Maybe it just comes with age, but as of late Clive Owen has taken to playing protective fathers (“Making the Boys,” “Trust” are two recent examples). Even in the gonzo action film, “Shoot ‘Em Up,” he spent most of the film fiercely protecting a newborn from an army of gunmen, despite not being the kid’s father.
His latest, “Intruders,” finds Owen exploring similar paternal terrain, albeit in a horror genre picture. In the film, helmed by Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (“28 Weeks Later”), Owen plays John Farrow, a father of a 12-year-old girl (Ella Purnell), forced into action when his daughter is assaulted at night by a faceless being. A parallel story concerns a little boy in Spain visited by a similar mysterious figure.
“Intruders” opens in limited release this Friday. Following that, audiences can catch him as author Ernest Hemingway in the upcoming HBO film “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” directed by Philip Kaufman (“Quills”) and co-starring Nicole Kidman as Hemingway’s wife and famed war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. It premieres on May 28.
Owen sat down with Indiewire in Manhattan to discuss “Intruders” and taking on a literary icon.
I went in expecting into “Intruders” (especially given the creepy poster) a straight-up horror film. I was surprised to find it to be more of a psychological family thriller. Did that factor into why you took this on?
Yes, that’s what I thought when I read it. It has some classic horror genre traits, but it’s much more interesting… what it’s exploring psychologically. It explores the idea, that as parents, we pass on our fears to our children. It’s a very real thing, I think.
It’s interesting to note that you have two daughters.
I think it does. I think it’s no accident that in the last couple of years I’ve been in film where parenting children figures quite strongly, like in “The Boys Are Back” and “Trust.” Obviously I relate to it strongly because I’ve got two girls of my own.
You arguably share more scenes with the young actress Ella Purnell, who plays your daughter, than with the Danish star, Carice van Houten (“Black Book”), who plays your wife. How was sharing the screen with such a young performer?
I really enjoy working with kids. It’s a kind of different style of acting you have to do with them. It’s very instinctive and sort of responsive. They don’t come in having crafted something. They’re much more reactive, so you have to do that with them to make it work. It’s very alive because they’re very present.
I think the most important thing is that you need to put a lot of work in before you start the film so that they trust you. In this film there are some very intense scenes. A younger actor — you need to make them feel safe so that you can explore them fully.
Given your RADA training and theater background back in Britain, I’m guessing a method of some sort factored into how you approached roles, especially straight out of school. How has that approach evolved over the years?
I’m always a great believer in having good dialogue. Very often in films, the dialogue isn’t so great. When it is, that’s when you can really go to work. I’m not a great believer in improvising. I always think the job of great acting is to have great lines, but make them look like they’re improvised.
So I can’t expect to see you in a Judd Apatow-produced comedy any time soon?
It’s not on the horizon, as far as I’m concerned.
(Laughs) Were you familiar with Juan Carlos’ work before coming onto “Intruders”?
Yes, I was a very big fan. I came across “28 Weeks Later” and I loved the film. I thought it was very visceral and exciting. A great take on that kind of movie. I’d really loved “Intacto” as well. So when I first got the script, I was very excited.
[SPOILER ALERT] You show off some really formidable Spanish-language speaking skills in “Intruders.” Did you pick those up during your time spent on set making “Children of Men” with Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron?
No. I was very paranoid about the Spanish because it had to be good. We shot most of in Madrid, so I was surrounded by a Spanish crew. They tell me, and I have to trust them, that I pulled it off well, so I was happy with it.
How much work went into learning how to speak those lines?
Even though there were only a few lines, I did put a lot of time in. It was essential that it seemed seamless.
You have this tendency to work with pretty established directors — Cuaron, Mike Nichols, Spike Lee, Robert Rodriguez and the like. Is the director the primary factor that attracts you to a project, or is it the script?
Yeah, it is, at the end of the day. It’s always the two things, obviously; it’s both script and director. But to be honest with you, you can have the best script, but if it’s badly directed, it’s a bad film. A good script will not stand up if they’re badly handled. I really strongly believe that film is a director’s vision. It’s their story. The director comes first.
You’re worked with another great filmmaker, Philip Kaufman, for the upcoming HBO movie “Hemingway & Gellhorn.”
I just had one of the best times. I was such a fan of his work. I think he’s a really great storyteller. It’s a very passionate, epic romance. The film just tracks the seven years they [Hemingway and Gellhorn] were together. They met during the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, traveled extensively, bought their house in Cuba and split as the second World War got going. And opposite Nicole Kidman as well — I just had the best time.
How apprehensive were you in taking on Hemingway?
It’s a very daunting task, there’s no question about that. But what I did was I cleared a lot of time before it, and spent six or seven months just immersing myself in the role. It was daunting, but there’s no way I was going to turn down a great script with Phil Kaufman directing opposite Nicole Kidman. That’s just what you do.
I just did the best I could.
With this and “Midnight in Paris,” it seems Hemingway is all the rage right now.
Yes, he is! And it’s great because he’s been kind of out of fashion in a way for some time. There’s things that are not popular now — the bull fighting, his hunting, liquor. But you can’t take away from the fact that he was a brilliant writer; a deceptively brilliant one. There’s a kind of clarity and simplicity about him. The language he uses in the books though is the hardest thing to achieve. He’s so skillful in his books. I’ve become a big fan having read everything.
Have you met Corey Stohl who played Hemingway in Woody’s film?
No, no. He was great, I thought. I did a lot of traveling for the film. I went to Hemingway’s house in Cuba, I did a tour of Hemingway’s Paris. What’s incredible is that he as a writer left a legacy in every place. If you go Havana, he’s everywhere. Every bar is full of Hemingway. You go to Madrid, Hemingway’s everywhere. You go Paris, Hemingway’s everywhere! For a writer to leave that strong a mark is pretty incredible.
Compared to most established actors nowadays, you hit your stride in Hollywood relatively late in the game; you were 34 when “Croupier” came out. Was was it like, coming into this side of the industry at that age, rather than breaking it big Stateside straight out of acting school?
It was fantastic. You have to understand, I’d done over 10 years of work back in the UK; lots of theater and TV. When I was a young man I did a big hit TV show and I kind of got used to what that was like. I think that was very good, because when the film thing opened up I had been though something like it before. Personally for me it was a big advantage, it happening late. By that time you understand that the work’s the most important thing.
When you’re a young actor and you’re thrown into the limelight, there are so many distractions. So many people want a piece of you in different ways. It’s hard keeping your mind focused on the most important thing — you have to deliver. Everything comes from the work. It’s always been about the work and getting the opportunity to work with good people.
Have you seen that? Actors who fell by the wayside after taking the wrong path?
Yes. I just think it’s hard. It can be very exciting and distracting. I just think that a lesson that everybody learns at some point is that in film, the few minutes you have to deliver on camera; that’s the most important thing.