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19 Feb 2000
Since he left his sure-fire success as every patient's dream on ER, George
Clooney has had mixed fortunes on the big screen. Now he has hit his
stride as one of the world's most bankable film stars - and with his power
extending behind the camera, he's proving that he's far more than just a
Interview by Martyn Palmer
When David O. Russell was having trouble convincing his studio paymasters
of the cinematic merits of blowing up a cow (not a real one) or the need
to have a head "pop off", as he puts it, in spectacular fashion in another
explosive and indeed expensive scene in his war film, Three Kings, the
director ran into an Armani-suited blockade of bodies.
No, said The Suits, you cannot blow up that cow - real or otherwise -
because it will cost roughly the same as a Scud missile (perhaps not quite
that much, but you get the picture) and is entirely out of the question.
It was at this point that Russell used his trump card. He asked his star,
one George Clooney, to go and see them, do a bit of lobbying, and explain
the visual and artistic merits of the scene in question. And, hey presto,
said cow was duly blasted to smithereens with, it has to be said,
"I was the guy who had to go to the studio when they said we couldn't blow
the cow up because it would cost too much money," says Clooney. "And I'd
say to them, 'All right, take it out of my salary and let's figure out a
way to do it...'"
Now considering Clooney, at one point, squared up to his director and came
close to, as he says, "ripping his head off", and considering that Russell
happily admits that George was not his first choice - he wanted Nicolas
Cage - you have to admire both men's ability to put personal animosity
behind them and rally to the common cause.
"The reports that we nearly came to blows are true," says Clooney. "There
were times I wanted to rip his head off and it nearly came to that point
one particular day. I have a lot of respect for David as a director and I
like the film a lot. But he was overwhelmed at times by the size of the
operation he was running and one day he went ballistic with an extra and I
took exception to that kind of behaviour. I put my arm around his
shoulder, pulled him off the guy he was harassing and told him that he's
the guy in charge and he had to keep it together.
"Naturally he wasn't very happy with my observations about his personality
defects, so we started pushing each other and, if a couple of crew members
hadn't pulled us apart, I definitely would have slugged him. He was out
of line and I let him know it and he didn't appreciate my telling him that.
"But that's all there was to it. When you're making a $50 million movie,
there's incredible pressure on you to get the shots in the can and move to
the next camera position. I don't hold any grudges against David and I
don't think he holds them against me. The bottom line is that it's a good
film and everybody should come out looking like a winner."
Clooney has always had a tendency to stick up for the little guy and it
comes, he believes, from his childhood. "I was raised a McGovern
Democrat," he says. "We were as liberal as you could get." His father,
Nick, was a television anchorman, the brother of singer Rosemary Clooney
(more on that later) and sometime local talk show host. The family -
mother, Nina, a former beauty queen, and older sister Ada - often enjoyed
the trappings of wealth, living in a big house in Maysville, Kentucky, but
experienced life uncomfortably close to the breadline too. Nick Clooney
was a man of principle, and if he felt that something was wrong he would
let everyone know about it. And that meant that, at times, he would walk
out from one well-paid job without another lined up to go to. During those
times, they would move out of the big house and into somewhat more modest
surroundings, including, for a brief time, a trailer.
"We came from Kentucky, which is not really the South but kind of," says
George. "And there was a lot of bigotry around when I was a kid, and I
remember that we would be out to dinner or somewhere and if somebody said
some kind of racial remark we knew my dad would take the family and walk.
"And when you are a kid you think, 'Well, dad, you don't have to agree
with them but don't walk, please!' And the upshot was that we would learn
to eat very quickly. But my dad would always say to us: 'If somebody says
something racist you have to fight them...' So I would do that too. And
usually get the shit kicked out of me.
"And it made me kind of angry as a kid because I was always like, 'Why do
we have to stand up? Why can't we just agree for a change?' But now I'm
very happy that he taught me that because it does matter and it does make
a difference. My dad is still the best at that, he walks away from things at
the drop of a hat."
Does Clooney, then, believe that he is like his father? "No, I wish I was.
My dad is a lot smarter than I am and his line of integrity is to a fault.
I've quit jobs for the right reasons before and I've gotten into fights. I
got into a fight with a producer on a show because of something he was
going to do to someone else and I walked. I've learned to do that over the
But it was easy because I had money in the bank. "People go, 'Oh, you were
really brave because he was treating this person like shit and you said,
'You can't do that.' And I think to myself, 'Well, it's brave if you are
my dad and you do that when you have two kids and no money in the bank.'
