Apple to the Core

Clive Owen is a Steve McQueen Fan

Clive Owen was born with that whole tall, dark and handsome thing going on. But the strong, silent persona that got him tagged "the new Steve McQueen" as his film career took off? That, he cultivated. "Nothing wrong with being compared to Steve McQueen, is there?" Owen jokes. That persona was evident in "The Hire," the acclaimed series of 2001-02 short films for the Internet in which he played a getaway driver of few words. It hung in the air every time someone mentioned him as a possible James Bond.

He may do the odd period piece ("Elizabeth: The Golden Age"), straight drama ("Closer") or genre send-up ("Shoot'em Up"). But the Clive Cool, like the McQueen Cool, is most at home in thrillers such his latest, "The International," opening Friday, or the upcoming spy thriller "Duplicity."

"He's got a real quality of stillness, like Eastwood or Michael" Caine, says Mike Hodges, who directed Owen twice and has also worked with Caine. "Clive has this great analytical quality. He goes after scenes in a way that allows him to be that still. That's an immense asset to have."

Hodges directed Owen in the actor's breakthrough film, 1998's "Croupier." That's the movie "that introduced me to America," Owen acknowledges, and that created his screen persona. A quiet type, yes, but a man who narrated the drama of his own life.

"There was something very unusual in that film, in the way the voice-over was used," Owen says. "The narrator was the key character in the movie. You felt like you were in this guy's head."

Owen used the cool dialogue of "Croupier" as a benchmark for analyzing scripts. "If the dialogue doesn't sound natural to me, I won't do it." His strong, silent characters can talk, so long as every line has punch.

The dialogue in "The International" promised that. There are lines such as: "There's what people want to hear, what people want to believe, there's everything else. THEN there's the truth." There's also the even pithier, "Sometimes a man can meet his destiny on the road he took to avoid it." The dialogue, along with the film's story about an Interpol agent's dogged pursuit of a corrupt, all-powerful European bank, helped lure Owen in.

"It always felt like a relevant script, but no one could have known things would turn out the way they have in the world of finance," he says. "We finished this film over a year ago. This whole banking meltdown seems to give it an immediacy that's pretty rare.

"There are plenty of examples of corporations that are, if not above the law in many of the countries they deal with, that they've at least co-opted the laws and law enforcement of that country.

"And I liked that I'm playing a very fallible character, a man with limitations -- angry, passionate, obsessed, maybe heroic because of how far he's prepared to go to see to it that his sense of justice prevails, that this corrupt institution is brought down."

Owen, 44, says he is attracted to characters "who are grappling with some kind of inner conflict," which is one reason he "begged, begged" writer-director Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton") for a role in the corporate spying thriller "Duplicity," which is due in March.

There also was the chance to work again with his "Closer" costar, Julia Roberts. But the deal maker?

"Dialogue to die for, the best dialogue I've read in years. That sold me."


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