Shadow Dancer – Interview with Clive Owen

We caught up with A-List actor Clive Owen who plays a British government agent in new movie Shadow Dancer

Shadow Dancer is a new Irish film winning rave reviews from festivals all over the world. The movie, set in Northern Ireland in the 90s, tells the story of an active IRA member who becomes an informant for MI5 in order to protect her son’s welfare. We caught up with A-List actor Clive Owen who plays a British government agent in the movie…

You’ve taken a break from thrillers for the last couple of years. Why were you lured back with Shadow Dancer?
It’s weird, it’s never that conscious. When you look at it, it’s just a series of decisions that were made but I never, ever go, “I don’t want to do this genre now, I want to do this one.” I never make decisions like that. It’s a straight response to a piece of material and who’s directing it and the films that I’ve done in the last few years are just the ones I responded to. And I responded to ‘Shadow Dancer’.

What were your views on the troubles in Northern Ireland as a young man?
Well, obviously I grew up with it being part of our lives and that threat being in the air and every night hearing some report on the news about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I actually went to Belfast during that time. I did a play and stayed in Belfast for a week during the Troubles and it was rough, it was a war zone. And it was only when I went into the production office for this film and saw all the pictures they’d put on the wall from that time that I was like, “Wow, they’ve come a long way.” Because it’s not that long ago and it was a very different place then.

Did you feel personally endangered when you were in Belfast at that earlier time?
No, not from the people. I remember going out a bit in the evenings and hanging out. What was disconcerting was what was happening on the streets. You’d walk down the street and the first time this happened I remember thinking that I’d really landed in the middle of something. They do these drills where the vans just pull up and the soldiers all jump out and they hit their positions and the first time I saw that, I seriously thought, I’m in the middle of a situation. It wasn’t. It was just a drill – they were just showing their presence. But when you’re not used to seeing that, it’s very disconcerting.

What was the biggest attraction for you in deciding to take the role?
I was really impressed with how tight the script was. I thought it was really lean, economical; I loved the premise; from the minute it started, I was gripped and wanted to know where it was going to go. It didn’t spread into areas I wasn’t interested in, it was very focused, very tight and it was in really good shape. It was one of those scripts where you didn’t need to do too much to it. So that was the first thing. And then I spoke to James and he was so intelligent about the material and obviously had such a strong angle on the way he wanted to do it. So I said yes.

You’ve played British government agents before. Is it a different approach each time?
I would argue that in this film it’s not like that, it’s not the clichéd version of the government agent; it’s not the clichéd MI5 guy because very quickly he’s kind of trapped outside of his own world. He’s not included and he’s floating in a strange place. He’s not the obvious, clear-cut government agent. He begins to see that people are doing things around him that he doesn’t approve of.

He’s an honest man but do you think he’s naïve in understanding the dark political games going on around him?
I talked to James about this and, you know, you could have played that part in a very different way. You could have played the tough MI5 guy that bullies the girl into doing it and is tough all the way. I just thought it was much more interesting for him to be genuine at the beginning when she says, “Have you done this before?” and he says, “Yes – and if you do it, I’ll be with you. We do this together.” It’s genuine. And then very quickly he realises his superiors are prepared to compromise her and he gets a conscience – and I think that’s very believable. You take a young girl like that, with a kid, and you throw her into that dangerous situation and it’s your responsibility and then somebody is prepared to say, “Well, just leave her, let her fry.” As one of the other characters says to him, “The reason I’m where I am is because I’m prepared to make these tough decisions and you’re not.” I don’t necessarily think that’s lacking in smartness. If anything I think his problem is that he starts to care a little and that’s probably not great.

In that respect, do you think he’s more innocent than Colette towards the end?
In some ways, yes I do. I think he genuinely develops a conscience about her plight and starts to actually care, which is surprising because there’s another version of this kind of film where that would never happen. He’d be the tough MI5 guy all the way.

Doesn’t he need the harder attitude though because the other side isn’t playing ‘fair’, or by the rules?
I think what’s interesting about this film is that it’s not judgmental. I don’t think it’s totally condemning. It’s a human drama, it’s showing that everybody to a certain extent is trapped in this movie. She goes home to her family, you look at their environment, you look where they’re living, you look at what’s going on, in the same way that I am on my side. Suddenly I’m in a position where I’m trapped. It’s a difficult situation, it was difficult times, and I think it’s an exploration of people grappling with that as much as anything else.

Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation to Mac where you’ve given someone your word and have to stand by it no matter what the cost?
Only when I’ve said yes to a film! I can’t think outside of my career when I’ve had to do that but yes, you often have to do that: give somebody your word. “Are you in Clive?” “Yes, I’m in – you have my word!” I don’t like to give my word and not stay true to it. I think it’s important.

Do you think sensitivities about the Troubles might affect how the film is received locally?
No, I think people will appreciate what James has done with the film. Listen, the first barometer was debuting at the Sundance Film Festival where the reviews were pretty fantastic. If that’s a barometer we’ll be okay because people appreciate what James is trying to do. I think he’s made an intelligent and sensitive film. I don’t think it’s crass. It’s not big obvious sweeping statements, it’s delicate and intelligent.

Is this a film you would want your daughters to see in the near future?
It’s funny because I forget my eldest is now 15 and when I say, “You’re not watching that”, she goes, “I’m 15! I can watch it, I don’t need your permission!” It’s scary when she tells me some of the things her friends have seen, though; even my younger one’s friends, too. The sad thing is that some of the kids at her school have seen films that I’m in that I won’t let her watch. That’s not great. There are kids in her school that have seen Closer and talk about it to her and I’m saying, “Sweetheart, you’re not seeing it!”

SHADOW DANCER is at Irish cinemas from August 24th