Mayhem on Earth

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

In 2027 London, all women are infertile, illegal immigrants are everywhere, and urban terrorists roam the West End. What better movie to open on Christmas Day? But Clive Owen, who plays a cynical survivor in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, sunnily insists that it’s not as bleak a film as it may sound. (Hopeless for large stretches, but not bleak.) He spoke with us about futuristic Britain, New York, Julia Roberts, Robert Altman, and a certain revitalized spy franchise for which he did not become leading man.

After you were in Gosford Park, Robert Altman said that you don’t act, you just occur. What have you been thinking about him lately?
It’s just really sad. We talked pretty regularly. He was one of the true greats—nobody ever thinned him down.

Did you talk about future roles?
Yes, right until the end, he was still planning lots of projects.

No, I can’t really talk about it.

Then let’s talk about that first scene in Children of Men which is quite shocking. You walk into a café, then out, and it explodes behind you, as it might in Israel or Iraq.
You know, everyone goes into this film knowing it’s set in the future, but to start with a bomb going off like that, it immediately makes it very hard to distance yourself and say, “This is about a world I’m not involved with.”

What are your own fears about what the world might look like in twenty years?
Anybody with children knows that we’re living in very unstable times and our kids are gonna grow up just accepting that and being part of that. It’s a horrible feeling. Alfonso was always very clear that he was using the future as an excuse to address present-day worries and concerns.

Which explains the visual quotes of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo—all the suspected terrorists in holding pens.
For me, it’s always better to be in a film that’s about something. Immigration themes are very, very strong right from the word go. There are people in cages. The environment is filthy and disgusting. From our first meeting, Alfonso told me about how twenty years from now, hope ceases to be a pragmatic thing. The film is about how hope is reawakened.

So it’s a message movie, then?
It’s not a preachy film. It’s a political film. I think it’s a film that is actually full of humanity, which is odd considering a lot of people think it’s very bleak. I don’t find it to be a bleak thing at all.

Before you shot the movie, you and Cuarón holed up in New York to talk about it for a few weeks, right?
Around the time I was doing Inside Man, I stayed in his fantastic place on West 12th Street. New York is my favorite city in the world. If it wasn’t for the fact that I have two small kids, I’d probably be living there.

You’ve said New York’s more romantic than London.
It’s weird, but the first time you go to New York—I felt nostalgic. I felt I really knew it, I guess from old movies. For me, I come from a small Midlands town, and when I left that to come to London, I found it the most liberating thing. And New York did that for me again. It’s the biggest and best melting pot in the world, and you cannot insulate yourself. Though some of the best family days in my memory have been spent in New York, too.

What does one of those look like?
I remember a couple of years ago, I was shooting in New York and my family came out and they had jet lag. We were up at 5 a.m., so we walked around Soho as the sun came up. We went to Bubby’s for breakfast and jumped in a cab and caught a mid-morning Sesame Street show on Broadway and went skating in the park. It was the most glorious, long sort of family day. My kids love New York. They’re 10 and 8, but they find it fantastic.

Gwyneth Paltrow was quoted as saying that she finds dinner conversation in London superior to that in New York. Do you agree?
It depends what dinners you go to.

Will you work with Spike Lee again?
Putting Spike back on the map was the best thing about the success of that movie. He’s going to get to make loads more big movies. Spike already called me about another Inside Man.

But first you’ve got another film about children in peril, Shoot ’Em Up, which sounds like the bizarre opposite of Children of Men.
That’s exactly what it is. It’s the biggest un-p.c. body-count-type movie. Full pleasure and lots of guns.

Like a shoot-out during a sex scene?
The film starts with a shoot-out while a woman is giving birth. Then it’s me making love to Monica Bellucci and everyone bursts into the room and there’s this shoot-out while I stay in the sack.

So, not as politically motivated a movie as Cuarón’s. And does all this mean you’re done with theater?
No, no, not at all. I’m actually thinking about doing something.

You should do a play with David Mamet. He’s called you “the enigmatic impersonation of restraint.”
He’s incredible … I’d really love to do a play in New York.

Speaking of which, do Julia Roberts fans ever give you dirty looks on the street? I saw Julia way after the film [Closer], and she said, “One of the things that really pisses me off about Closer is that people seem to really enjoy you calling me a bum. If we found a script where all of you really abuse me, people would really enjoy it.” And it’s true. People come up to me and quote it!

For years, everyone’s been asking you about James Bond. Now that Daniel Craig is 007, here’s my theory: You knew all along you weren’t going to do Bond, you never wanted to do Bond, but you knew it wouldn’t hurt for people—especially studio execs—to think that you might, so you let the rumor linger. Am I right?
[Laughs] It’s your theory.

[Six seconds of chuckling] I’m very happy doing what I’m doing. The films I’ve done are very varied, and I’m very lucky.

I thought you might say that.

Mayhem on Earth