For those of you who need the fix of seeing a major movie star class up the joint on pay cable, look no further than Clive Owen as Dr. John Thackery in “The Knick.” The not-for-the-squeamish medical drama, which takes place in the rotten-with-germs Big Apple of the early 20th century and is created by director Steven Soderbergh, premieres the first of ten hour-long episodes on Cinemax August 8.
As the brilliant surgical pioneer whose Sherlock-like drug habit takes the edge off the daily grind of battling disease and death, Owen is the perfect combination of intimidation, dedication, charisma, arrogance and a seedy sort of sexuality that’s symbolized by his tightly laced white shoes and too-timid mustache. (Owen shaved it off the instant he completed filming.) Pulling off his character’s mercurial moods and high-handed temperament along with a spot-on American accent, the British actor earns his membership into the exclusive club of captivating small-screen anti-heroes and thrives in this colorful if gruesome milieu.
Signature line: “I’m not an enigma, just a contradiction” – as Jack, a novelist working at a casino in 1998’s “Croupier.”
: This tall, dark and handsome native of Coventry, who turns 50 in October, knew he wanted to be an actor at age 11 or so after playing the Artful Dodger in a youth theater production of “Oliver!” A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he paid his dues on British TV in films and series work, including “Chancer,” an early ’90s drama about a dashing yuppie con man.
Hollywood began to take notice and Owen landed a supporting role in 1996’s “The Rich Man’s Wife,” an undercooked thriller starring Halle Berry. But he was the main attraction as an aloof casino worker who is dragged into a robbery plot in “Croupier,” which would prove to be his ticket to international renown and fortune. That included doing another noteworthy TV series, 1999’s “Second Sight,” this time as a blind detective, and appearing as “The Driver” in “The Hire,” a string of flashy online BMW ads in 2001.
That same year, he stood out as part of the stellar upstairs-downstairs ensemble of servants and aristocrats gathered for Robert Altman’s ‘30s murder mystery “Gosford Park.” After causing hearts to flutter as a silent yet smoldering valet, Owen suddenly seemed to be everywhere – including topping lists as the next potential James Bond (Daniel Craig would end up getting the call).
You could spy him as a sniper hunting down Matt Damon in 2002’s “The Bourne Identity”; as an amorous doctor opposite Angelina Jolie in 2003’s “Beyond Borders”; as a bitter and angry dermatologist in Mike Nichols’ sexually-charged “Closer” as well as a swashbuckling ruler in “King Arthur,” both 2004; and as a lethal gun-for-hire in 2005’s “Sin City.”
In 2006, Owen straddled the best of both worlds, commercially and artistically, by starring in Spike Lee
’s popular bank-heist thriller “Inside Man” and in Alfonso Cuaron’s ambitious and much-admired sci-fi drama “Children of Men.”
: If the word brooding hadn’t existed before Owen arrived on the scene, it would have had to been invented simply to describe his often-wordless though powerful impact on screen. As he himself once said, “I don’t ‘do’ emotion. Emotions are overrated. I’m much more interested in creating a presence.” The actor’s distinctive brand of masculinity is equal parts dangerous and carnal, tough and tender, in the mode of a young Robert Mitchum. In a 2000 review of “Croupier,” when the film finally hit the States, Stephen Holden in “The New York Times” described the actor as conveying “a sharp, cynical intelligence that rolls off the screen in waves whenever he widens his glittering blue eyes” and compared him to Michael Caine
in his “Get Carter” heyday. It also helps that Owen can act, though his run of shoot ‘em ups (he even starred in a 2007 movie called “Shoot ‘Em Up”) doesn’t often take full advantage of that skill.
Awards attention: Won a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for his supporting role in “Closer” and was nominated for an Academy Award. Emmy-nominated as a lead actor in a movie or miniseries for his portrait of Ernest Hemingway opposite Nicole Kidman in 2012’s “Hemingway & Gellhorn.”
Biggest misfire: “Derailed” is neither Owen’s lowest-grossing effort (although, save for “The Bourne Identity,” his movies rarely come close to $100 million at the box office) nor worst-reviewed. But something about the aptly titled 2005 thriller co-starring Jennifer Aniston really irritated those forced to watch the stinker. Consider critic Andrew Sarris’ reaction in the “New York Observer”: ”Someone had to work extra hard to make a movie this bad with two likeable leads like Mr. Owen and Ms. Aniston. I can’t figure out why.”
Biggest problem: It has been ages since Owen had a movie that has generated any real excitement. He’s been in a slump since 2007, indulging in so-so action fare (2011’s “Killer Elite” with Jason Statham) and heart warmers (2009’s family drama “The Boys Are Back”) that fail to connect with moviegoers.
Gossip fodder: Almost none, as is often the case when fame strikes when a performer is mature enough to handle the intense spotlight (he was 36 when “Croupier” caused a sensation beyond the U.K.). He and his wife, Sarah-Jane Fenton, married in 1995 after meeting at a rehearsal for a stage production of “Romeo and Juliet” – yes, they had the title roles. They have two teen daughters, Hannah and Eve. Probably the most scandalous stunt that the longtime David Bowie fan has ever done was to change his hair color to match whatever hue his chameleonic idol was sporting in the ‘70s.
Career advice: Doctor, heal thyself. By signing on for “The Knick,” Owen seems to have found the perfect prescription for what has been ailing his leading-man status in the industry (you’re in trouble when you land on Buzzfeed-like lists of actors who guarantee a flop). Brooding is one thing, but his moody demeanor can sometimes put a wall between him and the audience. By doing a cutting-edge series with a well-rounded main character, the actor will be able to better engage with viewers. Not that he was looking to return to his TV roots. As Owen revealed in a recent Hitfix.com interview: “I did a lot of television when I was young. One thing I didn’t really enjoy was playing the same part over and over. … That’s why I got out and ended up doing this much sort of varied stuff as I could.” But he knew he couldn’t refuse an opportunity as unique as The Knick. “You can’t walk away from a piece of material like this.”
Cinematically, a bit underwhelming at first glance. There is “The Last Knights,” an action adventure with Morgan Freeman
and directed by Japan’s Kazuaki Kiriya. And “Maggie’s Plan,” a rare comedy for Owen that is due next year about a young woman trying to make it in New York City. It’s directed by Rebecca Miller
and co-stars Julianne Moore and Greta Gerwig
. Happily, Cinemax has already announced a second season of “The Knick” for 2015, with Soderbergh continuing to occupy the director’s chair.