Following his whirlwind trip to Cairo last year, exclusively for Enigma, superstar George Clooney talks to Robbie McIntyre in London. The heavenly heartthrob discussed the challenges of directing himself in Leatherheads, his close relationship with the film’s female lead Renee Zellweger, what it’s like talking world affairs with the British Prime Minister, and a possible proposal to that cocktail waitress.
So firmly entrenched is George Clooney in Hollywood’s A-list, it is easy to forget that little over a decade ago his movie career looked like it might never get going. Having stolen hearts worldwide as ER’s Dr. Doug Ross, in a role he began in 1994, Clooney’s transition from small to silver screen was not a smooth one. In 1997, the movie that was supposed to send Clooney’s star into the stratosphere, Batman and Robin, was heralded as one of the biggest flops of all time. It was a setback which would have killed the career of most actors, but not Clooney. Even while he was failing to set the world alight, he was demonstrating his versatility, and a somewhat surprising penchant for edgy material.
A man in possession of his classic good looks could easily have settled into the role of matinee idol, but instead he combined roles in big budget action movies like The Perfect Storm with dark material like the Gulf War movie Three Kings in 1999,
and the Coen brother’s acclaimed Oh Brother Where Art Thou in 2000. He also proved he could smoulder with the best Hollywood pin-ups, oozing chemistry with Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight in 1998. It was Clooney’s relationship with Out of Sight director Steven Soderbergh which proved the key to his Hollywood ascent. Alongside Soderbergh, Clooney developed his tactic of making the odd tinseltown-friendly blockbuster in order to finance the projects he really cared about.
Hence the star-strewn Ocean’s Eleven in 2001, featuring not only Clooney but Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Andy Garcia and Julia Roberts. That film and its two subsequent sequels have paved the way for Clooney to put his backing behind projects which are truly close to his heart. The first example of this saw him star in Soderbergh’s remake of philosophical space drama Solaris in 2002. More importantly, he took the chance to cut his directing teeth the same year on Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. The film – an adaptation of the memoirs of game show impresario Chuck Barris, who purported to be a CIA hit man in his private life – garnered him many positive reviews from the critics.
Since then, Clooney has found himself getting more and more comfortable in the director’s chair. So much so that he admits he finds calling the shots on set “more rewarding than acting”. His second outing as director
for Good Night, and Good Luck in 2005, proved even more successful. Telling the story of journalist Edward R. Murrow’s attempts to battle Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, Clooney earned himself an Oscar nomination for Best Director The same year, he walked away with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Syriana, a politically charged epic about corruption in the oil industry.
Since then, Clooney has become a genuine power player in Hollywood, and has even started to wield his influence on political matters in the real world. In 2006 he travelled to the Sudanese region of Darfur, where tens of thousands of people have been killed by the country’s army and the government-sponsored militia known as the Janjaweed.
He has since campaigned vociferously for the western world to take action to stop the bloodshed, and recently shot a documentary with his father Nick – a journalist turned politician – highlighting what he sees as genocide in the region. The younger Clooney is held in such high esteem in political circles that he recently met British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London to discuss Darfur.
Despite such serious concerns, Clooney’s latest contribution to Hollywood is a light-hearted one. Leatherheads sees him both direct and star as ageing American Footballer Jimmy ‘Dodge’ Connelly, who fights for the affections of Renee Zellweger’s hard-nosed
journalist Lexie Littleton with his younger, altogether more dashing teammate Carter Rutherford. Inspired by the screwball comedies of the 40s and 50s, Leatherheads is a fun, breezy movie.
Perhaps not coincidentally, its director seems to be in a contented place right now. Having bet Michelle Pfeiffer and Nicole Kidman $10,000 each that he would never marry, the formerly committed bachelor looks like he may imminently lose himself a lot of money. Rumours abound that he is on the verge of proposing to his girlfriend Sarah Larson, a former Las Vegas cocktail waitress who has accompanied him to a number of premieres over the last six months. Famously reluctant to discuss his love life, Clooney admits he is in a “very happy relationship” with Sarah.
With more film projects in the pipeline, including an acting turn in the Coen’s Burn After Reading, it seems that at the age of 46 this Hollywood heartthrob is enjoying a golden period both personally and professionally.
