Clive Owen on Career Highlights, James Bond, TV Shows 5

Clive Owen, the guest on this episode of The Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Chatter podcast — which was recorded in front of an audience at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, where Owen was feted with the fest’s President’s Award, and which was presented by Lasvit, a Bohemian design and artisan house that creates sublime artworks of glass — is one of the world’s most admired stage and screen actors.

Best known for films such as Mike Nichols’s Closer (2004) and Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006) and TV shows including Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick (2014-15) and, in the past year, two limited series, A Murder at the End of the World and Monsieur Spade, the 59-year-old has been described by The Guardian as “one of our finest actors,” by the New York Times as “a thinking person’s hunk” who possesses “volcanic charisma” and by Interview magazine as “one of the most intensely watchable actors on screen and stage.”

Over the course of an hourlong conversation, the BAFTA and Golden Globe award winner and an Oscar, Emmy, SAG and Critics Choice award nominee reflected on his path from a rough childhood to his star-making role in the 1998 indie film Croupier; why he wasn’t excited about the prospect of playing James Bond, for which he was long rumored to be in the running; what it was like playing different characters in the stage and screen versions of Closer; why, since The Knick, he has increasingly worked in TV; plus much more.

You can listen to the entire conversation via the audio player above or read a lightly edited transcript of it below.

Clive, congratulations on the honor from the festival and thank you for doing this.

Thank you.

On this podcast, we go right back to the very beginning. Can you tell our listeners where you were born and raised and what your folks did for a living?

I was brought up in a little town called Coventry, which is in the Midlands, in a very working-class family. Come from a counselor state. Went to a pretty rough school, and did a school play when I was about 13, playing the Artful Dodger in Oliver!. And I said to myself, “This is what I have to do.” It was a very unlikely scenario because of where I come from, but there was a little youth theater in my hometown called the Belgrade Youth Theater, and the guy who ran that ended up running the Royal Shakespeare Company, one of the most prestigious theater companies in the world. But his first gig was to run the Belgrade Youth Theater, and we did Gogol translations and Lope de Vega plays, and that’s where it really bit me and I knew I had to do it.

You used the word “rough” to describe your childhood just now and in other interviews. Do you think that is connected with your attraction to acting, the appeal of escaping into somebody else’s skin for a little while?

I’m sure it is part of that, but I think also what it does, when you come from the sort of background that I come from, is it gives you an engine and a fuel. When I was young, they used to say, “Oh, if you’re going to be an actor, you’ll need a backup career.” I had no backup career, it had to work for me. And that does give you a drive and an energy and a passion, because you have nothing to fall back on.

When your contemporaries were going off to work or to university, there were a couple of years when you were kind of in limbo, right?

Well, I wasn’t in limbo, I was unemployed and signing on unemployment benefits, but a lot of people were in the U.K. at that time. I helped set up a theater company and I joined this youth theater, but then I had a very tricky time. I told everybody this is what I was going to do, but I was literally unemployed and the acting thing started to dry up. I had a very well-meaning ex-schoolteacher who was saying, “You’ve got to go to drama school, you’ve got to go to drama school.” And to be honest with you, I think I was a bit intimidated by that as an idea. I used to go around saying, “No, you can’t teach people to act. You can either do it or you can’t.” I don’t know who that kid was. Then she encouraged me to apply to a drama school that was accredited, which meant, at that time, that my local city council would fund it — I couldn’t go if that wasn’t the case — would pay for the fees and give me money to live on. I got into that drama school, but then I passed on it and said, “No, I’m not doing it, never wanted to do it.” Then, after two years of unemployment, I get it together to make one application to one drama school, the only one I really had heard of, which was the Royal Academy, and amazingly I got in and everything changed.

In those years that you were there, you did a ton of plays, including seven in your final year, and then you graduated and went to work in the professional theater. I don’t know if this is mythology, but was your first professional appearance filling in for Gary Oldman?

Yeah. When I was at RADA, they did this play that Bill Gaskell, a legendary theater director, came to workshop at RADA. It was a Howard Barker play, a take on a play called Women Beware Women, and I got a great part in it, but they were just workshopping it, and I said to Bill Gaskell, “Let me play it when you do it.” He said, “No, no, I’m not pulling you out of drama school.” Then they went on to do the play, and Gary Oldman was playing the part at the Royal Court. This is a year later. I’m in rehearsals [at RADA] and there’s a knock on the door and they say, “We’ve had a call from the Royal Court, Gary Oldman’s taken ill. Bill Gaskell says, ‘Can you get down to the Royal Court and take over from him tonight?’” On a play that I’d done a year before. I sat on the tube going to Sloane Square and I couldn’t remember a single line. I got there, and they’d only got a few of the cast — they couldn’t get ahold of everybody — and I did what rehearsals I could. Then I went on that night, and I did it for a week. Years later, I met and worked with Gary — he’s a bit of a hero of mine, Gary Oldman, I think he’s an absolutely stunning actor — and I said to him, “Do you remember that kid who took over from you?” And he said, “Yes.” I said, “That was me.” And he said, “Do you know what I remember most about that? All the knees.” Because I got into his costume, and he’s quite a bit shorter, and he said, “All the knees in my costume were completely gone after that week!”

