Clive Owen Interview on ‘Closer,’ Karlovy Vary Award: KVIFF 2024 5

Clive Owen has never been interested in being comfortable.

From Spike Lee’s Inside Man and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men to Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, the actor has worked with a range of filmmakers across an expanse of projects over both film, television and the stage.

“I like to choose things that scare me a little bit, something that I haven’t done before. When you look at everything I’ve done, it’s a very mixed bag,” says Owen.

When it came to the Mike Nichols film Closer, it was one of the few instances where Owen was willing to retread some known territory. He had starred in the first staging of the Patrick Marber play about the intertwining lives of two couples at the Royal Theater Company and, less than a decade later, he got word that Nichols would like to cast him in a film adaptation, but in an entirely different role. The film, which starred Julia Roberts, Jude Law, and Natalie Portman, earned Owen an Oscar nomination.

Owen and his varied career will be feted at the 58th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, where Closer will screen. Ahead of the fest, Owen talked the The Hollywood Reporter about the film, his on-set routines and what’s next for him.

I was reading in our Drama Actors Roundtable that you eat the same thing on set and sleep every lunchtime. How long did it take you to develop your routine?

I learned some big lessons quite early on. I remember the very, very first film I did way back in the day, the first ever show. And it was a film called Vroom that Beeban Kidron directed. I was very excited and I was talking a lot and she came up to me after a couple of weeks and she said, “You need to save your energy, we still got a way to go.” That really stayed with me, the idea that in filmmaking, especially if you’re doing a longer job, you really have to pace yourself. It’s about discipline, and it comes down to a conserving of energy and understanding what’s needed and when it’s needed.

You have worked with so many incredible directors. How do you identify a filmmaker you want to work with?

You want to make sure you are on the same page. Nearly always you get sent the script first, and I want to make sure that the director has a similar idea to what I have when I read it. I want us to be on the same page. But I hear a lot of actors talking about actors’ directors — they talk a lot to actors and look after actors — and I feel that filmmaking is often a very practical thing and the greatest directors, the ones who really know what they’re doing, they can create an environment where the actor can do his thing. I like to examine the character, and some of the greatest directors I’ve ever worked with don’t get involved in the process. Way back in the day I did this film Gosford Park with Robert Altman and it had an incredible cast. He pulled all the cast together and the first thing he said was, “I don’t want you to come to me to talk about your character. You all know why you’re here.” I’m a great believer in a director who really knows what they’re doing and creates a really great structure and framework for an actor to be able to do their thing.

When it comes to Closer, which is screening at the Karlovy Vary fest, I read that when the play was being staged you were interested in playing Larry but you were too young and so were cast as Dan.

There are a handful of scripts that we read where it’s really, really strong the way it impacts you and resonates with you. When I’m kind of reminded of why I do what I do. Closer, the play, I remember where I was, where I was sitting, and what I was doing when I read that piece of writing. I went up and they were doing a workshop, they weren’t even putting on the play, The National Theater just had a look at the play. [Playwright] Patrick [Marber] said, “I think you’re too young.” So I left. A while later my agent came to talk to me about another play, I think it was a David Hare play, and I said, “That play Closer was the best play I’ve read in a very long time.” He said, “Well, Ciarán Hinds is playing Larry. The other part is free. Do you want to play that part?” And I think you know they are all great parts. So I played Dan in the original play and seven years later I got a call saying Mike Nichols wants to meet you for lunch and he offered me Larry at this luncheon. It was like a gift from somewhere.

Did Mike Nicholas know you wanted to play Larry originally?

No, because I only talked about that years later. Marber knew because he directed the original workshop, so he knew how to play Larry and maybe there was a conversation with Mike Nichols, who saw the original production. But I don’t know.

What conversations did you have with Mike Nichols over that lunch that made you realize you were both on the same page about Closer?

With Mike Nichols, it is about keeping up with him. [Laughs.] He has such a brilliant mind. He is one of the most intelligent human beings — never mind directors — I’ve ever got to know. We did a rehearsal period for that film, which was a few months before we started shooting. It was just a couple of weeks in New York where we sat around. We would read a scene in the play and then just discuss the issues that it brought up. We wouldn’t discuss the scene itself. We wouldn’t work the scene. And then he left us just to soak that up for a few months. He was another one that didn’t overly talk about it all. He warned us that he would be doing very long takes, and the subject was to make sure you’re prepared and ready. And they were really long takes, sometimes it was the whole scene. He was one of the highlights of my career.

Was there any one piece of direction from Nichols that sticks with you two decades after making the movie?

There is a scene with Julia [Roberts] that would have ended the first half of the play where we have that ferocious argument. [Roberts’ Anna admits to Owen’s Larry she had an affair with the younger Dan.] It’s very difficult to film. The language is so graphic and brutal. It’s a brutal scene. We were reading it and it was feeling uncomfortable in some ways, and then Mike decided to move around the apartment. Julia goes to move and I follow her, and we go upstairs and we go back down. Mike was a great believer in scenes happening while things are going on. Not just standing there opposite the other actor and saying lines. You are involved in doing something and then the scene begins to play and breathe through that. That movement in the scene completely released, it freed it up. It reminds me of a comment that Altman made when I was doing one of the scenes in Gosford Park. He stopped and went, “Oh my God, no, this the nightmare. Two actors facing each other doing dialogue.”

How was it to play opposite a character that you once played?

I was so familiar with the language as somebody who was in the original production. We tested it out in front of an audience and realized what really resonated and what didn’t, the rhythms, the humor of it. If I’m reading a script, I have to know the part that I’m being considered for. I can’t read until I know it, because I’m looking at the whole world through that person’s perspective. So to suddenly spin it, and look at it from a different place, it’s unbelievably familiar and yet totally new. It felt like such a gift. It was such an unusual experience.

Did you and Jude Law ever talk about Dan since you once played him, or did you want to keep a barrier between the play and the movie?

The [latter]. I can think of nothing worse than me going, “Well, when we did the original…” [Laughs]

Looking forward, are there any filmmakers or genres that you haven’t worked with and in that you would like to?

I would love to work with Paul Thomas Anderson and I would love to work with Jacques Audiard. They’re the first two that I think of. And I suppose I’ve always wanted to find a comedy that will suit me. I’ve done things with humor and I have been offered [comedies] over the years but I’ve never found them particularly funny. I’m not a great fan of broad comedies. It would be something I’d be keen to do, really good comedy.

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