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.