family wanted to kill me because Obama’s selfie looked great, and mine looks insane. The whole thing felt insane.”
Which is to say that Owen cannot quite comprehend how a working-class kid from the British Midlands ended up doing head tilts with the ex-leader of the free world. Even without a gigantic standout blockbuster or a scandal dogging his name (he’s lived quietly in London with his wife, Sarah-Jane Fenton, since his early 20s, and they have two grown daughters; the family’s big indulgence: watching tennis), Owen has a way of charging the atmosphere wherever he pops up. He recently wrapped his first big onstage role in 18 years on London’s West End in the Tennessee Williams play The Night of the Iguana, which sold out practically every night. Variety called it “quietly devastating.” Owen saw the gig as “another surreal experience” in a career he’d never anticipated would go so well.
Suit, Giorgio Armani; shirt, Tom Ford; Reverso Classic Large Duoface watch, Jaeger- LeCoultre.
He grew up the fourth of five boys in England’s Coventry area. His father was a country and western singer who left the family when Owen was 3. His mother remarried a railway clerk, and money was never an issue because there was never very much of it. “I came from a tough upbringing, but I wouldn’t say I was a tough kid,” Owen says. He always liked sports; he is a lifelong Liverpool Football Club superfan. But makeup and costumes are what did him in. “I think it was one school play at age 13, and from then on, acting is all I wanted to do.”
For a long time, Owen was British TV famous. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (“Ralph Fiennes was a year ahead of me and definitely got all the attention,” he says), he did Shakespeare at the Young Vic before landing his first big break playing a stylish, overconfident con in the title role of Chancer. That early 1990s TV crime series made him a national heartthrob, though it would be another decade before U.S. audiences paid much attention.
“I was never the sort of actor who plotted my next move and thought, ‘Oh, here’s where I want to be in five years,’” he says. Owen is serious, and even a little dour (“I’m probably more of an introvert, yes,” he admits). He speaks quickly in short matter-of-fact sentences. If he wasn’t an actor, you might think you were talking to an athlete in the locker room after a difficult game. “I work and that’s most of it. A lot of actors will say, ‘I hate not knowing what’s coming,’ even people who’ve been successful for years. In a weird way, I love the hovering potential of whatever’s on the horizon. You keep waiting for the next challenge, the next script. It keeps you excited and alive.”
In 2004’s Closer, Owen’s ferocious but tender performance as a deviant dermatologist in a movie about sex and strippers (with costars Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman) earned him an Oscar nod and a Golden Globe win for his supporting role. He was officially every thinking moviegoer’s English stud muffin; an impressive run of big-budget popcorn releases followed: King Arthur (the title role), Sin City, The Pink Panther (he played Agent 006 in a kind of self-parody) and Inside Man. The 2006 dystopian sci-fi thriller Children of Men, about oppressive immigration laws that keep immigrants out of the United Kingdom, all but predicted the current migrant crisis in Europe and the U.S.
In Gemini Man, Owen is on the cutting edge again. He plays a brutal boss in a space epic in which Smith’s character is being hunted by a younger, faster cloned version of himself. Owen says director Ang Lee is “leading things forward with everything that’s possible technically in a huge big-budget film, yet at the same time he’s so particular about character and details that the bigness of the movie melts away and, as an actor, you’re focusing on the tension and the intensity.”
Speaking of tension, I decided to tell Owen about the tsunami of libidinousness I unleashed simply by uttering his name in mixed company over cocktails. A sex symbol! Five years shy of 60! “Doesn’t that warm your heart a little when you look in the mirror in the morning?” I asked, and I could tell I’d broken protocol myself the moment I said it.
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” Owen says. “If I ever said, ‘Hey, wow, look, there’s a sex symbol in the mirror,’ you’d just have to shoot me. I might be an OK actor, but that’s not a performance I could fake.”
Photography by: Photographed by John Balsom/Trunk Archive; Styled by Andrea Tenerani; Grooming by Dorka Nieradzik