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Somebody Has to Be in Control
The effort behind George Clooney’s effortless charm.
by Ian Parker April 14, 2008 .
Clooney is well aware of the need for “certain veniers you use to keep the room going.” Photograph by Martin Schoeller.
George Clooney was at home in Los Angeles one afternoon in mid-January, a few days before he flew to Sudan in his new role as a United Nations 'Messenger of Peace' (an appointment that overlooked reports of a recent public scuffle with Fabio, the leonine model). Clooney, who is unusual in being both very famous and, apparently, at ease with the fact—he can sometimes look like a spokesman for celebrity itself—was sitting on a long pale sofa, alongside Sarah Larson, his girlfriend. Bowls of chopped salad were on the coffee table in front of them: when Clooney’s electronic pepper grinder was activated, it sent a beam of light shining down onto the lettuce, like a police helicopter.
It was the “for your consideration” season—the run-up to the Oscars, when film studios lobby for the votes of Academy members, using means of varying subtlety. For some days, Clooney had been driven here and there in the back of a black Mercedes, and his presence at promotional cocktail parties had served as an advertisement for “Michael Clayton,” last year’s chilly corruption drama, in which he starred. (The film went on to be nominated in seven categories, including Best Actor; it received one Oscar, for Tilda Swinton, in a supporting part.) I had seen Clooney that morning, still in the role of candidate, in front of a bright-pink curtain on the stage of a theatre at the Hammer Museum, in Westwood, taking part in an Oscar-related panel discussion about acting and filmmaking, with Angelina Jolie, Daniel Day-Lewis, James McAvoy, and others. The event, organized by Newsweek, was leisurely, designed to encourage a degree of self-analysis, but Clooney (looking about as skinny as a young Sinatra, his sunglasses hooked over the opening of his collar) seemed to have set himself the task of resisting group drift toward actorly grandeur or celebrity griping. He was unremittingly affable. “We have time for one more question,” he said, after taking his seat. He traded running jokes with McAvoy, and made mock-scornful comments about Day-Lewis’s exalted reputation. (“You just kill it for the rest of us; we’ll take care of you, pal.”) He capped a conversation about paparazzi intrusions with a politic acknowledgment of the privileges of fame. His manner—nonchalance underpinned, it seemed, by vigilance and self-scrutiny—carried the suggestion that almost any divergence from banter was unforgivable artsy narcissism.
This is probably the performance for which Clooney, now forty-six, is still best known, even as he has become a Hollywood emperor, not to mention a left-leaning activist and a friend of Senator Barack Obama’s. Clooney is America’s national flirt, a pitchman on talk shows and red carpets who, against the background hum of the world’s lust and envy, is lightly ironic, clever, and self-deprecating, with furrowed brow and bobbing head, and a gyration in the lower jaw suggesting something being moved around under his tongue. This busy charm—a man on his way out to a party, feeling pretty good about his hair—was profitably packaged in “Ocean’s Eleven” and its two sequels, films that, more than anything, seemed to be oblique views of the A-list esprit de corps, real or imagined, that went into making them; they were fictions yearning to be “making of” documentaries. (Together, they earned more than a billion dollars.) And that charm was largely withheld, to effect, in the downbeat roles that Clooney took in “Syriana” and “Michael Clayton.” There he played hurting, unanchored men. In both cases, he was assigned a romantic partner—played by Greta Scacchi and Jennifer Ehle, in turn—who was edited out of the movie, with Clooney’s blessing. (Referring to his “Clayton” character—a back-room fixer in a New York law firm—Clooney explained to me, “If he’s loved, then he has a buffer, and somehow it isn’t as awful.”)
If these roles revealed some private, mournful corner of Clooney’s psyche, that corner has remained firmly private. In public, he has always seemed eager to please, even ebullient; and although his stardom has had an air of earlier, pre-therapeutic times—here is a man with a tidy small-town boyhood and a reported offscreen life of water-balloon fights and guys around the grill—some part of that eagerness has undermined the comparisons that are often made to another smoothie with a strong chin. There may be similarities between Clooney and Cary Grant, but the comparison falters at the level of physical movement. In one’s memory of Grant, he leans back a little. Clooney leans forward. Clooney’s masculinity is ambitious: he is a pickup artist, a flicker of locker-room towels. (Clooney, in 2005, speaking about suicide bombers: “But, really, who wants seventy virgins? I want eight pros.”) Cary Grant once advised a young actor who hoped to emulate him to wear silk underwear; Clooney’s appeal is less sleek and submerged—he is the fellow at the end of the bar, who, on a scale running from James Stewart to Jack Nicholson, has found an enviable midpoint of courteous roguishness.
I was introduced to Clooney after the panel discussion; his handshake became a shoulder squeeze, and he apologized for the thing taking so long. We got into his car. He was wearing jeans and a thin black sweater and high-laced black work boots. He looked tanned and a little worn, and my mind turned for a moment to “Leatherheads”—his latest film, a comedy about nineteen-twenties football, which he also directed—where it’s sometimes hard to see where his face ends and his beautifully thin brown leather jacket begins. He had a headache, the legacy of a gruesome spinal injury incurred in 2004, while filming a torture scene for “Syriana.” (He hit his head on a concrete floor; not long afterward, cerebrospinal fluid began to leak out of his nose.) His discomfort, which is fairly persistent, was today at the level of “eating ice cream too fast.” The panel discussion had lasted two hours, but he kept talking anyway, in a quiet, dry voice—about a guest saying “Listen, you’ve got my vote” at a “Michael Clayton” Oscar party (“That’s saying out loud what you were pretending wasn’t happening,” he told me, laughing), and a recent night out at a bar in Santa Monica after an award-giving event, with Daniel Day-Lewis, Javier Bardem, Benicio Del Toro, and Sean Penn, during which “we got hammered and we all came to the conclusion we wanted to be Javier Bardem.” He then carefully made the point that none of his closest friends are movie stars. “There are people you spend a lot of time with, and people you enjoy seeing at the office party,” he said—the office party, in this context, being the Venice Film Festival. Speaking of his “Ocean’s” co-stars Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, he said, “Brad and I talk, and Matt and I talk, on a fairly regular basis—text each other, give each other shit.” But, he continued, “I have my friends, nine guys for twenty-five years; they’re the guys I see every Sunday.”
