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Virile and mysterious, 'Closer' star smolders


Jude Law has been proclaimed the sexiest man alive as well as Britain's hottest acting export. But his countryman Clive Owen wipes Law off the screen as his antagonist in Closer, the Mike Nichols film that's been packing in audiences who love frank sexual melodrama or can't get enough of Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman talking dirty.

Because Owen steals this study of yuppie love and infidelity from his costars, he's been winning the mainstream praise and personal accolades that often translate into Hollywood heat. (Pointedly ignoring Law, MSNBC reviewer Dana Kennedy recently burbled to an anchorwoman that Owen in Closer is the handsomest man on the planet.)

More important, Owen has amassed varied credits without thinning out his talent or growing over-exposed. Last weekend he phoned from a London set to promote all his recent films, including I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, his latest movie for Mike Hodges (the British director best known here for his 1972 gangster classic, Get Carter).

"Mike Nichols is one of the best directors around -- one of the most intelligent and charming people you'll ever meet, with incredible experience in both film and theater. But I would put Mike Hodges up there with him."

Owen is now shooting Derailed, an existential thriller co-starring Jennifer Aniston. Set in Chicago, he calls it "a Hitchcockian Kafka nightmare" about a businessman whose life turns upside-down when he misses a commuter train.

At age 40, the actor has made a habit of zigging when people expect him to zag. He's been a mysterious servant from an orphanage in Robert Altman's Gosford Park, an assassin called The Professor in The Bourne Identity, and The Driver in the BMW short-short film series "The Hire" (which has made him a popular favorite to be the post-Pierce Brosnan James Bond).

Owen has a distinctive look and sound. He's a strapping hard-guy version of a Byronic figure -- shadowy, wounded and rebellious -- with a voice that carries the timbre of fur-sheathed iron. But he's proved startlingly versatile. Producer Mike Kaplan recalls that when he first worked on a Clive Owen film, his "impact was so unique that he was compared to the most diverse group of actors ... from Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Bruce Willis to Dirk Bogarde, Laurence Harvey and Robert Ryan." In 2004, American audiences have seen him as a dour nation-builder in King Arthur, a self-loathing gangster in I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (just out on DVD) and now the amorous dermatologist in Closer.

He took on King Arthur to see if he could hold his own in a spectacle, amid "hordes of actors and horses going this way and that." Closer (a play the actor loves and also starred in onstage) allowed Owen to create a demonstrative character. Usually he gives life to antiheroes who epitomize emotional containment -- except for their sneak-attack tempers.

Owen first achieved idol-hood in 1990, as the star of a British TV hit called Chancer. Owen played (in his words) "a cocky, charming wheeler-dealer who pulled scams every week." Chancer provided the sort of roguish continuing part that many a young actor would adopt as an alter ego. Owen, though, ran away from typecasting. He confounded his pop fans by starring as an incestuous brother to Saskia Reeves in Close My Eyes (1991).

"I did Close My Eyes because it was a beautiful and sensitive script that handled incestuous relationships in a delicate way. I knew from an early age how important it was for an actor to mix things up. So I did indie films and often small-scale theater."

Breakthrough role

Owen didn't connect with international audiences until his witty, volatile interpretation of the slippery title character in Croupier (1998). Under Hodges' masterly direction, he combined the matinee-idol virility of Dylan McDermott with the fringe psychopathy of Kevin Spacey. "Hang on tightly, let go lightly" was the signature line for a study of a would-be writer screwing up relationships and getting embroiled in a stick-up while falling into the life of a casino croupier. The croupier has tip-top observational gifts, a neutrality that evolves into moral drift, and a voyeuristic addiction to watching people lose.

In Croupier the protagonist's tart, terse narration draws viewers straight into his mental turmoil. "What always fascinated me was the voice-over," says Owen, who knew something special was up when Hodges asked him to try out in a dinner jacket and chose an audition scene "about me listening on the phone and reacting rather than saying lines."

On the phone from Dorset, England, Hodges explains, "I asked him to learn the voice-over as if he were memorizing dialogue, so that the process and effect of whatever he was thinking at the time would show in his face." Owen had been concerned that scenes of him running his table would come off as "too vague." With Owen silently acting the croupier's ideas as they popped into his head, Hodges found himself with "an extraordinary visual flow."

Hodges knew that Owen was his man from the start. "The saturnine cast to his looks fits the idea of a croupier. There's a sexual undertow to gambling and so a croupier tends to be good-looking. And Clive patently is that." But making this movie about gambling with your money and your life required far more than the correct appearance. It took "the same precision and professionalism as Michael Caine," says Hodges, who directed Caine in Get Carter.

Owen stretches his buttoned-up Steve McQueen mode to seething new extremes in I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, Hodges' atmospheric and implosive neo-noir. Owen plays a gangster who exiled himself to the country because he hates the glorified thug he became in London. This man of action yearns for inaction. Owen's mastery of internal tension showcases his canniness and intuition, and his ability to convey an emotional weight comparable to Robert Mitchum's. Closer, a prestigious Nichols production, may propel him into the Hollywood empyrean. But collaborating with this other Mike --Hodges -- could produce a body of work comparable to Humphrey Bogart's team-up with John Huston.

A great minimalist

Hodges says the quality of "stillness" which gave Owen's croupier an overlay of cool "came into its own even more on I'll Sleep When I'm Dead. He was a different actor on this film: just as much a pleasure, but even more of a great minimalist. He found a way to avoid blinking and to look at the other actors with enormous intensity." This not-quite-eye-popping urgency was perfect for a scraggly, hermetic figure who is potent and paralyzed, and fated for a trajectory that resembles Clint Eastwood's in Unforgiven. By the end, a brutal family tragedy has propelled him back into violence; emotionally and morally he's leveled. "Everything, including the beard, made him look so strong," marvels Hodges.

Although Hodges surmised that Owen drew on his own background to play a spiritually scarred and weathered tough, Owen denies specific autobiographical inspiration. He grew up in Coventry, in the midlands. His father was a country-western singer who sang in workingmen's bars and left the family; his stepfather (who worked for British Rail) and his mother raised him and four brothers. What made acting plausible was a grant from his city council that enabled him to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He then joined the Young Vic Theatre Company and married the actress who played Juliet to his Romeo, Sarah Jane Fenton. (They have two daughters.)

Owen's working-class background fits the character of Larry, the savvy dermatologist in Closer, who comes from a different and more rooted world than Dan, the ambitious writer. But on the London stage, Owen created Dan: in 1996 and '97, playwright-director Patrick Marber considered him too young for Larry.

Owen treasures both roles. "Even when I was playing Dan, I always thought that Dan is a boy and Larry is a man: a more seasoned human being. Dan enters into a game of love and sex and he ends up getting a pretty rough ride. Once Larry is crossed he sees that he's in a war and he moves to get the girl and to destroy the other guy."

None of Owen's onscreen characters fits his offscreen life too closely. Is the element of acting-out alternate fates what makes performing fun for Owen? "No, it has to do with going after interesting, fallible human beings. Unless you have a character in conflict, there's nothing to play. I like writers like Stephen Poliakoff (Close My Eyes), who don't give you goodies and baddies."

A knock on the door calls Owen to the set. But before he leaves, he manages to blurt out, "Doing these parts just seems to me much more sophisticated." Then he laughs, with a mingling of self-deprecation and satisfaction. He knows he's going back to embody his latest conflicted man in Derailed, the next stop in a career that veered off the TV fast track and now seems bound for glory.

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