Clive Owen has played many impeccably dressed yet morally flawed characters, beginning with Jack Manfred, the aspiring novelist who eagerly unravels his life to write the great American novel in Mike Hodges’ neo-noir Croupier (1998). He played a reformed gangster set back on a bloody path by his brother’s death in Hodges’ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003), and he’s perhaps best known as the larger-than-life anti-hero Dwight McCarthy in Sin City, Frank Miller’s epic graphic noir portrait of a city in decay. Owen, now nearing 50, has grown comfortable playing men who operate by their own code. In James Marsh’s new film, Shadow Dancer (currently playing in New York and L.A.), he plays Mac, an MI5 agent in the early ’90s who is feeling increasingly restricted by the bureaucracy of the British intelligence organization. Early on in the film, he interrogates Collette (Andrea Riseborough) after she fails to detonate a bomb in the London Underground. His real targets are her brothers, especially Gerry (Aiden Gillen), a hotheaded and high-ranking member of the IRA. Mac offers her immunity if she spies on them, launching the film on a morally ambiguous journey. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Owen to discuss where Mac falls on the hero/anti-hero spectrum; his own memories of The Troubles, the decades of violence in Northern Ireland; and what’s he’s learned about the other side.
The A.V. Club: What first intrigued you about the role of Mac?
Clive Owen: I was coming to the end of a film and not looking to work. I was going to take some time off. I was sent the script, and I read it because of James Marsh. I loved Man On Wire and thought, “Well, I wonder what he’s doing?” I really loved the script. I thought it was really tight, taut, and tense. It was economical, stripped down, but everything in there played. I called James, and he spoke really intelligently about it, so I jumped on it. Usually, if I take on a film, I’ll have a lot of discussions with the director about the material and what could be improved and how to hone something. There was literally nothing much to say about this one. I just felt it was well formed.
AVC: When you first read the script, did you feel like you knew this character immediately, or was there something about him that you needed to discover?
CO: I think there were certain choices you could make. I talked them over with James. There was one of approaching it as the tough MI5 guy that was cynical—reeling [Collette] in and playing hardball. I always felt it was more interesting when he says to her in the beginning of the movie, “You do this and I’ll be with you every step of the way,” and that he really believes it. Because if he does, then the minute his superiors are prepared to compromise her—that puts him in a very dodgy situation. To have a conscience in an environment like that is not the best thing, really.
AVC: There’s a paternal quality to that line.
CO: Yeah. There’s a young girl there with a young kid, and I’m asking her to take a huge risk.
AVC: A lot of the film focuses on the human element in conflict. You grew up in England during The Troubles. Did your memories from that time have any influence on your character choices?
CO: When I was growing up, it was constant; the IRA was ever present. I actually taught a play in the late ’80s and went to Belfast for a week, so I saw what Belfast was like during that time. It was like a war zone. It was soldiers on the street. It was helicopters at night. It was a tough place. It’s amazing when you look back. You look at the pictures and see what it was like not that long ago. But it’s a very different place now, I think.
AVC: What was the play?
CO: Romeo And Juliet in the Belfast Opera House.
AVC: That seems all too relevant, with the cyclical nature of warring factions. There are parallels you can draw between the IRA and insurgency groups today. Do you feel Shadow Dancer aims to show the human face of those that would otherwise be written off as villains?
CO: That’s what I loved about it. One of the things that impressed me so much is that it wasn’t about good guys and bad guys. It wasn’t judgmental. It’s a human drama. It’s about how all of these characters are in a very tough situation and all navigating their way through it. One of the big advantages of the movie is the fact that James [Marsh] comes from documentaries—his sensibility is he’s after something real. He’s not going to trivialize an environment like this. He’s going to handle it intelligently and sensitively, and he’s also going to try and make it feel very real. I think it was a huge plus for me that that’s the world he comes from.
AVC: How did that documentary sensibility influence his direction?
CO: He’s not interested in anything that doesn’t smell authentic, so we didn’t do much rehearsal. We kind of jumped straight in. To be honest with you, that would be a big concern for me on some films, but not with this one because it was in such good shape.
AVC: What was the first scene you shot?
CO: If I remember rightly, it was the big, long, reeling-her-in scene at the beginning of the movie.
AVC: The one with Collette in the hotel room?
CO: Yeah, I think that was the first thing we did.
AVC: It’s an interesting location. You don’t usually associate hotel rooms with interrogations.
CO: I think that was the reason behind it. We’ve seen the interrogation scene so many times in a cell, so that was the first thing. It was also about trying to off-center her so that she doesn’t know what is going on or where she is, because the job is to try to reel her in, so you want her as off-guard and vulnerable as you can get her.
AVC: There’s this feeling that the MI5 is omnipresent, like the Orwellian Big Brother. You’ve been in a couple of great dystopian films, like Sin City and Children Of Men. Do you see war as a form of dystopian reality?
CO: Possibly, yeah. I’m always attracted to things that have conflicts that aren’t clear-cut. I remember going years ago to L.A. and meeting some people and they said, “Do you prefer good guys or bad guys?” And I responded, “I never ever think about whether they’re good guys or bad guys.” I think my job as an actor is to try to make people understand why a character does something. It’s not about judging them. It’s just about trying to understand how this person could make a decision like this.
AVC: Your character has a couple of hard-line moments at the beginning when he gives Collette the ultimatum of spying on her brothers or never seeing her child again. Do you see him as an anti-hero or more of a reluctant hero?
CO: For me, it was all about a guy developing a conscience. It’s a very tough world, and I’m sure a lot of people pulled people in and got them working for them pretty mercilessly. This is how we fight the war. It’s just much more interesting if there’s an element of him that has a conscience about what he’s doing. How he looks at this young girl with a young kid, understands the risk that she’s taking and has a part that connects with that on a human level.
AVC: Do you think there was something in his backstory that triggered his conscience, or was it just basic humanity?
CO: He’s a decent guy in this environment. I think he just means it when he says to her, “We’ll do it together. I’ll watch your back”—he really means it. Very quickly, his superiors are obviously prepared to compromise her. He could just say, “Okay,” but he doesn’t. He feels obliged to try to protect her in some way.
AVC: What constraints did you feel working on a low-budget film?
CO: You move quicker. You get on with things quicker because you haven’t got the time. You can’t stretch things out. You can’t take your time. But there isn’t much difference, really. James is very into actors getting into the right pace, so we took as much time as we needed to play the scenes. It was just that the schedule was tight, but it never felt like we were rushed in any way.
AVC: Did the tight scheduling lead to any surprising moments?
CO: No. The environment of the film was the most impressive because all of the Irish side of it—the IRA side—I wasn’t privy to. I was just doing the MI5 bit.
AVC: Did it cause you to change the way you viewed the IRA?
CO: I think what I was left with when I saw the film for the first time was just how it was tough for everybody. It was a tough place in a tough time, and you’re born into whatever you’re born into. Everybody is trying to navigate their way through it.
AVC: Even when your character tries to keep his promise to extricate Collette, he’s met with that bureaucratic wall.
CO: It’s true, and the situation is that once you pull someone into anything like that, to get them out is a very tall order. It’s tough and it’s very expensive. I’m sure it happened, but it wasn’t easy.
AVC: Bureaucracy is the villain as much as the enemy is.
CO: Yeah, it’s true.