“I’d allow myself to smoke only at the theater. At home I was climbing the walls. But the last night of the play was the last night I smoked.”

He sits back, spent.

“You know, it’s weird. Right after I stopped smoking, I actually preferred the guy who smoked,” he says, letting out a loud, short laugh. “I had more energy! And every time I went to have a conversation, I was like . . .”

With the fluidity of a Pixar animation sequence, Owen pins an imaginary phone between his ear and shoulder and pantomimes reaching into the breast pocket of his jacket. He slides an imaginary cigarette from the imaginary pack. When he puts it to his lips and lights it with his imaginary Zippo, you can almost smell the smoke.

If you see Clive Owen as the baby-delivering antihero in the neo-noir action movie Shoot ’Em Up, out this month, you will understand immediately why he would have been a terrible James Bond—why if, as was rumored just before the 007 mantle was handed to Daniel Craig, the part had gone to Owen, it would have been a bad, sexless marriage. Bond should be tall, handsome but not pretty, seductive but aloof—all things Owen inarguably is—but we want to go home and forget about Bond until the DVD comes out. We don’t want him to linger in our mind for days afterward.

“I was haunted for months by the scene in Gosford Park when Kelly McDonald visits him in his room and he’s just lounging on the bed,” says Cate Blanchett, with whom Owen stars as Sir Walter Raleigh in The Golden Age, the sequel to Elizabeth, which comes out this month along with Shoot ’Em Up.

That sort of indelibility is no good for 007. Bond shouldn’t hang like a specter around the fringes of your consciousness after you see him onscreen. You shouldn’t find yourself thinking, on your drive to work, about his inscrutable facial expressions or about how he tears off cutting remarks like pieces of meat from a turkey thigh. And as simple and enjoyably slapsticky as Michael Davis’ paean to Hard Boiled is, Owen complicates it. His painfully reluctant action hero—a man who takes off his sock and gently but unsentimentally pushes it onto a newborn’s head, who stabs an assailant in the eye with a carrot and says blandly, “Eat your vegetables”—stays with you.

Sitting by a window in a dark restaurant, Owen even appears a little ghostlike. If Brad Pitt is shiny and George Clooney is glossy, Owen is matte. In a black suit and white shirt (no tie) with a couple of buttons undone at the top, he evokes Vermeer. He’s not as pummeled-looking in real life as he appears on film. His skin is smoother and his features more delicate. He is as composed as a deacon—until he starts speaking.