Clive Owen on Duplicity

ON has interviewed Clive Owen quite a few times for many of his recent movies, and while his character Ray Koval in Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity might seem similar to characters he’s played in the past, being a suave and debonair ex-MI6 agent, there are some major differences.

First of all, he’s working opposite Julia Roberts for the second time, though in a movie with a very different tone from Closer, one that allows more humor and romance between their characters. This is also the sophomore effort from a director whose first film Michael Clayton got a lot of awards attention for its entire cast as well as for the script, and the writing in this one is just as strong. sat down with Owen at the New York City junket to talk about the film in depth. At what point when you were reading the script did you know that you wanted to do this movie?
Clive Owen: I knew I wanted to do it a few pages in. The first scene between Julia’s character and my character I was in. I was like, “I want to do this.” You can just tell dialogue that’s on another level. In terms of understanding the script, it wasn’t until the end. The thing just keeps changing and unraveling, but it was a page turner, like, “Where is this going?” It was very exciting and I did need to read it again and go, “Oh, my God, that’s what was going on there.” That’s the beauty of it, but I knew just from how well the dialogue was written, from that first big scene in it I was like, “I want to do this.”

CS: Were they any concerns about following George Clooney, who received an Oscar nomination from Tony’s last movie “Michael Clayton”?
Owen: No, because they’re completely different animals. I think that they’re very, very different movies, different kinds of movies really. I had no concerns at all about doing this movie. I jumped in and it was one of those rare scripts that you read where the minute I finished it I rang up the agent and I said, “This is the one. This is the one.” I had a huge appetite to do it because it’s rare to get dialogue as good as that on film. It was just a joy. Usually when I’m doing a movie I’ll make very specific notes through a script and they can be tiny little things, like just literally adjustments or a little thing that I think I need to look at. I read this script over and over again and hardly put a pen to paper. It was in such good shape. There was just no concern to me about doing it. I was very keen to do it.

CS: In the original script, was your character an MI6 agent and how did that get changed when you came on board?
Owen: I think they were pretty easy changes really. It didn’t take much to change that. It was quite a simple little adjustment from the original script. There was nothing fundamentally changed from these kinds of back story and where he came from really.

CS: How much corporate espionage did you do research on?
Owen: Tony did a lot and sort of sent me the odd article. He’d gotten the whole backdrop to it, but I always felt that the relationship was the most important thing in the movie really. I mean, it’s set in this world of corporate espionage and people mistrusting each other and people sort of running around and scamming each other, but the most important thing in it for me was that the two people in it were crazy about each other and yet they couldn’t trust each other.

CS: Was Julia Roberts involved when you got the script?
Owen: No. Tony asked me who my number one choice was and we both had Julia as our dream casting.

CS: She hadn’t worked in a while, so did you get involved in convincing her to come onto this?
Owen: Yeah, I did. I went and talked to her about it, but she was pregnant and so it wasn’t an issue. Amazingly, a little while later when she was ready to go back to work she read the script and met with Tony and called me up and said, “I think we should do it.”

CS: How long ago was it because I know he’s had the script for seven years?
Owen: It was like he literally gave it to me, we talked about Julia and then Julia was pregnant and it was probably, maybe nearly a year that we waited in hopes that she wanted to do it.

CS: What is it about her personality that makes you click so well with her because you’re great together?
Owen: I think we’ve got a very similar sense of humor, but also she’s incredibly smart, savvy and a funny person and I kind of enjoy her and I find it very easy. I did, too, from the earliest day of “Closer” really. We were put together on that and if you look at the material on “Closer” it was some really heavy stuff to have to do together and it would seem like that was a very serious film to do, but her and I had a real life doing it, believe it or not, outside of those scenes. I don’t know what it is. We just clicked and I find her just really easy to work with. I also think she really raises what I do as well. With material like this there’s absolutely no one better. There’s no one better to play material like this with because it’s super smart, it’s fast, it’s light on it’s feet. It needs to be sharp and incisive and she’s all of those things. She’s incredible deft at what she does.

CS: How does she make you act better?
Owen: Well, the hardest thing for any actor is to make it look really easy and she’s the queen of that, as far as I’m concerned. She makes it look like it’s the most natural thing in the world and believe me, that takes enormous skill and deftness to be able to do that. In a movie like this where it’s so dialogue-based and there’s a lot of it and it’s fast and light on it’s feet, it’s just a joy to play it with her because she’s so smart and she gets the rhythms and she delivers it and she’s deft with it. So I feel like it raises my game. I have to come up to her.