What was the source of your desire to even get into screen acting? I don’t know, but I kind of doubt they taught that at RADA…

No. I used to think it was not a good thing actually, at RADA, that they didn’t prepare you. Because when young actors left drama schools at that time, you did everything — you did British films, you did TV series, you did theater. And there was no training whatsoever, so the first time you walked on a set, it was totally alien. I mean you’d had all the theater training, but you had no indication of what that was like. But at that time, as I say, actors did it all.

The first big job you had after leaving school was on a TV series called Chancer. It ran from 1990 to 1991, for 20 episodes, on ITV, and you played a yuppie ’80s banker turned conman. The way it was described subsequently by The New York Times, as far as its effect on your profile, was: “In Britain, he became what George Clooney was to ER.” How did you get the part? And was it truly that explosive for your life?

Yeah, it was a massive shift for me. I left RADA, I did plays, I did small parts in little things, and then this big TV show arrived. I remember going away and coming back to London and there were huge pictures on the tube of my face, and one of the lines that the character says, and it became a big deal — it was a real shift. I often think back to those times and think, “No one really sort of prepares you for that kind of attention.” If you’re not used to it, it can take some recalibrating, just how you deal with it and what it is. I used to get off the tube because I was so uncomfortable because people would be looking. It took me a good couple of years just to recalibrate and go, “Well, this is what the deal is. This is what you have to deal with. This is what you’ve signed into. And you’ve got to find a way where you are comfortable with it.”

What was the biggest learning curve, as far as moving from acting on the stage to acting for a camera?

Well, now theater is all mic’d, but when I started in theater no theater was ever mic’d, so it was all about projection, and that’s a very different kind of acting. Sometimes people think that unless you can do it in the theater, you’re not a proper actor. I disagree with that. I think it’s a different kind of acting, and I think filling a big space takes a certain energy. But I’ve seen some of the finest acting of my life with people in front of a camera too. I just think they’re very different, and I think it is just about understanding what it is to act for a camera instead of trying to fill a big space.

On Chancer, there was an actor, who played the part of Tom Franklin, named Peter Vaughan, and you’ve said that he was somebody who really had a profound impact on you.

He was a great guy and a great actor, but it was his discipline — he was always very prepared, and he was very specific, and he was very concentrated. I watched him work. He came in and he really taught me about how in film acting or in TV acting, it’s all about conservation of energy and being ready when needed. We all know there’s a lot of time sitting in a trailer, and you only really get a few minutes each day where you are going to have to deliver, and it’s really about making sure that the day revolves around being ready when that moment comes. Like, I’m somebody who — I don’t like to talk on a set, to chitchat. I like to be away and then come in and do it. I eat the same thing every day — I mean, I love food, but when I’m working, it’s just sustenance. I sleep every lunch time, I always have a nap. And really, the first time I saw that was in Peter Vaughan, and I clocked it.

As you were becoming well known, at least in the U.K., somehow you knew that you had to not get typecast as a certain kind of actor, because a project that you took on either during or shortly after that show was the film Close My Eyes, in 1991, in which you play a guy who engages in incest with his sister. This was a pretty daring thing to do, and I’ve read that it cost you some endorsements and roles. What made you decide to do it?

It was a beautiful script. It was a really great writer-director, Stephen Poliakoff. It was very, very delicately handled, a really interesting movie about a brother and sister spending time apart and then falling for each other and the ramifications of that. And I suppose I had an instinct. At that time, I was being offered a lot of similar things as Chancer, big TV things, and I saw this thing and I thought, “I’ve always wanted to keep things as mixed and varied as possible.” I’ve always had that instinct because I trained in the theater, where you want to play lots of parts, you don’t want to play the same part over and over. And when I went up for that film, it felt really important. I really wanted to get it because I knew it would just shift things and open something else up. And literally in the tabloids — “Clive Owen in Incest Shocker” — they treated it really crassly. But it was actually a very delicate, very beautiful film. And that was the beginning of me really wanting to keep things as open as possible so that all options were available.

One place where options were still limited was outside of the U.K. Like many British actors who have a bit of success in the U.K., you came to Hollywood to see what was there. I know the world was less connected at that time, but what was your experience when you got to Hollywood?

Well, I’d do these small British films, and then they would often send you over for a few days and you’d take some meetings in case this little film kind of hit. And to be honest with you, I found it very tough — I didn’t like it at all. You were never meeting the really properly influential people, you were meeting the assistant of the assistant, and it just always felt like a waste of time. One thing in this business is it’s important to keep real all the time: “What is the real situation here?” There was even one time where I stopped mid-thing and went, “I’m going home. I don’t feel that this is right.” And then I did this very, very small film with Mike Hodges called Croupier — Mike Hodges did the original Get Carter with Michael Caine — and it was a really interesting, unusual film. Some of the people that made it didn’t really like it when it was finished, but a friend who had produced it was friends with Robert Altman and showed Altman the movie, and he really liked it, and they started to do some screenings. And then they got this very tiny distribution deal, but the reviews were great, and suddenly it became the little indie film of that year that everyone wanted to check out. That film, I think, stayed in the cinema for six to nine months. As Mike Hodges said afterwards, “That film wasn’t released, it escaped.” And it totally changed everything.

