The battle over Northern Ireland goes back centuries, but the movie drama “Shadow Dancer” (directed by Oscar winner James Marsh) takes place in the early 1990s, during the peace transition between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British government. In the movie, Clive Owen plays Mac, an MI5 agent who has recruited a single mother from Northern Ireland named Collette McVeigh (played by Andrea Riseborough) to go undercover for the British government in order to get information on the IRA. Collette, who has family members in the IRA, had been arrested in an IRA plot to bomb London and was given the choice of either going to prison or working for the British government as an undercover informant.
There are informants working on both sides, so the movie becomes a guessing game of where people’s loyalties really are. Things get even more complicated when Mac finds out that MI5 is going to turn on Collette, thereby putting her life in danger. And one of Mac’s bosses happens to his ex-love Kate Fletcher, (played by Gillian Anderson), who is the mother of their son. Here is what Owen said when I sat down with him for an interview at the New York City press junket for “Shadow Dancer” on May 29, 2013.
How much research did you do for your role in “Shadow Dancer”?
To be honest, I didn’t do that much research because I as coming to the end of the [Ernest] Hemingway project [the TV-movie “Hemingway and Gellhorn”] that I did. I was really tired, and I wasn’t going to work. And I was sent this script. And because James Marsh’s name came with it, and I loved “Man on Wire,” I was very intrigued to see what he was doing.
I just fell in love with the script. I thought it was really tight and taut. And it was one of those scripts that was ready to go. I felt there was nothing that needed to be talked about that much. The whole premise worked very well. It was very strong, very economical.
The dialogue that was used was spare but really concise. And it meant going straight on to it. I called him, we spoke really intelligently about it, and I just thought, “OK, I’ll come do it.” I went straight from that set [“Hemingway and Gellhorn”] onto his set. And to be honest with you, because the script was in such good shape. I didn’t feel it was wildly necessary to do tons of research. I thought the script was in good shape.
How aware were you of the real-life events going on in Northern Ireland at that time?
I do remember the IRA. If you grew up in the U.K., the whole threat of the IRA was always present, really. It was just part of everyone’s lives, it was always on the news, it was always in the air — the danger of it. I also visited Belfast in the late ‘80s, touring a play, so I got to spend a week there and saw it was like a war zone. And there were soldiers on the street and helicopters at night. So there are very strong memories of it.
How do you think James Marsh’s experiences as a documentary filmmaker affected how he made “Shadow Dancer”?
It was a big plus for me. I think it’s always good, because documentary filmmakers are always after something truthful. That’s what they do. They have an element of truth in something. And when they bring that taste to a subject matter like this, I think it’s a huge reason for me doing it, because you know that he’s going to handle this kind of subject very intelligently and delicately.
And also, just recreating that time is very authentic because, as I say, that’s what documentary filmmakers are interested in. He’s into manipulating an audience or doing anything fake, really. I think it’s a huge plus that he comes from doing documentaries. And I’d also seen his film “The King,” which I really loved as well. I thought that was a really good film.
What’s the psychological profile of someone who would want to become a spy in MI5? And whom do you think Mac was loyal to the most?
I spoke to James about it. There’s a very obvious way of playing that guy, which is the top MI5 guy is cynical, brutal. It’s a job, he’s got to reel her in, and he’s got to do that, and then we find ourselves in that situation.
I always felt that it would be much more interesting, and there would be more to do if when he says to [Collette] at the beginning of the movie, “I’m with you every step of the way. We’re in this together.” He really means that.
He sees a young woman with a kid, whom he’s asking to do a very dangerous thing: to go back into an IRA family and become an informant. And then very quickly, his superiors are prepared to compromise her. And then suddenly, he’s in a terrible situation. He’s a guy who has a conscience. And now, we’re in a really dangerous world of conflicts, because a conscience in a world like that is not great.
How did you feel about doing a period film that takes place in the 1990s?
It’s always good to do that. You forget how far we’ve traveled in a short amount of time, in terms of communication. Lots of film from that time would fall apart nowadays because people can access things so quickly. But it is interesting doing a period piece that isn’t that far removed, because it’s not that long ago.
