The publicity machine helping actor Clive Owen promote his new film "Derailed" did him no favor by dispatching him to this dowdy hotel suite in midtown Manhattan, where he will sit for an interview. So much of this promo business is about image, glamour and a faux intimacy extruded from a one-hour encounter. Decorated in dull shades of gold and green, it must surely be the dreariest room in all the "luxury" hotels in all of Manhattan.
The room is weirdly underfurnished, and one can't help but scan the carpeting looking for the telltale hyperpigmentation that indicates a dresser or a sidebar has been surreptitiously removed. A sofa and an armchair are positioned in a conversational cluster. In between them sits a coffee table decorated with tiny orchids in a small square pot -- so bleak, so FTD -- and a large pumpkin-shaped cookie wrapped in cellophane. It is Halloween weekend, but still, this last flourish is so strangely incongruous with everything else in the room that it is inspected for bite marks, as it looks like something left behind by the previous occupant.
It is into this woebegone atmosphere that Owen gamely walks.
The 41-year-old British actor wears a black Giorgio Armani suit that was selected, he says, without any aid. Owen is tall -- over six feet -- dark-haired and handsome. He is not a pretty boy in that glossy (but creepy) Hollywood way. He is not one of those wee gentlemen with an extra large head, Chiclet teeth, a spray-on tan and clothes that look as though they've been self-consciously rumpled by a stylist on retainer. Owen is attractive in a noticeable, but not distracting, way. One can imagine spotting him at a friend's party and thinking, "Wow, that guy is really good-looking." And then heading off to the bar.
If this were a fan magazine, the next paragraph would exclaim how Owen lit up this dismal room upon his arrival. But he did not! Instead, he's just a handsome man with a firm handshake who'd like some tea before he begins talking about his day job.
What is Clive Owen like? This question is raised upfront because he is one of those actors who are the subject of Internet message boards headlined: "Is Clive a nice guy?" From what can be discerned over the course of one conversation, he seems to be a pleasant man with a professional attitude about his press duties. One suspects that he can be charming, but he does not go about it in the manner of a golden retriever seeking approval.
Owen stars in "Derailed" alongside Jennifer Aniston, whose recent divorce from actor Brad Pitt had pop culture crazies taking sides as if they had a personal stake in the size of her settlement. (So what if Brad is an amateur architect -- Jennifer deserves the house!)
In the allotted time, Owen was thoughtful in discussing the film, described Aniston in pleasant terms and refrained from doing anything weirdly narcissistic, embarrassing or obnoxious that could be detailed herein and then attributed by him at a later date to a gross media exaggeration. He did not cry. He occasionally laughed.
In the film, the first from Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein since their split from Disney, Owen plays married advertising executive Charles Schine. His marriage has gone stagnant, in part because he and his wife have focused all their emotional energy on their young daughter, who is chronically ill.
Aniston plays Lucinda Harris, a fellow Chicago commuter, also married, who Schine meets on the train. She is the mysterious woman in the power clothes -- her hair brushed into a French twist and her long legs in black nylons and stilettos calling out to every sucker in gray-flannel Brooks Brothers. A good Samaritan gesture on her part -- she pays Schine's fare when he forgets to bring cash for the train -- leads to a conversation, to drinks, a kiss and finally a cheap hotel room. A robber interrupts before the consummation of their affair and in that moment, the movie transforms from a tale of infidelity into a thriller dominated by thugs, blackmail and embezzlement.
Owen plays the family man who makes a deadly mistake. He is the dupe for whom bad judgment is like a nervous tic -- the guy who causes the audience to yell, "Don't open the door!"
"I was very keen on playing a victim," Owen says. "In every scene, you play a character under an incredible amount of stress." It is a role that requires a different kind of energy -- more controlled, more stifled -- than a character who's moving the story forward. And it is a long way from the personality of Larry, the sex-addicted, brutish doctor Owen played in "Closer" (for which he won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination). Schine spends much of his time speaking furtively into a cell phone, his brow furrowed, and his face -- once so animated with naughty, adolescent lust -- turned into a mask of regret.
"It's a reactive part. He's reacting to the things happening to him and one of the considerations and concerns is you don't condemn him for that," he says. "Otherwise you think he's getting his just deserts."
There are moments when you want to grab this character by the collar and urge him to calm down. To think clearly. "If Charles Schine looks like he's a cool, confident character in the beginning, you'll go, 'Oh, you got yourself into this.' But what we see in the beginning is this naive, ordinary guy," Owen says. "He's a fallible, flawed human being. There's a real naivete to him."