We drove toward his house, which is on a steep, wooded lot in a prosperous but not quite movie-star neighborhood on the Valley side of the Hollywood Hills. It was a sunny Saturday, and as the car turned into Clooney’s gated drive local residents were marching up the street toward the hiking trails at the top. He called out to Sarah Larson as he walked in; she was sitting in front of a laptop in the living room.
He bought this house in 1995, at the end of the first season of “E.R.”—the kinetic NBC hospital drama that allowed him to become something more than Tony Danza—and he never upgraded to a full Beverly Hills mansion. One can regard that as restraint, but only after acknowledging the eighteenth-century villa he owns on the shores of Lake Como, in Italy, where he spends several months a year, and the cliff-top home under construction in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Clooney lived and worked elsewhere for much of last year, and, in that time, the L.A. house was largely remodelled by Rande Gerber, a longtime friend, who is the owner and operator of many fancy bars, and the husband of Cindy Crawford, the model. The result is not extravagant, but it carries the hint of a hotel steakhouse under bold new management: dark wood, beige curtains, a chandelier. According to both men, Gerber made all the decisions, without a word of consultation: everything from the size of the swimming pool to the framed photograph of Steve McQueen in the living room. (“I didn’t know if George likes Steve McQueen,” Gerber told me.) In Clooney’s screening room, behind DVDs of “Once” and “All the President’s Men,” I saw a row of tall glass jars containing packaged candies, which I took to be a personal quirk until I read that Rande Gerber keeps packaged candies in tall glass jars in his offices in New York and Malibu. This all surely points more to the pressures on Clooney’s time than to a weirdly unformed sense of self, but it was nonetheless curious to hear Clooney joke, when we were standing in a leathery side room where his friends are allowed to smoke, “I suppose I have a flask collection”—pointing to a line of hip flasks on a shelf. The shelf faced a mantelpiece where the Oscar he won for his supporting role in “Syriana,” in 2006, stood.
On the kitchen counter, there was a single Post-It note with two words written on it: “Sydney Pollack.” His refrigerator contained many individual servings of watermelon, in plastic tubs. Sarah Larson joined us. She is twenty-nine (or, as he later put it, “Her grandmother has posters of me”), and she first met Clooney three years ago, in Las Vegas, where she was working as a hostess at Gerber’s Whiskey Bar, but she has been a public part of his life only since last September, when she broke some toes, and Clooney a rib, in a motorcycle accident in New Jersey. “You can’t outrun paparazzi on crutches,” she later said. She still has a home in Vegas, but now spends a large part of her time with Clooney.
He kissed her and asked, “You O.K.? Are you bored out of your mind?”
“No, just doing e-mail.”
She was genial and soft-spoken and seemed a little shy. He was bouncy. He scooped out some of the salad that Larson had made while he was out (“Oh, Miss Sarah!”) and dressed his with something sprayable called Balsamic Breeze, this process accompanied by joshing between them about calorie intake. “She’s trying to keep me from getting fat and old,” he said, although it sounded more as if she were teasing him for his own watchfulness. He made a joke about the pepper grinder doubling “as a marital aid.”
On the living-room couch, Larson stroked Clooney’s leg in a firm, one-way motion, as if brushing clean a billiard table, and then tried to flatten an unruly tuft of his hair. A flat-screen TV above the fireplace was tuned to MSNBC, the volume at an almost imperceptible murmur. To my left, I had a view of the back yard. On a grassy slope, a replica of the Hollywood sign made of letters just a foot or so high looked down on a small pool. Clooney said that he had a French friend who, on a visit, asked, “Is that the Hollywood sign? I thought it was much bigger.” He said, with some doubt in his voice, that he thought the letters were already in place when he bought the house.
At the public discussion that morning, James McAvoy had asked a question of his fellow-actors: “Do you ever consider the effect on an audience of the decisions that you make as an actor?” Daniel Day-Lewis, replying, said, “It doesn’t really occur to me that anybody is ever going to see the thing,” and McAvoy, at the other end of the table, said, “I’ve never done it that way. I think I’m too scared to, and that’s partly a controlling aspect with my personality, I suppose.” He said that, as he acts, he is thinking, “If I do this, will this have the effect on the audience that we want it to have at this point in the story?”
In the car, Clooney said of McAvoy, “I like a guy who says, ‘I’m probably not that actor’ ”—the actor lost in the role. “I find myself often feeling sort of those same sentiments, so it’s funny to hear someone else say it.” Now, on his sofa, he added, “I look at things like a director, even when I’m acting in a scene. I’ll think, Well, I’m going to have to really scream three scenes from now, because that’s when I’ve got to really let go; so I’ve got to hold back here, because you can’t scream all the way through—then it would be a movie about screaming.” He went on, “I’m jealous of Daniel. Let’s face it, we all are. I’m jealous of the ability to completely immerse yourself. Because it means you’re willing to not be liked for a period of time. Not just on film, perhaps.” (Clooney was referring to Day-Lewis’s intensity during filming, which has at times unnerved fellow actors.) “It’s part of the acting thing—is you sort of want to be liked.”
I later met Richard Kind, who has been a close friend of Clooney’s for twenty years—Kind is the actor who played a press secretary on the series “Spin City.” He and Clooney acted in a sitcom pilot together in 1987, as odd-couple brothers: Clooney a hunk, Kind a suited square. Off-screen, Clooney was the best man at Kind’s wedding. Kind told me, “I’m very protective of him. When I’m staying with him, I will never bring anyone to the house while he’s there. The reason? This is almost pathological: he has to entertain that new person. Even if he doesn’t want to, he will draw that person in with stories, and will entertain him. He could have been working all day, he could have a headache, it doesn’t matter, when he’s at that dinner, he’s got to talk to that person, and make that person . . . I don’t know whether it’s make that person like him, but he wants to make him feel at home.”