That's brave. It's really not so brave when you do it and have lots of
money in the bank. And I don't know I would have done it the other way
round. So no, I'm not there yet."
So where, exactly, is George Clooney right now? If anything, he seems to
be at some kind of crossroads in his life. Indeed, he uses the phrase
"life is too short" as something of a mantra these days. In conversation,
holed up in a New York hotel room, he is reflective and seems to be trying
to work out exactly what he wants to do with the rest of his life as he
approaches his fortieth birthday next year.
"I don't know what I'm going to do. I remember seeing friends of mine
going to Macedonia and spending time there. And it was something that I
was passionate about because I know my dad does things like that. And when
I get the chance I'll do it.
"I'd like to do something where I feel better about myself, feel alive.
Because there is a lot of crap that goes on out there and there are things
that you can do to help sometimes. But the danger of me saying that is
thatI sound like every jackass actor in the world who says 'I've got to
give something back...'
"It doesn't mean they are bad people but it sounds self-serving. I just
feel that there is more to it than what I've been doing for the last 20
years. I need to be part of society, good and bad, from a different
perspective as opposed to just from work and acting. I now have the
opportunity to do that and it seems the smart thing to do."
In his career, of course, Clooney has made plenty of smart moves (although
not always). And now, like many other A-list stars, he wants to produce -
because control, he will tell you, is the key to longevity. "The reason
why you produce is because there will be a period of time in the
not-too-distant future when people will be sick of seeing you. I'm sick of
me already. But then you have something else to do and are still involved
in the industry and that's why you do it."
Whether people are sick of seeing George Clooney is debatable. It
certainly doesn't seem so. Indeed, after a tricky start to his big-time
movie career - we are talking a dud Batman and Robin, an indifferent
thriller, The Peacemaker, and a romantic comedy, One Fine Day, that hardly
lived up to box-office expectations - launched on the back of his
incredible popularity in the medical drama ER, Clooney has successfully
turned it around, due mainly to Out of Sight, a critically acclaimed
adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel and now Three Kings, Russell's
surreal comedy-action flick set during the Gulf War, which opens in
Britain on March 3.
Coming up soon, will be more trendy cred for Clooney. His outing with the
Coen brothers, left-field creators of such acclaimed works as The Big
Lebowski, Fargo and Miller's Crossing, indicates just where Clooney is at
as an actor these days. He has the power, he has many millions safely
tucked up in the bank and now he wants to do just what he wants and not
what others may tell him will be sure-fire box office. And, he informs
you, he doesn't feel the need to take up every lucrative offer that comes
"I over-book myself and I've got to stop. And I've never said that before.
I always said, 'I've got to get a job, got to move on to the next job...'
I was always rushing to get somewhere. Now I'd like to stop and enjoy
myself a bit. I'm going to go off and do stuff that makes me feel better
about myself, makes me feel better about being successful, about making a
"You see these people who go on vacation and they go, 'I only have 11 days
until my holiday is over...' And they just count the days they have left.
Whereas there are other people who will just enjoy their vacation. I need
to be someone who does that with life."
Uppermost in his mind must also be the prospect of a happy, settled and
permanent relationship. His last one, with French law student Celine
Balitran, ended last year and he's beginning to wonder whether he can go
past the "three-year" barrier, which seems to be roughly the length of
time he has spent on most of the serious romances in his life.
"Did I work too much? Probably. Did I treat my relationship with her too
cavalierly? Yes. I suppose I blew it because I didn't want to deal with
the issue of how all the time we were spending away from each other was
hurting her. OK, I admit it, I blew it."
They are, apparently, still on good terms. When I press him further on
this subject he says wearily: "Look, it's a long story." He is, then, back
to being one of Hollywood's most eligible bachelors living with Max, a
Vietnamese pot-bellied pig in his eight-bedroomed mock Tudor mansion in
Los Angeles (complete with basketball court which he uses daily while at
home) and going on golfing holidays with the boys. Footloose and fancy
free. Children? No thanks, he has said many times. "I just think it's a
huge responsibility and I'm probably not the most responsible person in
George Clooney, if you've read the profiles, is a bit of a surprise in
person. He is not what you expect, as David O. Russell will tell you.
