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Clive Owen says acting with kids makes him a better actor

The acclaimed actor and rising child star Jaeden Lieberher ("St. Vincent," "Midnight Special") talk about bonding while making "The Confirmation."
Clive Owen Jaeden LieberherThe Confirmation

“He’s not that intimidating,” Jaeden Lieberher says of Clive Owen, his co-star in the new indie dramedy “The Confirmation.” For one thing, the actor is a pro at sharing the screen with big names. Born in 2003, he’s already acted alongside Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts (“St. Vincent”), as well as Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst and Joel Edgerton (“Midnight Special”).

But in “The Confirmation,” from “Nebraska” scribe Bob Nelson, it’s mostly just Lieberher and Owens. They play a father and son — one down and out and shaggy, the other quiet and over-protected — spending a weekend together, which turns into a sometimes amusing, sometimes harrowing search for the former’s expensive and beloved carpentry tools, which have been stolen.

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Given his track record, Lieberher knew not to freak out at sharing a movie with the acclaimed star of “Croupier,” “Children of Men” and “The Knick.” “I didn’t look at him as Clive Owen,” Lieberher tells us. They would spend a lot of time hanging out, even when they weren’t shooting. “Things became natural between us. We’d just talk about normal life instead of the script.”

Owen is no stranger to acting alongside kids, having done it in “The Boys Are Back” and “Intruders.” He isn’t someone who avoids young co-stars. In fact, they help his acting.

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“Child actors tend to work more on instinct,” Owen explains. “If you do too much acting in front of them, if you’re too controlling, too honed, coming in with your thing already worked out, then a child actor can make you look like an actor, because they’re more open.”

Still, Owen found that Lieberher wasn’t a typical child actor. “To be honest with you, he’s the full-deal already,” he says. “He’s already very knowing, very honed. Unusually for a child actor, he’s incredibly restrained. That’s something you tend to learn when you’re much older: that you don’t have to say everything with your acting. He innately understands that.”

Lieberher really tries to make sure he doesn’t overact; his performances in “St. Vincent,” “Midnight Special” and “The Confirmation” are very precise and clipped, though still vulnerable.

“The characters I’ve played seem mature or unusual,” Lieberher admits. “But deep down they’re just normal kids. That makes it easier for me to become them onscreen. I don’t really think they’re so different from any other kid.”

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Also helping was Bob Nelson’s script, which doesn’t go the expected maudlin route. Our two heroes’ bonding is always grounded, even funny, and features Owen’s character taking his son to some darkish, grungy places in a Midwestern town overrun with overcast skies and impoverished families.

“It was incredibly economical. There was no fat on it,” Owen says of the screenplay. “It was a touching story, but it was touching without being sentimental. It didn’t slip in schmaltz. It was more moving than if you had a more sentimental ending. It’s more real, in a way.”

Lieberher is, along with “Room”’s Jacob Tremblay, one of the big child actors at the moment, but he’s trying not to dwell on what’s ahead.

“I don’t like to think about what I want to do in the future,” Lieberher says. “When I read a script, I know I want to do it. I want to do things that will help me grow and make me better. I’m not looking for anything specific.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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