Intense preparation is the throughline in the ‘Monsieur Spade’ star’s eclectic filmography
January 17, 2024 at 5:00 a.m. EST
As Owen prepared for “Monsieur Spade,” the AMC limited series that premiered Sunday, he revisited Bogart’s filmography and fixated on intricacy rather than imitation. Appreciating the “economy” of Bogart’s unshowy performances, he studied the easy rhythm with which the Old Hollywood star delivered his rat-a-tat dialogue. Once filming began, Owen would center himself every day by listening to an audio file that isolated Bogart’s lines from “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca.” This groundwork led the actor to a crucial conclusion: He needed to lower Spade’s hard-boiled persona to a smoldering simmer.
“I am very rigorous,” Owen says of his preparation drill during a recent video chat from London. “That’s just the way I like to work. I hate being on projects where they’re shoving rewrites under the hotel door and saying, ‘Tomorrow we’ve changed the scene.’ I don’t function well in that environment. The more time I have to get ready, the better.”
That disciplined approach has helped Owen wield his magnetism as a silver-screen star, in such films as “Children of Men,” “Sin City” and “Inside Man,” and also transform himself with a character actor’s dexterity. While some of his finer supporting turns have come in recent miniseries, as President Bill Clinton in 2021’s “Impeachment: American Crime Story” and tech billionaire Andy Ronson in last fall’s “A Murder at the End of the World,” “Monsieur Spade” places the 59-year-old back atop the call sheet in a vintage leading man role.
In the 1963-set murder mystery, co-created by Scott Frank (“The Queen’s Gambit”) and Tom Fontana (“City on a Hill”), Owen inhabits an older Spade who has settled in the South of France when a small-town atrocity wrestles him out of retirement. Although the show embraces some of the potboiler trappings of its source — Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective novel — Frank and Fontana elevate the material with espionage thrills and international intrigue while weaving in the sociopolitical tensions of mid-century Europe.
As promised, Owen’s inscrutable Spade does a lot with a little — not so much uttering lines as letting them drip from his lips, drenched in dry wit — over six intricately plotted episodes.
“I think that there are movie stars and there are real actors, and sometimes they’re both,” says Frank, who directed and co-wrote the series. “Clive’s both because he can be a character actor and he can be a movie star. He can disappear. He can lead with this sort of specific physicality. He’s kind of an actor’s actor.”
If there is such thing as a prototypical Owen performance, it may be his Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning turn in 2004’s “Closer.” A sexually deviant dermatologist, his Larry is equal parts toxic and intoxicating while wooing and gaslighting the women in his life. Considering Owen broke out as a heartthrob in the British crime series “Chancer,” then swerved into playing an incestuous sibling in the 1991 film “Close My Eyes,” embodying such a collision of contradictions in “Closer” aptly encapsulated his unpredictable range.
“My career, all the way through, it’s very varied,” says Owen, who studied acting at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. “I think it’s probably because I trained in the theater, and my first impulse to get into acting was to play lots of different parts.”
Since returning to series television in 2014 as a cocaine-addicted surgeon in Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick,” Owen has become a regular on the prestige-TV circuit. In 2021, he starred opposite Julianne Moore as a beguiling fiction author in “Lisey’s Story.” When approached about portraying Clinton in “Impeachment,” he initially balked. (“I could not understand why they came to me, to be honest,” Owen recalls. “I was like: ‘Who thought of this? Why me?’ I didn’t get it.”) But after watching clips of the former president, he began to see himself in the role and ultimately delivered an uncanny evocation of Clinton’s idiosyncratic intonation.
“If you look at Sam Spade and you look at Bill Clinton or any of the other parts he’s played, the size of the role isn’t what matters,” Fontana says. “What matters is that the character has intricacies that a guy like Clive wants to play.”
While Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij were developing “A Murder at the End of the World,” a murder mystery laden with contemporary commentary on climate change, tech overreach and artificial intelligence, the duo deconstructed a slew of classic whodunits — the Owen-starring “Gosford Park” among them. As Marling recalls, the conversation around casting Ronson, the megalomaniac who invites some of the globe’s great thinkers to an Icelandic retreat, ended with the co-creators asking, “Is it just too wild and far out to try and see if Clive would want to do this?”
One spirited meeting later, Owen was ready to board the project. As production on the series unfolded, Marling says Owen came to the set and weekly Zoom meetings teeming with creative contributions that fleshed out the character — specifically, Ronson’s obsessive drive to succeed — in profound ways that she and Batmanglij had never considered.
“There’s a kind of actor that does such ferocious preparation that they’re not just showing up on set and making themselves emotionally available — they’re constructing an entire character and history and set of memories and a world,” says Marling, who also played Owen’s on-screen wife in the show. “Clive does that, and he does that in a way that’s hard to articulate. I just know that when you sit with him and go over a scene with him, he has thought through that scene with the same depth that it took you to write the scene.”
Frank and Fontana, meanwhile, say Owen was the only choice for their version of Spade. In their series, the widowed detective has relocated from his San Francisco stomping grounds to the French commune of Bozouls, stashing away his gun, trench coat and fedora while spending his days swimming at a vineyard-side estate.
As a former heavy smoker who quit long ago, Owen chuckles in recognition when discussing Spade’s struggle with giving up cigarettes. He likewise acknowledges drawing on his personal experience as the father of two daughters when Spade becomes a father figure to an orphaned girl (played by Cara Bossom). But attempt to dig deeper into such parallels and the engaging Owen will deftly, charmingly deflect.
Owen, like Spade, values his privacy. Although he’ll happily go on and on about classic cinema or his beloved Liverpool Football Club, he’s not inclined to share his personal life and actively eschews social media.
“It’s a totally different world from when I was younger, and I’m concerned for young people and social media and what it does,” Owen explains. “It’s just a world where people are totally being compared and generally feeling inferior.”
It speaks to his commitment to “Monsieur Spade” that when the production ran into issues with the owner of the home that was originally selected to be Spade’s estate, Owen agreed to let a scout examine his rental home as an alternative. Before Owen knew it, the house was locked in as the filming location for Spade’s French sanctuary.
“So we shot all the exteriors in the house he was actually living in during production,” Frank says. “Every day he would come on set and say: ‘How did I ever agree to this? One minute there’s one guy coming over and having a look, and the next minute every morning at 6 a.m. there’s 100 people out here eating bagels.’”
“We ruined Clive’s tranquility,” Fontana adds with a laugh. “So he was very able to play Sam being disturbed about his tranquility being broken. It was almost Strasberg Method acting for him at that point.”
It was just one more way into a character Owen relished playing with understated proficiency. As the actor adds another esteemed performance to his eclectic filmography, he posits that the key to his longevity is not much of a mystery after all.
“When I first started, for me, I wanted to be in it for the long game,” Owen says. “I didn’t want to burn out and do a few big TV shows and get overexposed. I realized very early on that the way to keep working is to be good. And to be good, it doesn’t necessarily have to be big. Just be good, and it will be found and it will be looked at, and that will make other people want to work with you.”
Tapping the wood-paneled wall behind him, he finishes the thought: “That has — touch wood — happened up to now.”