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From The S Times
December 11, 2005
I'm in charge of my own script now
George Clooney is having fun and for once no beer or blondes are involved. The actor once dubbed the sexiest man alive is steadily shedding his hard-earned reputation as one of Hollywood’s most dedicated bon viveurs.
Clooney, it turns out, has a serious side, soon to be on worldwide display in a pair of new films that have earned rapturous praise in America.
Like Warren Beatty and Mel Gibson before him, Clooney is transforming a career as a Hollywood hunk into a fascinating second turn as a director and writer. He is also emerging as a successor to Beatty as the outspoken guardian of Hollywood’s liberal conscience and as a political activist prepared to lend his name to a range of causes.
If that all sounds a bit heavy, don’t worry — Clooney has not lost the sense of fun that made him Hollywood’s most feared practical joker. He once gave a friend a painting he’d found in a dustbin, pretending to have painted it himself. The picture took pride of place in the friend’s living room for two years until Clooney finally confessed. Other victims have included Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts.
Lately, though, the jokes have been giving way to political bromide. Earlier this year he joined Bono in the Make Poverty History campaign, appeared at the G8 summit in Scotland, joined marches in London and Berlin and, more recently, interceded with the King of Morocco to help to secure the release of John Packwood, a British yachtsman jailed without trial on false drug charges.
Somehow he also found time to advance his Hollywood career: Clooney, 44, wrote and directed Good Night and Good Luck, a new account of journalistic bravery amid the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s McCarthy era in America. He also stars as a distinctly unglamorous CIA agent in Syriana, a thriller about Middle Eastern oil. Both films might earn him Oscar nominations.
“It’s been a good year,” says Clooney. “It’s actually nice now to sit down at publicity junkets. Usually it’s entertainment reporters and their first question is, ‘Okay, who are you dating?’ ”
The former heart-throb of the hospital series ER still fields regular queries about his female companions — there do seem to be rather a lot of them — but most questions these days are likely to be about the Iraq war, presidential politics, corporate mischief and civil rights activism.
I caught up with him as a limousine whisked him out of Los Angeles to shoot the finishing scenes to his next film, The Good German, a dark political thriller set at the beginning of the cold war.
Clooney was far from the only Hollywood star to criticise the Bush administration’s strategy on Iraq, but the conservative establishment rounded on him particularly viciously. For a few weeks in early 2003 he was savaged daily by chat show hosts. He was scornfully portrayed by Bush supporters as a Hollywood airhead who was not only ignorant of the issues involved but was also somehow jeopardising American security by daring to disagree with the president.
“All I had done at that point was say, ‘Well, I think we have some questions to ask before we send 150,000 kids to get shot at’,” Clooney says. He also suggested that it was important to understand what motivated the terrorists. “Suddenly I was on the cover of one magazine: they called me a traitor. They had packs of ‘traitor’ playing cards going round and I was the Queen of Hearts.”
At one point a chat show host asked him if he thought his career was over because of his political views. “I was right in the middle of getting beaten up good,” says Clooney. “Bush was saying that you’re either with us, or you’re with the enemy. So to disagree was actually an act of treason.” Far from discouraging him, the experience convinced him that he had to keep speaking out.
All this may come as a surprise to anyone who remembers Clooney in his fluffier incarnation as a soap opera charmer whose early Hollywood work included a stint as Batman. He now grimaces when reminded about that tight-fitting Batman costume (which he refers to as “my rubber suit with nipples”).
It was just as he was beginning to speak out against the war in Iraq that Clooney was asked to do Syriana, a film based on a memoir by Robert Baer, a retired CIA agent, about his real-life adventures in the murky world of Middle East oil. The director was Clooney’s friend, Stephen Gaghan, best known for his work on Traffic, the Oscar-winning drugs drama.
Clooney initially signed on as executive producer, knowing his name would help Gaghan to raise funding for the film. When the actor who signed to play Baer dropped out, Clooney grew a beard and put on weight to play the CIA man, not as a James Bond superspy but as a flabby, dishevelled misfit struggling to understand the intrigues around him. Time magazine called Syriana “light years from the standard Hollywood movie”.
Clooney insists that the film is not anti-Bush: “It’s basically a statement about 60 years of flawed policies in the Middle East. This isn’t stuff that all came together in the last five years.”
Yet the film, due for release in Britain in the new year, is provocative and relevant to terrorism in the Bush era. “We have a storyline about two Pakistani boys who slowly, bit by bit, become suicide bombers. I thought it was important to say that you can’t just call them evil, you need to understand what creates those elements and what parts we are responsible for. Obviously I’m not condoning or defending horrible, heinous acts, but there’s a reason these things happen.”