That film came out in America in 1998. It’s a great movie — I just re-watched it this week to be fresh on it, and I have some questions for you about it — but first, the year before that, you were on the stage in a big-deal theatrical production called Closer. Written by Patrick Marber, it tells the story of two men and two women who have all kinds of complications between them. But what I think may come as a surprise to some people is that you played in the stage version not Larry, the character who you would play years later when it was made into a film, but the other man, Dan. You were with that production from the beginning, before it was on the West End, and long before it was a film. How did you come to be a part of it?

Well, it was a stunning piece of writing, and I remember where I was when I read that. I wanted to play Larry, the part I play in the film, but Patrick thought I was too young, and they were just workshopping it. Then a year later they were actually mounting the production, and an agent came to me about another play, and I said, “That play Closer, that’s going to be something when that’s done.” And he said, “Oh, they’re doing it. They’re definitely doing it, at the National. Ciarán Hinds is playing Larry. Would you be interested in Dan?” And I was like, “They’re four great parts. I’ll do it.” And it was a real event — it got phenomenal reviews; people were queuing every night to see it; people were walking out a lot, I remember, because it’s so intense and uncomfortable at times. And yeah, that was a great experience.

And was that what put you on Mike Hodges’s radar for Croupier? Did he ever tell you what made him think of you?

No, but I remember it was a very unusual audition because there were dialogue scenes in it, but a lot of internal monologues. His screen test for it was me working a roulette table, not speaking, but recording a voiceover and then him filming me. And it was unusual, I remember that, because he needed someone who could hold that. I was thrilled to get it because I thought he was very cool. But a really strong memory from that film is two days into filming, he said, “Oh, just do some roulette table and I’m going to put some of the voiceover in it,” and it troubled me. I went and banged on his door that night and I said, “I don’t think that the voiceover and what you’re seeing is going to be connected properly if you’re going to just put it over whatever I’m doing. I think what I need to do is to learn all the voiceover. When we do the scene, I’ll speak the voiceover, and then we’ll shoot, and I’ll just think the voiceover.” And it worked because it made it present, it made the thoughts — he didn’t have to use all of it, he could cut to other things, but when he did want to use it, the thoughts were on the beat, on the money, exactly what was being said in his mind. And I think it made quite a difference.

Amazing. I had read that, and I can’t imagine how you could have done it any other way. Croupier, as you noted, played for six months and grossed $6 million in the U.S., after basically doing nothing in the U.K. Mike Kaplan, the marketer of Stanley Kubrick’s films and a friend of Altman, was the guy who championed it in the U.S.?

He championed the film. He put out all of Kubrick’s films. He’s the only guy that Kubrick would deal with in the publicity world. Mike Kaplan coined the phrase, “2001, the ultimate trip.” Mike Kaplan did all the artwork for A Clockwork Orange, all that crazy wonderful artwork. And he was really obsessed by the film, and he pushed and he pushed and he got it this little deal. And I got some really great reviews, and he built this campaign that was all about me being compared to a lot of great actors. It was fundamental in the film staying out there, but also shifting everything to me, and I tell him he had a huge part in that gear-change in my career.

And suddenly the meetings in L.A. were of a higher caliber?

Suddenly I was meeting the directors, the people that actually make the decisions.

One thing that happened pretty soon after Croupier, but before some of the other film roles that people know about, was you being approached to play a guy referred to as “The Driver” in a series of very high-end BMW commercials. A lot of actors, when they first are getting a spotlight, don’t want to do commercials, and I think that was your initial inclination. Can you explain what tipped the scale for you to ultimately to do those, which were very cool once they got done?

I was hesitant and nervous and thinking, “As things are opening up, do I really want to do a bunch of commercials?” Then I started to hear about the caliber of the people involved and it was a very late decision. I remember I flew out and went straight to set to meet John Frankenheimer, who pulled me into a trailer and said, “I want to show you some actors driving. I want to show you bad versions,” and one of them was in one of his films, “and I want to show you really good versions,” about the way people were driving, whether they looked like they were driving or not in the thing. He said, “Have a look at these because we need to really feel that you are driving these cars.” And he was the king of car chases. He broke them down. He would literally say, “Okay, Clive, this is a three-second take. All you’re going to do is you’re going to fight the wheel, it’s pulling to the right and you’re going to try and hold it to the left.” And I would literally go for two seconds, and he’d go, “Got it, move on.” He broke it down that specific, and I ended up working with just such an incredible array of directors.

