“He’s much lighter than you would think,” says Michael Davis, the writer and director of Shoot ’Em Up, who sounds like a 13-year-old kid who just persuaded the cutest girl in school to go to the dance with him when he talks about Owen. “He wasn’t at all what I expected. He plays all these dark roles, but he loves to laugh, he loves to joke. You never see him laugh onscreen.”

Davis, whose previous work (Girl Fever and Monster Man probably don’t ring any bells) had gone straight to cable or video, unwittingly tapped into one of Owen’s main arteries when he shopped the actor his long-incubating project. Owen, 42, raised by his mom and stepfather in Coventry, a hard-luck factory town north of London, has a soft spot for scrappiness; Davis’ pitch was a painstakingly animated mock-up of the hyperviolent, wickedly funny action movie he’d been dreaming about making since he was in grade school.

“He did this 17-minute pitch. Seventeen minutes,” Owen says, eyes big. “He reminded me of Quentin Tarantino. Like, if this guy didn’t make a movie his head was going to explode.”

Owen is not an overanalyzer. The way he talks about what he does for a living makes it sound like he takes his lunch pail to a construction site, hammers in a few nails, and goes home to have a beer and watch a game. That last part is probably pretty close to the truth. The first part? Probably a slight downplay of what it takes to turn in the kind of brain-searing performances—like that of the contemptuous, sexually aggressive yuppie thug in Closer—he’s famous for.

“Look, if an actor immerses himself in a role and travels to some place that was dark and painful? Totally fuckin’ irrelevant,” Owen says. Then he perks up, checks the security of our eye contact, and adopts a teacherly tone. “For me, it’s about concentration, right? Now, I’ve done scenes that people are like, ‘Oh, that’s so heavy. Do you stay in character? Do you take it home with you?’ I don’t. I do it and I get it done. It’s really just about concentrating very hard.”

He says he learned this skill from the first film he ever did—a 1988 British road movie called Vroom, directed by Beeban Kidron (To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar): “I was so excited I was doing a movie. So excited. I was talking to anyone who would listen. After about five days the director pulled me aside and said, ‘Look, fuckin’ stop talking to the crew all day. Just say your lines.’” Owen is giggling so hard at the memory of his twentysomething self galloping around a film set, annoying the hell out of everyone, that he has to pause to breathe. “I’m laughing about it, but it was a serious lesson,” he says. “Ultimately, you’re not on camera for very much of the day. If you’re sittin’ around chattin’, it will dissipate a little bit of whatever you’ve got for when the time comes. When everyone’s ready, you’ve got to deliver in this little window. It’s all about aiming everything toward that.”