After five years of being billed as The Love Doctor and The World's
Sexiest Man, thanks to his time on ER, the endless speculation about which
beautiful woman is sharing his bed, it would be easy to fall into the trap
of believing Clooney to be little more than an extremely good-looking,
very lucky Hollywood playboy. Albeit a very personable one.
And that's not just a media view. When Russell was looking to cast his
lead in Three Kings, he was informed that Clooney was very interested
indeed. The trouble was, Russell wasn't particularly interested in
Clooney. He thought, with some justification perhaps, that George was,
well, just too darned good-looking for the part of grizzled army veteran
Archie Gates, a man who has seen it all and done it all in various battle
zones around the world. In this case, perhaps, Clooney was too
good-looking for his own good.
"Quite frankly, he wasn't the first person who came to mind," says
Russell, a film-maker who had made his name with two critically acclaimed
independent movies (Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster). "We
had talked to Nic Cage for a while but he was doing a Scorsese movie. But
I actually had more of a character actor in mind and not somebody who is
good-looking, like George..."
It's easy to see what he means. Clooney is like an Identikit film star -
dark, square-jawed, blue-eyed and in possession of a crooked grin which,
apparently, used to make millions of female ER viewers reach for the
tranquillizers. But Clooney is also an actor. An actor who would like to
be regarded as a great deal more than the sum of his admittedly admirable
body parts. And, in person, he is also rather charming without desperately
trying to please. He is far from just a pretty face, as director Russell
will testify. And he did not give up.
"Oh no, he certainly didn't," says Russell. "He wanted that part and was
very passionate about the material. So I met up with him and I really
liked the guy. He is very smart, and when we hung out together I realized
that he has this grizzled back home quality to him. The challenge was to
get a new performance from him. And I think we did that. He did a great
It wasn't easy for Clooney. As he filmed Three Kings, he was also working
out his last weeks on ER. As Warner Brothers, who make ER, tried
desperately to keep him on as Dr Doug Ross, Clooney, in his head at least,
had already gone and there was no turning back.
"There was a lot of sadness when I left because they were my friends but,
you know, all of my film deals are at Warners, and I've got an office
there so I see them, like, every day. I was doing some work on Stage 16
and they are on Stage 11 and I'd walk by and go, 'How's it going in the doctor's
office?' But I was very happy to finish in the show when I did. And I felt
that I handled it the right way. I had a five-year contract and I honoured
it. I never renegotiated, I was the lowest-paid actor on the show by a
long shot and for that I was able to leave after five years and hold my
"And after that amount of time on the same show, you start to run out of
things to do. I did as an actor. I would do things just to be different,
which would be wrong. I'd watch the show later and go, 'What the hell am I
doing?' There would be some guy dying on screen and I would almost be
It's easy to believe that ER invented Gorgeous George. It did, indeed,
turn him into a star, but before that he had 12 or 13 years working in
Hollywood on one television show or another. He'd certainly served his
time. He drifted into showbusiness in his late teens - first working as a
bit of a dogsbody for one of the television stations that used to employ
his father, then picking up a walk on part in a movie shot locally (called
And They're Off, and with a title like that it's not surprising to
discover it was never released) and then, after a couple of odd jobs
cutting tobacco and selling shoes, he headed for Hollywood.
Over the years, he earned enough money to pay the rent but didn't get
rich, made more forgettable movies, some decent television, and honed his
craft. Probably the first taste he had of the big time came in the late
eighties, playing Roseanne's male chauvinist boss (for one season) in the hit sitcom
of the same name. It was the first time that he began to attract the
attention of the press.
His love life began to attract attention, too, as indeed it still does. He
dated Kelly Preston - who left him and later married John Travolta - and
shortly afterwards, in 1989, married an old flame, actress Talia Balsam,
but it ended in divorce in 1993. "I married a terrific girl, a great lady,
and it didn't work out," he said later. "I don't take full responsibility
for that but when things were starting to go wrong I wasn't willing to try
and fix them. I just wanted to chuck the whole thing. The biggest part of
why the marriage didn't work was my fault."
ER provided Clooney with the kind of opportunity that he had always
wanted, namely to have a serious crack at movies. It did not, however, go
according to plan. His high-profile outing as the Caped Crusader in Batman
and Robin, in 1997, almost killed off his film career before it had really
"It was not a great film and I was not good in it," he says now. "And I
don't think I'm afraid to identify my own shortcomings. I wasn't the
greatest Bat. Rubber and me just didn't get along too well."