When I walked into the production office, and they had the walls filled with pictures of Belfast at that time, it was a very different place than what is now. It might not have been that long ago, but I think things have moved tremendously. I think James captured it really well.
What did you think of the MI5 character Kate Fletcher, played by Gillian Anderson?
I think that the thing that she says that is the most telling thing is, “You know, the reason I’m in my position and you’re in yours is because I can make this decision.” And you’ve got Mac saying, “We’ve pulled this girl in, and now she’s in danger.” He’s being sensitive to [Collette’s] predicament. [Kate] is saying, “There’s no room for that here.”
And he’s arguing that we can’t be that irresponsible. She’s tough, and she’s had to be tough to get where she’s at. It seems to me that every character in the movie is struggling. It’s a tough place to navigate through, wherever you sat through the whole thing.
Some of the “Shadow Dancer” characters have secrets about their background. Can you comment on that aspect of the story without giving away any spoilers?
It’s been very much buried, because each individual case of that were kept very private and very personal, in a way, to protect everybody. So it’s not like that information is available to everybody. Otherwise, there’d be no protection of those people.
Do you think Mac fell in love with Collette?
I don’t think he falls in love with her, no. I think he’s got empathy for her and sympathy for her and an understanding. I think that scene where we have that strange, furtive kiss, for me, I was very excited when I read that in the script, because it genuinely surprised me. It’s rare when you follow a story like that, and you get a scene where you go, “Gosh, that’s really …”
Now, once that happens, we’ve all seen versions of that film where they will try and have a life together. I don’t think it’s about that. It seemed to me to be some kind of furtive grab at some humanity, in this very bleak, inhumane world that they’ve been inhabiting. And it’s kind of a lunge from her for some kind of contact.
I think it’s surprises them both and confuses them both. And I love the fact that it rears up and then kind of goes. It’s not dealt with in a corny way. It felt very human and real, but surprising.
How would you describe James Marsh as a director?
He’s very specific. He really likes actors. He really trusts them, loves to look at what they bring, and uses it. He’s very specific with the camera. He’s very specific, in terms of what he wants to capture out of a scene and how he wants to tell it.
I think the way the he shot the movie, his choice of where he put the camera, and how is a big part of why the film works. It comes from a documentary filmmaker because his sensibilities are that way. He gives actors a lot of room to do their thing, but he’s very specific, in terms of what he puts in a frame.
“Shadow Dancer” is a story that doesn’t have clear-cut heroes or villains. Was that one of the reasons why you were attracted to this movie?
That was key to me, yeah. It’s something that I’m always attracted. I remember way back when, going to L.A. and meeting people, and somebody asked me if I play goodies or baddies. And I remember going, genuinely going, “I really don’t look at it like that,” meaning it’s the complexities and conflicts within people that make them human or make them interesting to explore as an actor. I never play any character that I’ve pre-judged and go, “Well, I think …”
My job is to make people understand why a character does certain things — just try to allow them in to see what’s possible. I’m not saying it’s right or it’s wrong. I’m saying it’s to understand.
And I think one of the strengths of this script was that it wasn’t judgmental; it wasn’t clear-cut. People aren’t just good or just bad. It’s a complex time, and they’re complex people, and I felt that it was very sensitively handled in that way.
What kinds of roles are you going for now?
I’m never looking for anything other than a good piece of writing. I’m really not. When I look at my career and the last few years, one of the things I’m very happy about is that it’s very varied, very mixed — lots of different kinds of movies — but it’s all been all been led by material and director. And when you look back, it is what it is.
I’m sure it’s related to the fact that I started in the theater, and I wanted to play different parts. That’s why you go into the theater. You don’t go into it to keep repeating the same thing.
So I’m always on the lookout: “Oh, that’s looks interesting. That’s another thing to discover.” For me, that’s one of the joys of doing it: It happens in different worlds.
But I’m never looking for anything specific. I read a piece of material, and I go, “Wow, that’s really good and really well-written,” or I don’t.
Is it true that you’re going to be in director Steven Soderbergh’s TV series “The Knick”?
It’s very early days. We’re talking about it, yeah.
Did you have any questions for “Shadow Dancer’s” screenwriter Tom Bradby about Kate and Mac’s past relationship and the fact that they have a son together?