As befits a man who, at a charity auction last summer in the South of France, sold a kiss for three hundred and fifty thousand dollars, Clooney has an unusually alert sense of his sphere of influence; he is more closely guided than most by a diligent inner director. If he knows not to scream too loudly on camera, he is also an intelligent political propagandist—he can predict how he’ll sound on the six-thirty news. And he has taken the trouble to think his way into the mind of the person inching up to his restaurant table for an autograph, or the friend of a friend who has become a little dizzy in his presence. (“Your job is to find the best way for those people to hold on to their dignity,” he explained to me. “For a second, they have thrown it out. They got what they came for”—the autograph, the handshake—“but then they’re standing there feeling, God, that horrible taste in their mouth: ‘What now, how do I walk away?’ ” As Clooney described it, they have to be shown a path back to their normal selves.)
He is also a careful social planner. “He loves the guys and the camaraderie of the guys,” Kind said, talking of Clooney’s long-standing male friends, most of whom are connected to the entertainment industry. And then he added, “He loves the notion of the camaraderie.” This was an amplification, not a correction; but it hinted at Clooney’s social purposefulness, and I got a sense, in my conversations with him at home and, later, in his office, of the high value that Clooney places on set pieces that have the chance to lodge as almost cinematic memories—like various time-consuming practical jokes, or the occasion, some years ago, remembered by Clooney as “one of the greatest moments in my life,” when, on a day’s notice, he was able to hire a jet, gather together his friends, and arrive unannounced at the funeral of Kind’s father, in Trenton, New Jersey. (The unannounced part of this might seem odd to those outside the group, but it’s clear that Kind was touched.) In the late eighties, Clooney initiated boozy group golfing trips; more recently, he bulk-bought motorcycles for his friends, and he found the house in Italy, where friends drop by throughout the summer to eat slow meals outdoors, sometimes in the company of passing visitors such as Al Gore and Walter Cronkite. (He tries to arrange the summer into blocks of time: “I’ll go, O.K., until July 4th it’s friends without their kids.”) “There is actual work in keeping groups moving forward,” Clooney told me. “I’m perfectly willing to give up control”—as in the matter of the house renovation, perhaps—“but somebody has to be in control.” It’s no good, he said, with a likable hint of Martha Stewart in his manner, “if nobody’s asking, ‘Who wants wine?’ Maybe they’ll get wine or maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll get cheese, or maybe not.”
Clooney can be thought of as a studio of one—someone with the good sense and the resources to provide for himself what movie studios used to lay out for their contracted stars. So, for example, his driver is a broad-shouldered off-duty cop, which is a nice card to play in an argument with a paparazzo. There’s something similarly old-fashioned about the way a public version of Clooney’s private life has kept his actual privacy intact. He is incessantly winning but not confessional: the media gets its wine and cheese, and Clooney—without taking visible offense at any question, without ever taking the conversation off the record—holds on to his soul. A pet pig that, at times, slept in Clooney’s bed was, for many years, a substitute for details about other domestic partners. (The pig died in 2006, and has its own Wikipedia page.) There’s also the reputation for pranks: the stories of plastic wrap and Vaseline retailed by Clooney and co-stars on press junkets. In his new kitchen, Clooney has a little basket of mirth: a fake car license plate reading “ILUVCOK,” along with pre-printed envelopes someone gave him to send to friends that say things like “THE PORN YOU ORDERED.” There’s no doubt that Clooney has a taste for directing comic dramas that have an audience of just one or two, but when he showed these things the moment felt dutiful, and it seemed possible that the basket existed primarily for the benefit of visiting strangers. He trailed off, and rather sweetly said, “Oh, man, pretty funny, all things considered…”
His delivery suggested some hidden effort. “He does tend to decide the mood of the room, which, frankly, must feel like a bit of a strain for him,” Tilda Swinton told me in an e-mail. Swinton has become friends with Clooney since working with him on “Michael Clayton” and on the Coen brothers’ forthcoming “Burn After Reading,” his third film for them (a C.I.A.-related caper in which Clooney plays a U.S. marshal who wears a gold chain and considers himself “a bit of a Lothario,” Swinton said). “I don’t know whether he always found himself in this position, or if this is a byproduct of superstardom,” she wrote, adding, “I am sincerely fond of him. Would it be too peculiar to say that I feel somehow protective of him?” In his living room, Clooney said, “Remember, my dad did a hundred and fifty personal appearances a year.” In the sixties and seventies, when George was growing up, in a number of places near Cincinnati, his father, Nick, was a television star—a former d.j. who had become a talk-show and game-show host. In the Cincinnati area, he was a big star—“Elvis and Johnny Carson,” in George’s description. (Rosemary Clooney, the singer, who died in 2002, was Nick Clooney’s sister.) “So we, as a family, just went constantly everywhere, every day. It was, ‘O.K., we’ve got to go to the Germantown Fair.’ And we could all be arguing in the car. Not arguing, but Pop’s mad at me, and he’s really laying into me, and then my mom and dad are on edge, they’re not talking for a minute, like all parents—they’re certainly not fighters. Everything was edgy and nobody was talking, and it’s really, like, not a word is spoken in the car. And then the doors open and my sister and I get out of the car with my mom and dad, and there’s a hundred or two hundred people and it’s”—a shout—“ ‘Nick!’ and he’s got his arms around us, saying, ‘Hey, kids, get up there!’ ” Clooney mimed some big show-business gestures. “It’s the real version of ‘The show must go on.’”
