A strange dream woven out of twisted memories is being conjured up nightly on Broadway this fall, where British actor Clive Owen is starring in Harold Pinter's intimate incantation Old Times, alongside the stellar Eve Best and Kelly Reilly. At turns funny, disorienting, and disturbing, the taut, hour-long play explores sexual longing and unreliable memories shared by Deeley (Owen), his wife Kate (Reilly) and her friend Anna (Best) "from long ago." It's Owen's Broadway debut, and under Douglas Hodge's expert direction, he seems perfectly comfortable on stage in Pinter's deliberately uncomfortable world.
Fans of the film star's rakish charm and blistering intensity will want to hustle over to 42nd Street ASAP—the Roundabout Theatre Company production ends November 29th. We caught up with Owen last week to talk about the play and his career in general.
What interested you about Old Times and what do you think Pinter is doing with this play? It's my first play in 14 years. It took me a long time to say yes. I was sent the play; I didn't know the play, I hadn't seen the play. I read it and I was very taken with it. I kept it close to me for a very long time and every time I dipped into it it kind of gripped me. Every single time; it never waned. I would read [the character] Deeley's dialogue and I just thought it was really fantastic dialogue. It just sort of wound a spell on me and I couldn't let it go.
In the end I thought I would just love to get a hold on this language, it's such great language. The play was baffling when I first read it. I was trying to put a linear narrative to it and I realized after a while there just isn't one. I refer to it as performing a poem. It feels there's a clarity as you move your way through it but as you try to put a whole narrative over the whole piece it doesn't work in that way. But there seems to be a clarity in the thing as you're moving through it.
To me, it seems to be a play about two things: about sex with jealousy, about how we feel about previous sexual partners or a partner. It's also about how you remember things and the fact that if you remember things that happened 20 years ago a group of however many people, three people in this case, but sometimes more or two people, would have a very different take on what happened depending on how they perceived what happened at that time. Where they were at, what they were feeling, what they were thinking. You kind of shape memories over time to suit what you want them to be in a weird way. This play feels at times a battle to claim our own version of the past.
It reminded me of an experience I had a while back where I thought I was remembering something that happened to me as a kid but then I realized it was a dream that I'd had. I know people who remember things and as is alluded to in the play, remember it didn't actually happen to them. Or they take someone else's memory.
Has it been difficult for you getting back to live theater and performing night after night? Yeah, it was very scary. The reality is it has been a long time and you don't know if you go back out there until you actually do it. I started in the theater, I loved it, but I didn't take it for granted that it would be smooth and easy going back up there. I didn't know what it was going to feel like, how I was going to be within that. I was very excited to be doing it, but very nervous all the time as well. It wasn't until we got the thing up and running and open I started to really properly relax and enjoy it. Now I'm really loving it and I wouldn't have that fear if another play came to me now. I'd have my own fears about my own ability to do it but not about going back on stage. I've gotten through that.
Are there any other plays that are at the top of your list? I've never had that really. One of the things that's become super apparent with this play—the whole fear when you do theater is that you get into a certain rhythm of things and the repetition of doing the same thing every night. The beauty of this play, and what makes me feel really glad of the choice to do this play, is that it's never the same. It's really never the same. And I'm blessed to be working with two really strong actresses who, all three of us, really challenge each other and we flick things out in a different way to see what it provokes all the time.
We go out there and, because it's all three of us on stage the entire hour, we can just jump off and see where it goes. The tone of the play can really shift. Obviously it's also how it's received. Straight away some people love the humor of it, love the strangeness of it and you can serve the humor a little bit and let the strangeness of the piece come out through that. Other times it's very serious and very tough and vicious very quickly.
Do you do anything before the performance to prepare? Do you have any established habits or rituals? No, I mean I always get there and I do a good 15-minute vocal, physical warm-up, get out there in the theater and get used to the space again; warm myself up a little bit. Nothing more than that really.
Who do you think is more intense, Soderbergh or Pinter? [Laughs] That's a good question. I think Pinter might be a little more angry.
Did you ever meet Pinter? I didn't actually, no. I have been asked over the years a few times to do some of his plays, but I never have.
Is The Knick in production now? We've done the two seasons and we're all talking about where to go possibly in the future. It's all a little up in the air at the moment.
