Clive Owen Opens Up About His Surprising New Thriller, ‘Shadow Dancer’

In director James Marsh’s latest film, Shadow Dancer, Clive Owen plays Mac, an MI5 agent who is in charge of interrogating Collette McVeigh, (played by a fiercely luminous Andrea Riseborough) the daughter of a tightly-knit IRA family from civil war-torn Belfast. While traveling to England, she places a bomb in a London tube station. What ensues is a tense, quietly resonant political thriller, and Owen’s Mac is someone whose word is all he has left in the world. It’s a terrific, taut performance, and co-stars Riseborough and Gillian Anderson, and the largely Irish supporting cast round out this slow-burning thriller. Here, Clive Owen–a real movie star by any definition–discusses what it was like working with  Marsh, (known for his award-winning documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim), his own dedication to the project, and the delicate politics portrayed in Shadow Dancer.

What preparation did you do for the role of Mac in Shadow Dancer, and how aware were you of the IRA conflict’s history?
I didn’t get a chance to do that much research, because I was coming off the Hemingway project (HBO’s Hemingway and Gellhorn, starring Nicole Kidman) and I was really tired, and I wasn’t going to work at all for awhile.

And then I was sent the script, and James Marsh’s name came attached with it. I loved Man on Wire. And I really fell in love with this script.  It’s one of those rare scripts that was really ready to go.

 So, I went straight from that set onto to his set. In terms of the IRA, yes, I do remember it. If you grow up in the UK, the whole threat of the IRA was ever-present, really. It was always on the news. It was always in the air. It was the danger of it.

How did James Marsh’s experience as a documentary filmmaker affect his directing process?
Oh, it was a big plus for me. Documentary filmmakers are always after something truthful. It’s a huge reason for me doing it. He’s not interested in manipulating an audience, or doing anything fake.

Is there a particular type of character you enjoy playing? 
I remember way back when I first got to LA, people asking me if I played “goodies” or “baddies” And I remember saying, “I really don’t look at it like that!” I meant it. I’ve never played any character that I pre-judged. One of the strengths of this script is that it wasn’t judgmental; it wasn’t clear cut. People are not just good or just bad. It was a complex time, and these characters are complex people.

When I look at my career, it’s just been led by material and by director. I’m sure it’s the fact that I started out in the theater, and I wanted to play different parts. That’s why you go into the theater in the first place, not to keep repeating the same thing. And for me, that’s one of the joys of doing it.

Does your character actually fall in love with Collette, his informant, during the course of the film?
I don’t think he falls in love with her, no…I think he has empathy for her. Every character in the movie is struggling.  The scene with that strange, furtive kiss, surprised me…And it’s rare when you read a script like that, where you get to a scene and go, “gosh, that’s really….” It was a furtive, kind of lunge from her for some kind of contact.  I think it surprises them both, and confuses them both. And I love that it sort of rears up. It’s not dealt with in a corny way.  It’s very real, human. Surprising.

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‘Project Nim”s James Marsh on His Most Influential Documentary Filmmakers

In 2008, James Marsh joined a rarified field of filmmakers, when he became an Oscar winner for his documentary Man on Wire, about Philippe Petit’s magical walk between the Twin Towers. Now, when Marsh makes a documentary, it’s our job to pay attention. Hence, Project Nim, a film (out today) that explores the troubled life of Nim Chimsky, a chimpanzee raised since infancy as a human in order to better understand primate language acquisition and test the nature vs. nurture debate. We recently sat down with the filmmaker—who’s also no stranger to dramas—and got him to tell us his own favorite documentary filmmakers.

Which documentary films and filmmakers have had the greatest impact on your own work? The film, Man With a Movie Camera, was a very important film I saw when I was younger. It’s a kind of symphony of images, basically observational images of the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, a big, noisy piece of cinema that is extraordinary and was a revelation for me when I saw it.

The early works of Errol Morris are very important; Thin Blue Line in particular is a brilliantly achieved technical film. It was so cinematic, you could sit and watch that film in the theatre and enjoy its cinema and its visual poetry, and that is something that I think documentaries need. It showed that you could actually make a movie out of a documentary.

