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Clive Owen, the Best James Bond Who Never Was

The Oscar-nominated star, now playing Bill Clinton in ‘Impeachment,’ has spent much of his career being defined by the role he didn’t get. It’s a classic example of how audiences assume they know best what actors should be doing with their talents.

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

Some actors will forever be associated with the roles they didn’t get. Gen-Xers remember that Tom Selleck was going to be Indiana Jones and Eric Stoltz was briefly Marty McFly. But Clive Owen is a very special case. For about 20 years now, we the viewing public have assumed that he should have been James Bond. Why wasn’t he? We’re never quite sure. Maybe he was offered it and turned it down? Maybe he was passed over for Daniel Craig? Maybe he never even was under consideration? 

However it turned out, the Oscar-nominated actor has spent the bulk of his career dealing with a strange assumption we’ve put on him: We live in this surreal parallel universe where he’s not James Bond and we can’t accept it. The assumption follows him around, unfairly, and I think it’s permanently colored our impression of the career he has had.

To this day, 007 shows up in commentary around his recent roles. Starting today, he’ll play Bill Clinton in Impeachment: American Crime Story, which is all about the former president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein), yet reviews continue to talk about the role he didn’t land years earlier. “Owen is a fascinating pick for Clinton,” IndieWire’s Ben Travers wrote. “Embedded in the public consciousness as a British charmer — so much so that he spoofed James Bond rumors by playing ‘006’ in the Pink Panther reboot before extending the gag throughout an entire feature film in Shoot ‘Em Up — it takes more than a few minutes to adjust to the actor channeling that same energy into a breathy Arkansas drawl and gentle office shuffle.” 

There’s nothing wrong with Travers bringing up Bond — really, it just underlines the phantom limb Owen has been carrying around for a while. Even though he’s never played James Bond, we envision him in the part so effortlessly that we complete the picture for him. But maybe it’s actually better that he never was the infamous British superagent. The 007 movie we’ve made starring him in our mind is better than any actual film could ever be.

Owen wanted to be an actor since he was a kid. “I think everybody knew I loved acting, but they didn’t think I would actually get into a drama school and do it,” he said in a 2009 profile, later adding, “I don’t think anybody took it seriously. There was another kid at my school, Dominic, who wanted to be a guitarist and me and him were like the two freaks that were being ‘unrealistic.’ But I was really, really stubborn about it.” Owen attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, working on stage and in British television before landing the part of Jack Manfred, a struggling writer looking for work, in Croupier in the late 1990s. It was a hard-edged British crime drama that doubled as a dark character study, and it was a launching pad for the English actor in the States. 

“Although Mr. Owen bears fleeting resemblances to Dylan McDermott, Nicolas Cage and Bruce Willis,” New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote in his review, “the actor he most strongly recalls is the young Michael Caine, who purveyed a similarly offbeat blend of iciness and affability three decades ago.” Croupier had been directed by Mike Hodges, who also made the original Get Carter, which starred Caine, so the connection made some sense: Both young actors knew how to convey a classy, dangerous demeanor. 

But it was Owen’s wardrobe in Croupier that inspired audiences to make another connection: Jack wears a tuxedo as a croupier, and he looked awfully good in it. “Some studio people saw me wearing a bowtie in Croupier and then I did a series of web adverts for BMW,” Owen recalled, according to an interview dug up by the unofficial James Bond site MI6. “They thought, ‘Black tie, fast cars, he’s James Bond.’” But in the same interview, Owen said he only had a 15-minute meeting with the Bond producers: “[They] mentioned loads of exciting things, but at the end, there wasn’t a single fact involved. It was all a hell of a lot of excitement about absolutely nothing. I’ve got a life, and I’m not going to have it turned upside down by Hollywood. When they make me an offer, then we’ll talk.”

