Owen is unusual in another way—he's a leading man without a franchise. Christian Bale has Batman, Matt Damon has Bourne, Shia LaBeouf has Transformers—even Clooney has the Ocean's series. They can do smaller projects that pique their interest safe in the knowledge that their Hollywood identity is bolstered by a bona fide blockbuster payday. And most actors at that level embody a particular brand, whether it's based on intensity, sex appeal, or physicality. Owen is harder to classify. He's taken roles in costume dramas like Elizabeth: The Golden Age, yet he's also embraced popcorn fare like Sin City—his choices seem to reflect a desire for both range and longevity.

Owen is not the kind of actor to talk for hours about his "craft." He says he doesn't obsessively prepare for roles. And those who have spent time around him describe his affability and his love for making mischief. Julianne Moore, who starred with Owen in Children of Men, says that the actor who turned up on the first day of rehearsals was not the earnest presence she'd seen in Gosford Park. "I certainly wasn't expecting someone so funny," she says. But at a screening party, "he said, 'Listen, there's a friend of mine here, and I need you to play a trick on him.'" His friend had bought some trousers that apparently could be worn by either a man or a woman, and Owen begged Moore to walk up to the man and exclaim, "Oh my God! I have those trousers too!"

Owen's bonhomie may stem from his having been found by fame later in his career—he was 37 when his first hit movie, Croupier, was released in the United States. He's also in a stable relationship, having been married to the same woman for 14 years.

Owen met his wife, Sarah-Jane Fenton, in a rehearsal room: He was cast as Romeo, she—inevitably—as Juliet. "Yes," he says, "a cliché. I fell in love with her the minute she came in. She was late, she had these glasses and a pile of secondhand books, and there was something about her straightaway." She gave up acting not long before they had their first child, and she is now training to become a therapist. "There's no regret or resentment," Owen says of the different paths their careers have taken. "She always smiles and looks at what acting can be like, and it's a relief to her that she's not doing it." I ask him about the Hollywood-versus-real-life dilemma, balancing the needs of his career with the guilt of being away for long periods.

"There have been times in the past when it's become clear that there needs to be a break," he says. "Too much working. Too much going away. You just stop. As things have opened up for me, I call it. I say, 'I'm sorry, you want to film then? I can't do it.'"