And in the tradition of "Fatal Attraction," the audience has to like an adulterer -- or at least have sympathy for him. "You can't be too judgmental," Owen says.
Actors are often asked what draws them to a role and Owen's answer is a familiar one. He found the script compelling and believable and he was intrigued by the director. (But he also admits to the reality that sometimes an actor has just got to pay the bills, although that was not the case this time.) "Derailed" is the first English-language feature from the Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom, whose movie "Evil" was nominated in 2004 for an Academy Award for best foreign-language film.
"It was quite a complex study of a kid navigating through school while being bullied," Owen says. Hafstrom "took the time to make sure it wasn't simple and bombastic."
Owen was betting the director would apply the same restraint to "Derailed." He admires the quiet way in which the daughter's illness, for example, is portrayed. "You could make that really schmaltzy; you could really milk it," Owen says. "But this is what it's like living with something like that. You're not on the verge of tears every day."
Some people say a good director takes the time to talk to the actors, but Owen says the real key is simply being "smart."
"Not smart in a director way, but smart about human beings," he says, in a manner that suggests he has encountered an awful lot of directors who fail to realize that actors are people, too.
And what makes a great actor? "I think it was James Cagney who said: 'I learn the lines. I show up. And I tell the truth.' "
Owen, who was born in Coventry, England, first dabbled in acting as teenager, playing the role of the Artful Dodger in a youth theater production of "Oliver." Once he decided to pursue acting as a career, he headed to drama school -- a common path in England.
"Most people went to drama school," Owen says. Students learn discipline, but mostly "it plugs you in. I was a working class kid from Coventry. What did I know about acting?"
While his most widely acclaimed film role has been in "Closer," he has also had roles in "Gosford Park," "The Bourne Identity," "Croupier" and "Sin City." He was a much-discussed possible heir to the James Bond dynasty. He would have replaced Pierce Brosnan, but the role went to actor Daniel Craig -- a blond Bond. Owen was also the mysterious driver in a series of elaborate BMW commercials.
But his first encounter with fanzine fame was sparked by his role in the British television show "Chancer." It was the sort of blockbuster television phenomenon that made him a household name, remunerated him generously and . . . transformed him into paparazzi bait. When another offer of a television show threatened to heighten -- and prolong -- his small screen fame, Owen opted out. He focused on a series of intimate theatrical productions.
"I didn't want to turn into prime-time TV fodder, for everyone to get used to what I do. I want my career to be a long-term thing. I never want to be in a position as an actor with something to protect. And when you get to a certain level, you've got something to protect. Some things become too dangerous."
Owen is talking specifically about his professional accomplishments, but he also is alluding to the loss of privacy that goes along with fame. During the height of his TV success, he says, paparazzi were a constant intrusion. Actors often make a Faustian bargain with the media. Some feel the full assault of celebrity shutterbugs simply by doing their job. But others engage in a risky dance, inviting media coverage of personal milestones, welcoming photographers into their home and then suddenly realizing that their guests have no intention of leaving.
Owen, who is married to Sarah-Jane Fenton, an actress, and has two young children, lives in London and is proud of the fact that his life now is fairly normal.
"I can go into any pub and sit in a corner and have a drink," he says. But he also recognizes that he can't have it both ways when it comes to his private life. So he refrains, for instance, from taking his children to public events, knowing that later on he won't be able to protect them from prying telephoto lenses at a local coffee shop. Instead of taking his own children to a "Harry Potter" premiere, for example, he extended an invitation to the children of his friends.
Of course, his co-star Aniston is catnip to photographers. She has handled the prying cameras, he says, with aplomb. (What else, really, could a polite person say?)
Owen is almost finished with this press encounter. He's leaning back in his chair now with one arm resting casually behind his head. There is a large watch on his wrist but he resisted any urge to look at it as he was making himself comfortable. He reiterates his early fascination with this guy who is "trying to do the right thing but everything is going from bad to worse."
He's looking forward to relaxing before the film's premiere later that day. (He's planning to wear Armani.) But then the publicity machine informs him of another interview -- a short one, just 15 minutes or so. His shoulders slump a little. His eyes are not twinkling. There is no glint in them. He is not all Hollywood noblesse oblige. But he regains his posture. And prepares to be professional.