Clive Owen Says David Bowie ‘Has More to Do With Me Being an Actor’ Than Anyone Else: ‘He Showed Me You Can Create Worlds’

Clive Owen has not forgotten his roots. Growing up in a working-class family in Coventry in the 1970s U.K., he yearned to explore different roles in life — and the youth wing of the city’s civic Belgrade Theatre gave him that opportunity.

More than four decades later, Owen — who most recently appeared in “Monsieur Spade” as an aging Sam Spade drawn back into the game to solve a post-World War II murder mystery in the south of France — credits that experience as the foundation for his career.

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“That is where it all started for me — joining the youth theater was a life changer for me,” he tells Variety at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, where he received the President’s Award Saturday night. “The city is still a very tough one, and places like the youth theater are a lifeline for kids like me to discover the arts and do something.”

Owen wanted to play as many parts as possible, to be “challenged, to be scared, to be kept alive,” he says. And those are still the essentials of acting that keep him going today.

“I went back to the theater recently to do a talk,”

“I wanted to tell the kids there that it is possible [to have a career as an actor],” he says. “Places like that youth theater are essential in impoverished cities. We need to finance those things.”

The other great influence in a career that has spanned the stage (he played Dan in the London National Theatre production of Patrick Marber’s “Closer” in 1997) and film – including Mike Nichols’ screen version of the play in 2004, where he played Larry — is David Bowie.

“Bowie probably has more to do with me being an actor than any actors. He showed me that you can create worlds,” he says. “My imagination was fired — that was the beginning of going into acting. It was Bowie that provoked my understanding of the art.”

Although his love of Humphrey Bogart was instrumental in accepting director Scott Frank’s offer to play Spade, Owen says he would never attempt any artistic interpretation of Bowie because his genius is inimitable. However, he has still taken on a rich variety of roles that range from playing former U.S. president Bill Clinton in “Impeachment: American Crime Story” in 2021, and Ernest Hemingway in Philip Kaufmann’s television film “Hemingway and Gellhorn” (opposite Nicole Kidman) in 2012.

He also has an attention to detail that he credits to working with the late British character actor Peter Vaughan on British TV series “Chancer” 30 years ago.

“Vaughan was always very prepared, concentrated,” he says. “He really taught me about how — in film or TV acting — it is all about conservation of energy and being ready when you are needed. You only really get a few minutes each day where you are going have to deliver. It is all around being ready for that moment.”

It was a great lesson for later in his career, when he worked with Stephen Soderbergh – who was also a guest at this year’s KVIFF – on the two-season television series “The Knick” in 2014-2015.

“Soderbergh does so few takes. He is incredibly economical,” he says. “It took me a little while to learn that he shoots in the order of the edit. Rehearses. Shoots it like that. He gets in a car when he wraps and edits, and by 10 p.m. you have the finished scene.”

He adds, “Soderbergh raises everybody’s game. He is very quietly demanding. You have to come prepared. No monitors. No places to sit down. You walk onto that set it is hushed tone and everybody is clear: we are here for this. That, for me, is heaven.”

In the transient world of screen and TV acting, he has met many of his fellow thespians, but says most of his enduring friendships have been forged with directors, including Soderbergh and Spike Lee.

When Spike Lee asked him to be in “Inside Job,” a film where the script demanded his bank robber character wear a mask at all times, he was unsure. But after being invited to a basketball game by Lee in New York – during which nothing was said about the role – the director finally asked the question as Owen’s driver dropped Lee home.

“He asked, ‘Are you in?’” Owen recalls. “After such an evening at the basketball, I could only say, ‘Yes.’”

Owen is tight-lipped about upcoming projects, saying that there are a couple that are not quite over the line yet — but it is a safe bet that audiences won’t have to wait long to see him again on the big or small screen.

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