Not just John Frankenheimer, but also Tony Scott, Wong Kar-wai, John Woo, Ang Lee, Guy Ritchie and the list goes in. In a way, what better opportunity could there have been for a young actor to get on the radar of big filmmakers? And you would ultimately come back around and work with Ang Lee. I don’t know if it had anything to do with your encounter at that time. But what a cool showcase those were, that I imagine you’re happy you ended up doing.

Oh, for sure. They were great.

One other byproduct of people seeing you as this kind of slick cool guy in those ads might have been the beginning of those incessant rumors that you had to deal with for a number of years about you being the next James Bond? Do you think it traces back to that?

I wear a tuxedo in Croupier — it’s that obvious!

Right, of course. Now, was that ever real, as far as Bond? I read one thing where Pierce Brosnan himself might have advocated for you. Is that correct?

It was all hype and talk, and there’s a lot worse things to be associated with. All I’ll say is that if you take that on, it’s a massive undertaking for your whole life. That’s a career decision. Now, everyone thinks and assumes that everyone would want to do it, but think about your life, think about going in a bar for a drink, think about doing normal things, and whether that would be possible after playing that part.

Instead, the first movie that I would imagine came about because of Croupier was Altman’s Gosford Park, which connects back, I assume, to Mike Kaplan. This movie had one of the craziest ensembles ever assembled. You’re playing the valet for one of the aristocrats who have gathered at a British country estate in November 1932, whose host turns up dead. Very upstairs/downstairs, and in fact written by Julian Fellowes, who would later do Downton Abbey. I think were the first person cast by Altman?

It was on the back of Croupier. Once he saw Croupier, he called me up and he said, “I’m not doing it for a year, but I want you to be in this film I’m planning.”

There’s literally been an oral history book written about Altman, where you get the whole array of experiences that actors had working with him, which seemed to change depending on the decade. What was your experience? Did he provide a lot of guidance or welcome a lot of questions from his actors?

No, he got that incredible ensemble cast together for the first time and said, “Don’t come and talk to me about your parts. You all know why you’re here.” That was his opening line. But he was a genius. He was so unbelievably on top of the skillset of how to shoot movies with ensemble casts. He could create these scenes that involve so many people and give you just enough of everything to satisfy you. I’ve worked on things where you put five people around a dinner table and directors — good directors — get stuck on how to cover it. We shot it in two halves, and the downstairs cast, which I was part of, we were all sent memos, all of that incredible cast, saying, “I want everyone to come in every day just in case I want to decide to throw people together. You’ll often be released at lunchtime, but I need everyone to come in, go through the works, be ready just in case.” And occasionally you’d be sitting there and he’d start to call you one by one. I remember he said one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard on a film set. He pulled everyone together. It was a really elaborate, long developing shot, and he said, “Okay, we’re going to go for the first take. If you know what you’re doing, we won’t notice you. If you don’t, we will.”

Well, I know that you also surprised him. You’ve got all these unbelievable actors on the set — Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, and on and on — and one might expect people to be clamoring for more dialogue. Not you.

My first scene was, I’m sitting there and two people go walking by, and they’re talking about the murder, and I stop them and say, “Sorry, what were you saying?” and we have this conversation. And I said to him, “Don’t you think it’d be cooler if you just see me and clock me listening to it, rather than do that next obvious step of stopping them and engaging with them?” And the rest of the movie, he mercilessly ribbed me. He went, “Oh, Clive’s here with the biggest British cast ever, and on day one he’s trying to cut his lines. The guy’s a crazy man!” But then he started to go, “Clive, just sit over there and make a cup of tea and listen,” and he just started to use that as a kind of theme through it.

That’s great. After that was The Bourne Identity, in which you’re one of the people assigned to assassinate Jason Bourne, in 2002. In 2003, you were back with Mike Hodges for I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, playing a guy who has gotten out of the gangster life but gets drawn back in. And then in 2004 was King Arthur, which seems to me would have been of a scale unlike anything you’d done before. This is for Antoine Fuqua directing, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and for the Disney studio — it doesn’t get a lot bigger than that. How did you come to be a part of it? And did you find that working on something of that scale, you end up having to give a different kind of performance just to not get lost in the machinery of it all, or is it all the same?

No, I just got lost. Yeah, it was huge. They rebuilt part of Hadrian’s Wall and people used to joke, “It’s bigger and more expensive than the original.” It’s an experience doing a movie of that size. I think personally I function better when — I love working with these auteurs who write the script, who direct, who are totally on top of a vision. I find the big ones — where there’s lots of writers, lots of people involved with opinions — I find them harder to negotiate, to be honest.

That same year brought the release of the film version of Closer, with Mike Nichols directing, you and Julia Roberts primarily sharing scenes, Jude Law in the role you’d played in on the stage, opposite Natalie Portman, and on from there. You were the only one who had previously done Closer in any form. Had Nichols seen that? How did you come to be part of the film?