No, I thought it was very clear in the script. We didn’t have much rehearsal time. I went in and sat down with James [Marsh] and what I thought about the character and what I thought about the script. And we just kind of leapt up and did it. I think the writing was so fine that it was possible to do that.
What’s your interpretation about how Mac’s feelings for Kate affected the decisions that he made? Do you think he was completely able to separate his personal life from his professional life?
He spends a long time that we don’t see at the beginning of the movie. He spends a lot of time setting this girl up, to reel her in. And I think very simply, he feels a responsibility, once he’s done that, and that’s with all of his decisions. It happened an awful lot, this reeling in of informants, and sometimes at very high levels.
There was talk in versions of the script earlier on where the end wasn’t quite what it was, and it was about trying to get [Collette] out. But it’s hugely expensive, once you put someone in that position, to try and get them out of it — wildly difficult and expensive to do. And for Mac, it’s the most difficult thing.
“Shadow Dancer” is as much about family as it is about government. What are your thoughts on that?
I think that’s what attracted James to want to do it. Again, I go back to the fact that he treat every character in it with a kind of understanding. There are versions of this film where it’s obvious the IRA are terrific, terrible people. He’s not condoning anything in this film, but he’s just looking at the humans in that environment.
How fast was the film shoot for “Shadow Dancer”?
For me, very fast. I came in and out in a few weeks. I literally dived in for a few weeks and then was done. But I think the whole shoot was six or seven weeks. Yeah, it was quick. It was full-on every day. Once I literally arrived, I was on it every day.
How much time did you have to decompress from “Hemingway and Gellhorn” to doing “Shadow Dancer”?
None. I went straight into it. That’s why I’ve got such a gut in the film. [He laughs.]
How hard was it to leave behind your role in “Shadow Dancer”?
I never find it hard. No, that’s not true. It depends. For me, acting is all about concentration. You immerse yourself in a role.
For instance, “Hemingway” took months and months of research. You can’t take that kind of character on without doing that. And you do end up baring yourself and thinking an awful lot about him and it. It can take a while to decompress.
And other times, it can be quicker. When people say, “Did you take the character home with you? Did the character stay with you?,” it’s more just focus and concentration on a particular thing or an aspect of a person’s character. That maybe takes a little time to shake off. It’s not specifically staying with the character. It’s just more getting out of a mindset because you’re used to looking at something in a particular way.
Do you think having a family helps ground you?
Yeah, but in some ways, it can be easier sometimes to work away from home, because you stay in the world. For something like [“Shadow Dancer”], which took only a few weeks, I wasn’t that far away. I was only in Dublin, which isn’t far from London, but you haven’t got very long, so to really do it justice, you need to be fully committee and in there. It’s good not to be stepping in and out. To commit and take a break afterwards is sometimes a better rhythm.
Do you think you have an image of playing cool and confident characters?
I look at character like Mac, and I don’t look at him as cool and confident. At the beginning, he might come across that way, but very soon, he’s quite vulnerable. For me, the most interesting thing to explore is that he’s now in this predicament, and he’s losing a grip. And that was the most interesting thing.
On the outside, yeah, he’s in MI5 and this and that, but that’s not really what we explored in that relationship. He’s kind of got himself in a situation where he’s kind of out his depth. It’s always more than one thing. “Cool and confident” sounds like there’s a clarity all the way through.
If you look at the characters I play, they’re always full of conflict. They’re always struggling at something. They’re never easily swimming through things. There’s not much to play if you’re doing that. There’s not much to act. You’re playing one thing, whereas if you’re struggling with something, if there’s conflict in the character, then you’ve always got more than one thing to play.
Mac is confident in the beginning, but when [Collette] gets into trouble, he begins to lose it a little bit. He’s lying around, trying to keep a grip on it. So I wouldn’t describe him as cool and confident.
When you were reading the script to “Shadow Dancer,” which scene did you think, “I can’t wait to see this on screen”?
I love the reveal at the end … Just the way that was done. I love seeing that. I love the fact that there were no words. I thought it was very cinematic.
For more info: “Shadow Dancer” website
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