“He comes from an entertainer’s line,” Swinton’s e-mail said. “This is the tradition he was brought up in, and in which he takes a true pride in advancing.” (Or, to use his own striking phrase: “I usually feel that time should be entertained.”) I later met Clooney’s parents. Nina Clooney has the lean elegance of Nancy Reagan in her First Lady days. Nick Clooney is tall and handsome, alternately wisecracking and frowningly sincere. He began to shift from entertainment to serious-minded news anchoring in the mid-seventies; he had a column in the Cincinnati Post until the paper closed, last year; and, in 2004, he ran for Congress, without success, as a Democrat.
“I think he was happy—the outward manifestations were that he was happy,” Nick Clooney said, speaking of George as a boy. A reporter who profiled Nick Clooney in 1975, when George was fourteen, wrote, “When his children were young, Ada, in particular, resented that Nick was a public person.” (Ada, Clooney’s older sister, who was widowed not long ago, lives in Kentucky with her two children.) Clooney gives no sign of resentment now—instead, there’s a romantic description of a small-town high school, in Augusta, Kentucky, and vacation time spent hanging around his father’s TV studio. But it’s clear that Nick Clooney was busy and fairly absent, and that the regime at home was strict and adult-oriented. (“My God, chew with your mouth open, you’d be grounded,” Clooney said.)
It’s also evident that Clooney is glad to have his father’s attention as an adult; he refers to him often and enjoys the phrase “son of a newsman.” George Clooney is a nostalgic man, but his nostalgia—for old Hollywood, old Vegas, live TV—seems fed as much by his father’s memories as by his own. In a way that is perhaps connected to his father’s career, Clooney has always been appreciative of the fellowship of the TV studio or the film location. Grant Heslov, a friend and producing partner of Clooney’s, told me, “He likes joking around, bullshitting, and the sense of community and family you feel on a film set.” That world has often been his subject, implicitly or explicitly. In 1997, in an early sign of ambitions beyond acting, Clooney successfully lobbied for a live episode of “E.R.” Three years later, he was the star and an executive producer of a live black-and-white remake of “Fail-Safe,” the Cold War thriller, on CBS. A story of men under stress trying to save the world, it was also an advertisement, inevitably, for filmmaking under stress; you could almost hear the high fives as the credits rolled. When Clooney began to direct, his first two films were about TV stars of earlier times. “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002) was based on the delusional memoirs of Chuck Barris, the host of “The Gong Show”; and “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005) told of Edward R. Murrow’s resistance to Senator Joseph McCarthy. In that film, the crucible of courage was explicitly the world behind the camera: the men doing the right thing were making TV.
Nick Clooney lived in L.A. for a while in the fifties, and took a few minor acting jobs. At that time, Rosemary Clooney was a very successful singing star, and was married to José Ferrer, the actor. George said of his father, “I think he stayed for some time and then thought, I have to do something, and also he didn’t want to compete with Rosemary.” He returned to Kentucky, found work in radio, and in 1959 married Nina, whom he met when she competed in a beauty pageant that he hosted. By the time George was born, Rosemary was a lesser star (and her nephew’s observation of her professional decline, and of her eventual addiction to prescription drugs, later contributed to his own career watchfulness). But she still had a house on Roxbury Drive, in Beverly Hills; on visits, Clooney encountered “an opulence I couldn’t imagine.” Miguel Ferrer, his cousin, who also became a well-known actor, had a little electric car. “It looked like a Ferrari,” Clooney recalled. “We rode it around on the tennis court.”
When I spoke to Richard Kind, he said, “I believe George is a star because—I don’t know if I want to say this—‘I’ll show them,’ you know. ‘I will not be put in the background.’ ” Clooney moved to L.A. in 1982, after failing to break into professional baseball, and after a year and a half as a feckless journalism student at Northern Kentucky University. Ben Weiss, now a friend of Clooney’s and an assistant director of television shows, met him almost the moment he arrived. Weiss has a memory of an overexcited country boy: “Driving, he’d be, ‘Look at that girl, look at that girl, look at that girl. Wow, wow.’ ”
“I was always ambitious—I had a work ethic,” Clooney said, talking of his career before “E.R.” “I was making a couple of hundred grand a year, which is beating all the odds, so you don’t really think things are going terribly. You actually feel like you’re succeeding.” He had taken small parts in movies; he signed a contract with Warner Bros. that put him in TV pilots; he had recurring roles on “Roseanne” and then “Sisters.” All the same, Clooney said, “I wished I was doing better projects, and I didn’t think I was going to get that chance.” He was unhappiest, he said, at “Roseanne,” where he was burdened, as he has rarely been since, with a largely unlikable character: he played a bumptious factory manager, Roseanne’s boss. Clooney told me that he quit just before he was fired. “You’re funny with all your friends on the set—and then you can’t get a laugh, and you can just hear the writers scratching your name out of the script. It’s hard on your soul, you know, at that point, because you can just feel it being taken away.” Around this time, he married Talia Balsam, an actress, in Las Vegas; they were divorced after a few years. He has not since remarried, and he has no children. When I asked him about childlessness, he said, “I don’t think about this,” in an easygoing way. Then the phone rang. He laughed as he stood to answer it, and Larson said, “Saved by the bell.”
“E.R.” was an immediate, spectacular hit. (“Forty-five million people a week—and now there are hits with twenty million people, sixteen million,” Clooney said.) To many of those millions, Clooney’s doe-eyed Doug Ross was a mesmerizing combination of sexual availability and professional maturity, of guy and man. As Clooney saw it, Ross was “the perfect character to have on TV. In the first show, I’m chasing chicks—a bunch of girls—I’m drunk, I don’t do my job particularly well, but at the end of it I stick up for a kid! You can’t do anything wrong in film and television if you go, ‘You touch that kid and I’ll kick your ass’; it’s a great set-you-free thing.” Clooney had further protected his position: Dr. Ross, as first written, was really no more than “a smarmy schmuck” in his dealings with women. At Clooney’s suggestion, the show’s producers allowed him to become a serious and energetic flirt—to have Ross “earnestly trying to pick them up—a guy who’s on the make, really on the make, not the one you can make fun of.”
