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December 31, 2004, 8:00 PM
What I've Learned: George Clooney
Actor, 44, Los Angeles
By Cal Fussman
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My first memory is when I was four years old: a family reunion at my uncle George's farmhouse. Uncle George was one of those great guys, a true character who claimed to have been a World War II bomber pilot and dated Miss America, one of those guys who walked into the room and lit it up. You remember how Al Pacino talked in Scent of a Woman? "Hooo-waaaaaaah!" Uncle George talked exactly like that. Complete conviction. He'd say something like "Don't eat that mustard! Mustard will give you a heart attack!" He'd just make it up. But to this day, I'll be putting mustard on my hamburger and wondering....
Uncle Chick was there, too. Greatest con artist in the world. He'd gotten meningitis when he was a kid, lost his eye, and had a glass one inserted. He worked in an office during World War II, but he'd go into taverns, put his glass eye on the bar, and say, "Would you buy a drink for an Army man who lost his eye?"
I remember us kids sitting around at this reunion and Uncle George telling stories: "Chick, take off your finger for George Timothy and Ada Frances." Uncle Chick had this fake finger, and he'd do one of these moves and put the finger on the table. "Now, Chick, take out your teeth." And Chick took his dentures out and laid them on the table. "Now, take out your eye and put it on the table so the young ones may gaaaaaaaze upon it." Chick took out his glass eye and stuck it on the table. And Uncle George said, "Now, Chick, unscrew your head." And all of us kids took off running, because when you're four years old you believe anything is possible.
At a very early age, I learned how to tell a story.
The best lesson my mom taught me was how to be scrappy. She was a beauty queen and had her own television show. But for her birthday, she'd buy herself a table saw. She put a roof on our house. My father -- great as he is -- couldn't pick up a hammer. It was my mom who was up there pounding the shingles in. But more than that, she taught me how to be realistic and survive in weird situations.
I have this buddy, Giovanni, in Italy. Over the summer we're out riding motorcycles in the middle of nowhere. I go through this intersection, there's nobody around. Giovanni comes through, and out of nowhere this lady in a car comes racing across and crushes Giovanni's leg.
I get back to him, and it's a mess. Blood and bone everywhere. No ambulance around for a hundred miles. People start coming over. I don't speak the language, but somehow I'm making them understand: "From you, I need this. From you, I need that." We get towels, we get bamboo, we use bungee cords to make a splint, we get a car.
Keep your cool, get the job done -- that's what I got from my mother.
You know, after all these years, it's still hard to explain my father. But the best way I can tell you about him is this: There are people in life who you wish you could be at a certain moment in time. Something happens and the moment calls for you to say just the right thing -- and most of us don't say it. The right words come to you later, in the car when you're driving home. "That sonuvabitch, you know what I should have told him?..."
My dad was the guy who always had the perfect comeback at the moment it needed to be said. You'd watch and go, "Wow!"
He was an idealist, too, and it's easier to be the friend of an idealist than the child of an idealist -- because the idealist will make his child an example.
When Bobby Kennedy was killed, my dad was a journalist doing a TV show in Columbus, Ohio. It's right on the heels of Martin Luther King's death, a really frustrating time. My dad comes into my room, and I can tell that something's up. He says, "Give me your toy guns. Give them all to me." So I give him all my toy guns -- plastic squirt guns, whatever I have. He puts them in a bag, and then he goes on his show and says, "My son gave me these. He said, 'I don't want to play with them anymore.'?" Now, he did it to make a point, and the point was important to make, and it was a great moment in television. My dad understood that the message would be more important coming from a seven-year-old. So it was smart of him. But it's different when you're the kid. You're like, "Whoa, that was my favorite toy gun!"
I can understand father-son complications. With those toy guns, my father sacrificed something from me in order to make a point for the betterment of man. It's almost exactly the opposite of what happened with W. and George Bush Sr.
If I were the son of the man who Saddam Hussein tried to kill -- we're not sure if that's the case, but if it is -- then I'm defending my dad. I get it. It's kind of an admirable thing. My problem with that, of course, is that there are a lot of young women and young men who are suffering greatly for it -- and I'm not just talking Americans. We're killing more than ten to one. And we've lost a thousand, so that's a lot of people who've lost their lives. There's no place in government for that.