CS: The dialogue is very fast-paced, so was it hard to get a handle on that when you started?
Owen: I went back and watched, to be honest with you, films like “His Girl Friday” and old sort of ’40s films where people were talking really fast because there’s a lot of dialogue in this film and it needs to be deft and it needs to be quick and the rhythms need to be right and you need to be able to really drive the thing along. So it really helped going back and watching these old movies when people talked so fast. In “His Girl Friday” they talk at lightning speed. It’s unbelievable how fast they go. So I went back and watched movies like that and it meant that you had to be very on top of your game because there was no time for fudging it really. It had to be completely something you were on top of, the material, for it really to be working and sing properly.

CS: So we have to ask. What’s it like kissing Julia Roberts? Is she like a perfect ten or what?
Owen: (laughs) Look at those lips, man. Use your imagination. (laughs) It’s a given.

CS: Going back to the timing, what was Tony’s rehearsal process like?
Owen: We got together and we talked about it and we read the things through, but honestly, it didn’t take a lot of rehearsals, because the writing was so good. It’s like just don’t mess it up, honestly. There’s not much to talk about. He said to go through the script and if there were any notes to give him and he said he wasn’t precious about dialogue and that he didn’t mind changing dialogue. I had so little for him. It was a bit like, “Just don’t change it, please.” That’s all of what my notes were. “Just don’t change it.” The rhythms were fantastic and it’s a treat. It’s an art. There are very few writers out there that write great dialogue. It’s the truth. They can write great stories. They can write interesting characters, but ask them to write good dialogue and it’s very, very hard and there’s not many that can do it and this was just overflowing with dialogue that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on.

CS: Can you talk about being on set with the rest of this great ensemble?
Owen: Well, I thought that as in “Michael Clayton,” Tony is very brilliant in casting. He’s very careful and particular. I think that you’ll find that with a lot of really great directors that’s very important. Even people like the girl I talked about in that whole sequence with the accent, it was immaculate. She was a really fine actress and he just casts really impeccably. It’s hugely important because it’s the background of the movie really. It supports the whole thing. I’ve worked with Paul before because we did that crazy movie “Shoot ‘Em Up” together and he’s fantastic, a very brilliant actor.

CS: Were there any pranks played on this set by either you or Julia?
Owen: Not obvious pranks, but there were a lot of scenes, like we’re at our worst when we’re doing the most intimate stuff. There were many apologies to Tony. “Sorry, Tony. Just do it again. We promise we’ll keep our act together.” (laughs) We would do these very intimate shots that were supposed to be very sexy and steamy and Tony would be very sort of serious about it and we couldn’t not laugh really and Tony would just have to patiently wait for us to get it out of our system and we’d try again. So we’ve got a very similar sense of humor in that. I can’t remember any out and out obvious pranks, but there were a lot of laughs.

CS: Do you guys have a sarcastic humor or a dirty humor?
Owen: No, just funny. We take it all with a pinch of salt and we just make each other laugh at times when we’re not supposed to.

CS: What was your favorite scene in this film to shoot?
Owen: To be honest with you and it’s really true, in every film there are always a couple of scenes that you really look forward to that sort of stand out and you think, “I can’t wait to do that scene.” There’s either something that you want to explore or something that you want to do or it’s just a very well written scene. Every scene in this movie I looked forward to doing and each time I had done one I was like, “Wow, that was really good fun. I really enjoyed playing that. Oh, my God, we’ve got this one to come and that one to come.” The writing was really that good. I don’t know how many big scenes that we have together, but there was a number of them and they were all just really fun to play.

CS: Do you think that the characters in “Duplicity” are good, moral people? We find ourselves rooting for them even though they’re basically thieves.
Owen: I like them (laughs).

CS: I guess they could be worse. They’re not exactly murdering people.
Owen: Yeah, I mean, look, the movie is about con artists. It’s about people who do that thing well. That’s what the movie is about. It’s not about right and wrong really.

CS: Now you’ve shot scenes in the Guggenheim Museum (in “The International”) and now Grand Central. What New York City landmark do you want to tackle next?
Owen: We also shot on the streets of the West Village at night which was pretty lovely and the streets of Madison and 5th Avenue in the middle of the day. There’s a few more that I can think, but it’s fantastic doing a film like this in those iconic New York locations.

CS: Do you like shooting in New York or is it a hassle?
Owen: Oh, I love shooting in New York, yeah. There’s something very cool about shooting in New York. It’s one of my favorite cities anyway, but to be doing a film like this with Julia in these great locations around New York was a real treat.

CS: “The International” is a different movie but what were some of the challenges on this compared to that film?
Owen: I think it’s very different, but there was quite a time difference. Because they’re coming out together it looks like we did them back to back, but there was a huge gap. “The International” at one point was scheduled for a much earlier release and then it sort of got pushed into this slot.

CS: Did you do a couple other movies in between these two?
Owen: No, I think this was the next one, but I took four or five months out before doing it.

