Set in New York in 1974, Blood Ties tells the story of 50-year-old Chris (Clive Owen), who has just been released after several years in prison for murder, and his younger brother Frank (Billy Crudup), a cop with a bright future. Even though Frank hopes that his brother has changed, Chris just can’t shake his past and a life of crime. From director Guillaume Canet (who also wrote it with James Gray), the film also stars Marion Cotillard, Mila Kunis, Zoe Saldana and James Caan.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Clive Owen talked about how filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron helped bring this project to his attention, what made him want to sign on, collaborating with Guillaume Canet (who was an actor in the original French film this was adapted from), his process for finding this character, why he doesn’t believe in over-rehearsing, and how much he enjoyed working with both James Caan and Billy Crudup. He also talked about his upcoming Cinemax drama series The Knick, about the professional and personal lives of the staff at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital in 1900, what drew him to the role, the tone of the show, and why he wanted to work with Steven Soderbergh, who is directing all 10 episodes. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
CLIVE OWEN: It did start with Alfonso. That was before Guillaume [Canet] even sent me the script. I just got a call. I think Guillaume had rung Alfonso. He knew Alfonso and talked to him about me, and Alfonso called and said, “Look, he’s sending you this script. It sounds really cool and he’s a great guy, and I think you guys would get on.” So, I read that script knowing that, and I liked the script. And then, I met Guillaume and liked him. That’s how it started.
Does that typically happen for you, that filmmakers you’ve worked with in the past look out for you, in that way, or was that the first time that’s happened?
OWEN: I think that was just that Guillaume went to Alfonso because he knew we were very tight. That’s where he started. He wanted to find out a bit more about me. And then, I suppose he said, “Would you put in a word?” But when Alfonso says something like that, it does mean that when the script comes through, I’ll give it extra special interest because of what he said.
This movie happened in a bit of an unusual way, being the remake of a French film that was based on a book, that was also based on a true story, and your director was an actor in the original film. What was it like to work with Guillaume Canet on this process? Was he open to collaboration and what the actors wanted to bring to these roles?
OWEN: Very much, yeah. It was a very unusual thing, in that he did the original film, as an actor in it, and then was directing this and relocating it to New York. But, I think he’d always felt that it would be a great thing to relocate this story into ‘70s New York. That was a big thing for him. I saw the original film, but I didn’t spend too much time examining it. I just saw it the once. Ours was its own animal, really. The minute you relocate it and put it into New York, it becomes a very different thing. I did spend quite a bit of time in Paris with Guillaume, just working on the script. And I did actually meet the guy that my character is based on, as well. He didn’t speak any English, but I managed to just connect with him. But really, once we started to make this film, it became its own animal, really.
When you read this script, what was it that stood out for you about this story and character, and made you want to take this on?
OWEN: The main thing was that there was this guy who had spent a lot of time in prison, and who came out and was a very tough and very hard guy, but there was this big streak of vulnerability in him. I saw this neediness. He needed confirmation and respect, and the love of his brother and father. I loved the duality of playing a guy who, on one hand, is ruthless and literally a killer, and who is a very tough, violent person, but who is also a little boy. Amongst his family, he became very needy. I loved that duality. That’s what I thought would be exciting, rather than just playing the tough guy.
People probably focus on the obvious things, like the accent and the tattoos, did you have a specific process for finding this character and understanding the type of man he would be?
OWEN: It was more that we put everything together. We had the look and the tattoos. It was a leap for me because I’m English playing street New York. The main thing for me, as a way through the character, was this idea that there was something childish within him. That’s what I wanted to explore – the childishness within him. Yes, he was ruthless, and he was a scary guy, but there was a little boy in there, as well.
Since you guys didn’t have any time to rehearse on this, did that make things more challenging? Do you prefer to have rehearsal time, or do you feel that it makes things more fresh not to?
OWEN: It’s always difficult, the idea of rehearsing for films. It’s not theater, where you really do need to run the scenes and run the dialogue. You certainly shouldn’t over-rehearse films, especially the dialogue. I think it’s really important to leave something to happen on the day, so that it’s alive. But I do like to spend time talking around the scenes and talking about them. For an actor, it’s very important to get a clear idea of what a director wants, and their intention for what they want to get out of a scene and how they want to shoot it. Having that knowledge is really valuable, for an actor. It means you can deliver more. But I certainly am not a great believer in over-rehearsing between actors, and certainly not doing the dialogue too much.
This is a great cast with no weak links, and getting to watch the family scenes was a real highlight. What was it like to have James Caan around, and how was he to work with?
OWEN: He’s just such a stamp of authenticity, really. To have him as the head of that family was really great. In some ways, those scenes were the loosest scenes. It was pretty close to the script, but they were more alive, and that was driven, a little bit, by James being the father of the family. To make those family scenes believable, they had to be a little looser than some of the other scenes, just because these are people that organically know each other so well. So, to be loose was a good thing. They were crucial scenes because that’s where you get to see the complicated dynamics of this family.
