British actor Clive Owen is known for his roles in thrillers such as “Killer Elite,” the dystopian “Children of Men” and Spike Lee’s heist drama “Inside Man.” But for his latest film, he goes into academia.
In “Words and Pictures,” Owen plays a poet turned prep school English teacher. His job is in jeopardy: he drinks too much and his teaching has become lackluster.
But a new art teacher, played by Juliette Binoche energizes his life as the two become engaged in a school-wide debate of words versus pictures and fall in love along the way.
Clive Owen discusses the film and how he chooses his roles, with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.
Interview Highlights: Clive Owen
On his “Words and Pictures” character, Jack Marcus
“He has a drinking problem, yeah, and you see that straight away. At the beginning of the film, he’s very kind of jaded. He’s been at the school for a long time and everything’s gone a little flat, and you see him teaching and it’s not particularly inspired, and the kids aren’t particularly inspired. And then, Juliette Binoche plays a character that comes into the school, who’s an art teacher who’s struggling with her own problems, but she comes in and says very clearly to them that language is much less important than the visual arts, and it kind of wakes him up. It annoys him, it angers him but it also galvanizes him, and he kind of reawakens, you know, the passion that he had before and sort of passes that on to the students.”
On his own feelings about “words vs. pictures”
“In the industry I am, I know that both are equally important. I mean, I started in the theater, and I’d say that language is hugely important, and you know, I don’t take any film unless I think the dialogue’s in very good shape, because you say a bad line as an actor and you look like a bad actor. But also, I’ve been in movies where, you know, the director is a great visual storyteller and dialogue is less important, and I’ll maybe spend time trying to cut my lines down, because I know that the story’s being told in a different way. So I think both obviously go together and are hugely important.”
On how he goes about choosing film projects
“A career, at the end of the day, is a series of choices, and, you know, I’m always — I’ve always been somebody who, you know, I sort of choose my work not on the sort of size of the film, but whether I connect to it and feel I’ve got something to do in it. And I need to be passionate. I need to have an appetite to want to do it. So, yeah, that’s just the way the career shapes up.”
- Clive Owen, British actor. He stars as Jack Marcus in “Words and Pictures.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
The British actor Clive Owen has starred in the dystopian "Children of Men," the crime heist "Inside Man," and the costume drama "Gosford Park." But for his latest movie, "Words and Pictures," Clive Owen goes into academia. He's plays Jack, a prep school English teacher who gets into a war with the art teacher, played by Juliette Binoche, about the importance of words versus pictures. And ropes in the students, and their literary magazine.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE CLIP, "WORDS AND PICTURES")
CLIVE OWEN: (As Jack Marcus) You pick a subject, paint a picture, we print it in the issue. I write a thousand words on the same subject, we have an assembly. Words versus pictures, which is worth more?
JULIETTE BINOCHE: (As Dina Delsanto) Why should I bother? This is your inane war.
OWEN: (As Jack Marcus) Because then I will print the best of your students' work. You can choose them. Come on, it will give them something to shoot for. This inane war is energizing these kids.
HOBSON: The inane war is also energizing the pair's relationship, and maybe then end up falling in love. Clive Owen joins us from New York to talk about the film. Clive Owen, welcome.
OWEN: Thank you.
HOBSON: Well, it's an interesting kind of movie. I don't know how I would describe it, romantic comedy or Entertainment Weekly calls it a throwback to the kind of movie that audiences used to love. How would you describe the film?
OWEN: I probably would call it a romantic comedy really. I mean, I was always very taken with the script. I thought it was very beautifully written. It was very kind of witty and buoyant, but it also had really great dialogue and was very kind of moving and touching and emotional at times as well.
HOBSON: And it's coming out at time when it's going to be competing against things like, what, "X-Men," "Godzilla," "Spiderman." It will be an interesting part of the mix.
OWEN: It's the perfect time to bring it out then.
HOBSON: Now, tell us about the character that you play. It's Jack Marcus, a published poet who teaches at the prep school in Maine, but he's got a real drinking problem.
OWEN: He has a drinking problem, yeah, and you see that straight away. At the beginning of the film, he's very kind of jaded. He's been at the school a long time and everything's gone a little flat, and you see him teaching and it's not particularly inspired, and the kids aren't particularly inspired.
And then, Juliette Binoche plays a character that comes into the school, who's an art teacher who's struggling with her own problems. But she comes in and says very clearly to them that language is much less important than the visual arts, and it kind of wakes him up. It annoys him, it angers him but it also galvanizes him. And he kind of reawakens, you know, the passion that he had before and sort of passes that on to the students.
HOBSON: It comes down to this war between art and words. Where do you come down on that yourself?
OWEN: Well, you know, in the industry I am, I know that both are equally important. I mean, I started in the theater, and I'd say that language is hugely important. And, you know, I don't take any film unless I think the dialogue's in very good shape, because you say a bad line as an actor and you look like a bad actor.
But also, I've been in movies where, you know, the director is a great visual storyteller and dialogue is less important. And I'll maybe spend time trying to cut my lines down, because I know that the story's being told in a different way. So I think both obviously go together and are hugely important.
HOBSON: How much can you cut your lines down in a movie like this? Do you have much say over what the script ends up being in the end?
