On AMC’s Monsieur Spade set twenty years after the events of the novel “The Maltese Falcon,” we find an older, retired Sam Spade who has sought solace in the small town of Bozouls in Southern France. It’s 1963, the war has ended, and in a very short time, so, too, will Spade’s tranquility. We spoke to Clive Owen about taking on this iconic character, filming on location in France, and where he hopes Monsieur Spade may find himself in the future.
Q: There are so many exciting things about Monsieur Spade. From the source material to its creators Scott Frank and Tom Fontana, to the stunning locale and language. As an actor, this must have been an enticing project, but was there one element in particular that really made you say: I’ve got to do this!
A: It was a combination of all those things really. I’m a huge fan of the genre. I'm a huge fan of Bogart and in turn of Spade. And I'm a fan of [Raymond] Chandler's Marlowe, so that whole world is very exciting to me. Then you throw Scott Frank in there, who I rate as one of the very best writers out there. I've read several of his scripts over the years, and I've always held him in the highest regard. So, if he comes and says he wants to do a spin on Sam Spade, it was a very quick and easy yes for me.
Q: The Sam Spade we meet is widowed and is just two years out from the loss of Gabrielle (Chiara Mastroianni). He also has a unique relationship with Teresa (Cara Bossom) who is the reason he came to Bozouls in the first place. Sure, he’s hard-boiled as expected, but there’s a softness and tenderness there that comes as a surprise. Can you talk a little bit about bringing those unexpected elements to this well-known character?
A: I had a running gag with Scott throughout it. I said the word for this show is ‘duped’ because it wasn't the Sam Spade with the hat, the gun, the coat. I said, "What am I doing? This isn't Spade. I'm going to have to go off and find another job to get this out of my system." [Laughs] But that was always Scott’s plan, he was playing with that the whole time and playing with the macho tropes of it all. But I’ll say that it was important to me that we were faithful to the source material and that whatever happened to this guy — yeah, he's older, he's solid, he's trying to live a quiet life — he still had to be that guy older and not a totally new take on him. It still felt important to really be faithful to the original book and the movie and the whole vibe of the origins of Spade.
Q: I would be remiss to not ask you about filming on location in France, because the landscapes are so breathtaking and bring so much authenticity to the show. What was your experience filming on location and with so many amazing French actors?
A: It was a joy. I mean, I'm not going to lie and say it was tough. What a place to go and shoot! For a big part of it, we were outside of Montpelier, in a beautiful, beautiful area. Then we went to Bozouls where the whole thing is set and shot there. And the standard of acting from the French was just so high. I really enjoyed playing with them all and they were all so different. The great thing about Scott is he writes a very rich, fully layered world, so you meet these characters and they're really good parts because we get to know them, we get underneath and find out their history and how they're all connected in some way. The joy of a six-part series is you get to unearth these characters and they have really full lives — that will attract really good actors and that's certainly what happened here.
Q: What was your experience with French before this role? Did you have a grasp of basic French phrases, or were you really thrown into the deep end?
A: It was the deep end to be honest! Because I had time before we started filming, I thought, "Oh, well, I'll actually learn French.” I got a schoolteacher and would Zoom in the evenings and began learning it like I would if I was a student at school. And then after a while, I began to realize that I was spending so much time on stuff that wasn’t actually going to be relevant, because I'm not passing any exams. I'm not going to be tested on the grammar, so I changed tact. I really got to grips with the scenes I was in, I understood what everybody was saying, and then I learned the French, like a would an American accent — I learned it phonetically.
Q: The Algerian War serves as a backdrop for much of the action that takes place in the show and really deepens the stakes for so many of its characters. In addition to being an author Dashiell Hammett was also a political activist, so it’s kind of fun to think about how the political intrigue of Monsieur Spade would have tickled him. There are a lot of players in the mix here and that seems to only strengthen Sam’s need to get to the truth so he can find some solace again.
A: I think that's the benefit of it and that's why Scott used that, because it grounds the backdrop of the whole town, the whole era, and everything that's going on. It's something very, very real and something in French history, and it gives you a very firm footing. Otherwise, it would all take place in a quintessential French town in the early '60s, and as you say, the stakes wouldn't be so high. It would be full of lovely quaint and quirky characters. But here you've got something that's really affected a lot of the characters in the story deeply, and it just helps the thing resonate and grounds the whole thing, I think.
Q: If you could don Samuel Spade’s fedora again for another case, where would you want the action to take place and what kind of case would you want to be investigating?
A: I'd want to go back to San Francisco and investigate something from his past. To be honest, Scott and I have already talked a bit about it... but everyone's just waiting to see how this goes, because there's certainly some really exciting possibilities of where we could take him.
Monsieur Spade airs on Sundays at 9/8c on AMC. Episodes are available to stream on amc.com (with a cable provider login), and the AMC apps for mobile and devices. You can also watch episodes via AMC+ at amcplus.com or through the new AMC+ app available on iPhone, iPad, Android, Fire TV, Apple TV, and Roku plus Samsung and Vizio smart TVs. AMC+ can also be streamed through a variety of providers, including AppleTV, Prime Video Channels, DirectTV, Dish, Roku Channel, Sling, and Xfinity. Sign up for AMC+ now.