Clive Owen On Channeling Bogart For ‘Monsieur Spade’ And What Classic Movie Posters He Has On His Wall

Loss and an awareness of our own mortality will visit us all, even iconic, laconic detectives guided by a strictly defined set of morals and codes. If we’re lucky, love will also come around to dazzle and confuse us as well. That’s the journey of Sam Spade on AMC’s Monsieur Spade, a limited series (with the door left open for more) that takes Humphrey Bogart’s character from the 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon and puts him on a new path that, at times, requires him to lean on a few mothballed instincts and that trusty moral compass.

Dexterously crafted by Scott Frank (The Queen’s Gambit) and Tom Fontana (Oz), Monsieur Spade is more than an excuse for Bogart superfan Clive Owen to play the now widowed ex-PI in the French countryside while being pulled into a twisty case involving a precocious girl, a mysterious boy, the church, spying neighbors, and of course, murder. What Frank, Fontana, and Owen have done is explore and expand a character who has been, for more than 80 years, an archetype for masculinity and cool.

In the below interview, which is running following the (season?) finale of the show, we spoke with Owen about finding the right amount of Bogart to bring to that endeavor, what other noir-inspired projects get wrong, whether it’s humbling to play older characters, the appeal of playing toward stoicism, and more.

When we spoke last time, you that you like to push yourself to uncomfortable places when you take on roles. What was uncomfortable about taking this on?

It’s a big challenge when you take a part on that’s very well-known. You’re following in the great Humphrey Bogart’s footsteps and you’re there to be shot at and compared to, so there is a challenge in that. Rather than do what probably I should have done, which is go, “I’m going to put my own spin on it and forget the original,” I did the opposite and leaned into the original because I was such a fan of it and I love the genre and that style. I went the other way and said, “I want to feel the origins of Spade. I want to feel the origins of The Maltese Falcon in this project.”

Is there risk with this one because you care so much about the source material and the character? Is it almost like the challenge of not letting yourself down?

Yeah, but then to be challenged and put yourself in that place is always a good thing. To be a little scared and to have that, is a healthy thing. And when I got the scripts off Scott (Frank), my big thing was, “Okay, I’ve got the language here,” because he’s such a great writer of dialogue, “It’s now about me living up to that.” That’s not always the case. That’s often not the case. You’re often doing stuff where you’re trying to breathe life into something, and here’s the situation where you go, “It’s all there for you. Now don’t mess it up.”

How do you decide what to add, what to subtract, how to make sure you’re not playing just a Humphrey Bogart impression, but still making it your own?

What I did is I really looked at him vocally of what he does, his rhythms, his intonations. I wasn’t trying to sound the same as him, but I wanted to understand how he shaped dialogue when he does his things. And I learned some key things that I applied, and when I talked to Scott, I told him what I was doing and I said, “Don’t freak out. It’s not going to be an impersonation, but I’m really leaning into the rhythms and intonations and I want to get… not only because it’s good for noir and the origins of the part,” but luckily Scott really, really nailed the style of speech.

And I discovered some key things about Bogart. I discovered that he actually speaks super-fast and you think he’s laconic and laid back, but actually he’s super nimble with dialogue and can really rip through it at some speed, and in actual fact, if the dialogue’s good enough, that’s when it works best. And I remember calling Scott when I realized this and said, “A lot of the big speeches, a lot of the scenes with a lot of dialogue, it feels like it will really sing and play when we put pace on it.” And that also is very period, because we’re currently living in a time where everyone’s talking about their feelings, wanting to express their feelings. It’s very important that everyone has that. Characters like Sam Spade, they didn’t do that. And ultimately, it really plays and sings when you don’t hang about and you don’t overindulge and you don’t over-emote.

Is that something that resonates with you personally, being more stoic, less open about emotion? Are you the type of person who shares your emotions more or are you more laconic, laid-back?

It certainly appeals to me in an acting sense. That’s the kind of acting I’m a fan of, where you’re discovering things. For me, acting’s all about subtext, and you’re saying or appearing to be something but you’re feeling something else. That, to me, is when acting’s fun, when you’ve got the two things going on at the same time.