You know, my dad just ran for Congress. I did stump speeches for him, and I'd have to get up and apologize to everybody for being a liberal. For some reason, we've gotten to this place where liberal is a bad word again, which is truly insane. Look at American history. Start with the Salem witch hunt. The conservative view was, "Well, they're all witches and they should be burned at the stake." But the liberal view was, "Maybe there aren't any such things as witches." Liberals thought that women should be allowed to vote. We thought it'd be okay for blacks to sit at any lunch counter they wanted and wherever they liked on a public bus. We thought that'd be all right. We've always been on the right side of history eventually. So I don't understand how you lose the moral argument.
We don't have to put the word compassionate in front of liberal the way conservatives do to prove that we give a shit about people. I think we should change what we call ourselves. I think we should be ruthless liberals. We need to show that we're tough, that we really give a shit about people.
I remember when I was a kid, going out to eat with my family and other families. Going out to dinner was a very big thing in Kentucky back then. We weren't wealthy at all, and shrimp cocktail was something you really looked forward to. And just as the waiter put the shrimp cocktail in front of you, the man from the other family would say something like, "What's the problem with those people?" And my mom would immediately be telling us, "Eat fast! Eat fast!" Because we all knew "those people" meant "black people," and my father was going to make a scene, and we'd all have to leave the restaurant.
At the time, I was thinking, Can't you just shut up and let it go so we can all eat our shrimp cocktails? But he never did let it go. And I'm really proud of that. But now, years later, I had to watch him say, "I'm fiscally somewhat liberal and morally somewhat liberal, but no, I'm not a liberal."
Are you kidding? We should be embracing the word!
And let's not forget gay marriage. Now, what's the big argument about? Who really thinks the sanctity of marriage works? What is there, a 50 percent divorce rate? So the argument about gay marriage becomes "What's next? Can you marry a goat?" And you come back with "Okay, let's make marrying a goat legal. Let's make it legal! If you're some backward jackass who wants to marry a goat, go right ahead!" It's illegal to jump off a building. Now, if you made it legal, there wouldn't be a rush of people wanting to jump off a building. But you get these people saying, "This is destroying our morals." What? Because two people love each other and want to express it?
The gay-marriage argument is ridiculous. Eventually it's going to happen, and everyone who stood against it is going to look like George Wallace on the steps of the schoolhouse trying to keep black kids from entering white schools, and we're going to have to explain why these people acted like dumbasses and how they were actually not such bad people after all.
If I were president? Well, I'd do a few things..
You realize that in order to be elected, I'd have to run on the "Yep, I did it" ticket. "Is it true that you did drugs?" Yep, I did it. "Did you sleep with...?" Yep, I did it.
And if I was somehow elected after all that, then I'd be shot because the first thing I'd try to do is take oil off the table. But let's say I tried to do it. Remember when Kennedy got the space program going in 1961, saying in ten years we'd put a guy on the moon? At that point, rockets were falling off launchpads and monkeys were getting killed and there were people who said, This guy is out of his mind. But we did land on the moon in 1969. And new technologies came out of that experience.
So if I'm president, I say, "We're at war? Really?" Because it doesn't seem like it. Usually when you're at war, people sacrifice. Let's face it, Rosie the Riveter ain't exactly out there. The only sacrifice I see is coming from the 150,000 kids who enlisted and had the war dropped in their laps.
So, okay, this is a war? Let's take the other side's weapons away. Their weapon is oil. Ten years from today, we're not going to have cars that run on internal-combustion engines. At some point, we're going to have to do it anyway, because oil is finite. So why don't we take the leap right now?
I know, it's a drag. Do I love the sound of a '57 Chevy? Yeah, I do. But the world is different, and at some point we're going to have to deal with it when the oil runs out.
If we take oil off the table now, suddenly all of those little countries that really didn't come into power until the thirties -- and did so only because there was oil under their sands -- will go back to the sort of power structure that they were originally designed to have. They don't get to control our economy. The Saudis don't get to own a billion dollars' worth of American stock and a billion dollars of our debt. We take away the thing that makes them so powerful, and we create a new technology along the way. It's a new day.
My aunt Rosemary taught me a lot without ever saying a word. She taught me how to handle success -- not by handling it well, but by handling it badly.
