- The Washington Times - Friday, August 3, 2001

"I'm a bit of a cliche. I can't remember wanting to do anything else," actor Clive Owen says. Mr. Owen stars in "Greenfingers," the latest British movie to showcase him in a leading role. An inspirational drama about prison inmates who take up gardening as a hobby and become proficient enough to compete at the annual Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, the movie opens today at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Shirlington.
Active in British theater, television and movies since the late 1980s, Mr. Owen emerged as a sensational "discovery" with American moviegoers a year ago when the gambling fable "Croupier" became the art-house sleeper of the year. Mr. Owen attracted so much praise as the protagonist, a saturnine croupier and aspiring novelist named Jack Manfred, that the distributor, the Shooting Gallery, took out one of the wittiest quote ads in recent memory. It called attention to all the reviews that compared Mr. Owen favorably with James Mason, Dirk Bogarde, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, Bruce Willis, Dylan McDermott, Rupert Everett and Robert Mitchum, among others, with the proud banner line: "Clive Owen is playing with some high rollers."
After "Greenfingers," Mr. Owen will be seen as the menacing second lead, opposite Matt Damon, in an adaptation of the Robert Ludlum thriller "The Bourne Identity." He then will appear as "a valet with a serious attitude" in "Gosford Park," a Robert Altman excursion into vintage British crime fiction. A murder mystery set among a hunting party at a large country estate in England in the 1930s, "Gosford Park" aims to deploy a deliriously loaded ensemble. Mr. Owen's fellow cast members include Jude Law, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas and Emily Watson.
Mr. Owen, who was born and raised in Coventry, is the son of a railway clerk and the youngest of four brothers. (He later acquired a younger half-brother.) The acting bug infected him in school plays.
"Getting up and reading at school, it happened that fast," he says. "I've always, always wanted to act. I can't remember the first thing I did in school, but the second was the Artful Dodger, and you might say I've been typecast ever since."
Mr. Owen, 36, looks temperamentally unsuited for characters who are naive or trusting. His first big break after graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and spending a season with the Young Vic Theatre Company was a television series called "Chancer," in which he played "a sort of wheeler-dealer from the city, a hustler who pulled scams every week."
The artfully larcenous Chancer "really launched me in the public eye in the U.K.," Mr. Owen says. "It was the launchpad for everything, really. It became a popular series, and people still talk about it."
Americans may remember Mr. Owen as Damon Wildeve opposite the breathtaking but then still obscure Catherine Zeta-Jones in a 1994 British television adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "The Return of the Native." He made his feature-film debut in 1990 in a small British production titled "Vroom," directed by Beeban Kidron.
In fact, Mr. Owen "played the leads in quite a number of small British films." The only one that had even fleeting exposure in the United States was the movie version of the play "Bent." Released in 1997, it cast Mr. Owen in the flashiest role, as a German homosexual imprisoned and persecuted by the Nazis. "Croupier" was made in 1997 but needed a belated vogue in the United States to rescue it from obscurity.
"I came here to publicize 'Croupier' after it had been playing for a few months," Mr. Owen says. "I'm not sure many people would have wanted to talk to me before. It had already become a cult thing when I arrived. It didn't ever get proper distribution back home before the American breakthrough. It's only just been released properly four or five weeks ago. America made all the difference."
Mr. Owen believes many creditable pictures get shortchanged in his country. "It's partly because they're making more films than they have in years," he says. "I remember a time, seven or eight years ago, I made a film, and it was one of about 10 that got made in the whole year. The volume is way up, but the problem is getting them distributed, getting them into the cinemas."
Mr. Owen credits the movie reviews in the United States with transforming the film's prospects. "They were pretty fantastic," he says, "and they just kept coming. That led to good word-of-mouth, so the runs were extended, more theaters were booked, and the whole cult thing happened. I knew when I got the script it was different. I always liked the film, but it had been difficult for Mike Hodges, the director, to get it made to begin with. He hustled for a year and a half before it was financed."
Married to actress Sarah Jane Fenton, Mr. Owen is the father of two little girls, ages 4 and 2. The actor has made London his home since leaving Coventry at age 19 to enroll in a three-year course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
"It was important for a kid like me, coming from a very ordinary working-class home in Coventry, to be accepted there. You're working with people who are actually in the business. Without that it's hard to know a way in."
Mr. Owen assumes that his character in "Greenfingers," a convicted murderer named Colin Briggs, derives from a real-life prototype encountered by writer-director Joel Hershman and producer Travis Swords, both Americans. "They started with this article in the New York Times about a prison in the Cotswolds that urged some inmates to take up a gardening project. It's what we call an open prison — what I think Americans call minimum security," he says. "This one gardening group ended up being champions, able to compete in the top flower shows. Joel and Travis thought, naturally, what a fantastic premise and went to England to research it, at the actual prison that had inspired the article."
Surrey provided the location for the prison, called Edgefield. It was doubled by the Yehudi Menuhin School of Music. Norney Grange, an estate in Guildford, became the fictional residence of a gardening celebrity named Georgina Woodhouse, played by Helen Mirren. The production was allowed to revamp the Grange's overgrown gardens in order to illustrate the prisoners' growing prowess and confidence. Not a gardening enthusiast, Mr. Owen began to learn by attending the Chelsea Flower Show soon after accepting the role of Colin.
The movie culminates at the annual Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, the most prestigious event of its kind in England. "We got the backing of the Royal Horticultural Society," Mr. Owen says. "They were very accommodating and let us build a garden for the prisoners' project, in addition to photographing a lot of stuff that was going on during that year's festival for background. Logistically, it was tricky. They have their own show to put on, but we were allowed to be right in the middle of it, and there's such a lot we got from being there."
Mr. Owen returns to the stage in London this fall, in case admirers are headed that way. He's about to start rehearsals for a revival of Peter Nichols' "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg." Victoria Hamilton and Prunella Scales have the other roles. "It's the first major revival since the original London production," he says, "and I'm very excited about it."

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