For his Croupier audition, Clive Owen listened into a phone, then stood, wordlessly, behind a makeshift roulette table. Finally, he recited a voice-over for director Mike Hodges. ”I remember thinking it was an unusual screen test — usually you get lots of dialogue,” says the 35-year-old Londoner. ”Mike was more interested in other things.”
True: As Jack Manfred, a cash-starved writer who works nights as a casino dealer, the dashing Owen boasts an exquisite poker face. And his elegant voice-overs lend a roiling, ominous undercurrent to the critically lauded noir, which has become something of a sleeper smash. ”We literally filmed long silences of me just doing roulette work — but thinking the voice-overs,” the actor says. ”So when Mike laid them on, they’d be a bit more vibrant.” The gamble paid off in a chilling portrait of an emotionally frozen novelist who heats up his life with women, scams, and fights, then retreats inside his head to chronicle the outcome.
Though the film made barely a ripple when released last year in the U.K., it has grossed $1.5 million in the U.S. since opening in April as part of Shooting Gallery’s indie-film showcase series; in its 10th weekend, the word-of-mouth success cracked the top 20 for the first time. And suddenly Owen — who costarred with Halle Berry in The Rich Man’s Wife but is best known Stateside for the PBS detective series Second Sight — is being compared to Sean Connery, Humphrey Bogart, Terence Stamp, and Robert Mitchum. ”There’s a mysterious quality to him. He had the right look — something kind of sexual,” says Hodges. ”And his voice is like good music, it’s hypnotic.”
Owen, who’s married with two young daughters, spent a few weeks in croupier school in order to master such gaming skills as clearing the table and handling chips, though a double was enlisted for some of the moves. Coincidentally, the actor will again be using his hands in his next film, Greenfingers, based on the true story of a group of prison inmates who become champion gardeners. And despite weeks spent dealing cards with the ease of a magician, Owen won’t likely be visiting any casinos soon. His favorite wager? ”Horse racing.”