We walk down a steep hill to the café, one of his favorite hangouts. Owen is wearing trademark Owen-wear: a gently worried linen suit and an open white shirt. There's something solid about him. This may explain his success as an actor, the way that he inhabits his roles so adroitly: As we're not aware of his foibles, we're inclined to give credence to every dramatic skin he slips on. But his well-documented reticence in interviews may conceal a slight nervousness. It's hardly unusual for actors not to enjoy cross-examination, but Owen's concerns seem more attuned to something else. Perhaps he harbors a fear that his humble beginnings will upend him, and that one day he may wake up to find that his charmed life has been snatched away.

By rights, his sort of career trajectory shouldn't have happened to a boy with his background: a childhood of scrimp-and-save and cultural undernourishment. He grew up in Coventry, an industrial city in the heart of England that was all but destroyed by German bombers. "It was a very, very working-class family," he says as he takes his seat at the café. His parents split when he was 3, and he was brought up—the fourth of five brothers—by his mother and stepfather.

"It was fine," he says, trying to shift the subject moments after it's raised. "It wasn't an unhappy experience—everybody struggled."

He failed his school exams and could have ended up like some of his friends, hanging around shopping malls getting into trouble. Fortunately, he had joined the local youth theater; he told one teacher he was keen to get into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), London's premier drama school. The response was not positive: "Clive, you're a working-class kid from Coventry—let's get realistic," he was told. And then, after two bleak years of unemployment, Owen did something outrageous: He applied to RADA. Even more outrageous, he got in.

While Owen sits at an outside table at the coffee shop, which is also frequented by fellow locals Hugh Laurie and Bill Nighy, the only attention he receives comes from an Eastern European waitress whose unfamiliarity with English leads her to ask for £500—around $830—for two cappuccinos and some fizzy water.

"It's all about how you conduct yourself," Owen says when asked how a movie star can live such a seemingly normal life. "I'm quite good at getting on with my thing. I feel I'm pretty nifty; I can spot trouble coming. I've been in certain situations where people have been drinking a lot." He pauses. "It's going to get a little uncomfortable now and then."

Scott Hicks, the director of Shine and Owen's new movie The Boys Are Back, says that he has noticed something similar. "I've walked with him through [London's] Soho, and occasionally someone will notice him, but he doesn't turn on this high-wattage projection, and people respect that," Hicks says. "I get the impression that he's content with what he has. That's a rare quality in the movie world, where no matter how much people have got, they want more."