Mike Nichols came to see the very original production and apparently approached Marber and said, “I’d like to make a movie,” and Marber said, “No, it’s not a movie, it’s a play.” And he approached Marber every year for seven years and said, “Change your mind? Have you thought about it?” The seventh year, Patrick went, “Yeah, make a movie.”

I don’t know if it ever was something that Nichols discussed, but you think back over the projects that he’s done, from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge right through Closer and beyond, he seems drawn to quartets, especially when sex gets thrown the mix. Was that ever discussed?

No, but we had a really unusual and memorable rehearsal period because we all went to New York for two weeks months before we started shooting, and we’d read a scene and then discuss around it. We didn’t work the scene. We didn’t do that. We talked around what that brought up. And I have to say that two weeks was so special because he is one of the smartest, funniest, brightest people I’ve ever, ever come across. And we all just drank him in for two weeks as he riffed around the subject of love, betrayal, revenge. And then we had this long period where we didn’t, and he said he always liked doing that, and it was really telling because that period in between you think you’re not doing something as an actor, you think well now we’ve got downtime, but it’s percolating. All those discussions, all those thoughts, you know it’s coming. And so tiny little thoughts and decisions that are going to actually get into it are happening in your head because you have that period now to digest what you’re doing rather than usually get together three days of rehearsals, let’s shoot. It’s not the same. That gestation period seemed to be really valuable and really worked.

Was there a key thing that clicked to you at any point, just sort of a way into this character? I ask mainly because obviously it was so well received, BAFTA, Golden Globe Awards, Oscar nomination, all this stuff, it’s still one of the films that I think you’re most closely associated with. So, what was it? This is a complex guy who Larry the dermatologist with some very just sexual hang-ups and different things, sharing most of your scenes with Julia Roberts, who as was noted all the time at that point for sure maybe the biggest movie star in the world. So you got a lot to think about. What was the key to making that work for you, that job?

Well, I was blessed because I’d done the original play, so I’d really mined that piece of writing. I’d worked it in a theater, I’d seen how it played. I’d seen what was funny. I’d seen what was uncomfortable. And then you get to do the movie and I trusted the language, I totally trusted the language, I knew how it played. And it is a brilliant piece of writing. But as you say, go back and look at Mike Nichols’ career. The guy is one of the greats. And to have him holding us through it, and we did some super long takes, some of those scenes were shot in one long take. He immediately edited it afterwards, but we had to act them all the way through as if it was a stage play. And to have him … People often say, “How come Mike Nichols, why is he so great with actors?” He’s great with actors because he makes them feel good because he’s so smart that if he makes you think you’re anywhere near his level, you feel good about yourself and you want to deliver for it. And I’m not a fan of this, you hear sometimes about these directors who torture an actor because they’re going to get a performance. That’s bullshit to me, that’s bullshit. The best acting you’ll get is when an actor feels like they can do it and they can do anything. And he was brilliant at putting an actor in a place where they could really do.

The year after Closer was for Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, Sin City. You’re playing this guy Dwight McCarthy, the first American that you played as a character I think, maybe.

Probably, yeah.

Yeah. But what was kind of seems to me must’ve been a different kind of challenge with that is from what I understand, the whole thing is green screen. I don’t know, did you have any sense while you were working on it of what it would actually end up looking like?

We shot it out in Austin, Texas, in his big studio, and we started off with a couple of things. We started off with a car and the odd prop, and he even stripped that down. So, in the end, the car scene was sitting on a box with a steering wheel. That was it. And everything else was put on afterwards, and it was like acting floating. It was like he mapped out the flat, he mapped out [inaudible 00:37:11] with tape, but there was absolutely nothing to sort of hold onto. It was a bit like doing theater or something.

But when I went to see that movie for the first time, I was totally blown away. I thought that he did an incredibly faithful adaptation of those graphic novels. It was like the frames bursting into life. But I turned to him afterwards and I said, “I had no idea I was in that movie.” He did so much brilliant work after what we had done that I was so impressed.

That same year was Derailed, which was kind of Hitchcockian thriller with you and Jennifer Aniston, and then the next year is you working with Spike Lee on the movie that kind of rejuvenated his career, not that it was going badly but it just was one of his biggest hits, Inside Man. You’re the guy who sets out to commit the perfect bank robbery, Dalton Russell. But you originally were not going to accept the role, from what I understand, or had some reservations about accepting the role. Can you talk about how you came around to agreeing to do it?

So yeah, Spike, huge fan of Spike Lee, so I think, “Oh, Spike Lee wants me to do a movie?” And I read the script and in the original version of the script, I walk into the bank with a mask on and I never take it off. So I said to him, “I’ll voice over it for you, let somebody else walk through it,” and we left it and we left it for quite a while. And then I get a call and he goes, “I got Denzel. Does that change anything?” I go, “Greatest actor around? I think it might Spike, yeah.” “Okay, you in New York?” And he leaves me a ticket for the basketball. I’ve never been to the basketball. So I go to a Knicks game. Now, I don’t realize he’s part of the game. He’s front row. He’s running straight with the ref, the players. And I love sport. I’d never been to a basketball game, but I had the time of my life and I was like … But he didn’t mention the film all night. And then I’m thinking, “Well, it’s not my position to you want to talk to me.” So he goes, “You got a ride?” I go, “Yeah.” He goes, “You want to drop me off at home?” I go, “Sure.” Pull up outside his house and he goes, “So you doing it or what?” And I went, “Of course I’m doing it after that night.” And I’m so glad because we’ve become really, really great friends. I’m so fond of him.