It was around this time that the then-current James Bond, Pierce Brosnan, had just appeared in his third 007 picture, 1999’s The World Is Not Enough. The Brosnan Bond movies were incredibly just-okay — a little too glib, a little too inconsequential — and as happens every time someone in the modern era takes on the character, almost immediately fans start thinking about who should play him next. And often, those fans are looking for a Bond who’s not like the current Bond — or they want an actor who embodies what they think Bond should be. 

But it wasn’t just Owen’s bowtie in Croupier that made him seem ideal for the part. As opposed to Brosnan’s somewhat smug 007 — his Bond knew he was a ladies’ man — Owen possessed a snarling edge. He didn’t feel polished — he exuded a menacing energy. Patrick Marber, who wrote the play Closer — which originally starred Owen at the Royal National Theatre in 1997 and was later turned into the film that earned the actor his only Oscar nomination to date — once said, “Most of us go into showbiz in order to be admired and affirmed by complete strangers. Clive doesn’t seem to have this terrible flaw. He has no sentimental need to be liked by the audience.” If Brosnan was the squeaky-clean class president, Owen seemed like the bad boy who sat in the back of the room. 

There have been different stories over the years about just how close Owen got to being James Bond before Daniel Craig was chosen in 2005, a decision the producers spent 18 months mulling after Brosnan completed his final 007 film, 2002’s Die Another Day. Oddsmakers back then thought Owen was the clear frontrunner — especially after the acclaim he received for playing the loathsome Larry in the film version of Closer — and so Craig’s casting was a bit of a shock. 

So what happened? In one version of the story, Owen told the producers he wasn’t interested. In another, Owen wanted profit participation in the movies, which the producers nixed. And then, there’s the story that he was never approached about playing 007 at all. “I didn’t turn it down,” Owen insisted in 2007. “I was never offered it. It was all hype. My wanting the role was never an issue. It was all spun. By whom I have no idea.” As for the notion that he would have been perfect because he looked the part, Owen responded, “That’s ridiculous. That’s where you get bad James Bonds if you cast a guy who looks right. You cast the best actor.”

Not that Owen hasn’t had fun playing with fans’ assumptions that he’d have been a great Bond — or that he’d desperately wanted the role. As Travers pointed out, Owen’s role in 2006’s The Pink Panther, with Steve Martin as Clouseau, was as a superspy cheekily named Agent 006. And in the following year’s maniacally gonzo action-thriller Shoot ‘Em Up, his hard-boiled character fires one of Bond’s signature guns, only for it to jam at the worst possible moment, prompting him to declare it “a piece of crap.” Even if Owen had secretly been mad about being passed over for 007, spoofing the association on screen was a fun way of deflating any tension around it.  

Granted, when you write about cultural perceptions of actors, you’re often talking about something incredibly ephemeral — a sense of an idea based on anecdotal evidence, gut feelings and dumb hunches. But I don’t think I’m going too much out on a limb suggesting that Owen has never fully shaken audiences’ impression that he should have been Bond — and that, consequently, the career he’s put together is the one he’s had to carve out in the face of that disappointment. For instance, a 2012 piece in The Independent about the actor was headlined “Clive Owen Steps Out of the Shadow of James Bond.” And when The New York Times profiled him three years later while making his Broadway debut in the Harold Pinter play Old Times, the paper’s Twitter account focused on his Bond connection, too: 

It was almost as if the world couldn’t move on from the fact that Owen wasn’t James Bond. Were we mad at the injustice or sad that he’d somehow not lived up to his potential? Whichever the case, it speaks to a strange phenomenon among moviegoers where we assume that what we think an actor should do is also, marvel of marvels, exactly what they want to do with their careers. And because it seemed so certain that Owen was going to be James Bond, the reality that he wasn’t ended up registering as a letdown. Critics were complicit in this: Take The Guardian’s Philip French, who praised Owen in the excellent Spike Lee crime-thriller Inside Man by describing him as the actor “who many think should now be playing Bond.” It wasn’t just that Owen hadn’t been picked for Bond — it was as if it’d been taken away from him. 