Clooney visited New York with Ben Weiss not long after the show’s début, and saw that strangers were treating him differently. “All of a sudden people were: ‘Hey, George!’ They knew my name—not my character, but my name. Benny said, ‘You just got famous.’ That was a very satisfying moment. I suppose that’s what you’re always looking for.” When I spoke to Weiss, he remembered that trip, and he also remarked on his unending astonishment at the boldness of women who try to snag Clooney in public places: “It’s still amazing to me—literally lining up. When one steps away, another one steps in. These are smart, pretty women, thinking, I’ll do something I won’t normally do.”
Clooney worked on “E.R.” for five seasons. In his spare time, he became a film star, elevated to the highest ranks by two noisy, expensive films: “Batman & Robin,” in 1997, and “The Perfect Storm,” three years later. But before leaving “E.R.” he had already begun to make himself available as a heartthrob lure, drawing funds to quieter, cleverer movies. Clooney once spoke with Steven Spielberg on the set of “E.R.”; Spielberg watched his performance on a monitor, and, tapping the screen, said, “If you stop moving your head around, you’ll be a movie star.” Clooney’s career has been more than a search for a still head, but his best performances, in these more modest movies, have involved constraint, one way or another. One thinks of him jammed into the trunk of a car with Jennifer Lopez, in “Out of Sight,” directed by Steven Soderbergh (who became a friend and a producing partner); or, some years later, in Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana”—Clooney slowed down by thirty-five extra pounds. (He told me that Matt Damon, his co-star, did not immediately recognize him after a month spent stuffing himself with tiramisu and beer in Italy: “It wasn’t just that I was heavier and I had a beard, and shaved my hairline back. Matt said, ‘You just seemed so fucking sad.’ Because it’s not just about being heavier, which is a drag, but it’s also about not being active at all—that just really depresses the shit out of you.”)
In “Michael Clayton,” too, Clooney was carrying what in his world is extra weight—he put on ten pounds or so, because “I didn’t want him to be in really rocking shape”; more important, the character deprived him of what he called “certain veneers you use to keep the room going.” There’s barely a sign of his habit of snatched, semi-facetious smiles. Tilda Swinton said, “I think the opportunity to show something interior and disconnected from the traffic of his natural, active charisma must have constituted a nice change in his life.” She called his “Michael Clayton” performance “extraordinarily sophisticated.” I asked Clooney about the film’s end, where he sits in a New York taxi, in a solitary fog of shame and reckoning. He said that before starting the shot, which is held on the screen for three unblinking minutes, he had decided to spend the time replaying the events of the film in his head. But the shoot was in New York and the street wasn’t closed, and his taxi took up two lanes, because of all the lights attached to it. So people noticed, and bellowed his name, which amused the crew. “Instead of an actor’s exercise, it was an exercise in not cracking up,” Clooney said.
Remembering Spielberg’s comment, Clooney said, “It was a funny thing; when you do a lot of television, over the years you tend to try to do too much. Most of the time you’re not the lead, and you’re, ‘O.K., I’m going to be eating potato chips!’ ” He mimed someone throwing food into his mouth. “You’re trying to fill the screen with business all the time.” He added, “When you’re unsure is when you start to move. When you don’t know what you’re going to say.” In 1998, on the unhappy set of “Three Kings,” David O. Russell, the director, urged Clooney to be still but, Clooney said, “did everything in the world to make it impossible to be still, including rewriting while you’re talking on camera.” Clooney’s memories of “Three Kings” include Russell shouting, “Why don’t you worry about your fucked-up acting!” Although Russell has been quoted calling Clooney “a super-political, extremely manipulative guy,” his comment today is: “I feel lucky we got to make a really good film together.” Their “Three Kings” relationship ended in a brawl, and with a reminder that, when a star enables a film to be green-lit, he is a god feigning mortality for the duration of the shoot. “There is sort of an understanding that you are giving the power you actually have away to the director of the film,” Clooney said. In this case, Clooney lost patience with what he saw as Russell’s mistreatment of others as well as himself, and made a phone call to Warner Bros. that had the effect, as Clooney saw it, of taking directorial authority away from Russell. “David sat and sort of pouted for the last two weeks of the shoot, and then we wrapped,” he said.
Clooney is one of a very small group of people who, when asked to consider the most satisfying parts of their lives, begin to describe business meetings: “Sitting in a room with a bunch of people who don’t want to make a film that you know is the right film to make. You’ll say, ‘You guys are going to hate this.’ I never thought I’d be in a position to say to someone, ‘I know you don’t want to make this movie, but if I’m doing it for free I can get it done somewhere.’ ” One can imagine the avidity with which Clooney began a career in film directing. He said to me that directing was “a thousand times” as satisfying as acting; “I consider my life as being a director.”
Clooney has a production company called Smoke House, named in honor of a Tudor-timbered old-Hollywood restaurant just outside the perimeter of the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. On the lot, Clooney’s offices are in Jack Warner’s old bungalow—low ceilings and thick carpets—in the shadow of the soundstage where “E.R.” is still made. When I met Clooney there at lunchtime one day, he arrived alone in a growling black Porsche, looking deservedly proprietorial: this is where he made “Sisters” and “E.R.,” and about a dozen films, including the “Ocean’s” series. “And now I’m like the mayor of Warner Bros.,” he said. Clint Eastwood has offices in the bungalow next door. “Fucking Clint Eastwood!” Clooney said. “He comes out, ‘Hey man, how are you doing?’ We sit by our cars and talk.”
