George Clooney is nominated for two Oscars this year — for his lead role in The Descendants and for co-writing the adapted screenplay for The Ides Of March, which he also directed. He speaks to Robert Siegel on today's All Things Considered about film, but also about the life he lives as one of Hollywood's most famous men.
Clooney didn't start out as famous as he is now. He did quite a bit of episodic television — including roles on both The Facts Of Life and a comedy that was, believe it or not, called E/R before, at 33, he was cast as Dr. Doug Ross on the drama ER. His television stardom took him first to film roles in straightforward entertainment like Batman And Robin, One Fine Day (a romantic comedy with Michelle Pfeiffer), and The Peacemaker (an action film with Nicole Kidman), and then to three films in the space of a couple of years that were critically better received: Out Of Sight, Three Kings, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? He was later nominated for both directing and co-writing 2005's Good Night, And Good Luck, and for his performances in Syriana (for which he won in the supporting category), Michael Clayton, and Up In The Air.
Clooney says that taking the role he did in The Descendants — one a bit more rumpled and at loose ends than audiences typically see from him — came down to the screenplay and the fact that director Alexander Payne, known for films like Election and Sideways, "really hadn't made a bad film, and I wanted to work with him." In places, including a scene where Clooney's character dashes in distress from his home and runs down the street in flip-flops, there's a chance of looking silly — of "clowning it too much," as Siegel puts it. Again, Clooney says, it's about who you're working with. "It would be hard if you didn't trust the director," he says. "There's a very big difference between doing that for Alexander Payne and doing it for someone that you don't trust. Because the product that you're selling out there is you."
And what Clooney is selling is changing somewhat. Asked about comments he's made that he's moving away from certain kinds of roles, he starts with a gentle poke at his superhero past: "I'm not going to do any more films in rubber suits, I've decided." But he isn't joking: "Growing old on screen is not for the faint of heart," he says. "There's a certain cruelty to being on a big screen as your eyelids start to sag and your hair falls out and turns gray that you either have to be able to handle or not. What you can't do is try to force yourself into roles that you could have played or would have played ten years earlier. You have to constantly be looking forward." That means better scripts, he says, and also directing and writing — "something you can do well into your old age."
What George Clooney also deals with and will deal with for many years is fame. Asked what his level of recognizability feels like, he points out how constant the attention to his every move has gotten to be. "I'll ride my motorcycle into the Swiss Alps to the top of a mountain to a tiny little bistro that we accidentally find, and by the time I've had coffee and a croissant, there's 40 people outside because of cell cameras." For him, the presence of cameras in the hands of every observer doesn't just mean too much attention and too much recording; it means the loss of the ability to experience things directly.
"I've walked with very famous people down red carpets over to the crowd of thousands of people," he says, "and you'll reach out to shake their hand and they've got a camera in their hand. And they don't even get their hand out, because they're recording the whole time. And you can tell people that you recorded Brad Pitt, but it would be very hard for you to say you actually met him, because you were watching it all through your phone. I think that's too bad, because I think people are experiencing less and recording more." And it's a problem everywhere: "The trick is to get them not to do it when you go to the bathroom."
Clooney may be very famous, but he's clearly not been without his setbacks — including Batman & Robin -- which, Siegel notes, keeps coming up. "Failures are infinitely more instructive than successes." He explains that it was a new-ish thing to be offered a role as large as Batman at that point in his career. He says he learned that as an actor, he would be held responsible not only for his own acting, but also for the entire film and how good it was — and that's what led him to those films with the Oscar-nominated scripts.
And, undoubtedly, helped lead him to start writing Oscar-nominated scripts himself.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Now, a talk with George Clooney about acting and life. Most recently in Alexander Payne's movie "The Descendants," Clooney plays Matt King, whose wife, Elizabeth, is in a coma. To his teenage daughter, who has a drug problem, and to his younger daughter, who's acting up in school, Matt has been a self-described backup parent. In short, Matt King's life is a mess.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DESCENDANTS")
GEORGE CLOONEY: (as Matt King) What is it that makes the women in my life want to destroy themselves? Elizabeth with her motorcycles and speedboats and drinking. Alexandra with her drugs and older guys. And Scottie, with Elizabeth gone, what kind of a chance will she have with just me?
SIEGEL: George Clooney has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role in "The Descendants," and he joins me now from NPR West. Welcome.
CLOONEY: Well, thank you.
SIEGEL: You are known more for playing men who have it together, men we envy. Matt King is at wit's end; he's a bit of a wreck - an unusual part for you. Why did you take it?
CLOONEY: Because I'm at my wit's end...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CLOONEY: ...and I'm a bit of wreck in life. You know, I took it initially because Alexander Payne, the director, really hadn't made a bad film, and I wanted to work with him. And then he sent me the screenplay and said, I think this is something that would be fun for both of us to do.
SIEGEL: When your character discovers that his wife was cheating on him, you run outside. And there's a very remarkable scene where you're running in flip-flops. So it's awkward. It's tragic. It's comic - which seems to be the balance that you have to keep throughout this entire film.
