Clive Owen: All killer and no filler for Britain's quiet superstar

Clive Owen's latest film may be a breakneck thriller, but the actor himself has decided to slow things down. He tells Kaleem Aftab why

For his latest role, Clive Owen sports a moustache. It doesn't really suit him and so it's no surprise that when he turns up in a Toronto hotel room the day after his new film, Killer Elite, has just premiered, the upper-lip hair has been eradicated. Owen jokes that the day he shaved it off was a happy one for his wife, Sarah-Jane Fenton.

Killer Elite is an adaptation of Sir Ranulph Fiennes's controversial 1991 book The Feather Men. Claiming to be a true story, The Feather Men describes how four British Army soldiers were assassinated by a group known as "The Clinic" under the orders of a sheikh whose sons were killed by British forces in Oman.

Owen says "the truth" with an air of scepticism, suggesting that he doesn't quite know whether to believe the story or not. "This is one of those movies where when they say it's based on the book, it's meant in the broadest terms," says Owen. "It really is just taking the original premise – the original central storyline of those guys getting killed and a group of ex-SAS people trying to find out who is behind the killings."

It's no surprise that the Coventry-born actor didn't refer to the book often; he tends not to, he says, when approaching adaptations. "I'm a great believer that once you start shooting, you have to go with the script," he says. "If you are making a script based on a book it can be frustrating going back to the source novel, because you're turning the story into a totally different thing; the narrative of film is different from that of a book."

The 46-year-old flits between serious discussions about the craft to making jokes at his own expense in a heartbeat. His seriousness of approach has paid dividends in his appearances on screen, from his first success in the ITV series Chancer in the early Nineties, through his game-changing turn in Croupier right up to his big hits, Children of Men and The Inside Man. The laughing and the joking has been kept hidden from public view as the actor rarely grants interviews to the British press, who, to be fair, have not always been kind to one of our biggest acting successes.

The same could be said of Owen's co-star in Killer Elite, Jason Statham. He's far more appreciated and a much bigger star in America than he is on our own shores. It could be argued that Owen just got too big too quickly – he seemed to suffer from a domestic backlash mainly, perhaps, because of over-exposure.

The actor admits that he may have said yes to too many roles a few years ago, and that he almost turned his back on the movie business. "I'd be a liar if I said that I'd never thought about giving up," he admits. "I'd done too many films back to back and got tired, for the first time really. I've always been passionate about acting; it's the only thing I've wanted to do – but there was a time a number of years back where I started to realise that the rhythm of constantly making films wasn't great for me."

So he decided to make some changes and take on fewer projects. Over the past year Owen has only been seen on our cinema screens in Trust, although he has two films on at Toronto, the second being the ghost story Intruders, which, like Trust, is also about the fears and emotions that parents can pass on to their children.

The father-of-two chose Killer Elite because, "I was intrigued and fascinated about what happens to these highly trained guys in the elite forces – who go through this rigorous training and find themselves in the most intense situations – when they retire and have to live a normal life."

The action involves Owen going head-to-head with Jason Statham in a fight. The Croupier star is not known for his fight scenes, although he admits a secret love for doing them: "I approach those scenes like every other kind of scene in a movie. I quite enjoy them. You have to act in them, in the same way that you have to in dialogue scenes; you have to be convincing and show that the stakes are high." Of course he hit the gym a bit more to prepare for his face-off.

There was plenty of speculation that Owen was destined to take on the James Bond mantra before Daniel Craig landed the tuxedo. He says the story was all media hype. "It was never on the radar. There was nothing to it. I'd done a film, Croupier, where I'd worn a tuxedo and there was nothing more than that." When asked whether he would ever take on the role, though, he's very careful to give a vague response and not rule the possibility out.

He likes to keep out of the limelight when at home in London. He avoids hot-spot restaurants that attract the paparazzi, choosing instead to go to quiet places near his home. He has no inclination to move to America; both his daughters are at school here and the actor has made London his home ever since he went to drama school in the capital in 1984.

His interest in acting had started at school. "I remember the first part I ever got; the thing that got me into acting was that I did a school play. I played the Artful Dodger – and a lot of people probably think I've been playing the same fucking part ever since."

His first roles after drama school were in the theatre and the actor admits that he has a yearning to return to the stage – although the longer he leaves it, the harder it becomes.

In the meantime, despite slowing down on work, there are a number of projects about to escape into the public domain. He has shot a new film with Man on Wire director, James Marsh, Shadow Dancer, about a young girl from an IRA family, who, after failing to detonate a bomb, is forced into becoming a rat by MI5. Andrea Riseborough and Gillian Anderson also star.

At the moment he's really most excited about Ernest Hemingway. He has just completed filming a two-hour HBO film, Hemingway & Gellhorn, about the writer and his third wife. Nicole Kidman stars as war correspondent Martha Gellhorn.

"I read everything about him, and everything by him," says Owen. "I became a huge fan. I found this great guy who knew everything about Hemingway's Paris and I went on walking tours with him. The legacy that guy left is truly outstanding. I went to Cuba and visited his house and they let me in to look through his books. His clothes are still in the closet. So I know a lot about him now."

Speaking of legends, Robert De Niro also pops up in Killer Elite and Owen says that the time spent working with him was all too brief. Yet despite many feeling that De Niro's best years are behind him, Owen argues that he learnt a lot simply by watching De Niro at work.

Also on the horizon, Owen says, is an out-and-out comedy that he's currently in talks about. It would be the first time that the actor has taken on a determinedly comic role. He cannot say more while in the negotiating stage, but he seems positively enamoured by the script. When he's going to find time to do theatre is anyone's guess.

Every time I've spoken to a director about Owen, the one comment that always comes back is how nice a guy he is. It's hard to argue with that assessment as we chat, so I ask whether he's aware of his reputation with directors for being the nicest guy in the business. His retort, "I con them all."

'Killer Elite' is on general release