Mr. Owen Spreads His WIngs
Few actors have conquered the three major entertainment mediums with such panache and versatility as the ruggedly handsome 53-year-old British star Clive Owen. His London stage work has ranged from such seminal plays as “Design for Living” and “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.” In 2015, he starred in the Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” (which was also Owen’s Broadway debut). His films have varied from such prestige projects as “Gosford Park” and “Closer” (the latter earned him an Oscar nomination) to more commercial movies such as the recent “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” Elsewhere, TV audiences and critics alike have applauded his work in the HBO movie “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” where he portrayed Ernest Hemingway, as well as the highly praised Cinemax series “The Knick.”
Owen, who grew up in a working-class town in Coventry, England, now lives in London with his wife, Sarah-Jane Fenton, and their two daughters, Hannah and Eve, has returned to New York to take on one of the stage’s most complex roles: Rene Gallimard, a diplomat who embarks on a very unusual love affair, in the Broadway revival of David Henry Hwang’s award-winning 1988 play, “M. Butterfly” at the Cort Theatre. IN New York recently spoke to Owen about the play and returning to the city across the pond.
What made you decide to do “M. Butterfly” at this point in your life?
I didn’t know the play before I got the script, and as soon as I read it, I loved the writing. I was also happy that everyone involved seemed just as excited about the project as me, and it was great that David was willing to do some rewriting. This script is going to be a bit more about the two real-life people the play is based on.
Did you have the same initial reaction that many people do about their relationship?
Of course, one immediately thinks, “How could Rene not know what was going on?” But what I find so fascinating about the play is that it is ultimately about two people who create a world for themselves that works for them, and then the real world comes in to ruin it. At the end of the day, every couple creates their own world that works for them. So, yes, their relationship is a fascinating extreme, but ultimately, I also think, what’s the big deal?
You never saw the play, but did you ever watch the movie?
I have to admit I did watch the film after I was cast. I was curious what Jeremy Irons did with my role. But I hesitated, because I am a very instinctive actor, so if I don’t know the piece at all, it’s very freeing when I have no strong memory or influence to affect me.
This is your second revival on Broadway. Do you prefer doing established plays?
Not necessarily, but I am hugely excited by the idea that I can bring this particular show to new people. It’s actually quite striking how the work has evolved over the years, yet it feels as fascinating now as it did then. The whole idea of gender has changed so much over the past three decades, so to speak to people about this subject now, the work has to be more refined. In many ways, the play is much more in a gray area in our current climate than it was in the 1980s, and that was a huge attraction for me.
So much of the success of the play depends on the chemistry between you and your co-star. Were you involved in the casting of Jin Ha?
I was consulted as casting went on. I saw his audition and was really impressed. Jin is not out very long from NYU [New York University], but he has such sensitivity and strength. And you’re right, the chemistry is hugely important; these are very complex roles in this very tragic love story. Gallimard has to fall in love quickly, but then the balance of strength changes between them. I think having a young actor like Jin lead you can be thrilling.
What’s it like working with your director, Julie Taymor?
Having Julie at the helm was a big part of my decision to do this play. I am a director’s actor, which means I like to be directed, and Julie does that. She is ferociously smart and specific about the acting choices she wants. On the other hand, the play has to have an exciting visual aspect; we have to change worlds quickly and dramatically, and no one does that better than her. Still, if the core relationship isn’t affecting, there’s nothing onstage really worth watching, and she gets that. We are in great hands!
You’ve been alternating stage, television and film work in recent years. How do they differ for you?
First, I don’t think I would have done this play if I hadn’t done “Old Times” two years ago, which allowed me to get over my long absence from the stage. As it happened, I couldn’t do that play as soon as I wanted to, but that gave me enough time to sit with the play and really think about it. I think it’s such a delicate piece that I needed time to calibrate my choices. With stage, it’s always good that I couldn’t—and can’t—make quick decisions. Film and TV don’t always work that way.
Would you ever consider doing another TV series?
It would be hard to top “The Knick” and working with Steven Soderbergh. I was spoiled. That was not a normal experience. But for the right project, absolutely! I love the scope of traveling with one character for that length of time.
Are you excited about being back in New York this fall?
I am very excited. I’ve worked in New York more than any other place other than England, and I love that I can spend a long time here, leave, and then come back and it feels like home. This time, I am staying in the East Village, which has a very different vibe from other parts of Downtown and Midtown. It’s been fun finding new go-to spots. But, ultimately, it’s all about the work.
Do you have firm plans after “M. Butterfly” closes?
Yes, rest! I think I’ll need to sleep for a while and take it easy, but otherwise I haven’t really thought about what comes next!