Root one emotion in acting for me is never that attractive. I don’t like watching it, I don’t like doing it. All of us are much more complicated than that. The joy of acting is when you can be playing both things all the time, so there’s always something else going on. And I think characters like Sam Spade, they’re not unfeeling people. They do have deep feelings, but it’s just not over-expressed, and the joy is to try to show it without overdoing it.

Where you’re playing him at this point in his life, obviously this is a man who’s being made aware of his mortality. He’s feeling the power of loss and the power of love. Can you tell me a little about the appeal of playing a character at this point in his life as opposed to right after The Maltese Falcon?

Well, I think the most interesting thing in this series that you wouldn’t expect from him is that he’s been opened up because he fell in love, and we discover how he ended up staying in France, and it was because he fell in love with somebody and then lost that person.

And so we instantly are meeting him in a more sensitive, opened-up state than is usually the case with someone like Spade. And gradually, during the show, he’s brought back to his old ways and he’s brought out of his quiet life because ultimately, these characters, when they discover wrongdoing, they have a very strong moral compass and they’ve got to get in there and do the right thing. And that’s where we find it.

And there’s great fun to be played with the fact that he’s aging and the fact that he’s got to give up smoking and the fact that he’s put the gun away, he’s put the hat away. He’s trying to live a different life, but you still feel the origins of Dashiell Hammett’s character.

You’ve played many dynamic characters. Is it humbling at all to play a character who is in his older years and who’s not necessarily considering himself a man of action anymore? Obviously, there’s still action in this — he throws a few wonderful punches and some great kicks. I love the interrogation scene. But is it humbling and does it make you feel older?

No, no. It’s not humbling at all. No. It is a reality. I am getting older, but also that was the spin we were always doing. The interrogation scene you’re talking about, which I adored doing because the writing was so sharp and incisive, I relished playing those scenes, and they’re the times where you see the old Sam Spade. And I’m not going to lie; when Scott gave me the opportunity to do those kinds of scenes, I relished them.

Could you ever envision a life for yourself, like what Sam’s going through; you go live in another country, divorce yourself completely from your career and your life, retire like that? Is that a bucket list item for you?

Now and again, for sure, but no, I couldn’t do that all the time. I enjoy what I do too much. I think a bit of that is great, and I certainly would welcome some time doing that, but I couldn’t live a full life like that, no. It energizes me to work. It keeps me alive and active and interested.

Why it is that you think that this character and this film have endured for, at this point, almost 85 years?

I think it’s something to do with what we’ve talked about before about the restraint and the not overdoing it, not being sentimental, not over-explaining it. I think it’s something to do with that. I think it has something to do with a very strong morality, in terms of however hard-boiled he is, however tough he is, we know that he’s trying to do the right thing. And if something’s wronged around him, he’s got to get involved and try and help because these characters, they have a strong moral compass and they’re trying to do the right thing, even though on the surface, it looks like they’re tough and acerbic, they have big hearts and they do feel things and want to do the right thing.

You’ve been involved with a few noir-ish projects. Of the ones outside of those — films that other people make that take a stab at this noir-ish world and try to take the influence of this film, what do you think they get wrong? Without naming other films, obviously.

I think you’ve got to approach it in a fresh, alive way, and to be too much of a pastiche, and just to hit all the cliches isn’t enough. You’ve got to breathe life into it. You’ve got to feel that what is happening is happening now for these characters, and that we’re not stuck in some respectful, historical, pale imitation. You’ve got to make it feel, it’s happening as you’re watching it.

You have said before that you have a Maltese Falcon poster on your wall. I’m curious what other posters you have on your wall from movies. What other movies mean that much to you?

I used to collect movie posters and then I stopped and sort of drifted into something else. But what I still have, I have a brilliant original, French original, of The Big Sleep, which is half of Bogart’s face, half of Bacall’s face, which is one of my favorites. I’ve got a small Casablanca, and I’ve actually got, I think, a pretty rare original of Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman.

All episodes of ‘Monsieur Spade’ are available to stream now on AMC+.