Smooth Operator

updated 11/10/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/10/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

Clive Owen, the next James Bond? All the industry chatter leaves the actor shaken and stirred—with giggles. When Owen heard that his Beyond Borders costar Angelina Jolie thought he looked sexy in his white undershirt, "he fell over laughing, because that's not how he sees himself," says Jolie. "The idea of seeing himself playing someone sexy is ridiculous."

Oh yeah? Owen—who cast a Bond-like cool in 1998's Croupier, 2001's Gosford Park and a set of stylish BMW commercials—swelters with the best of them as a hot-headed refugee-camp doctor who wins Jolie's heart in the new drama. "I enjoy playing ambiguous characters," says Owen, 39. "With drama, who wants to play charm?" The gruff-and-tough role called for a change from his usual screen suave. "Clive does surly real well," says Borders director Martin Campbell. But offscreen, says Jolie, "he's one of the funniest people I've ever met."

And one of the sweetest: When Jolie's son Maddox arrived on set in Namibia, Owen greeted him with an African wooden animal mobile. He brings his own family—actress-wife Sarah-Jane Fenton, 36, and their daughters Hannah, 6, and Eve, 4—on location as well. "You make it work as best you can," says Owen, whose parents separated when he was young. Raised in working-class Coventry, England, by his mother and stepfather John, a British Rail clerk, he played the Artful Dodger in a school production of Oliver! at 12. "I've never wanted anything else since," says Owen, who dropped out of high school and later enrolled at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1984. Between acting gigs "there was an agency, and if you were an unemployed actor, you got work cleaning houses," he says. In 1990 he landed a lead role in the British TV series Chancer. The U.S. discovered him in the art-house hit Croupier and films such as The Bourne Identity.

But will he be the next 007? Despite years of media speculation, "there's never been any official approach," says Owen. "There's no point in my wasting time and thinking about it." Instead he's focusing on his actual jobs, including the title role in next year's big-budget King Arthur. And at his London home he keeps his old house-keeping talents honed. "Yes," he says with a laugh. "I do still clean my house."

Pete Norman in London and Amy Longsdorf in New York City

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