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Clive Owen on playing Sam Spade in the AMC series 'Monsieur Spade'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

At first, AMC's new series "Monsieur Spade" may sound like a fish-out-of-water story. Sam Spade, the trench-coated San Francisco private eye stranded in small-town France.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LES FEUILLES MORTES")

JACQUES BREL: (Singing in French).

SIMON: Within a few minutes, you see he's happy. He's found a place to fit as he tries to quit smoking and recover from the loss of a love. Then he gets called back into service.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MONSIEUR SPADE")

CARA BOSSOM: (As Teresa) Mr. Spade.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING STEPS)

CLIVE OWEN: (As Sam Spade) Teresa?

BOSSOM: (As Teresa) Help me.

SIMON: "Monsieur Spade" is created by Scott Frank and Tom Fontana, the executive producer. And starring as Sam Spade is Clive Owen, the esteemed British actor who joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OWEN: No problem. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Why did you want to play Sam Spade of all characters?

OWEN: I'm actually a huge fan of the genre. I'm a big fan of the Dashiell Hammett book. I'm a big fan of the movie. I've actually got an original "Maltese Falcon" on my wall at home. So when Scott Frank and Tom Fontana called me up and pitched me the whole idea, I'd turn around and took a picture of the poster and said, you've come to the right guy.

SIMON: Anyone who plays Spade has to deal with the shadow of Humphrey Bogart?

OWEN: Yes, they do.

SIMON: And how did you do that?

OWEN: I did probably the opposite of what a lot of people do. I think a lot of actors would think, I want to go in there and put my personal spin on it and make this character my own. I wanted to go in and just be very faithful to the original source material. I'm a huge Bogart fan, so I used it as an opportunity to go back, watch all the films, listen to his cadences, his rhythms and try and use them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MALTESE FALCON")

HUMPHREY BOGART: (As Samuel Spade) When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of me. He was your partner, and you're supposed to do something about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MONSIEUR SPADE")

OWEN: (As Sam Spade) People come to you with their problems, and you end up inheriting those problems. But you're good at fixing them, so the problems keep coming.

You know, we're taking it into the early '60s in the south of France. The guy still has to have the origins and feel like the guy's traveled from that time in San Francisco. So - and because I'm in France and working predominantly with French actors, I needed a kind of - I needed a base. I needed a grounding. And Bogart helped me do that.

SIMON: He seems to be happy in France. What brings him there?

OWEN: Well, we join the story, he's been given a mission of going to deliver a young girl to her parents, and it doesn't quite go as planned. And - but during that trip that we see in flashbacks, he meets somebody and ends up falling in love. So we jump between sort of the mid-'50s and early '60s and see that he's actually settled there. And he's trying at the beginning of the thing to live a quiet life.

SIMON: I want to say this carefully, but this series contains, I think, probably the only genuinely funny prostate exam scene I've ever seen.

OWEN: (Laughter) I think that Scott is playing around with a lot of the cliches that come with these kind of characters in noir things. So, at the - you know, there is a prostate exam, and he's told he's got to give up smoking. So we take away the smoking. There's - my line to Scott throughout the whole series was, I've been duped. I've been duped. I don't get the hat. I don't get the coat. I don't get the gun. I have to give up smoking. Like, I want to play Sam Spade. What is this?

SIMON: He's confronting the messy business of mortality in himself in a way, isn't he?

OWEN: He certainly is. Yeah. And it's a nice spin on it. Because having been attached - years ago, I was - a studio got the rights for me to play Chandler's Marlowe. And we tried for a number of years to get a really good script together. And it was very difficult because I think with noir that everybody feels that they know it. It's so familiar. And as soon as you start to do the cliches, it feels a little like people go on the back foot, and they go, oh yeah, I know what this is. I think taking that as a thing of an older Sam Spade, who's not quite the guy who was, totally in a new environment, trying to live a quiet life, it already spins noir into something different and sort of reinvigorates it in a way.

SIMON: Is this a particularly propitious time to bring Sam Spade back?

OWEN: Because?

SIMON: Well, I want you to finish the sentence.

OWEN: (Laughter) there is a reason that these characters are still around. We still talk about Marlowe and Spade. And why is that? I mean, I was shocked when someone pointed out - like, "The Maltese Falcon" is nearly 80 years old, which is crazy to me. But you know, you have to ask, why are they around? And I suppose they're kind of moral people. They're guys that are very, very tough, but they have to do the right thing. So in - you know, in our series and in this situation, he's trying to live a quiet life, but if things are wrong and things are bad, he can't help himself. He has to go in and deal with it. And we know he's going to try and do the right thing. And I think ultimately, however tough, hard-boiled, however mean he can be to people, you know that he's trying to be decent, and I think we like that.

SIMON: Do you think lifting Spade out of his customary environs helps us see him more clearly?

OWEN: I wanted it to feel like the origins of the guy who was that guy. And I wanted to, you know, really dig into that great '40s noir thing, but just to do it in a different context. But it was tricky because I'm surrounded by French actors. So I'm not in San Francisco. I'm not surrounded by people doing, you know, that kind of '40s accent. But I wanted embedded in that, so - that's 'cause I wanted you to feel that that's where he'd come from.

SIMON: Can Sam Spade be happy?

OWEN: No. Can anybody?

SIMON: Ooh. You just put a dagger in my heart I wasn't expecting...

OWEN: (Laughter).

SIMON: I hope. I mean, are you pretty happy in life?

OWEN: That's a big word. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said, you know, happiness is about just finding things you enjoy doing and keep doing them so that you don't have to think about whether you're happy or not.

SIMON: Clive Owen, happily, is "Monsieur Spade" now on AMC, streaming on AMC+. Thank you so much for being with us.

OWEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Weekend Edition Saturday
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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