The relationship between these brothers is so complex and complicated. They’re clearly on opposite sides of the law, but one ultimately puts the other ahead of his own well-being. What did you enjoy about getting to explore that dynamic, and working with Billy Crudup?
OWEN: He’s such a great actor. In some ways, his character is the one who’s stuck with me, and I’m a loose canon, endlessly getting into trouble and having problems. The film is an exploration of how you don’t choose your family members. When you’ve got a brother like that, who is difficult, you have your instinct and know everything you want to do. If I wasn’t a brother, it would be simple. You’d just cut him off and say, “This can’t happen.” But these families are complicated. There are emotions involved. There are ties that you can’t ignore. In the same way as I’m making these terrible decisions and doing these awful things, the bottom line is that I want his respect and love, as much as anything else in my life. The idea that I just keep coming back to him, looking for that, causes him endless problems.
After the screening of the film at Cannes, 30 minutes was cut. Are you happy with how the finished product plays now, or are you the type of actor who watches a finished product and thinks about the scenes that have been cut?
OWEN: No, I never worry about that. I think it’s a director’s medium. It’s Guillaume’s film. I know why the film is as long as it is. It’s the things you were talking about, at the beginning, that make it interesting and different from the other crime thrillers. There’s a very heavy psychological exploration of all the characters, and it’s delicate and it needs time to properly explore. Maybe Guillaume just felt the whole thing needed tightening up. The one thing I think he’s done a really brilliant job of is the recreating of that period. It’s not an easy thing to do without being very obvious and heavy-handed. His taste for where he placed that ‘70s thing, I was really impressed with.
The teaser trailers for your upcoming Cinemax series The Knick have been very intriguing. The show is being described as a medical drama, but the teasers make it seem much more creepy and eerie than that. What drew you to that story and that character, and made you want to inhabit that world for 10 episodes?
OWEN: To be honest with you, when the idea was first stated, I wasn’t sure that I did want to do that. One of the things I love, more than anything, is jumping around and playing lots of different parts. I love the variety of playing different characters. But, the scripts was really stunning. It was absolutely stunning. It’s set in 1900 and I play a genius doctor who’s a drug addict, and he’s inspired by a real doctor. That was an incredible time for the world of medicine. They were making huge discoveries, very quickly. It was ever developing, really fast. There was lots of shooting from the hip, and going into surgery and trying things out to see if they worked. And you’ve got Steven Soderbergh directing all 10 of them. The material was fantastic and really unusual for period. Very often, when you go back in time and do things based in another time, there’s a respect and a stateliness about that, and a politeness to the period. But Steven has made something that feels very edgy, and it feels very relevant and contemporary. It just happens to be set in 1900.
What’s it like to do something like that, where you have the same director and therefore the same creative vision for the entire series? Does it feel like that really works to the advantage of the cohesiveness of it all?
OWEN: Without question. And certainly, when you’ve got someone as brilliant as Steven Soderbergh at the helm, it’s a massive plus. Plus, he attacked the thing the same way he would a movie. We shot it as a 10-hour movie. He didn’t shoot it episodically. We boarded the whole thing, and then looked at the arc of the whole story and shot it in that way. It was a very unusual way of approaching something like this. He’s so smart. The reason why I wanted to do it was to work with him.
Would you say that the teasers are representative of the tone that you’re looking to achieve with it? Is it creepy and eerie, in that way?
OWEN: I wouldn’t say that it’s as eerie as that, but it’s very, very edgy. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen from a period thing. Yes, it’s 1900 and it’s very faithful to the period, but New York was a very edgy, dangerous place, at that time. In the world of medicine, if you went into one of those operating theaters, the chances were that you wouldn’t come out. And so, it’s representative, in that it’s a very edgy, dangerous time. But, it’s not just the world of medicine. It also gives us the chance to explore what was going on in New York, at that time. We do go out into the slums and we see the wealthy people that are funding the hospital. You get to see a real pallette of New York, which was a very dynamic and changing place, at that time.
OWEN: Yes. Steven came to me very early on, when they literally just had the one script. We didn’t have the full 10 hours. It was just so brilliant. So, I talked to him, and then sat down with the writers, and we talked about where it was going and where to take it. I came on board in those early days.
Are you looking to do more producing, so that you can be more involved with the creative development, in that way?
OWEN: Yeah. A lot of the projects that I do, I like to be involved with earlier. I just feel that, certainly from an acting point of view, it’s easier to do my job, if I’m included in what the intentions are, for why people are doing what they’re doing, especially with a director. Very often on films, even without a producer credit, I’ll be involved, very early on. I want to be there as the thing is taking shape.
Blood Ties is now playing in theaters.