Grant Heslov, Clooney’s friend and his partner at Smoke House, is a former actor, and the co-writer and producer of “Good Night, and Good Luck.” When that film was made, Clooney was still in partnership with Steven Soderbergh. Section Eight, the company they formed in 2000, used to be in the same bungalow and enjoy the same Warner Bros. embrace; it produced the films that each of them directed, and other television shows and movies, including “Syriana.” Clooney said that the dissolution of Section Eight, in the summer of 2006, was long-planned and amicable—although, when the moment came, it was not unwelcome. “You stop being necessarily the creative force,” he said. “You start giving notes on posters and trailers.” It may be interesting to monitor the future influence on Clooney of Soderbergh, whose work has at times been impatient with exposition, aloofly absorbed in private pleasures. (There’s a taste of this sensibility in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.”) And one wonders if Clooney—a connoisseur of nineteen-seventies films by such American directors as Alan J. Pakula, Bob Rafelson, and Hal Ashby, but an instinctive enemy of the loucheness and ego display that sometimes went into making them—will ever again risk working with actors or directors who, like David O. Russell, might get on his nerves. (Clooney has an impeccable record in casting—Sam Rockwell in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”; David Strathairn in “Good Night, and Good Luck”—but he has not yet directed a full-scale male movie star.) Smoke House’s plans include a film based on “Our Brand Is Crisis,” the recent documentary about the role of James Carville’s political consultancy in the Bolivian Presidential elections of 2002; another project, to be written and directed by Clooney, will tell the story of the Americans given sanctuary by Canadian diplomats in Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis.
When I met Clooney, he was making his last adjustments to “Leatherheads,” which is Smoke House’s début. In a corner of his office, football helmets used in the movie, wrapped in clear plastic bags, were spilling out of a box. Clooney said that he significantly rewrote a fifteen-year-old script—although the Writers Guild of America did not award him a formal share of the credit, to his immense private annoyance—to make a screwball comedy, of a rather effortful kind. When Clooney’s character fights, he blows out his cheeks; when he thinks, he pushes back his helmet to scratch his head. And the audience may wonder: How charming can charm be when it recognizes itself? “Leatherheads” is “not designed to change the world—it’s just designed to be good fun,” Clooney said, seeming to anticipate critical disappointment. “I was afraid of becoming ‘that issues guy’ ”—because of “Syriana” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.” “I wanted to do something completely different. I want to be a director, and if you’re an issues-guy director then the issues change and you’re out, that’s it, you’re done.” (He also broke with recent tradition by putting himself in a romantic role, opposite Renée Zellweger, reminding us of how little onscreen wooing Clooney has allowed himself: his film characters have tended to keep to the company of men, and keep their shirts on.) The reviews, when they came, were unenthusiastic.
Asked to describe what kind of director he is, Clooney said, “I’m fun. I do know that. I keep the set fun.” And then, “I’m as prepared as anybody you’ll meet, or anybody I’ve worked with. Doesn’t mean I’m as good, I’m just prepared. I can show you storyboards this thick, with every single shot and every single scene. Every frame. Literally every shot.”
In a little satchel, Clooney had the lines that he’d been asked to read at the Oscars, then a few days away, to introduce a montage of historical clips. Just before leaving his office, he read aloud, “ ‘Eighty years of memorable moments, eye-popping productions, wistful nostalgia, hysterical highlights, gut-wrenching emotions can’t be summarized in mere minutes, but the attempt to capture the essence of the world’s most anticipated awards show is worth the effort.’ ” He stopped and raised his eyebrows. “That’s not going to happen.”
“You haven’t heard the message we had?” Clooney asked Sarah Larson, when they were sitting on the sofa in L.A. “It’s about you, you know.”
She was a little taken aback. “What?” she said. “What?”
“It’s right here. Listen to this.” He stood up and tried to make the telephone give up its voicemail. “Is this the volume? Where’s the volume? I’m losing my mind.” (His friends say that he is not good with domestic technology: he later told me that he had no real idea how to use the Internet; and he had a bit of trouble with the espresso maker that he is paid a fortune to advertise in Europe.) Someone had repeatedly called on his private line, and had then left an odd message. “It’s not a prank—none of my friends would do that,” Clooney said. He found the right switch, and we heard a calm, middle-aged male voice: “Dude, your friends asked me to give you a message: Dump the bitch before you’re sorry.”
After a moment’s pause, Larson said, “ ‘Before you’re sorry’?”
“ ‘Before you’re sorry,’ ” Clooney said, with a laugh. “ ‘Dump the bitch before you’re sorry.’ ” The message was perhaps fan mail of a perverse kind, from a Clooney admirer in some way disappointed with Larson—for being young, or for being a non-celebrity and therefore an interloper. (There’s been some unpleasant press, and Larson brought it up with me: “They say that I’m a stripper. There’s a ton of stuff about that. I’ve never been a stripper. You know, just because I’m from Las Vegas I must be a stripper. Because I’m a cocktail server that means I’m an escort.”) Or it might have been a wrong number. Larson was not aghast, but she did not seem quite comfortable, either. Clooney, though, was punchy, seeming to accept the voicemail as no more than a test of his good humor: a chance to reconfirm his efficient, uncomplaining handling of the complications of a public life.
He said that, with the help of his police-officer driver, the number had been traced to a pre-paid cell phone. Now they were trying to find out if the suspect had paid by credit card. But—Clooney laughed—“there are certain laws that, you know, that are applicable.” And then, to Larson: “It’s wild, isn’t it? Isn’t that interesting?”
“Yeah,” Larson said.
