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TIFF 2011

Clive Owen could be TIFF's poster boy for unsung heroes Add to ...

The final countdown is on for Thursday’s kick-off to the Toronto International Film Festival, and every film buff in this soon-to-be-chaotic town is already drooling to get a glimpse of the A-list – the Georges, the Rachels, the Brads and the Ryans.

But the festival also attracts hundreds of other talented stars, and they’re not B-list. They include great actors who just don’t seem to attract the frenzied crowds or the shutterbugs who relentlessly pursue the stars dining, partying or walking the red carpets. Actors, for instance, like the acclaimed Tilda Swinton, coming to town to promote a film about the mother of a boy who massacres his high-school classmates – controversial subject matter that audiences may shy away from. Or the brash Jason Patric (grandson of Jackie Gleason) who is brilliant this year in the Canadian film Keyhole, but flopped in the action thriller The Losers last year.

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But the biggest unsung master of his craft at TIFF this year may be Clive Owen, an actor who gained Hollywood’s respect with his performance in Croupier, was Oscar-nominated for the ensemble drama Closer, and was robbed, many felt, of an Oscar nomination for his work in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men.

As celebrities go, the working-class lad from Coventry is something of an enigma. Rumoured to have been in the running to succeed Pierce Brosnan as the next James Bond (he lost out to fellow Brit Daniel Craig), the 46-year-old is the unflappable go-to guy for a steady stream of top directors, from Mike Nichols to Spike Lee, who say they can always count on Owen to nail characters who are sympathetic but potentially explosive.

But despite critical acclaim for his acting chops, the classically trained Owen nevertheless remains just below popular radar, quietly churning out both indie films and blockbusters. His work ranges from the cult film Sin City to historical pieces such as Return of the Native, the late Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, and last year’s Trust, in which he plays a father whose teenage daughter is stalked by an Internet predator.

So why the low profile, despite a prolific, three-decade career that includes almost 60 film, TV and stage credits?

Former Friends star David Schwimmer, who directed Trust with Owen, says it’s simple: The actor shuns the limelight. When not working, he prefers to focus on raising his two young daughters, Hannah and Eve, and spending time with his wife of 16 years, actress Sarah-Jane Fenton. He’s rarely snapped by the paparazzi and lives an uncluttered, quiet life in Harwich, England.

When Owen is working, he’s focused on, yes, the work.

“Clive is one of the hardest-working, multi-layered actors I’ve had the pleasure to work with,” said Schwimmer. “He’s a consummate professional, who shows up on set every day with his A-game. I was absolutely thrilled when he agreed to be part of my little movie. In fact, I could hardly believe it.”

Owen explained his decision to join in on Trust as a personal one. At a press conference for the movie, he said he could relate to an anguished dad trying to protect a teenage daughter who is about to make one of the biggest mistakes of her young life.

“My kids are of an age right now where it’s all about the Internet, and relating to friends on the Internet,” he said at the time. “So the script just really resonated with me. I found it very moving.”

Owen has said that’s his main motivation – to “tell stories that speak to me.” And so he’s eschewed the usual formula of going from small films to bigger and bigger blockbusters to instead carve out an offbeat, idiosyncratic career, deliberately choosing disparate parts in a mixed bag of genres.

This weekend, for instance, Owen’s back in Toronto doing the media circuit on two new films – a shoot-’em-up espionage thriller called Killer Elite (also starring Jason Statham and Robert De Niro) and a horror/psychological drama, Intruders, in which he is once again a distraught dad, trying to protect a 13-year-old daughter who has been assaulted in their home.

After that comes HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn, in which Owen plays the Nobel-prize-winning writer during his marriage to journalist Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman). Then he’ll switch gears yet again, starring in a film directed by James Marsh ( Man on Wire) called Shadow Dancer, a genre thriller set in tumultuous Northern Ireland.

Owen’s mixture of tenderness and smoulder gives him the versatility to play a wide variety of roles: great for a working actor, but perhaps a detriment to mega-stardom. All of which makes him the ideal poster boy for a festival that is a unique blend of commercial films with artistic cachet and art-house films for the masses.

IN GOOD COMPANY

Clive Owen is one unsung actor at TIFF – but he’s in good company with these fellow scene-stealers coming to the festival.

Bryan Cranston

The Emmy winner has drawn rave reviews as Walter White, a high-school chemistry teacher with terminal lung cancer, in the AMC drama Breaking Bad. The show has netted the American film and TV star three consecutive Emmy Awards. At TIFF, he stars alongside Ryan Gosling in the thriller Drive as the younger man’s long-suffering mentor and friend.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

The boyish-looking actor broke out in 2009’s charming 500 Days of Summer, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. In the cancer comedy 50/50, showing at TIFF, he is a young man battling for his life with the help of his overbearing mom (Angelica Huston) and his rough-around-the-edges best friend (Seth Rogen). Gordon-Levitt carries the film with finesse, delivering a touching but humorous performance in a film about a disease that is anything but funny.

Catherine Keener

Nominated for two best supporting actress Oscars for Being John Malkovich and Capote, Keener is Owen’s female equivalent – the actress who can play it all, from a grieving mom in Trust to her two new TIFF entries, the romantic comedies The Oranges and Peace, Love & Misunderstanding.

Juno Temple

Only 22, the British actress has already won widespread acclaim for her work in serious dramas ( Atonement, Notes on a Scandal) and raucous comedies ( Year One). At TIFF, she’s in another U.S. comedy, Killer Joe (currently in competition at Venice) with co-stars Matthew McConaughey and Emile Hirsch. She’s also landed a part in next summer’s star-laden blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises from director Christopher Nolan.

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