February 11, 2012
Perhaps in a discreet restaurant booth with a Scotch, or playing blackjack in a casino with his buddies, but really — George Clooney, here? It is strange to find the patron saint of silver foxes in his blandly decorated production company office, with drab carpet and chequered light squares on the ceiling, overlooking a petrol station in Studio City, Los Angeles. No statuesque girlfriend. No Scotch. No tux.
Clooney, nominated for an Oscar and a Bafta for his performance as a crisis-beset father in The Descendants, is wearing a grey T-shirt (revealing tanned, toned arms) and is as handsome as every picture suggests: the puppy eyes, the droll charm, the only visible imperfection a scar on his right arm after elbow surgery following a motorbike accident. He is also intelligent, modest and startlingly candid for someone who doesn’t like interviews (“I don’t need to be more famous”), talking about ageing, almost dying, his sexuality, issues with alcohol, and why it would be a “disaster” if Barack Obama does not win a second presidential term.
In our meeting room at Smokehouse Pictures, his production company with longtime collaborator Grant Heslov, are pictures of France and Italy in the Second World War, with dates and notes written on cards. He is “up to my ass” researching The Monuments Men, his next film, in which he portrays the leader of a real group of art historians sent to recover Michelangelos, da Vincis and Rembrandts looted by the Nazis.
How badly does he want the Oscar? “I think every actor would like to win, I don’t know an actor who wouldn’t,” he smiles. “I won’t be coy and say no.” But he would be happy if it went to fellow nominees Brad Pitt (“my friend, who’s given two great performances this year”), Gary Oldman (“some wild performances”), Demian Bichir (“it would be a career-changer”) and Jean Dujardin (“wonderful”), his main “Best Actor” rival. Clooney got the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a drama, Dujardin the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a comedy or musical, as well as the SAG award; both are also up for the Leading Actor Bafta in London tomorrow.
Clooney, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Syriana in 2006, reveals he is planning “a gradual rather than complete retirement” from acting. “I’ve been doing it a long time. You’re not allowed to be in front of camera all the time. [Paul] Newman pulled it back. Cary Grant stopped. Clint [Eastwood] sets the bar high: he’s still cranking out movies and interested. I’m not tired, but I want to do only great scripts or work with directors I am dying to work with. You’d think that when you get the pick of the litter, the litter would be great. But it’s very thin. It’s hard to find class-A scripts. That’s why we [Clooney and Heslov] write them. At least we can work on subject matter we’re interested in.”
He says he is “a restless spirit, not for more money or accolades, but because there is only a certain amount of time [ten years, he thinks] where you get the keys to the f***ing kingdom. If I say,“I want to do this”, the studios will do it or I can raise the money independently. When films like [recent political thriller] The Ides of March or The Descendants make money, that helps us make a couple of new films, or there are just going to be superhero movies.”
Clooney has “done more than I ever thought I was going to do”. He was raised by mother Nina and father Nick, a journalist, to believe he had “social responsibilities” to fulfil. The family was “happy, but my parents were broke, my mum made my clothes, my dad said we moved when the rent was due”. Having toiled in minor TV roles before finding fame in ER in the mid-1990s, Clooney is self-aware — and has been poor — enough not to grouch about fame. “I remember cutting tobacco in Kentucky, hearing a star complaining about their life and I was like, ‘f*** you’, but I will say there is no place to go that is private now. Spencer Tracy would be punching the shit out of the guys with video cameras. There is a f***ing camera wherever you go. No one is designed to be watched all the time.” He says he is “resigned” to it. Does it depress him? “Yes, but no one wants to hear that. But it would be a lie, disingenuous, not to say one day I would like to take a walk, or read a book, in Central Park.”
As for being dubbed the world’s sexiest man: “I don’t think that way. Who you are and what your image is are two different things. I’m not that guy from [his breakout film] Out of Sight. It was a really sexy movie, but I will always let people down. I will always be 5ft 11in, and older and shorter than you imagine.” He started to turn grey after high school, “but at least my hair stuck around”. He’s never dyed it, “and I don’t wear make-up on films, unless I have a zit to cover up, especially now because digital shows the make-up.”
The Descendants, in which his character tends to a critically ill wife who has cheated on him, is his “midlife movie”, he accepts. “Getting older on screen is not for pussies or the faint of heart. People go on about your grey hair, your eyes starting to sag.” Has he ever had plastic surgery? “No, nothing.” Would he? “Never. We’re guys, we have the insane great luck of being able to go bald, fat, wrinkled and grey and no one says, ‘You can’t do that, you can’t be a leading man.’ Why would any male actor cut around their eyes? Why would you ever f*** with your face?” Clooney works out and plays sport. “You have to try to look the best for your age, not younger. It never works. You will always lose.” Turning 50 “wasn’t a big year”, although it marked an acceptance of becoming “a character actor. If you don’t, the audience you’re desperate to hold on to will go, ‘This is silly’. If you fall in love with the idea of how you were in 1998 you will be greatly disappointed by how you are in 2012.”