So when you're done with this you'll be done with New York for the time being? You'll go back to England? Yeah. For a while. I spent a lot of time here because we shot The Knick here so I'll go back to London for a while.
Do you like NYC? I always felt with New York, since the first time I came here, it's the world's best melting pot. I came from a small town and when I went to London I felt very liberated. I loved being in a big city and a more accepting, more cosmopolitan place. A place that was more mixed and that was a melting pot. I feel like New York is the world's version of that.
Obviously that's changed enormously and you need a lot of money to be in New York and that's a sad truth, but still I would argue that it attracts people—it's an incredibly accepting place. My kids have been visiting for years now because I work here and they always come away thinking it's so cool. People aren't judged, people can be anything, people can do anything. It's accepting; it genuinely is. There isn't an element where people are judged for the way they look or the way they behave. It's always had that feeling. That's what I love the most about it.
Clive Owen, Eve Best, and Kelly Reilly in the Roundabout Theatre's production of Harold Pinter's "Old Times." (Joan Marcus)
Children of Men is one of my favorite movies. I've watched it like 30 times. It's so great. Do you have fond memories of working on that film? Is it one that you put up there in your filmography as one that you're proud of? Sure. It was a tough shoot but I had the best time with [director] Alfonso [Cuarón]. He's a great guy, a visionary director. It was a wildly ambitious film. It's a film many people come up to me and hold really dearly. It's scarily prescient really when you look at what's going on. Really that film is a very smart way of Alfonso discussing issues that are very relevant to what's going on right now as opposed to a future. Yes, it was set slightly in the future but all of the subject matter of the film were big concerns at the time. Some of them got much bigger in the ten years since we made it.
So many great stories are being produced for streaming TV platforms like Netflix, etc. Do you find that you're seeing more interesting projects that are being produced for "television" as opposed to movies? Not particularly, not personally. The Knick came out of nowhere, really. I have no TV in front of me. That just came from Steven [Soderbergh]. To be honest with you, when we were shooting it, it never felt like TV because you shot it like a 10-hour movie.
What [Soderbergh] was attracted to and what people are attracted to and why it seems to be such a good age of TV at the moment, is that you can deal with subject matters that would be hard to wrap up in a 90-minute format and sell out there in the commercial film market. You can dig deep; you can win over people's loyalty. The one thing about The Knick that I thought was the strongest thing is it was so visceral and out there, but by the end of the first season, we had taken it to such a place. It was so exciting going into season two knowing we already put all of that groundwork in. It felt like now we can really push, now we can really go to places and discuss things with themes because all of the setting up has been done. There's something really fulfilling and satisfying about not doing things quickly and neatly.
Did you ever get nauseated at some of the more extreme procedures that are depicted in The Knick? Not really, no. Those days were always the toughest days logistically so in some ways it was also practical. Yes, it was all there, there was blood and people's intestines were being pulled around. But those days you have to get in there and work out how you're going to do the operations, how you're going to relate to each other, how you're going to engage this surgical theater audience over there. The rhythms that were set early on with the operation kind of dictated the dialogue. There was so much focus very quickly in the early part of those days because you were going to set the template for what was coming. I'm never really very squeamish.
Do your kids get grossed out watching it? Yeah. But it tickles me sometimes when I see some of the stuff we've done. When we watched the first episode at a press screening it was like watching some kind of pantomime. The room was going like "Oohhh, ahhhh!" And Steve and I sat there knowing that there's much worse to come; they've seen nothing yet.
I think you probably get asked this a lot, but I'm going to ask you again. Every time I watch Daniel Craig as James Bond I wish it was you. Would you consider being Bond? I'm way too old.
What's your favorite film you've been in? Usually I say the one I'm doing now or next and that often is the case. But there have been some key films in my career. Croupier is very close to me because it really opened things up for me and to some extent changed the course of my career. Closer is very close to me because I did the original play. I loved the part, loved the material and got the gift of playing one part in the original stage production and another part in the film. And Children of Men; I just adore Alfonso so much.
Is there any director you haven't worked with who you would really walk over hot coals to work with? I think Paul Thomas Anderson is pretty amazing. I would love to work with Jacques Audiard. They're the first two I would think of.