Clive Owen steps out of the shadow of James Bond

The British actor puts in a star turn as a MI5 agent during the Troubles in his latest film. But he'd still prefer to be playing professional football

For a five-year spell in the noughties, Clive Owen's career was flamethrower hot. It started with his first big-time Hollywood lead in King Arthur, spiked northwards with his raging, Oscar-nominated turn in Closer, continued through Sin City, Inside Man, Children Of Men and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and was capped off in 2009 with swanky trio The International, Tony Gilroy's Duplicity and The Boys Are Back. Besides Ewan McGregor, he was the most wanted British man in Hollywood, his soulful stoicism and brooding masculinity deployed to fine effect across a range of blockbusters and indies. And Owen had an ace up his sleeve, courtesy of unrelenting chatter in the first half of the decade that he was destined to succeed Pierce Brosnan as James Bond – until the man he'd pipped at the post for King Arthur, Daniel Craig, dramatically turned the tables.

If it stung, Owen tried not to let it show, sticking tongue-in-cheek for a Bond-style cameo in 2006's The Pink Panther remake and insisting, somewhat unconvincingly, in a 2007 interview with Details magazine that he was never even approached about 007. Whatever the truth, the perception that Owen "lost" the role to Craig has possibly hindered his career momentum. Now that the new Bond's career has surpassed his own, he might not mind having missed out on Cowboys & Aliens but may well wonder if it could have been him working with David Fincher on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Over the last three years, Owen has kept busy, even if the resulting films – Trust, Killer Elite and Intruders – haven't made big impressions. That may change with Shadow Dancer, a taut, absorbing espionage thriller from director James Marsh set during a spike in IRA violence in the early 1990s. Well-received when it premiered at Sundance in January, Shadow Dancer gives Owen his best role since Children Of Men, as a mid-level MI5 agent assigned with recruiting Andrea Riseborough's doughty Irish nationalist into spying on her own family. The 47-year-old actor responds in turn with a typically understated but impeccable performance.

One imagines that part of the appeal must have been the fact that Mac is not the conventional ballistics-happy action-hero you'd expect him to play. Is that something he wanted to steer clear of after 2007's Shoot 'Em Up and The International? "It's never that conscious," insists Owen in his trademark baritone rumble when we convene in a Berlin hotel. "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 I responded to Shadow Dancer. I loved how tight the script was; I loved the premise. And James was so intelligent about the material and had such a strong angle on the way he wanted to do it."

But even though 14 years have passed since the historic Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland's peace is still fragile, its recent history a sore topic for both sides. It's subject matter that many British actors might avoid for fear of stirring up unwanted reproach. Owen has first-hand experience of that: after playing the incestuous brother in Stephen Poliakoff's Close My Eyes (1991), he struggled to get cast in anything for two years. But gritty, challenging projects like Shadow Dancer are exactly what this late arrival to fame (he was 34 when he broke through with Croupier) needs right now to remind big-time filmmakers that, at his best, he's an indelibly seductive presence who produces chemistry with every actress he shares the screen with.

A working-class kid from Coventry who impressively gate-crashed RADA when he was 20, the actor has strong recollections of living through Shadow Dancer's era, when the pernicious threat of IRA violence was "always in the air". "I grew up with it being part of our lives and every night hearing some report on the news about the Troubles," says Owen, who ended up doing a play in Belfast when tensions were at their peak. He was only in the city for a week but describes the experience as "rough… It was a war zone. I remember going out in the evenings and it was disconcerting what was happening on the streets. They'd do these drills where the vans pull up and the soldiers all jump out and hit their positions and the first time I saw that, I seriously thought, 'I'm in the middle of a situation'."

There's a brilliantly chilling exchange in Shadow Dancer where Gillian Anderson, playing his frosty superior, spits at him, "Feeling left out, Mac?" It's likely to be the moment Owen wins over an audience's sympathies, although the jovial star delivers his own interpretation of the line's resonance: "It's because James had spent the whole shoot in a huddle with Andrea and then turned to me and went, 'Feeling left out, Clive?'" Owen unleashes his thundering laugh, although there's surely some truth in his statement: Riseborough's role is the tougher of the two so it's easy to fathom the actress consuming Marsh's attentions. Owen adds hastily, "Andrea is fantastic in the film. I think it's a really great performance."

He hopes that lingering sensitivities won't affect how Shadow Dancer is received when it opens next week, or scare people away. He's immensely proud of the film, praising Marsh – who's known for the superb documentaries Man On Wire and Project Nim – for his "sensitive, delicate, intelligent handling… it's not crass, it's not big obvious sweeping statements". He might even let his two daughters with Sarah-Jane Fenton, who he married in 1995, watch the film, although certain titles are still off-limits.

"I forget my eldest [Hannah] is now 15!" he marvels. "When I tell her, 'You're not watching that', she goes, 'I'm 15, I don't need your permission.' The sad thing is that kids at Eve's school have seen films that I'm in that I won't let her watch. Some of her friends have seen Closer and discuss it with her and I have to say, 'Sweetheart, you're not seeing it!'"

Owen is a long-term north Londoner, living for a long stretch in Muswell Hill before migrating to Highgate. He's still passionate about Liverpool FC and sports in general, revealing that one of the biggest buzzes he's experienced recently was meeting tennis star Novak Djokovic. "It was such a thrill, seriously," he enthuses. "I love those events. A room full of great sportsmen is so much better than a room full of actors."

If he could reboot his life, Owen says that he'd choose to be a sportsman rather than an actor. "A footballer or a tennis player," he vouches. "But only if I could be a really good one. I wouldn't want to be an average one."

'Shadow Dancer' is released on 24 August

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