In 1951, she was on top of the world, on the cover of every magazine. Nine of the top ten singers were women. She went on the road for five years, came back, and rock 'n' roll had come in. Elvis was king, and rock was male-driven. She didn't become any less talented of a singer. Things changed. The rules changed. And she was devastated. She started to believe that she'd lost her talent. She had nervous breakdowns, got screwed up on drugs, had a bad manager who made bad investments, blew a lot of money, and then got hit by the IRS and never owned anything for the rest of her life. Luckily she had the staying power to reinvent herself and come back. But she was knocked down for about twenty years.
So what you learn from that -- the really good lesson -- is: You're never as good as they say you are and you're never as bad as they say you are.
I had a lot of jobs before I became an actor: chopped tobacco, sold women's shoes. One thing you learn selling women's shoes is that all women lie about their shoe size. All women. And I mean all women. What is this horribly screwed-up thing that women have been taught that large feet are not attractive? A lady would come in with a 9 1/2 wide and say, "I'm an 8." I'm looking at her, knowing she's a 9 1/2 wide, and I'll say, "Eights are going to hurt." But she'll jam her foot into an 8 and say, "I'll take them!" This was in Kentucky back in 1979. And there's this whole generation of women in Kentucky who had a toe cut off on each foot at the beginning of the century so that they could fit into pumps. It's true. They should make a documentary about it. They didn't cut the last toe; they took the fourth one to insure balance. The minute an eighty-year-old woman would enter the store, I'd say to myself, This is going to be ugly.
I didn't become really successful until I was in my thirties. I can still remember sitting on the closet floor of my buddy's house, completely broke. My friends would want to go out to dinner, to get a hamburger, and I couldn't afford to go. They had the money to pay, but I didn't want them to pay. That happened a lot. At one point, I remember my buddy Brad loaning me a hundred dollars. He's now running our production company. I'm still paying that debt off, you know?
To me, Al Cowlings is the best example of a friend. I embrace Al Cowlings for being the guy O.J. called up and said, "Dude, they're framing my ass. Start up the car. Get me $20,000 and a passport. Let's get on the road." It's very easy to be a friend when the pressure's not on. I embrace the man who can get in a car and drive his buddy in the blindness of all reality and truth -- which is his buddy just murdered two people. Total blindness. I admire that. I'd like to have friends like that. I'd like to think I'm that friend. However, the bigger truth is that you're on the run with a guy who just murdered two people. Once your eyes are opened, what do you do?
I've done some really bad television shows. An actor in a room can actually envision himself in a scene where he's saving the city of Los Angeles from a guy who wants to take it hostage. That's because he's sitting there with a very myopic view. He'll have a discussion with another actor about the scene, and they'll find a way to make it funny and kind of hip and cool. It works, right? He forgets the big picture: Mr. Big is holding the city of Los Angeles hostage. He only sees himself in the part.
I never thought Batman & Robin was going to be a great film. I thought it was a great opportunity for me. And suddenly we're filming. The script isn't together. I'm just miserable in the suit, trying to make scenes work. That's not the way to make a movie.
I got beat up for Batman & Robin. Fair enough. I got paid a decent amount for it, and I'm a big kid. I can take my hits. But I was a little surprised how hard I got hit for it and how the hits come when you're not looking.
Batman & Robin was released during the third season of ER. Everything about ER was gold. We were on the cover of Newsweek the second month of the show. I was nominated for an Emmy during the first two seasons. All five of us were. That third season of ER was my biggest. It's like I was a ballplayer who'd hit .310 the first season, .315 the second, and .328 the third. Now, I'm not saying I deserved to be nominated that third year, but I was nominated the first two, and I know what I did the third.
The nominations come out and Stan, my publicist, calls early in the morning: "You didn't get nominated." I'm like, Oh, well. Who did get nominated?" And he goes, "Ummmmmm, oh, everybody else on the show."
So I go in to shoot a scene that morning. Everybody's all excited -- which they should be; they've all been nominated for an Emmy. I'm great friends with them all and I know that they know it's kind of a drag. As I walk up, they get quiet. I wait a minute, then I say, "Ohhhhhh, yeah, the nominations came out this morning. "What happened?" Everybody just stares at me. Nobody says anything. And I go "Fuck you, I know!" And everybody starts laughing.
The thing is, it took me Batman & Robin to get to the point where I am now. When I got in a position to greenlight a picture and get the picture made, I really had to adjust my thinking. Because when you're an actor, you're thinking about getting good roles. You go, That's a great part! And you sign on to make the movie.