According to Tilda Swinton, fame is George Clooney’s “vocation.” He has at times spoken for other celebrities; in the mid-nineties, he organized a boycott of “Entertainment Tonight” in response to the practices of “Hard Copy,” its sister show at Paramount; more recently, he encouraged people to send fake celebrity sightings to Gawker, the New York media-gossip Web site, in order to disrupt its Gawker Stalker feature. This year, apparently for no other reason than that it seemed that it should be so, Clooney became touted as a Messenger of Peace in the Writers Guild dispute. And at the Oscar-related panel discussion in L.A., it was Clooney who made sure to put something on record about the benefits of fame; his fellow-panellists, he later told me, were perhaps “not quite adept at understanding that other people’s vision of this could literally be: ‘Oh, is it really all that hard being famous, and rich, and people being nice to you?’ And you’ve got to go, ‘Let’s qualify it.’ Because I’ve been on that end, where it’s a normal conversation like that and suddenly the lead story is: ‘Actors whining about miserable lives.’ At least get it out there once.” (Richard Kind told me of an evening in a restaurant when Clooney would not send back an inedible steak. “He said, ‘It’s fine,’ just like that. ‘What do you mean, it’s fine? Don’t be a little boy. It’s not fine, get something else.’ And he goes”—Kind used a serious, quiet voice—“ ‘Shut the fuck up or I will fucking drop-kick you right now.’ ”)
For all Clooney’s assured trade in the commodity of fame, he would concede this: “I do close down, there’s no question about it,” he said. “I’ve got a long driveway, and I’ve built fences, and in Italy I bought the house next door to keep the paparazzi out. And that’s why you make the house like a playground, in a way, and your friends come over and you have a movie theatre and you grill out on a Sunday night, and create the world that can be really fun and pleasant. Because sometimes it’s not so fun to go out.” He does go out, but in L.A. his life seems to be centered on work; watching political coverage on television; exercising in his gym; and playing half-court basketball, where he can still beat younger men with strategies that his opponents call “old-man shit.” He said, “I don’t drink by myself; I drink like my dad a little bit. If it’s a social event, I really do like having a drink.” But he keeps watch: “After the motorcycle accident, they gave me some painkillers, and you’d take those and start drinking and all of a sudden I need a drink to go to sleep, and suddenly it was: ‘O.K., I’d better mellow that out.’ ”
Asked if he could ever be assured of the social sincerity of new people he met, Clooney said that one test was whether or not, “three days later, your conversation is recounted on a talk show or in a magazine, which has happened a lot. Oh, yeah. That’s frustrating. And it makes you trust so little. You trust nothing. Because I was Nick’s kid, and Rosemary’s nephew, and then spent my time being famous, there is not a moment in my life when I haven’t been aware of the idea that at any moment, including taking a bath or taking a shower or going swimming in my pool, somebody might be watching, or photographing. It’s freaky, so you have to live your life in a very different way. You don’t pick your nose, you know. Or, if you do, you do it under a desk somewhere.”
I asked Clooney about the Fabio incident last November, and he laughed, saying, “What do you want? Dinner at an Italian restaurant with Sarah and myself and my buddy Benny and his girlfriend Meilani, and there’s a table sitting there full of four or five women and Fabio with his back to me, and it’s one of those things where they just keep taking your picture.” He went on, “This isn’t new to me. I’m going to go to dinner tonight, and they’ll do it, they’ll position themselves. I know it, and I’m used to it. But it went on and it went on, and I gave them the finger”—a photograph of the gesture was published online—“and they kept doing it and Fabio was looking over his shoulder and laughing and smiling and shit. So finally I go, ‘O.K., enough.’ I go, ‘Knock it off, enough.’ ” And, speaking across to Fabio’s table, “‘I thought you were a nice guy.’ ”
I later spoke to Fabio. He said that Clooney had had a drink or two, and overreacted, and this seemed at least possible. But Fabio perhaps overdressed his story. In his account, nobody had taken a photo of Clooney—“Let me tell you, nobody noticed him!”—and Clooney had shouted “fat pig” and “ugly bitch” at Fabio’s dinner companions.
Fabio went over to Clooney’s table, he said, in the spirit of “a gentleman.” Clooney was taken aback. “I honestly don’t know what he was thinking,” he said. “I was pissed. ‘Get the fuck out of my booth!’ And I have to say, he’s a big cat and I kind of thought, I’m going to get the shit kicked out of me by Fabio—just not exactly how I want it to play.” There was contact of some sort. “It was that moment that guys get, where you’ve shoved each other and, it’s: O.K., now what’s going to happen?” Waiters rushed to the scene. Clooney and Larson went to their car, and wondered how long it would be before they read about the fracas in the newspapers.
Clooney stood up from the couch. He had to arrange dinner with Tilda Swinton, and he said that his BlackBerry worked only when he stands by the same upstairs window, “like Boo Radley in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ” As he left the room, he said over his shoulder to Larson, “You can tell him, ‘He beats me.’ ” And then to me: “She’ll hand you a note.”
A day after returning from Africa, in late January, Clooney visited the United Nations headquarters, in New York—an occasion that some senior U.N. officials referred to as Clooney Day. He arrived, with his parents, a little late and breathless; his car had become stuck in unmoving midtown traffic, and he had walked, unrecognized, the last few blocks, wearing a dark suit and a black tie. In the entrance lobby, the U.N. had set up crowd-control barriers against its own staff members, not all of them women. At the first sight of Clooney, a raucous cry went up, although one sensed a collective will to stop short of a full-throated scream that might discredit the organization. Clooney paused in front of each barrier, and shook many hands, saying “Hey!” in a surprised tone; one of his social skills is to treat every introduction as a longed-for reintroduction. (Later, he talked to me about the way human contact can calm a crowd hungry for celebrity. “It’s a trick,” he said. He had seen Tom Cruise—whom he referred to as “Cruise”—do it “really well at times, where he’s able to get right into the group, stop the frenzy—he’s pretty good at looking people in the eye, and getting people to see and hear him as a person.”)
Clooney grew up in a liberal household that was alert to world affairs, but he was rather disengaged as a young man; in his mullet-haired years, he missed many opportunities to vote. He had opinions, but “he wouldn’t read a newspaper, he certainly wouldn’t watch TV news, never,” Richard Kind said of the Clooney he initially knew. (Clooney didn’t quite recognize himself in Kind’s description, but said that, if he wasn’t fully engaged in current affairs, that may have been a reaction against his father’s priorities: “Probably some of that: I wasn’t interested in being told what I should think, what I should pay attention to.”) In the narrative of his political evolution, he emphasizes the occasion, in the immediate aftermath of the 1992 L.A. riots, when he and some friends drove down to South Central L.A. to help sweep up the streets. “That’s when I understood the difference between sitting around, talking about politics, and actually getting your feet in,” he said.