How long ago did you first start working on Leatherheads?
Two summers ago I spent the summer in Italy developing it. The same place that we made Good Night, and Good Luck the year before. I worked on it with Renee in mind to play the part of Lexie. It’s easy to write when you have someone in mind – so that was kind of the fun.
What attracted you to directing a romantic comedy?
After Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana, every film I was sent to direct was an issue-driven film. At some point, the issues start to become bigger than the films you are doing, and you really don’t want to do that if you want to direct. I also wanted to do a romantic comedy; but something that had not been before. The reason I avoid romantic comedies in general, is because we always know how everything ends. I’m a big fan of the old screwball comedies, and without trying to mimic it, I felt this was a good time to do something like that, but different. I also I wanted to play with things and figure out what I am good at and what I’m not good at.
This film is very much your baby. Do you enjoy being in a position where you can start your own projects?
There’s something really exciting about being able to say, ‘I want to go and make this film’, and people will make it. It doesn’t last very long in your career so while you have all the toys, you want to be able to play with them all before you’re made to put them back in the box and go back to a Screen Actor’s Guild retirement home!
So your name alone is enough to get a film made?
I don’t have enough power to get the film made completely on my own. Renee’s name certainly helped on this. I don’t think you ever have enough power in that sense. I mean, we couldn’t get Good Night, and Good Luck made easily, and that’s a $7 million film! But my name definitely helps.
Did you ever consider anyone but Renee for the role of Lexie Littleton?
No, I was counting on her agreeing really. I was tailoring the part for her for about a year. She’s an actress who can do a period piece and not make it seem contemporary. She’s been one of my closest friends for about 12 years so it was nerve-wracking asking her to do it. She’s a big star so it’s not like you’re just asking your buddy to be in a movie. I was determined not to screw it up for her.
Did your close friendship translate into your working relationship?
Yeah, we’re such good friends that it’s fun and easy for us to work together. We had a lot of great times.
So there weren’t any difficult moments?
Well in the first week of filming she was out throwing the football around every day and I had to bring her in and say, ‘If you keep throwing the football around and get hit in the nose then we’re done shooting’. Also, Renee has a drinking problem! She falls down a lot! No, really, it was great working with her!
What was the hardest part about directing yourself in the film?
At 46 when you get hit, it hurts. And you get up and you go, ‘OK, well that hurt, but we got it’. And then you go over to the monitor and you look at it and as a director you know you have to do it again, but as me, I’m like, ‘I think we got it’! Then the producer Grant Heslov would say ‘Back out, get out there and do it again!’ So yeah, it hurt every once in a while.
In the film there are a lot of jokes referring to you character’s age? Is getting older something that concerns you?
I don’t really worry about it because the other option is death! So getting older isn’t something I am concerned with much. I kept putting those old man jokes in because it was a project I was actually first looking to do about 10 years ago, when I would have been about the right age to be too old to be playing football. So I had to keep putting old man jokes in.
You have been considered one of Hollywood’s premiere pin-ups for a long time. What’s your secret?
How much time do we have? You know, I think it’s really hair. It is about hair, I have good hair that I just bought and had applied! So hair, mostly.
What other qualities do you think make you attractive to women?
Cash and fame. They certainly help. Cash, fame and a nice car!
There have been rumours you are going to propose to your girlfriend Sarah Larson. Is that true?
Well someone told me a clairvoyant said I would be married by the end of 2008. I have to say, I think she was being a little premature. Anyway, I’m going to marry my publicist Stan!
Despite your relationship with Sarah there have been claims that you are gay. How do you react to something like that?
You know, people can think whatever they want. I live my life, I enjoy my life and I’m not worried about what people think.
Did you enjoy coming to London for the European premiere of the film recently?
Yeah, we had a heavy night out when we got to London though. My friend Mariella Frostrup (British TV presenter) made me drink. She’s Satan! I woke up feeling a little rough the next day.
While you were in London you visited the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. How was that?
It was great fun meeting the Prime Minister. He’s really amazing actually. He’s got really great ideas about a couple of things to do in Darfur that may just be a step in the right direction.
“Cash, fame and a nice car make you attractive to women”
“At 46 when you get hit, it hurts”