Like his character in The Descendants, “I’m the kind of guy who could just sit in a room, watch TV and let days go by”. He has daughters in the film; does Clooney want children? “I don’t know, I don’t think about that kind of thing. What you do in films is separate to your life.”
A lifelong Democrat, Clooney’s focus is trained on the Republican primaries. “They have moved so far to the right on immigration and gays. Their idea that the richest Americans shouldn’t pay 4 per cent more tax…”He sighs. Would he be happy to pay? “Yes, of course I would. Most people would. How can they argue against it?” Of Newt Gingrich, Clooney says: “I wouldn’t want to debate him. He’s effective: he makes up facts, does the smart thing of attacking the guy asking the questions as opposed to answering. It’s easy to debate when you’ve decided answers are yes or no. It’s hard to debate if you accept the world as it is: shades of grey.” He thinks Romney will be the Republican candidate, “with Ron Paul going all the way till he’s 115. Romney’s problem is conservatives don’t trust him; they won’t vote for Obama — they just won’t vote.”
Will Obama win a second term? “I think it would be a disaster for the country if he didn’t, because we are succeeding in terms of the economy and jobs.” How actively will Clooney campaign? “I’m well aware that an actor standing up on behalf of the President does not help, it may even do damage. They always ask me to do fundraisers, and I will, but that’s missing the point.” Clooney reveals he recently met Vice-President Joe Biden. “I said, ‘You come to Hollywood for money, you don’t come for what we do well: we know how to sell products.’ I think Obama is hard to beat, but the Democrats are not good at selling themselves. I said to him, ‘You should sit down with [film producers] Harvey Weinstein and Jerry Weintraub, guys who’ve been opening, closing and selling projects for years, to talk about the best way to phrase things.’ If you say, ‘I want a fair tax for the rich,’ Republicans say, ‘You’re for the redistribution of wealth, a codeword for socialism.’ The message should be: ‘I’m against the redistribution of wealth to the richest people in America.’”
Clooney points to job creation, healthcare reform and the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” [the discriminatory gays-in-the-military policy] as Obama successes. “There are gay marriages happening where it is legal,” he adds. Does he think gay marriage should be legalised federally, not only state to state? “Of course, and it will be, and a generation on everyone will ask, ‘What was that about?’” Clooney is about to star as one of the lawyers fighting for equality in an LA performance of 8, Dustin Lance Black’s play about the court case against Proposition 8 in California, which made same-sex marriage illegal. “Gay equality is the final leg of the civil rights movement. Every time we stand against equality we stand on the wrong side of history. We’re not going to be lec- tured on the sanctity of marriage by someone [Newt Gingrich] who left one wife with cancer and another one with MS. It’s important to believe in marriage and sanctity, but everyone should have the right to it.”
The Republicans aren’t the only ones with a gay problem, I say. Why hasn’t any major film star come out in Hollywood? He looks surprised. “I’m not quite sure who that is. There are gay actors in Hollywood; pretty much everyone knows who they are.” So why haven’t they come out — is there an issue there? “Of course there is, but there are immensely successful out gay men playing straight men on television and no one saying, ‘That isn’t allowed.’ ”
There are rumours about Clooney being gay, which Pitt stoked when he said he and Angelina Jolie wouldn’t get married until it was legal for Clooney. Clooney recently professed himself impressed by Michael Fassbender’s penis. “Honest to God, who cares?” he says of the hearsay. Would Clooney have come out by now if he were gay, I ask. “That’s a good question,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t have done ten or 15 years ago — it would have been hard to continue doing the kinds of films I wanted to do. It would be easier now at 50, not doing romantic leading roles. I’d like to think I would come out, I’d like to think I’d be man enough. I’ve stood up for a lot of things that got me in trouble over the years.”
He is referring to his humanitarian work in Darfur: “Once you’re there, it’s impossible to walk away. The trickiest thing is public fatigue. You have to let it die down even when there are terrible things going on — then hit it again. People get numb to the message.” His father is his “touchstone”. When he was accused of being unAmerican, objecting to the Iraq war, he asked his father whether he was in trouble. “Do you have money?” his father asked. Yes, said Clooney. “Are you working?” Yeah, said Clooney. Clooney Sr: “So shut up, go out and talk about what you believe in.”
