Clive Owen has inhabited many characters: A casino worker in Croupier, a royal in King Arthur, an assassin in The Bourne Identity, a bank robber in The Inside Man, a cheating husband in Derailed, a con in Blood Ties. But never have we seen him as a college professor with a drinking problem until Words and Pictures, out Friday. We spoke to the 49-year-old Brit about playing Jack Marcus, a tortured writer who embarks on a relationship with the school’s hard-nosed art teacher, Dina Delsanto ( Juliette Binoche).
Warning to fans: Don’t expect to see Owen all clean shaven in a sleek, nice suit; think a scruffy beard and nerdy glasses. Amazingly, the married father of two still manages to be sexy.
What attracted you to this role of someone who is kind of a mess?
[Laughs]. I thought Jack was this buoyant character struggling with things. The fact that his job is on the line was kind of moving and poignant and relatable. The script was really witty and smart, and this relationship and the dialogue between the two leads were really great. The way they spar, you believe the situations are real. They’re a good match.
You’ve been in a lot of action movies. What was the biggest challenge for you playing someone totally cerebral and kind of unkempt?
You know, playing drunk, it’s not easy. We’ve seen plenty of actors take it on and not so successfully, doing cliche things. For it to work, something about the performance had to be sad. Pathetic really. But you also don’t want to be too heavy. The director [ Fred Schepisi] and I talked about how to calibrate that balance quite a lot. Jack is under pressure, and liquor is how he gets through his day at the moment until he is galvanized into action and woken up by Dina. She inspires him, and he inspires her as well.
Did you base your character on any of your teachers?
When I was around 17 I decided to give the acting thing a go and joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. That’s where I got a lot of my inspiration. It was quite a breeding ground.
Was there a lot of camaraderie on set?
We shot in Vancouver, what was supposed to be Maine. It was very beautiful. The thing I love about Fred is that he loves actors. When you’ve got a director who has your back it creates a comfortable environment and puts us in the right state. We felt good in what we were doing. And Juliette, I’d always been a huge fan of hers. I think she’s one of the best around.
What are you up to next?
I just shot a Cinemax series, The Knick, directed by Steven Soderbergh. It’s set in 1900s New York. I play a surgeon who’s a genius struggling with drug addiction, which is not as shocking as it would be today; quite a lot of people were taking them. I’m also looking forward to Maggie’s Plan. It’s very witty and lovely about a young lady [ Greta Gerwig] with a dream cast that also includes Julianne Moore.