CLOONEY: Well, that's Alexander's talent. If you look at the films he's done over the years, his real skill is his ability to turn things on a dime; to make them extremely funny and then break your heart, sort of, in the same scene - maybe sometimes in the same sentence. And that's what makes him one of the true masterful filmmakers and storytellers we've had in a long time.
SIEGEL: But you are playing him at that moment. You're the one running down the street in the flip-flops. Is that hard to do - to figure out, how do I this without clowning it too much, without making me a pathetic figure?
CLOONEY: It would be hard to do if you didn't trust the director. There is a very big difference between doing that for Alexander Payne, and doing that for someone that you don't trust because, you know, the product you're selling out there is you, right? I mean, it's not like, well, here's another set of encyclopedias if you don't like this one. It's you.
And so that's a very vulnerable place to be. So you tend to not want to take chances unless the environment feels very safe. So what you do is, you'll - when you work with somebody you trust, you go well, how about this? And you do something sort of ridiculous, like run down the street like a goose, and knowing that if it's not right, this director who you trust will go, you know, maybe not so much. That's not where I want this to be pitched.
SIEGEL: You've said in interviews that you are starting to transition away from acting - or at least away from a certain kind of part, in a certain kind of movie. What does that mean?
CLOONEY: Well, I'm not going to do any more films in rubber suits, I've decided. I've learned from "Batman." You know, as you get older, the one thing you have to understand as an actor is that change is inevitable, and growing old on screen is not for the faint of heart. You know, there's a certain cruelty to being on a big screen as your - you know, as your eyelids start to sag and your hair falls out and turns gray, that you either have to be able to handle or not. And what you can't do is try to force yourself into roles that you could have played, or would have played, 10 years earlier.
You have to constantly be looking forward. And so what you're looking for now are better scripts, and you're looking to transition into directing and writing, which is something you can do well into your old age.
SIEGEL: But two different models one might follow. There would be Cary Grant, who sort of withdrew at a certain age; and on the other hand, Paul Newman, who was in there to the end. He wasn't playing Hud to the end, but he was...
CLOONEY: No. But that - but Paul is the perfect example. Paul, you know, when you look at Paul Newman a few years after "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and a couple of years after "Slap Shot," he's doing "The Verdict." And "The Verdict" is not a - he's not a leading man at all. He is very much a character actor, and he's maybe the best example of how to handle the career, transitioning from lead roles into character roles.
SIEGEL: What is it like being immensely famous and totally recognizable just about anywhere?
CLOONEY: What's odd, you know - it's not something that you can train for or practice, but I would argue that the kind of fame that is out there now - I will ride my motorcycle into the middle of the Swiss Alps, to the top of a mountain to a tiny, little bistro that we accidentally find. And by the time I've had coffee and, you know, and a croissant, there's 40 people outside because of cell cameras. So the unfortunate thing, I think, is that part of what's happening is that we've lost our sense of actually experiencing things.
We just constantly - constantly recording things. I've walked with very famous people down red carpets over to the crowd of, you know, thousands of people. And you'll reach out to shake their hand, and they've got a camera in their hand. And they don't even get their hand out because they're recording the whole time. And you can tell people that you recorded Brad Pitt, but it would be very hard for you to say you actually met him - because you were watching it all through your phone. I think that that's too bad, because I think people are experiencing less and recording more.
SIEGEL: But this must be a constant experience for you, people - seeing people with little cellphones that - they're taking a picture, wherever you go.
CLOONEY: Every restaurant I go to, every - I mean, the trick is to get them not to do it when you go to the bathroom.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CLOONEY: That's where I draw the line on cellphone cameras.
SIEGEL: I spoke with George Clooney for about 25 minutes and in our conversation, he did something that I've heard other creative people do. The movie of his that he mentioned most often was "Batman & Robin" - his worst, a failure.
CLOONEY: Well, failures are infinitely more instructive than successes because, you know, for instance, "Batman & Robin" - again, which I will mention one more time. There was this - first is the element of this. I had been in the position to get studio films - it was my second or third studio film; I hadn't really been even in that ballpark before. And I was offered the role of Batman, which is this sort of iconic role, and I took it without much concern for the script or any of those things because to me, I was still that actor that said wow, I got a great part. I'll do it.
The lesson I learned was from that point on in my career, and the position that I had suddenly found myself, I was going to be held responsible not just for my work in the role but also for the entire film. And so it adjusted exactly, you know, I went from doing "One Fine Day" and "Peacemaker" and "Batman & Robin," coming out of "E.R." to - the next three scripts I did were "Out of Sight," "Three Kings" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" which were all nominated for screenplay. So it was understanding, suddenly, that I really needed to be protected with a good screenplay.
SIEGEL: Well, George Clooney, thanks a lot for talking with us today.
CLOONEY: Well, thanks.
SIEGEL: George Clooney is up for an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in "The Descendants," and for his screenplay for "The Ides of March."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.