Yeah, I know you just recently presented him with an honor, I think.

I gave him his BAFTA, yeah, which I felt an honor that he wanted me to do that for him.

That’s great, yeah. Now, one of the things that he does I believe on most if not all of his movies that I wonder how you receive this kind of thing is it’s almost like a group screening project, like we’re going to all watch certain number of movies that I want you to have in mind while we’re doing this, or here’s what I’m going for or something. Was that the case?

Yeah, he does that. I think he does that regularly. He screens films that he thinks are relevant. So we watched Dog Day Afternoon, we watched a whole bunch of ’70s either bank heist or crime movies, and he just screens one once a week just to get people in the zone of what he’s thinking. Also, just something I thought you were going to say, which was totally I’d never experienced before, is he shoots in both directions at the same time. So he says to the DP, “You’ve got to be able to handle this. I want to shoot both ways because I want the actors live and doing it,” even to the point of if there’s a phone call, two sets, two actors on the phone, and it’s hard for a DP but it does mean that anything live, anything that happens can be kept.

Wow. Now, while you were in New York working on Inside Man, that was also overlapping with sort the beginning stages of being involved with Children of Men. This is Alfonso Cuaron. It’s set in 2027 I believe, so we’re coming up on it, we’ll see if it catches up to the way it’s portrayed in the movie. But basically, the world, pollution has caused global infertility. Your character Theo is a former radical who’s now kind of just a functionary and then gets drawn back into the resistance when it turns out there is one person who may still be pregnant. And I wonder, there’s Cuaron, there’s a cool script, but I’ve heard you talk about the fact that it wasn’t necessarily immediately clear what you were supposed to be bringing to the film. Can you talk about that?

He’s brilliant. Alfonso Cuaron is brilliant, but when I read the script, I couldn’t see the part. There were no scenes that I felt, “Oh yeah, I can do some acting in now.” The guy had kind of given up at the beginning of the movie and he was the lead of the movie. He takes people through the movie and you’re playing somebody who’s kind of given up and a bit apathetic about everything. So I go, “How do you even do that?” I was struggling and I was being offered other things where I really saw clearly there’s a part, I know what to do with that. But he was brilliant. And then I remember the thing that sort of really pushed me over the line was I had never seen Battle of Algiers, the movie. And he said, “I’m going to send you this because this is kind of my template. This is what I’m thinking.” And I saw that movie and was blown away by it. And as we started to shoot, I realized that he is a visionary, Alfonso, he’s an extraordinary filmmaker. And that my job really was to get out of the way. I was the conduit to which you see all of this stuff, but if I’m too busy, if I’m acting, if I’m like I need … And it felt like that was what was demanded. You’ve got to be the way that Alfonso can show this world to everybody. Yeah, so that’s what happened.

Just a few months ago, we had Julianne Moore on the podcast who was your co-star in this, and I had to ask her, and I have to ask you to talk about these long, unbelievable chase scenes, which are done as at least appears to be one long take. In particular, the one in the car with you guys being shot at and all hell breaking loose. But there’s also another at the end later with you. So, at that time, Alfonso was working with Chivo Lubezki, the cinematographer, but I don’t know how many camera operators something like that requires. Anyway, that’s going to be talked about the Touch of Evil opening or some of the great long takes ever, so how the hell did you guys do it?

A lot of rehearsals. We had some days where he didn’t shoot a thing and he would come up to me towards the end he said, “I’m going for a take because I’ve got the studio breathing down my neck saying you haven’t shot a thing today. It’s never going to be in the movie. It’s a rehearsal, but let’s shoot something to get them off my back.” And we did that. They were hugely elaborate. And it’s a real lesson in sort of people who are brave filmmakers. The car rig for that sequence towards the beginning of the movie, it kind of hadn’t been done before. And he was with one of these English Pinewood car rig guys. And I remember witnessing this conversation right early on with the guy going, “Can’t be done, mate. Can’t be done,” and Alfonso, using worse language than I’ll use, said, “It can be. It really can be.” And he’s like, “No, mate. Trust me. I’ve been doing this for 20 years.” The guy was fired, and then they created that extraordinary rig and it’s become one of the memorable scenes. Yeah.