OWEN: Yeah, for sure. In this one, I didn't particularly want to, because he's a guy who loves language. And so it was really important that he conveys that, and, you know, lots of the scenes are in the classroom quoting poetry and quoting writers. And, you know, so because I was playing a lover of language, it was important to have dialogue and good dialogue.
HOBSON: There was this wonderful scene, really moving scene - actually there are a few of them throughout the film - of you with the actor who plays your son. And you are drunk in the scenes, and he is embarrassed. Let's take a listen to one right here.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WORDS AND PICTURES")
OWEN: (As Jack Marcus) Sorry to drag you away from Cathy.
CHRISTIAN SCHEIDER: (As Tony) It's Catherine.
OWEN: (As Jack Marcus) Jesus. What does she call you, Anthony? By the way, what do you call Bill? Do you call him Dad, too?
SCHEIDER: (As Tony) I call him Bill.
OWEN: (As Jack Marcus) Does he drink? Does he ever get drunk, or am I the only one in your world that likes a drink?
HOBSON: You really got across something there that I haven't seen in the movies come across in that way.
OWEN: Those scenes were in some ways the most challenging, and I had more talks with Fred Schepisi, the director, over those scenes than anything else, because playing drunk isn't easy, because there's an obviously easy cliché way of doing it where you're slurring and staggering around. But in this case, you're playing someone who's kind of witty and buoyant and cynical, but has a real serious problem. And the scenes with the son, it should be kind of be embarrassing. It's kind of pathetic and sad and calibrating a way to pitch that, so it was that, and you felt the boy's pain of hearing his dad and thinking, oh no, he's drunk again.
OWEN: And this really isn't going to go anywhere. They were some of the more challenging scenes for me.
HOBSON: Well, and you laugh or you try to tell a joke when the audience is watching you thinking it's not funny.
OWEN: Cringing hopefully.
OWEN: Yeah. It's true. It had to have that feeling of embarrassment really.
HOBSON: Now, there are actors out there, and I would say you're one of them right now, who they pop up in a big film and then they go out of the way, at least for me, for a while, and then they come back with another one. Now, of course, you didn't go anywhere.
You've been doing a lot of work ever sense, let's say, "Children of Men," which was big back in 2006, but do you get that as an actor on the other side of that that for some people you disappear and then you're back?
OWEN: Yeah. I mean, it's just that, you know, a career at the end of the day is just a series of choices. And you know, I'm always - I've always been somebody who, you know, I choose my work not on the sort of size of the film, but whether I connect to it and feel I've got something to do in it.
And I need to be passionate. I need to have an appetite to want to do it. So, yeah, that's just the way that the career shapes up.
HOBSON: We've got another scene here I want to listen to. The chemistry that develops between you and Juliette Binoche's character, Dina Delsanto, let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PICTURES AND WORDS")
OWEN: (As Jack Marcus) I can't tell you how much I want us to put our mouths together.
BINOCHE: (As Dina Delsanto) Oh, really? You're attracted to me?
OWEN: (As Jack Marcus) Very much.
BINOCHE: (As Dina Delsanto) Why?
OWEN: (As Jack Marcus) Same species, different sex. Aren't you attracted to me?
BINOCHE: (As Dina Delsanto) Not in the least. Did you think I would be?
OWEN: (As Jack Marcus) Well, I had high hopes for this jacket. I mean, it's old, but it's custom made, and yet you feel nothing?
BINOCHE: (As Dina Delsanto) Hum, admiration.
OWEN: (As Jack Marcus) Good.
BINOCHE: (As Dina Delsanto) For your tailor.
HOBSON: How was it to do that kind of verbal sparring with Juliette Binoche?
OWEN: It was great. I had a great time with her. I mean, I'm a huge fan of hers and always, you know, held her in the highest regard, and was thrilled when she said she wanted to do it, and very quickly realized that we got on very well, and importantly had a very similar sense of humor. I think the very first scene we shot together we kind of made each other laugh. And it was a very good sign.
And playing it with her, it became really playful. You know, we felt able and free to sort of challenge and push and prod, and it was a really good time.
HOBSON: Finally, Clive Owen, we read that you use this film as a chance to get in your favorite David Bowie song.
OWEN: Not quite, but...
HOBSON: Okay, explain.
OWEN: There was this scene in the movie where I get very drunk and I'm hitting a tennis ball outside, and I end up inside the house and basically trashed the place in a sort of drunken mess really. And I needed some music to inspire me to go a little crazy.
And I'm a big Bowie fan, and I picked a track from his latest album, and they played it, so - while I did that scene. And then Fred, every time he was putting the film together, got so used to it, as often happens when they put temp music on, and eventually had to go out and buy the track, which I was pretty happy about.
HOBSON: Clive Owen stars in the new film "Words and Pictures," also starring Juliette Binoche. It opens in select theaters tomorrow. Clive Owen, thanks so much.
OWEN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STARS")
DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) We live closer to the earth. Never to the heavens. The stars are never far away. Stars are out tonight.
HOBSON: And if you want to know what Clive Owen's favorite movie that he's seen in the last several years is...
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
HOBSON: I am going to Tweet it right now.
YOUNG: Oh, my God. You dog.
HOBSON: @JeremyHobson. We're trying to incorporate, you know, Twitter.
YOUNG: You're trying to boost your Twitter account.
HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, in association with the BBC World Service, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
YOUNG: Can I tell it?
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young.
HOBSON: We have to let them go.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STARS")
BOWIE: (Singing) Dead ones and the living... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.