But Clooney won’t ever run for public office. “It doesn’t look like fun. Barack Obama is having a difficult time doing basic governing given how polarised things are. My hat is off to those guys whose politics I don’t agree with whose hats are in the ring. I don’t have a super- PAC [political action committee] of funders who, if I got into office, I’d owe everything to. I can say, ‘This is wrong, this is right.’ I talk in Congress about Sudan. I have rebel leaders on my cellphone. I can go to the UN and not worry about who I am pissing off.”
He sounds like a workaholic. “Yes, I spent a lot of time unemployed and can’t forget that. I still think of myself as an actor who has to prove himself, who is constantly aware of the fact it will go away. You can’t enjoy it unless you have that perspec- tive.” He’s bought “outright with cash” houses in LA and Lake Como, which he can sell if times get lean. “I’ve never had a trainer, I don’t have a chef, I like to do work around the house if I can. I can fix my motorcycle. When this is all gone I can still take care of myself.” So how does he deal with universal adulation? “By feeling like I am undeserving, that you can’t believe your luck when they’re nice to you.”
Clooney has a raw awareness of his own mortality: while shooting Syriana he injured the base of his neck, leaving him — he recently said — in so much pain he contemplated suicide. “I was in real trouble,” he tells me. “It felt like I was having a stroke. For the first time I contemplated my mortality and whether I had accomplished all I wanted. I felt I was going to die or have to die; I felt I couldn’t live with so much pain.” He had three operations. “I took painkillers, but the more you take, the more you need — it’s an escalating thing and I’m too much of a control freak to allow that.” He went to “a pain-management guy” who helped change his “pain threshold”, encouraging him to think, “If I had been born this way, I wouldn’t know it as painful. If it gets super-bad I take a migraine drug that knocks me out for the day. I take it once every two or three months. I still deal with pain. I know when I wake up it will always feel like a hangover, but I can’t mourn what I used to be.”
Clooney smiles. “I fear death like most people, but I’m a realist: I thought, ‘Well, you can die young or live long enough to watch your friends die’. It doesn’t end well whatever.” He laughs. “Having understood that — and that is the driving force of my life — it made me go, ‘You must attack life and not get dragged into things that mean nothing’. If you knew you had a week left, what’s more important — award statuettes or the films you leave behind? Is what people pigeonhole you as important? If you sit in Hollywood and get caught up in it, or google yourself, you live in hell.”
Speculation continuously bubbles around his love life. He was married to actress Talia Balsam, and he draws a veil over his subsequent relationships (including with Elisabetta Canalis and, presently, former wrestler Stacy Keibler) “because what matters are the few things I can keep to myself”. Is being in love important? “Oh sure, of course, not just who you happen to be with but also in your friendships and family.” Will he ever re-marry? He laughs. “I don’t know and I’m never going to answer that question.”
What about his wilder periods? “There were times, sure. I was single in 1994 when ER got picked up. We went from obscurity to the cover of Newsweek in two weeks. There was a lot of getting into trouble. I drank pretty seriously. There were rollercoaster rides of drinking.” And drugs? “Yes, in the early Eighties, recreational like everyone else. It wasn’t an issue. Booze was for a bit. I didn’t wake up and drink, but I hit it pretty good at night sometimes and had to pay attention.” He never needed help, “but I never wanted drinking to become habitual. I haven’t had a drink since New Year’s. In January or around my birthday I go for a couple of months without a drink just to make sure it’s not something I ‘do’.” He has had therapy, once as marriage guidance with Balsam, “then I stuck with this guy for a while as someone to talk to. It was useful. If I didn’t have the friends I have now, I would have a therapist.”
Clooney is languid but driven. “I enjoy myself. If you had my career and life, I would be really pissed off with you if you weren’t enjoying yourself. I’d be like, ‘You have got the brass ring, dude — if you’re not enjoying it you’re a d***’. People expect you to enjoy this life and you should.” As for the future: “Every time you see a retired person they seem to play golf and die. I have no interest in that shit. This is fun, but I’m terrified of the moment when you’re the guy who goes to the studio and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea’, and they’re like, ‘Thanks for stopping by’, and you walk out and they roll their eyes. The easiest way to become irrelevant is to stop. You have to reinvent yourself.”
What are his faults? “I don’t think patience is a virtue, especially when you’re doing humanitarian work. I always say, ‘Why can’t this happen now?’ I can get angry, but you mellow as you get older. I love what I do, I push the envelope, aware that luck has gotten me to this spot.” I think he has finished, but after a pause he adds — “and understanding that luck changes.”