CS: “The International” didn’t do that well, unfortunately. Does something like that change the way you go about choosing movies?
Owen: It doesn’t change the way that I choose roles. It is disappointing. Of course, it’s disappointing, but it doesn’t change that I would choose the same films, again. That’s what I’m drawn to. It doesn’t change my opinion of the film and ultimately I’m not driven by wanting to be in films that are successful. I’m more driven by wanting to do films that are good and they often don’t go together.

CS: It’s unfortunate, but often when people see that a movie isn’t doing well, they automatically assume it’s not good.
Owen: It is, but with the lives of DVD and so on there’s more chance for people to discover films in that way, but I want to look back on my career at the end and be proud of the films that I’ve done rather than say, “I wasn’t crazy about that film and it made a lot of money.”

CS: Having made these great films and having been nominated for an Oscar, what do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?
Owen: The thing that I’m most proud of and excited about is just working with the directors that I’m working with. I’ve become very much about trying to find the great directors and in the last few years I’ve had some unbelievable opportunities from Mike Nichols to Alfonso and even though this is Tony Gilroy’s second film, I put him right up there. I thought that “Michael Clayton” was one of the most amazing debuts that I’d ever seen. It was so smart and assured from a first time director. It was hugely impressive and he was hugely impressive on this. I don’t know where it comes from, where someone gets that confidence from. To be standing with Robert Elswit who’s one of the most brilliant DP’s and say to him, “You know, Robert, I’m not sure about this. Lets do something like this” and to be so cool and confident and tasteful and right in his choices was hugely impressive. So I think the opportunity to work with these directors has been the thing that I’ve been most excited and proud about.

CS: Has there been any progress on the Phillip Marlowe project you’ve been developing for a while?
Owen: No, it’s such a thing to take on in a way that we’re still being very careful about. We’re still slowly getting the script together. It’s got to be right. There have been so many great versions of it that we just want to make sure that when we do it we do it justice and do it right. So it’s very much still in the early days.

CS: Can you talk about whether or not you’ll be back for “Sin City”?
Owen: I have no idea. It’s one of those things that was talked about from the first one. It’s one of those things that’s been on IMDb ever since we did the first one. I have no idea. Everyone else always knows more about it than I do. So I have no idea where that’s it.

CS: What about a sequel to “Inside Man”?
Owen: “Inside Man 2” there is a script, yeah. I’m friendly with Spike [Lee] and finally a script is due to be delivered very soon. Everyone is keen to do it if the script is good.

CS: You’ve done a lot of movies where you’re smooth and suave, even in “Inside Man” where you’re a crook, but you’re very likeable. Do you ever feel like doing a movie where you’re completely unlikeable?
Owen: I do, actually. It’s funny that you say that. I do fancy now and again something like that.

CS: You could be like an online journalist who nobody likes.
Owen: (laughs) No. I wouldn’t go that far. I want to work again. (laughter)

CS: In that case, do you put out feelers and try to get a script like that or do you just wait for something to come to you?
Owen: I tend to sort of take things as they come really and see what’s out there and what comes my way, but I’m always looking to keep it as varied as I can really. I mean, but like these two films, this one and “The International” are very different in tone. You’ve got one guy who’s a very moral guy and very rough around the edges and very obsessed and passionate about this thing whereas “Duplicity” is a very different character. He’s very sort of together, on top, smart, fast and slick character. I try to keep them as varied as I can.

CS: What kind of advice would you give to younger actors?
Owen: I can give you an example of the worst advice I was ever given, which was when I was very young. I came to America to do my first thing in America and just before the first day of shooting someone rang me up, someone who was involved in the project and said, “Just remember, Clive. It’s all about likeability. Think likable.” That’s probably the worst thing that I’ve ever heard about acting in my life.

CS: How would you feel about your kids following in your footsteps?
Owen: Well, (I) hope they don’t.

CS: What advice would you give them?
Owen: That’s a scary thought, if my girl was playing Juliet. No, they’re just getting to the age, my oldest now, where they’re just starting to do school plays. They’re just getting to that age. It’s too early to know what they’re going to do really. As long as they’re happy I don’t care.

CS: Are you going to watch their Romeos when they bring them home?
Owen: I’m dreading that whole thing that’s heading my way. It’s like a train that I’m pretending isn’t coming towards me.

CS: What do you like to do to unwind and relax?
Owen: Really, like the last thing I want to do is travel. It used to be like, “Lets all go on a holiday” in the downtime. Now I just so want to hang at home with the kids and just sort of have quiet downtime in that way. Unfortunately, because they’ve been at home and at school that they’re like, “Lets go somewhere!” I go, “Oh, great, another hotel.” (laughs)

CS: So you prefer to stay at home being a dad?
Owen: Oh, yeah. I value it more and more because I travel and spend so much time away.

CS: How was all the traveling for this?
Owen: Listen, Bahamas, Rome, New York. Those aren’t bad locations.

Interview with Julia Roberts

Duplicity opens nationwide on Friday, March 20.