I don’t know if that public perception is a frustration for Owen, but his subsequent work has often been stellar. Not just Inside Man, where he has a blast playing an expert thief matching wits with Denzel Washington’s shrewd detective, but also his reluctant hero in Children of Men, one of the century’s best sci-fi films. He can do grizzled noir in Sin City then play a classy, dashing British agent in the underrated rom-com crime film Duplicity. (In his review, MTV’s Kurt Loder opened by saying, “If Clive Owen had taken over the role of James Bond, rather than Daniel Craig — who hasn’t yet brought to it anything like the romantic flair that Owen could have — the result, with a lot of luck, might have been a movie like Duplicity.”) And he was the star of the gritty, atmospheric series The Knick, where Owen once again favored the type of complicated character he loves playing. 

“They’re like tightrope walks,” he said in 2019 of the prickly roles he prefers. “You’re dealing in areas that are really difficult to keep people onside with. I want to try to take you on this very difficult journey, it’ll be a bumpy ride — but I find that exciting.”

I haven’t had a chance to see Impeachment yet, but playing the Leader of the Free World — especially one that, I presume, won’t always be shown in the best light — very much seems to speak to that same desire. We shouldn’t have been surprised that this is the route Owen would take with his career. Jack in Croupier — the role that first brought him to many people’s attention — wasn’t a particularly lovable fellow, and since then he’s rarely portrayed straight-up good guys. (One of the best parts of Children of Men is how ill-suited his former idealist is at being the man who must protect the planet’s last pregnant woman.) He truly is someone who doesn’t worry about being loved on screen — and he doesn’t like repeating himself.

“There are some actors who want to hone one thing. They want to do that and they do it very well,” he said in 2015. “When I started in the theater, the joy for me was playing different parts, and I get set alight by different people and different worlds. The biggest joy for me is jumping around and going from that to this to that, never feeling that I’m any one thing — because I’m not, and we as people aren’t. At this point in my career, I’m just constantly trying to renew and give myself new challenges and push myself to uncomfortable places, trying to get better.”

Owen can say things like that as much as he wants, and yet a portion of the viewing public will still always think, “Yeah, but it’s a shame he didn’t get James Bond.” The truth is that, in many ways, the direction that franchise has gone since Craig was cast really would have fit him nicely. Starting with Casino Royale, 007 has been a darker, less overtly lovable character — he’s a man riddled with demons. Craig has been a superb Bond, but the somber tenor of his installments only further strengthens the pro-Owen camp’s belief that their guy would have been excellent. Some fans have even crafted homemade trailers that merge footage of Owen from other movies into Craig’s James Bond films. You can’t say Owen doesn’t look the part.

It’s doubtful that the Bond producers will consider Owen once Craig finishes his contract with this fall’s No Time to Die. (When the film hits U.S. theaters, Owen will have just turned 57.) That ship has probably sailed, although anyone who’s noticed how much Craig came to resent being shackled to 007 can’t help but think that maybe Owen ended up with the better arrangement. 

Even now, you’ll see people on Twitter saying how much they wished Clive Owen had been James Bond — it’s a tantalizing what-if that will never be sullied by reality. For years, journalists and moviegoers have debated who should be the next Bond. Maybe Idris Elba? Maybe a woman? (Maybe Lashana Lynch, who inherits the 007 designation in No Time to Die, will be a permanent replacement?) But if I was an actor, I’d almost rather be the next Clive Owen — the guy everybody wanted to be the new James Bond. 

Think about it: With the exception of George Lazenby, every actor who’s made a James Bond movie has made at least one bad one. By comparison, Clive Owen’s track record as 007 is spotless — he’s only been the star of the perfect James Bond movie you’ve constructed in your imagination. Nothing tops that: He gets the compliment of having people think he’d be a marvelous Bond without having to go through all the trouble of actually playing him. 

Some may watch Impeachment and lament that Owen missed his chance at the role he was born to play — that we’re living in the less-ideal timeline where he’s not. I’d argue the opposite: We’re actually in the better one. We got to see all that Clive Owen accomplished because he wasn’t Bond.