George Clooney is nominated for two Oscars this year — for his lead role in The Descendants and for co-writing the adapted screenplay for The Ides Of March, which he also directed. He speaks to Robert Siegel on today's All Things Considered about film, but also about the life he lives as one of Hollywood's most famous men.
Clooney didn't start out as famous as he is now. He did quite a bit of episodic television — including roles on both The Facts Of Life and a comedy that was, believe it or not, called E/R before, at 33, he was cast as Dr. Doug Ross on the drama ER. His television stardom took him first to film roles in straightforward entertainment like Batman And Robin, One Fine Day (a romantic comedy with Michelle Pfeiffer), and The Peacemaker (an action film with Nicole Kidman), and then to three films in the space of a couple of years that were critically better received: Out Of Sight, Three Kings, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? He was later nominated for both directing and co-writing 2005's Good Night, And Good Luck, and for his performances in Syriana (for which he won in the supporting category), Michael Clayton, and Up In The Air.
Clooney says that taking the role he did in The Descendants — one a bit more rumpled and at loose ends than audiences typically see from him — came down to the screenplay and the fact that director Alexander Payne, known for films like Election and Sideways, "really hadn't made a bad film, and I wanted to work with him." In places, including a scene where Clooney's character dashes in distress from his home and runs down the street in flip-flops, there's a chance of looking silly — of "clowning it too much," as Siegel puts it. Again, Clooney says, it's about who you're working with. "It would be hard if you didn't trust the director," he says. "There's a very big difference between doing that for Alexander Payne and doing it for someone that you don't trust. Because the product that you're selling out there is you."
And what Clooney is selling is changing somewhat. Asked about comments he's made that he's moving away from certain kinds of roles, he starts with a gentle poke at his superhero past: "I'm not going to do any more films in rubber suits, I've decided." But he isn't joking: "Growing old on screen is not for the faint of heart," he says. "There's a certain cruelty to being on a big screen as your eyelids start to sag and your hair falls out and turns gray that you either have to be able to handle or not. What you can't do is try to force yourself into roles that you could have played or would have played ten years earlier. You have to constantly be looking forward." That means better scripts, he says, and also directing and writing — "something you can do well into your old age."
What George Clooney also deals with and will deal with for many years is fame. Asked what his level of recognizability feels like, he points out how constant the attention to his every move has gotten to be. "I'll ride my motorcycle into the Swiss Alps to the top of a mountain to a tiny little bistro that we accidentally find, and by the time I've had coffee and a croissant, there's 40 people outside because of cell cameras." For him, the presence of cameras in the hands of every observer doesn't just mean too much attention and too much recording; it means the loss of the ability to experience things directly.
"I've walked with very famous people down red carpets over to the crowd of thousands of people," he says, "and you'll reach out to shake their hand and they've got a camera in their hand. And they don't even get their hand out, because they're recording the whole time. And you can tell people that you recorded Brad Pitt, but it would be very hard for you to say you actually met him, because you were watching it all through your phone. I think that's too bad, because I think people are experiencing less and recording more." And it's a problem everywhere: "The trick is to get them not to do it when you go to the bathroom."
Clooney may be very famous, but he's clearly not been without his setbacks — including Batman & Robin — which, Siegel notes, keeps coming up. "Failures are infinitely more instructive than successes." He explains that it was a new-ish thing to be offered a role as large as Batman at that point in his career. He says he learned that as an actor, he would be held responsible not only for his own acting, but also for the entire film and how good it was — and that's what led him to those films with the Oscar-nominated scripts.
And, undoubtedly, helped lead him to start writing Oscar-nominated scripts himself.