Timing may be everything in Hollywood, but when Clive Owen agreed his latest film role a few years ago even he had no idea how closely the fictional thriller would play like present-day news.
In a case of art imitating life, The International is set in the murky world of international banking and was inspired by the early 1990s collapse of the scandal-plagued Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).
In an interview, Owen acknowledged the film could well resonate with audiences reeling from the global financial meltdown that has exposed mismanagement in the upper echelons of Wall Street.
"It's become unbelievably relevant," the English actor said. In the sophisticated thriller, Owen stars with Naomi Watts as law enforcement officials investigating a corrupt bank with sinister lending practices.
"The whole film is about this huge, faceless multi-billion-dollar bank, which, I believe to be corrupt and try to convince people, and try to bring them down.
"The big questions in the movie are: do banks use our money appropriately?" Owen added. "Can you trust them? Are they corrupt? Now the questions have been hugely to the fore in the last six months with what's been going on." Owen's profile has risen in recent years with appearances in a string of critical hits including Closer, where he starred opposite Julia Roberts, and Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron's futuristic drama set in Britain.
In The International, Owen plays Louis Salinger, an Interpol agent whose rabid conviction to expose the bank's mendacity threatens to derail his career. The film, directed by Germany's Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), and written by Eric Warren Singer, is loosely based on the BCCI scandal. The bank's collapse was one of the biggest corporate scandals of the 90s when it was revealed the bank laundered money for terrorists, trafficked arms and abetted nuclear proliferation. Watts, who chases the bankers across Europe and New York with Owens, said she took the role – after initially demurring following the birth of her first child – because of her co-star as well as the subject matter.
"Clive is just brilliant," she said. "But what I really love about this film is that it feels very current and reflective of our times."
Owen, meanwhile, said he was attracted to the film's script, which harked back to thrillers from the 1970s. "With all the research that this script was based on, what I liked was that it was like the 70s paranoid political thrillers that were based on fact and were sort of very intelligent and well-written, but were thrillers," he said.
In fact, next month he will be taking on institutions of moral complexity yet again in the drama Duplicity by the director of Michael Clayton, Tony Gilroy, and starring opposite Julia Roberts again. "I got on so well with her during Closer and I was so excited by this script and there was nobody better for it than Julia," Owen said.
And Owen, who became known to Americans as much as through smaller independent films as well as through the iconic BMW ads shot by filmmakers such as Ang Lee and Wong Kar-Wai, has emerged as a player in a pack of Brits currently beguiling Hollywood as Oscar season approaches, including actress Kate Winslet and Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle.
Owen's CV reflects his willingness to take on varied roles that are rarely one dimensional. "I've got to try and make you understand whatever I'm doing at any given point," he said. "Shooting someone, cheating on my wife, I'm going to try very hard to make you understand that. "I think of that as my job. It's never black-and-white. And that's why I'm always drawn to characters that have conflicts, because when you can do that you can play more than one thing."