"You've got to take the audience to quite an intense place ... doing that is as hard as doing a page of dialogue," Clive Owen said.

Story highlights

Clive Owen has carved out a career portraying an intense man of thought and action

He has starred in "Children of Men," "Closer" and "Inside Man"

He plays John Farrow in the upcoming psychologically driven horror-thriller "Intruders"

Owen says it's important to build up trust with a child actor

CNN  — 

Clive Owen isn’t the leading man actor normally described as dashing and ruggedly handsome when he enters the room.

Sure, the movie star charm and warmth is there, but when Owen sits down with a group of reporters, it’s as a father who knows terror.

After being introduced to American audiences in 2000 with “Croupier,” Owen has carved out a career in films portraying an intense, if disheveled, man of thought and action in “Children of Men,” “Closer” and “Inside Man.” He’s also shown the ability to be a little less thoughtful with fun, ultraviolent flicks “Shoot ‘Em Up” and “Sin City.”

In the new psychologically driven horror-thriller “Intruders,” which opened March 30, Owen plays John Farrow, father to a 13-year-old daughter terrorized by the tormenting being “Hollow Face,” who wishes to possess her and might be connected to a family secret. Meanwhile, in another country, a young boy is experiencing the same phenomenon. As the children’s stories begin to take shape and come together, the Hollow Face mystery is unraveled, as is Farrow’s family unit.

Along with the online sexual predator film “Trust” – and to some degree the single-parent drama “The Boys Are Back” – “Intruders” seems to mark a new chapter of Owen’s career playing fathers who often feel powerless.

Owen sat down with CNN to discuss his portrayal as a father and his own real-life experience as one. He also talks about what terrified him as a child and as an adult, and the power of secrets in families.

CNN: Why do audiences respond to seeing children terrified?

Clive Owen: Because we remember being terrified, probably. … Bad dreams and nightmares, when you’re very young, are very intense experiences. I remember it, and I’ve seen it in my own children. I think, over time, you learn to process it, and you wake up very quickly and can figure out what’s real and what isn’t real. But for a child, it can really throw you off center.

CNN: How important do you think family secrets are?

Owen: I think that we all have them. I think that’s the truth. I think that this is a very personal film to Juan Carlos and happened to him when he was young and related to secrets that his family had and that’s why he wanted to explore them in this film.

CNN: Do you think it’s important to keep them or is it detrimental?

Owen: I think you have to take each one at a time. I think sometimes it is maybe better to get things out in the open.

CNN: What scared you as a kid? What scares you now?

Owen: I wasn’t that sort of a fearful kid, really. I remember having nightmares, but I never had recurring nightmares or got scared at night. I wasn’t that kind of child. When people say to me, what scares me now, it’s without doubt, the sort of welfare and well-being of my children, really. I think that’s the one thing that you kind of don’t have much control over – just fearful that they’re going to be OK and they’re going to be alright.

CNN: As opposed to roles where your body has taken a beating, does this kind of psychological role beat up your mind at all when the threat is from within?

Owen: That’s a good question because it’s harder work than you think. You’ve got to take the audience to quite an intense place and sometimes doing that is as hard as doing a page of dialogue. Because if you fall short, the thing doesn’t work. You have to get to get to a level of intensity. That’s why I thought Ella [Ella Purnell, who plays Owen’s daughter Mia in “Intruders”] was so good in the movie – because she, in some ways, really holds that together. It’s her emotional terror that we’re kind of gripped by as the film goes on.

CNN: Can you talk a little bit about how your character growing up has unresolved issues with his mother that affected his parenting skills when he became an adult?

Owen: I think there’s absolutely no question the central theme is that passing on fears to your children is a very real and truthful thing. … I’ve got a friend … and the mother is scared of dogs, and the kids are now terrified of dogs. … That’s a very simplistic version, but I think that kids are very sensitive and alive to what’s going on within people and specifically, their parents.

CNN: Have you passed on any fears to your kids?

Owen: Only good things!

CNN: When you’re dealing with a child actor like Ella in these very intense scenes, do you ever have to step aside with her and just check in on her to see if she’s OK?

Owen: I think you have to do that before you even start working. I’ve done about three films in the last few years that have very strong relationships with children and playing a parent, basically.

It’s usually important that they feel safe before you begin, especially if you want to push it into areas that are uncomfortable, which is an interesting and good thing to do. But the child needs to feel safe and that everything’s OK. … I actually really love working with young actors because I think they are so responsive and instinctive. And it’s much less honed a craft they’re employing, but it’s very real and reactive.

CNN: Are you going to veer off from thrillers? Are you going to do more comedy now?

Owen: No. I am filming a comedy, which is very exciting actually. It’s the first one that I’ll do really. I really like it. It really makes me laugh. So, I’m excited about that but that’s not for a while, yet.

I think I just instinctively respond to material and, at the end of the day, you look at it, and that kind of shapes a career. There’s no question that “Trust,” “The Boys Are Back,” and this film are obviously are related because I’m a parent. I’m a parent of two girls. There are things within that that I thought, ‘this is really interesting to explore’ … to do it in a very truthful way is something very exciting to discover.

CNN: You’ve said you’re a huge fan of “The Exorcist.” So why do you love it so much?

Owen: I think it’s a really well-directed movie. Not just a horror movie, but a movie. I just thought it was extremely well-acted, and it still holds up today. It’s disturbing. My 12-year-old daughter has heard about it and says, ‘Dad, I want to watch “The Exorcist”.’ Sweetheart, you’re not watching that for 10 years. Don’t even think about it. I had it in the house and got rid of it because I’m paranoid that she was going to think, ‘I’ll just have a little look,’ and get traumatized for the next four years.