Unbelievable. So I mean the pace, I don’t know if you ever have taken a break, because right after that is Elizabeth: The Golden Age, where it’s you and Cate Blanchett, you’re Walter Raleigh. Then there’s The International after that, an Interpol agent, this is Tom Tykwer. And then Duplicity that same year, you and Julia Roberts back again. This is Tony Gilroy’s first thing after Michael Clayton. And then that brings us to … And also that year, by the way, The Boys Are Back, same year. This is a lot of output. Amazing. But Hemingway & Gellhorn, 2012, ended up being a TV film, but it’s you and Nicole Kidman as Hemingway and his wife Martha Gellhorn. And really, I think doesn’t always get the credit that it deserves. I just thought that’s a … I mean you did get an Emmy nomination and things like that, but it seems like that was some of the most impressive work that you’ve done, in my opinion.

Well, it’s nice you say that. I’m great friends with Phil Kaufman and I think he’s an absolute brilliant, brilliant filmmaker who’s made some absolutely incredible films. And it really bothers me as Phil’s gone on, he’s also a brilliant writer and he tries to get these films off the ground and it’s a real struggle. And I really do think sometimes that the movie business can be a bit ageist and you look at somebody of his intelligence and his skillset, and it beggars belief to me why Phil can’t get anything he wants to make made. And he did this very unusual technique in that movie where he bedded in real footage and put us into the real footage, and it was a really ambitious way of telling that story. And I think nothing but great things about Phil.

Yeah. TV you had not really done in terms of an ongoing part since Chancer, I think, right, and then along comes Steven Soderbergh, who I don’t know if you know, was here this week.

I do. We texted each other.

OK. And this is with the project The Knick in which you ended up playing Dr. Thackery, this brilliant chief surgeon at a hospital in the early 1900s New York, who’s also a drug addict and a bit of a psychopath in some ways. The L.A. Times called him “one of the defining TV characters of the era.” It was only a two season show, 20 episodes, but that’s the way people think about it, the way The L.A. Times talked about it. And so I just wonder, I guess it starts with outreach from Soderbergh?

Yeah. I get a call and he says, “I’m sending you a script. I want to make a TV series.” I wasn’t thinking about doing TV at that time. I remember I was on my lunch break in my trailer, and I thought, “Oh, I’ll just have a little look at this.” I flew through it. I thought it was one of the best, most exciting things I’d read. And I called him back, I said, “I’m in,” that quick. And said, “It’s fantastic.”

Now, I’ve heard him talk about Clint Eastwood or something where they do as few takes as possible. Is that true and is that a way you like working where just fast?

It took me a few weeks to adapt because he does so few takes. He’s incredibly economical. And I started, it took me a little while to learn that he shoots the edit in the order of the edit. So, he lights the whole room, and then he looks at a scene, and he rehearses it a few times, and he’s kind of making the cuts, and then he shoots it like that. If he doesn’t need to come back round on something that he knows he’s not going to use, he doesn’t. He gets in the car when he wraps, he edits it, and at 10 o’clock you’ve got the finished scene, and that is the finished scene because he hasn’t shot anything else. He is the most unbelievably economical and smart director. But his sets, I have such fond memories of that show. I mean, I love the material, I love the show. I love that cast, that ensemble cast is one of the best group of actors I’ve ever worked with. And Soderbergh raises everyone’s game because he is very quietly very demanding. You have to come prepared and ready. And it was such … And the concentration on his sets. There’s no monitors, there’s no places for people to sit down anywhere. It’s you walk onto that set, it’s a hush tone and everyone is very clear that we are here to do this. And that to me is heaven. There’s one thing I find very difficult in the modern era of filming, and I know ADs have to use their phones because they’re all communicating, but the distraction of people messaging around a camera when you’re all there to capture that one little bit of magic. And there is such distraction around, and the beauty of Soderberg’s set is he does not allow that anywhere near.

And that one, just because people were hungry for as much of it as possible, and then after two seasons, we won’t divulge in case anyone hasn’t seen it how this happens, but it rather suddenly ends. You said you knew that from the beginning that was it.

He told me, yeah. And there are photographs of what happens at the end of that show. People did do that. They did sort of operate on themselves.

I’m fortunate that I cover the Tonys season each year, so I got to see in 2015 and 2017 your return to Broadway, which you hadn’t done theater in 14 years when you came back to do Old Times and then M. Butterfly, that’s 2015 and 2017. What made you decide, you’re at a very different point than when you had last done theater, I guess just what goes into the equation that now is the time to go back and do that?

I think that I had to because I don’t think if I’d have left it any longer, I’m not sure I would’ve done it. It’s very scary when you haven’t done it for that long and to go back in there and go, “Have I still got that? Do I still have that energy? Do I still have that skillset?” And I wanted to do it, and it was scary and it was terrifying, but I did three plays. I did another one after that. But it was just a decision at that time of going, “Actually, if I don’t do this, I might never do a play again, so I should maybe do it.”

Yeah, that was a treat to see you do it. In that aftermath of that is Gemini Man, which is the one I mentioned where you and Ang Lee again work together. Then there’s Impeachment: American Crime Story where thanks to the magic of you learning an Arkansas accent and a lot of makeup work, you are Bill Clinton. And I guess I should ask about, and I want to ask about that one, because it’s not often that you’ve played real people who not only have lived but are living. How does that affect things?

