“I fuckin’ loved smokin’.” Clive Owen wraps his mouth around the word love and sucks it up like a piece of spaghetti. “Oh, God. I fuckin’ loved it.” A straight-backed, white-haired woman sitting at a table a few feet away slides her eyes toward the actor. Owen is warmed up. Settled in the corner of a grandmotherly restaurant in London a couple of hours before teatime, he’s past wading in pleasantries and deep into storytelling waters. When he gets warmed up, he says fuckin’ a lot. He uses the word mostly for good, not evil (Mike Nichols: “smartest fuckin’ human being on the planet.” Inside Man: “Spike said, ‘So Denzel’s going to do it. Does that change things for you?’ I was like, fuckin’ right!”).

If you’ve seen Owen onscreen at all, you’ve probably seen him smoke. In fact, with the possible exception of Sean Penn, he might be the best onscreen smoker of his generation. Which is why it’s a little disappointing to hear that every cigarette he’s put to his lips in the past decade—the moody drags in 1998’s Croupier; the French inhales in 2001’s Gosford Park; the short, miserable gasps in last year’s Children of Men—has been a herbal (“her-bal”). Owen quit 10 years ago when his wife, the British actress Sarah-Jane Fenton, gave birth to the first of their two daughters, Hannah and Eve.

“I talked about it all through the pregnancy, but I didn’t do anything about it. I had smoked since I was fuckin’ 14. I always used to say to myself, I’m going to die of lung cancer. That’s the choice I’m making. And then when Sarah-Jane was pregnant, I couldn’t think about anything else. I just had this image in my head of breathing smoke in a baby’s face. You just think about it going into their little lungs. And when Hannah was born, I stopped”—Owen makes the s in the word a “sh” and says it so forcefully it’s the onomatopoeic equivalent of a car screeching on wet pavement and slamming into a wall. “Hard. Dead.”

Get Owen going—about soccer (he’s been a bleeding-heart Liverpool fan since he was a kid), movies (he weaves titles and years into conversation the way a baseball geek does slugging percentages), or, say, nicotine addictions—and he’ll unleash anecdotes at an extraordinary volume and velocity. He’s getting into it now, leaning over his plate of tomatoes and mozzarella as if he were telling a ghost story.

“And then . . . I did Closer.” He’s referring to the hugely successful Patrick Marber production of the play in London in 1997. Owen signed on for the role of the pretty-boy writer Dan (in Mike Nichols’ 2004 film version, Jude Law ended up playing Dan and Owen played Julia Roberts’ cuckolded husband, a performance that won him a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination). In the play, there was a running plot thread about how Dan was trying to quit smoking. “I was like, no way, man, I can’t smoke. I’ve just given up. I’ll smoke herbals.” But her-bals were too pungent for the stage. Rather than sacrifice a crucial slice of character development, Owen went back on nicotine.