I really like Frederic Wiseman’s films, which are very different from what I do and very different from those other two films I mentioned. The rhythm in his films is amazing. He’s another filmmaker that I really admire. Peter Greenaway’s documentary films are also very important to me, they are inventive and playful and have no real rules attached them. In particular the short film 26 Bathrooms and another called Acts of God about people who are hit by lighting. He takes these really unlikely subjects and makes visual essays out of them. These were very important to me when I was younger.

Another influential film for me was Peter Watkins’ The War Game. It’s basically a fictional documentary that imagines what would happen if a nuclear bomb went off in London. I was fortunate to grow up in a country where documentaries have a big presence on television and a lot of very experimental work was done with that genre.

Summer Movie Reviews: ‘The Trip,’ ‘The Devil’s Double’ & ‘Project Nim’

The Myth of the American Sleepover David Robert Mitchell’s directorial debut begins when Maggie (Claire Sloma), one of the film’s four teenage leads, decides to skip an end-of-summer sleepover party to chase after an older boy she likes. The camera then cuts to Rob (Marlon Morton), who’s looking for a girl he saw in a grocery store earlier that day, and then to Claudia (Amanda Bauer), who’s taken Maggie’s place at the all-girl soiree. Finally, it settles on Scott (Brett Jacobsen), a high school senior whose recent breakup has him contemplating the meaning of life. Nothing really happens in the film: there are no moral lessons, no life-altering revelations. There is, however, something familiar about the group’s adolescent vulnerability, which can be felt in the actors’ clumsy, monotonic delivery. Mitchell hired real kids instead of pros, and it shows. Whereas John Hughes understood that high school was still recognizable under a Hollywood shellac, Mitchell knows that you don’t need good lighting or a Glee star to create something authentically emotional. —Cayte Grieve

Project Nim In Project Nim, Academy Award–winning filmmaker James Marsh (Man on Wire) turns his camera on Columbia University in the 1970s, when an animal language research group tried to close the book on the nature-versus-nurture debate. Marsh’s exposition-heavy documentary introduces audiences to an infant chimpanzee named Nim Chimsky, the subject of what amounts to a real-life version of The Truman Show. We witness a diapered Nim curiously exploring the complex human world—and his caretakers’ optimism about his initial linguistic progress. As the years pass, however, disagreements within the group proliferate in tandem with now-adolescent Nim’s increasingly unpredictable and violent behavior, which eventually forces the project’s premature termination and Nim’s return to the primitive cages where he was born. Project Nim is an important testimony to the often cruel cost of science, and a telling reminder that chimps and humans aren’t so different after all. —Rory Gunderson

The Trip In this gorgeously shot but otherwise spartan comedy, director Michael Winterbottom sends his two leads, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon—playing exaggerated versions of themselves—on a road trip through picturesque northern England. Coogan has agreed to review a half-dozen upscale restaurants for The Observer, an assignment he initially took to impress his foodie girlfriend. But when she abruptly returns to America, he reluctantly invites his actor friend (Brydon) to take her place. Coogan plays a frustrated thespian entering midlife, hoping to land more meaningful roles while easing his pain with weed and women. Brydon is an able foil as the somewhat annoying friend—happy family, successful career—who becomes more likable as his unwavering optimism infects his recalcitrant partner. Over the course of 100 minutes—culled from a six-part BBC series—the duo exchanges insults, compares impersonations (their Michael Caine battle was a minor YouTube hit last year), and samples some of the finest cuisine ever prepared in the British Isles. It’s a buddy comedy, a road movie, and food porn all rolled into one. —Victor Ozols

The Devil’s Double An unfortunate resemblance to Saddam Hussein’s eldest son, Uday (Dominic Cooper), forces Iraqi army lieutenant Latif Yahia (also Dominic Cooper) to serve as the loathed progeny’s body double in Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double. Under looming threats to his family’s safety, Yahia consents to plastic surgery, dental work, and a wardrobe makeover that casts him as Saddam’s “third son,” a carbon copy of Uday, a coke-snorting sadist with a murderous temper and a habit of preying on underage girls. A respectable and level-headed man who first told his real-life story in a 2003 memoir, Latif’s is the only voice of reason in an otherwise trigger-happy, amoral world. —Nadeska Alexis