Making Syriana turned into a personal ordeal for Clooney. During filming he fell backwards off a chair, banged his head and began to suffer hideous headaches. Applying his years of experience as a fake ER doctor, he concluded he had suffered an aneurism and was about to die of a stroke. “It was none of those things — it was a hole in my spine,” he explains. He had three small bones removed from his neck and back (by real doctors) and the killer headaches dissolved.
By chance, Syriana came out in America just after Good Night and Good Luck, Clooney’s stirring account of the battle between Ed Murrow, the legendary American broadcaster who reported the second world war blitz from London, and Senator Joseph McCarthy, the fanatical communist hater who saw reds under every bed.
Clooney’s choice of a journalist hero for his second directing venture (the first was the critically praised Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) owes much to his close relationship with his father, Nick Clooney — a former television news presenter, army helicopter pilot and brother of the singer Rosemary Clooney — who ran as a Democrat for election to the US Congress last year. He lost but his relish for politics is clearly shared by his film star son.
There was an obvious danger that Good Night might turn into a leaden political diatribe but most critics were dazzled by the film’s subtle allegories. Clooney has been tipped for writing and directing Oscars and the film’s lesser-known star David Strathairn, who plays Murrow, could find himself up against Clooney’s own Syriana performance in the best actor race.
All of which has left Clooney in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose his projects. The money he has earned from recent blockbusters such as Ocean’s Eleven has allowed him to work on smaller films where the rewards are mainly in the mind.
Clooney believed in Syriana and took an actor’s fee of $250,000 (£140,000) — about 1% of the going rate for male superstars; for Good Night and Good Luck he accepted only symbolic pay — $1 for writing the script and $1 for directing. The film cost $7m to make and has already earned $20m but none of it will go to Clooney — he signed his rights away to get the film distributed. “I’ve actually had a very good career once I realised it wasn’t about trying to make money,” he says.
As for the future, he plainly relishes his new status as Hollywood’s leading liberal: “Yes, I’m a liberal and I’m sick of it being a bad word.
“I don’t know at what time in history liberals have stood on the wrong side of social issues. We thought that blacks should sit at the front of the bus, that women should be allowed to vote, that maybe McCarthy was a jerk, that Vietnam was wrong and strip-bombing Cambodia was probably stupid. We’ve been on the right side of all these issues.”
His one regret is that the Democratic party he has always supported failed to confront the Bush administration in the run-up to the war in Iraq. As a result, he thinks, some of the party’s leading figures — notably Senator Hillary Clinton, frontrunner for the 2008 presidential race — may be in for a rougher ride than they realise from disillusioned Democrat voters.
“The Democrats were scared on Iraq and the truth is they backed themselves into a corner,” says Clooney. “They didn’t have the political resolve to tough it out and now they are paying the price.”
Asked about Clinton’s tortured attempts to distance herself from her past support for Bush, Clooney shrugs dismissively: “She’s pretty political so I’m not surprised. Am I disappointed? Yeah. I hate it when smart men and women are saying, ‘Well, if I knew then what I know now’. The fact is: I knew it then and I don’t have national security clearance. I knew there was no tie between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. We all knew the UN inspectors wanted to keep looking for weapons of mass destruction. Basically, the Democrat leadership was scared (of criticising Bush) and it’s too bad, because it’s come back to haunt them.”
Clooney, unsurprisingly, is not among the Hollywood stars clamouring for Clinton to declare herself a presidential candidate. Instead, he is urging Democrats to take a leaf out of the British Tories’ book and opt for a fresh face — someone untainted by the failures of the past.
His choice is Barack Obama, the young black senator from Illinois who exploded into the national spotlight with a dazzling speech to the Democratic convention last year. The son of a black Kenyan and a white American woman, Obama, 44, has been dubbed his party’s “great black hope” and is widely seen as a credible candidate to become America’s first black president. He arrived in the Senate this year and unlike Clinton has no past votes to embarrass him.
“Of course he doesn’t want to (run for president) right now; he just wants to be senator for Illinois,” says Clooney. “But he could attract the two groups who rarely show up to vote — young people and blacks. He’s the guy to get behind.”
I asked Clooney if he felt any sense of vindication that two years after he was denounced as a traitor, his doubts about the war have become mainstream: “You would feel some sense of vindication if 10 of our kids hadn’t been killed the other day just outside Falluja with a rocket-propelled grenade. You don’t see any of us standing up going, hey, hey, we were right. There’s nothing fun about being on the right side of history if the children of friends of mine are being killed.
“The truth is, you still have to ask questions. We do have Syria, Iran and North Korea. We’ve got a lot of other issues and we don’t want to have to go into these with an (ideological) agenda, and then fake whatever information we need to back up our agenda again.”
Clooney insists that he has no intention of running for political office — he has always described himself as a “yes, I did it” candidate, meaning that he would have to admit to a long list of past misdeeds with wine, women and more besides if ever he submitted himself to electoral scrutiny.
Instead he sees himself as “an irritant — picking at the scab a little — to challenge authority. My father taught me that”.
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