Clive Owen may have started out on television, but he hasn't appeared on a series since 1996's "Sharman" — save for a hilarious self-parodying cameo on "Extras" for Ricky Gervais. Still, Owen respects his TV roots, including his first breakout role on the British series "Chancer" in 1990.
"I did a lot of television when I was young, and that was the first big series," he says. "That series got me going, really, and sort of launched me, and I had a great time with it. I did two seasons of that, and at that particular time in my life and my career, I decided I wanted to do other things and keep things as sort of mixed and varied as I could, and I went off and did other things — theater, smaller films." Small films like "Croupier," "Gosford Park" and "Children of Men." Certainly nothing to sneeze at.
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Now, almost 25 years later, Owen is happily taking to the small screen with "the Knick," playing Dr. John Thackery, lead surgeon in New York's Knickerbocker Hospital in the early 20th century. So what brought him back? Well, being directed by Steven Soderbergh didn't hurt. "Steven called me up when he had the first script, and he told me he was thinking about a 10-part television series. I've known Steven sort of, you know, for a number of years, and I'm a huge fan of his," Owen remembers. "But the reality is as an actor, when you come across a piece of material that sets you alight and reminds you of why you do what you do, that's the be-all and end-all. The fact that it's 20 hours of television, all it means to me is that I'm lucky enough to be involved in something that I'm very passionate about."
Owen admits he didn't always feel that way, given the time commitment — and that was even before the 10-episode series became a 20-episode series. "To be honest with you, before I started reading the script, I wasn't sure I wanted to commit to 10 hours of television playing the same part," he says. "I was shooting something else, sitting in a trailer. I started to read the script to get a taste of what it might be like, and 40 minutes later there was no way I was not going to do it, because it was such a beautifully written script and such an amazingly original part. I was never not going to do it."
Part of that appeal was the role of Thackery himself, an ambitious, pioneering surgeon with a few substance abuse issues bringing him down. "He's not a sort of leading character that's going to take people by the hand and lead them gently through a medical drama set in 1900," Owen says. "He's a very complex, difficult character. He's kind of redeemed by the fact that he's brilliant and he's passionate. He's about trying to forward the whole world of medicine and trying to save people's lives, and ultimately, you know, providing a huge service to people, generally, but he's a very difficult, complicated, functioning addict at the same time. So I just love the challenge of that, the idea of taking this character, and it's not about being likeable. It's not about making things easy. It's kind of challenging, and I personally, as an actor, love the challenge of taking that on."
Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter: @nedrick