Clooney’s interventions became more public after the election, in 2000, of a President who might have seemed vaguely familiar—a jokey, shoulder-rub kind of man with a resilient hairline and a powerful father. (Clooney watched TV coverage of the 2000 election at the home of Gregory Peck, whom he admired as a fellow-liberal and for his deftness as a host—for doing “what I try to do in Italy.”) Clooney helped organize a fund-raising broadcast for victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks; this drew him into a public spat with Bill O’Reilly, of Fox News, who aired charges—unfounded—that the money had been improperly distributed. When, in 2003, Clooney spoke against the invasion of Iraq, he was again attacked from the right, and put on a deck of “weasel” playing cards that also included Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand. His resentment about these attacks fed into “Good Night, and Good Luck.” (“I was really angry when I made it,” he said. “I was out of my mind, I was so furious. Being called a traitor to your country?”) And when the film was released, in 2005, he revisited this sense of beleaguerment in interviews. Then, and, later, in his Oscar acceptance speech for “Syriana,” he seemed sincere, but he was perhaps too willing to see Hollywood as a uniquely plucky progressive voice. And he seemed to read politics through the prism of his own expertise in handling public perception. He would often mention an unnamed magazine that, before the Iraq war, had his photograph on its cover with the word “traitor” running “across my chest.” He mentioned it again to me. The publication was the National Examiner, a second-rung supermarket tabloid; its “Traitors!” cover, in late February, 2003, did have a picture of Clooney, along with five other stars, as well as a competing story about the death of Kathie Lee Gifford’s dog. Although it isn’t for anyone but Clooney to say how insulting he found this, it does seem an obscure, even camp, place to find an insult, and a stretch to think of the National Examiner’s disregard as a “badge of honor,” as he once told the BBC.
If, at that moment, Clooney mistook a media dustup for a moral crusade—a feud for a cause—he then found, in Darfur, a cause of overwhelming moral seriousness. He told me that he first paid attention to Darfur after reading Nicholas Kristof’s columns about the crisis in the Times; in early 2006, he spoke about Darfur with Barack Obama. (“I love that guy, I love him,” Clooney said of Obama, but he has not publicly campaigned, for fear of doing damage; he felt that his father’s campaign for Congress was undermined by “Hollywood versus the Heartland” rhetoric.) Early in 2006, Clooney discussed the idea of a trip to Darfur with his father, and Nick Clooney called David Pressman, a New York lawyer and former State Department official, who had just returned from Sudan. Pressman met George Clooney over dinner in New York—“I wanted to make sure the motivations were pure, and they are, there’s no doubt,” Pressman told me—and, within weeks, Pressman, the two Clooneys, and a cameraman had flown to Chad and to Sudan, although not to Darfur itself. One of Pressman’s clearest memories of Clooney on the trip is sitting with him on a tiny single-propeller plane, Clooney watching the pilot with rigid attention. Pressman asked him what he was doing; he replied, “I’m learning to fly.”
Clooney spoke at the Darfur rally in Washington, D.C., soon after he returned, and then, nervously, to a special meeting of the U.N. Security Council. Last year, with Jerry Weintraub, the producer of the “Ocean’s” films, and Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Don Cheadle, Clooney formed a non-profit focussed on Darfur, Not On Our Watch, which raised more than five million dollars in one night at the Cannes Film Festival. And in January of this year he returned to the region, joining a tour that had already been planned by Jane Holl Lute, a top U.N. peacekeeping official. With the understanding that there would be a future relationship between Clooney and U.N. peacekeepers, Lute recommended that the U.N. invite him to become a Messenger of Peace. (“Don’t I look like a prisoner?” Clooney asked, showing me his pale-blue paperwork, just before he left.) Lute, Clooney, Pressman, and a few others visited the Darfur region and elsewhere in Sudan, and also Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and India, on a fifteen-day journey that was, by all accounts, physically and emotionally wearing. Clooney called it “tricky.” He said, “It’s hard to explain, except to say there were very few times you thought it was safe. It keeps you up at night; and, more than that, you feel that the people around you, who are going to be there after you leave, are taking huge risks.”
They returned to New York, and, after two weeks in an unusual position of relative extraneousness—sitting in on Lute’s meetings—Clooney now had a chance to play his part. He later told me that there was some U.N. effort to direct his message: “Not that they were trying to get me to lie, but they were trying to control what part of the story was the most important part. I was, like, I got it, but this is what I do.” At a press conference, he began with a jokey comment about not being Matt Damon, then made a smart speech that was informed but not overwhelmed by frustration at the pace of international intervention. He answered questions, and then moved to a suite of offices on the thirty-second floor, where he gave a dozen separate television interviews, speaking in a very low voice, without taking a break. Clooney’s publicist and a few others borrowed an office, marked “Situation Room,” until the news that rebel forces were poised to topple the government of Chad caused the U.N. to ask for the room back, and the publicist moved into the corridor.
Late in the afternoon, Clooney made his way out, through the wide corridors of the United Nations building. Walking alongside him, one heard shouts, and even applause, but in his wake there was a kind of cooing, like a cinema audience shown a puppy. People held their hands over their mouths. “Hey!” Clooney said. An S.U.V. was parked outside; he got into the rear row of seats. “Oh, Lordy. Good, good, good,” he said. He sat down heavily, with his feet apart. The car headed north on First Avenue, and for a moment he stopped moving. ♦
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What a superb article!
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Absolutely WONDERFUL article!!!!
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This is an absolutely fabulous read. Thank you!!
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