He does seem to have a healthy - or cynical, depending on your view - take
on the celebrity fame game. He has been careful with his money, mostly
because he'd seen first hand what had happened to his once very famous
aunt, Rosemary, a huge star in the Fifties who saw her popularity
nose-dive with the birth of rock'n'roll.
"You know my aunt Rosemary was very famous and very rich in the Fifties,"
he tells me. "And she is now 70 and still trying to pay back all the
cattle investments she made then. I'm kind of scared about that stuff. I
put my money in the bank and watch it and I play a tiny bit in the stock market
and that's it."
He reminds me frequently that showbusiness is very, very fickle. "I could
be 70 and hanging out in a bar and somebody walks up to me and says, 'Hey,
didn't you used to be George Clooney, the Sexiest Man Alive?'"
Perhaps that fear, of being overused as a showbiz commodity and then cast
aside, has fuelled his choices of late, most notably with Out of Sight,
Three Kings and the Coen brothers' film (O Brother Where Art Thou?),
which will be released later this year. If at some point in the future he's no
longer flavour of the month, then at least he can be proud of the work he
has left behind.
"If for some reason after I've taken a break and I come back and no one
wants me to do a movie or anything, then I've got a few good ones in the
bank. And ultimately it's not about how good the box office is. The money
stuff, the numbers, doesn't matter to me any more. It used to. It used to
be devastating, but not any more. If I'm 85 years old and somebody sees
Out of Sight or Three Kings and goes, 'Man, I really love that movie' and
I can go, 'OK, thanks. That's cool.' That's what I want."
Clooney is, in fact, very proud of Three Kings, which is set in the dying
days of the Gulf War in 1991. Four US servicemen - veteran Archie Gates
and three rookie reservists (played by Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike
Jonze) discover a map that gives the location of a horde of Kuwaiti gold
stolen by Saddam's henchmen, and promptly set off to steal it for
At first the film seems straightforward enough - the good guys set off to
grab the gold from the bad guys and go home millionaires. But Russell's
movie is much more than that, as the motley band get caught up with the
plight of the Iraqi people who were urged to rise up and overthrow Saddam
only to be deserted as the US, Britain and their allies pulled back after
claiming victory. Instead of simply helping themselves to a truckload of
riches, Gates and his boys find themselves on a mission to help to free a
group of Iraqis from the Republican Guard and escort them to safety. It's
rather like Kelly's Heroes meets M*A*S*H, and in America it caused a bit
of a stir and was actually regarded as highly political.
"It's funny, but as an actor I don't think you necessarily read a script
and think of it as political or not. You read it and think, 'God, I really
like the script.' I thought it was smart and funny and the way it tells a
story is unique and interesting and I loved it for that.
"Later on, when you've made it, you start talking about some of the issues
it raises. But it's important that we don't try and make this film some
kind of educational tool, like they did with JFK. Three Kings is a comedy
which will quietly open the discussion about responsibilities, because
there are a lot of responsibilities when you decide you are going to
police the world.
"And America sets the tone in the world. I don't know whether we are good
at it, but we do. We were right to go after Milosevic - he's a jerk.
Saddam Hussein is a jerk. But let's go down the list of jerks. What about
Pinochet? Why didn't we go into Afghanistan? We were right to help in
Somalia, but how do we pick these places? The danger is that nothing is
black and white. This isn't World War Two, our boundaries aren't invaded,
so is it OK to kill a lot of people whose government has made policies we
don't agree with?
"It's not wrong to protect them, but the reason the film is great is that
it says, 'Hey, these guys are jerks and they do have to be stopped, but
here's the price it costs, and do we do it well?' And sometimes we do and
a lot of times we don't."
At this stage, I point out to Clooney that he is beginning to sound like a
politician. Given his liberal background and that desire to "do something"
I wonder if perhaps he might consider a political career one day. After
all, others - Warren Beatty, for instance - have declared an interest. And
a Clooney For President campaign (stranger things have happened) would
certainly get plenty of attention.
"The only way to go into politics would be to say, 'Yeah, I did all the
drugs, yeah, I drank, I went out with her and her...' And get it all out
of the way immediately and then you could talk about the issues. But no,
that's not for me."
And despite his fears, obscurity (or, indeed, a career of bad movies) is
not, you suspect, for George Clooney, either.
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