Well, when it came to me, I was like, “Well, that’s crazy. Who would’ve thought of that? I’m English. I’m not even American playing somebody.” And also terrifying the idea of playing somebody that everybody knows so well and through a period that is very incredibly well known. And then I started to sort of dig into him a little bit and then I was like, “Oh no, I think I might have to do this.” And there’s a high chance of failure taking on something like that. But there was something about being scared and what I really got into is the idea of going into all the original footage and getting as close as I could to everything, the pausing, the hiccups. Now, only nobody would ever know this, but if you look at the rhythm of what he says, I did it as exact as I could. I didn’t do any interpretation of anything. I studied exactly. And if they tried to change the dialogue and neaten it upward, I said, “Please, please. The hesitations are everything. It’s there for you, let me use the real thing.” And it’s very close. But it was one of those where it was scary, but I got something bit inside me.

This brings us to the last year during which you have been in two TV limited series that have been just widely seen, widely discussed, pretty cutting edge in different ways. So I want to start with A Murder at the End of the World, this is you playing Andy Ronson, a billionaire tech guy who brings together an array of brilliant people to his compound in Iceland, including an amateur detective and her ex-boyfriend, the latter of whom turns up dead and the mystery goes from there. This is from Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the team behind The OA. Recently had Emma Corrin on the podcast and talked about this with them, but I want to get it from you because I think you were very involved during the writing of this, what was the main appeal for you of playing a guy who maybe might have some echoes of, I don’t know, an Elon Musk or somebody else like that today?

I think they’re very cool, fresh, exciting filmmakers. I really do. And we had a lot of talk as the script was being written, and I just think that in some ways they break a lot of rules. They don’t do things how you’re supposed to do it. Sometimes I think that with their work, the journey to where you’re going is where it’s at really, just getting to that place. It’s not about having a very rigid structure. It floats and discovers and delves into all kinds of things on the way to where you’re going. And I think they’ve got a very, very fresh take. And the idea of doing a who done it, it’s a classic who done it, but making it with a super cool young female girl, which why haven’t we seen that before, by the way? And about AI, which is a very, very hot subject, and it just felt like something I wanted to dive into with them.

That’s great. The other one just slightly more recently is Monsieur Spade, which you’re playing Detective Sam Spade 20 years after the events of, let’s say, the Maltese Falcon, right? Left San Francisco, now in the south of France and battling emphysema, not really in the game, and gets drawn back into the game. This is Scott Frank and Tom Fontana, who Scott Frank was coming off of The Queen’s Gambit, Tom Fontana has done many great TV things of his own. I want to ask you how that outreach began, but I also want to first read back to you a quote from a 1997 New York Times profile of you. “He’s executive producer and will star as Philip Marlowe in Trouble Is My Business, based on a 1939 Raymond Chandler story. He chose a Chandler piece that hadn’t been filmed before he said because, ‘The last thing I need to do is be compared to Humphrey Bogart.’” So that project didn’t end up happening, this one did. How did you come around to the idea of the Humphrey Bogart similarities, comparisons?

Well, I mean I’ve always loved that genre and I’m a massive Humphrey Bogart fan. When Scott called me up about doing this, I’ve got an original Maltese Falcon poster behind me on the wall. I take a shot, I go, “You’ve come to the right guy. I’m crazy about this.” And I know that really when you’re sort of reinventing, I mean it’s very hard to do noir. We didn’t get the Marlowe script together, and that was partly because it’s a very hard genre to reinvent because we kind of think we know it. We know all the cliches. And when Scott called me and said, “I’m going to set it in France,” and I go, “Well, there we go. We’re already in a different.” But I suppose what I should have done is gone, “I’m going to do my version of Sam Spade,” and I did the opposite and went, “I’m going to really dig into Bogart.” I watched everything and I studied his voice and I just indulged myself because I’m such a fan of his. I lifted only his dialogue, nobody else’s, from Casablanca and Maltese Falcon. Casablanca is … Well, I say I did it. My assistant Bobby is here, he did it. I didn’t do it. But Casablanca, Bogart actually doesn’t speak for that much. I can’t remember the exact minutes, but maybe less than 20. And I just had them in my ears day to day because we’re shooting in the south of France and I wanted to get into, although he’s older, although he’s living somewhere else, he’s still that guy that comes from that place. So yeah, I had a great time on that. And Scott Frank, for me, is one of the great writers out there at the moment.

With the last minute, just a couple of assorted random quick things. Could there be more of Monsieur Spade?

I hope so.

You do? If you got one do over in your career, take something that you passed on, pass on something that you took, do something that you did differently, what do you think? What comes to mind first?

Nothing, because nothing’s perfect.

If in 50 years there’s a college course on great actors and each session involves a discussion of a different actor as well as a screening of one representative example of what made them great, what would you hope they would show, if they have to pick one project of yours? They got to show these students what was Clive Owen about? What today, I understand the answer might change tomorrow or whatever, but what would you like them to see?

Luckily I don’t have to. They have to pick it.

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