Only now, those movies are being greenlit because you're doing them, and when the reviews come out, you're being held responsible not just for what you did in the film, but for the entire film.
From here on in, I realized, it's my responsibility. If I'm going to blow it, if I'm going to bomb, it's going to be on my taste. So I started out doing Out of Sight and Three Kings and O Brother, Where Art Thou? and making only films I'd go see. Now, that doesn't always end well. Sometimes a movie doesn't work. But the lesson of Batman & Robin was a great one.
I didn't learn much from marriage because I didn't let it be much of a learning experience. That's not to say I didn't love and adore the woman I married. We'd gone out for a long time, off and on, but what I wasn't really prepared for was the idea that, if things start going really badly, you actually need to work them out. I was twenty-eight years old. I wasn't as tolerant as I should have been, and I wasn't as willing to fix things as I should have been. Had my marriage come later in life, I probably would have understood better how too make it work.
Divorce was interesting for me because divorce meant failure. Not that my parents scolded me for it or anything like that; they've always been very supportive. But in general, they don't fail. They muscled through tough times in their marriage, because they weren't about to not be married. It was a different time.
But I just worked with Talia again while I was coproducing the show K Street. Her husband was a regular. It was really nice to reintroduce myself to her and relearn about her. Now we can look at ourselves as two people who had a reason to be together at a point in the past. We were able to get past the rough times in the past, just make jokes and have fun.
The great thing I have in my life is all these friends who are family, who've been family for twenty-five years now. The same group of guys who won't let me get away with anything and I won't allow them to get away with anything. They don't care where I get my employment. They all have their own jobs and their own lives and their own families. But every Sunday we watch a movie, play basketball, the families come over, or we might travel together. We work very hard at it. I've worked harder at that than I did at my marriage.
My uncle George had the world by the balls. But he had one problem: He was a drunk. A bad drunk. We once found him sleeping, with a long white beard, in the tack room at River Downs racetrack, in Cincinnati.
I learned a lot about death from uncle George because I spent his dying days with him. And what I learned is that death is the most personal and private thing you can do.
People throw up certain arguments: Don't you want to have kids? (Which I haven't wanted to do.) Aren't you afraid of dying alone?
You die alone. Period.
It's private and personal, and when uncle George died, he was looking somewhere else.
The experience gave me the capacity to look at life from a realistic point of view, which is: A lot of bad shit is gonna happen to you through the years. Here's your options: Live long enough to watch your friends die, or die young.
Now, I'm not pessimistic at all. I'm just saying I realize that's true. I don't want to see any of my buddies die, and I don't have any interest in dying young, either. But I had to come to terms with what I'm not going to do.
Uncle George was sitting in his bed, sixty-eight years old. He looked at me and said, "What a waste..." To this day, I don't know if he was talking about the smoking that destroyed his lungs and barely let him breathe at the end, for the drinking, or if he was talking about his life in general, that he hadn't become the man that all that promise asked him to be.
But I came to the conclusion that I was not going to wake up one day at sixty-five and say, "What a waste." At the very least I was going to grab as much out of this life as I could.
I'm going off to do a movie about corruption, with a message about the dangers of what happens when religion becomes the driving force of foreign policy. It's about religion and oil. I'm directing a film in March about Edward R. Murrow taking on McCarthyism. I'm terrified about becoming complacent and doing jobs for cash, which you can fall into even when you don't need the cash.
The idea is to keep opening up, to keep going. My inclination would be to put a wall up and protect all of the things that I own, that I've created and feel comfortable with. I gotta keep shoving that wall down and say, Okay, let's go to places I don't understand completely or don't feel completely comfortable in. You hope you can do it. I don't know if you do it all the time. You try. That's the secret.
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Great interview, thanks for posting it!
Yes, i really miss those days when he used to talk to the media. I'm hoping he'll be doing some promotion for the Descendants and Ides of March.
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well, there is a video I had saved but then deleted where journalist were talking about his fall-out with the press. It was after they photographed him kissing Celine, he was furious and said he was not going to give interviews to some of them anymore. If I find that video again, I will post it here.
"after they photographed him kissing Celine, he was furious"
- George Clooney fan forever!
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I think he's done his best interviews with Esquire and Rolling Stone. They tend to interview the man, not the image.
- Totally loving George Clooney
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I haven't seen any his Rolling Stone interviews. Maybe I'll try tomorrow.
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You'll find them here somewhere.
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