Interview George Clooney

The continuing story of Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha as they struggle to manage their love lives, friendships and careers in New York City.

The female journalist before us has brought a friend. And the two of them aren’t in any great hurry to leave.

“Tanya said she’d come along and take notes for me,” giggles the first, “but I’m not sure that she’s written a thing since we started talking.”

Tanya shakes George Clooney’s hand and says something that might be Hungarian. Or Mongolian. It sounded like “Paratutu”.

Clooney flashes that Clooney smile, fixes Tanya with a it’s-only-you-and-me-in-the-room gaze, and she manages another syllable. Which was “Sill”, I think.

Yep, George Clooney has a strange effect on women. And quite a few men. Then again, he is, according to Time magazine’s recent cover story, The Last Movie Star. And they might just be right.

Clooney’s got the effortless charm and classic good looks of a Cary Grant or a Clark Gable, but is also very much a man of his times, concerned enough about the injustices of the world to do something about it.

Such as set up Not On Our Watch with friends such as Matt Damon and Don Cheadle to raise money for the crisis in Darfur. So far, the organisation has sent over $9million to the devastated region.

Clooney is doing a day of interviews before attending the premiere of his latest film, Leatherheads. Down the hall, his co-star – and ex-squeeze – Renee Zellweger is also helping put a few more bums on seats for Clooney’s 1920s-set screwball comedy by talking to the press. I decided to pass on that one.

Truth be told, Zellweger – who has now developed the face and cracked smile of a former child star – is more of a minus than a plus when it comes to the box-office, and her role as a fiery, independent newspaper journalist in Leatherheads would have been better served by a more centred actress, such Cate Blanchett, Catherine Zeta Jones, Amy Adams or Rachel McAdams.

Clooney is notoriously loyal to his friends though, another of the man’s seemingly endless list of good qualities. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t like George Clooney? Besides America’s loony right, of course, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly having become Clooney’s Elmer Fudd in recent years, the conservative pundit having decided that the outspoken Hollywood star embodies the smarmy liberal ethos of elitist Hollywood.

Clooney – who began one interview with a conservative website by stating, “I’m a Liberal. Fire away” – has always worn his politics on his sleeve. And today, for those of you who need to know such things, George’s sleeves are, I think, part of a black Armani long-sleeved pullover, offset by a perfectly-single-creased pair of charcoal grey trousers. Casual, but classic, and clearly enough to make Tanya walk into the door as she tried to leave the room without taking her eyes away from The Gaze.

“Hey, good old Ireland,” says Clooney, as we sit down. “I’ve got a lot of friends there, and, I recently managed to spend a few hours in Dublin for the first time too only. Unfortunately, those few hours were spent sitting on the tarmac at Dublin Airport. So, you know, thanks for that…”

Clooney’s third outing as director (after 2002’s Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind and 2005’s Good Night, And Good Luck), Leatherheads examines how American professional football went from being a roughshod, money-losing pasttime for drunks, layabouts and casual labourers to big business in the 1920s, told through the changing fortunes of the Duluth Bulldogs, led by the enigmatic Jimmy ‘Dodge’ Connelly (Clooney).

When the team breaks up due to a lack of funds, Dodge hits on the bright idea of signing up celebrated Princeton college player Carter ‘The Bullet’ Rutherford (John Krasinski), and soon the stadiums are packed. The fact that Rutherford is also being celebrated as a war hero, for single-handedly getting a troop of Germans to surrender, doesn’t hurt either, but, before you can “Flags Of Our Fathers”, rising hack Lexie Littleton (Zellweger) is on the bus, trying to uncover what really happened in that trench.

Having made it his business to handwrite letters of apology to directors he has ripped off scenes from in his previous two outings as director, I’m guessing, this time out, Clooney will have to satisfy himself with dropping off his missives at the graves of Preston Sturges, George Cukor, and quite a few other luminaries of the 1930s screwball comedy.

“Yeah, you’re right,” laughs Clooney, “I should have written a note for Preston Sturges, left it on his grave. Maybe head over then to the grave of Howard Hawks. I stole from a lot of guys.

“I stole a couple of shots from Joel and Ethan Coen – they saw the movie the other night, and they already started laughing before I told them where the scenes came from. Yeah, generally, the idea was the theme of the old-fashioned films, try to use those underpinnings.”

Which, of course, is a tough call. The great screwball comedies have a highly distinctive, heightened sense of reality that modern audiences would have to seriously readjust their sets to appreciate. Tellingly, perhaps, Leatherheads failed to hit the no.1 spot in the US last weekend.

“There is a trick to it,” nods Clooney. “If you watch movies like His Girl Friday, as much as I love them, and they’re great, you couldn’t take Rosalind Russell and plant her into a movie today. Her rapid-fire delivery – ‘Sure, whatever, it don’t matter!’ – it just won’t play. So, you have to find that level that’s an accelerated, heightened level of performance, but not so much that it actually sticks out. That’s why Renee is such a good actor; she gets that.”

Soon after he finally got his breakthrough playing Dr. Doug Ross on ER in 1994 (having made his screen debut 16 years earlier, as an uncredited extra in the TV mini-series Centennial), George Clooney realised that being a major movie star came with certain responsibilities. The disastrous Batman & Robin – of which Clooney was quick to point out, before this 1997’s turkey’s release, “It’s a bad film, and I’m the worst thing it” – changed Clooney’s mind about signing on to mindless blockbusters, and so he began, as he describes it, “gambling on myself”. Using his box-office clout, in other words, to make movies that he was actually proud of.

Movies such as 2002’s Solaris remake, Good Night, And Good Luck and Syriana (both 2005), The Good German (2006) and Michael Clayton (2007). Movies that not that many people went to see. The $47m Solaris took in $14.9m at the US box-office. The Good German – which cost $32m to put together – took in a paltry $1.3m.

It’s a worthy but precarious path to take, in other words. Eventually though, audiences can lose trust in their dashing leading man’s choices, which makes me wonder, does Clooney sometimes feel, hey, I should just stick to the likes of the slick Ocean’s sequels?

“The truth is, I have a really lucky career,” he answers, “in that I generally get to do the movies I want to do. The ones where you feel you’re selling out are infinitely better than most of the films that people are making out there, so, I always feel like, well, you know, some of the movies I do, people absolutely hate – people really hated The Good German – and some people hated Solaris whilst others loved it. So, I’m stuck with this idea, well, I’ve got to go with my own tastes, and then, what that all ends up as, we can only decide in the end. “A lot of times, the attitude towards a movie changes. When O’Brother first came out, it was a big flop, and it was pretty poorly reviewed, and now people like that film a lot.”

Possibly because his father, Nick, has been a professional journalist for most of his life – recently running for office in the family’s home state of Kentucky – his only son has always given good press. Consequently, the press has pretty much always been good to George Clooney – the neo-conservative pundits excepted, of course. What did Clooney himself make of the recent Time magazine cover story, dubbing him The Last Movie Star? A little hyperbolic, perhaps?

“It was a little hyperbolic,” he says. “I think, basically, what he’s saying – and it’s a really nice article; embarrassing, because it comes out the day of the Oscars, and I’m sitting down next to Jack Nicholson, and he’s leaning over, saying, ‘Hey, it’s the last movie star’. And I have to say, ‘Hey, I didn’t write it’.

“But I think what he’s talking about – and in some ways, it was a bit of a knock; not that the guy was being unkind – but there are actors like Johnny Depp, who can transform themselves into loads of different characters, but, in general, I’m some form of myself in films.

“And I think that’s the reference back to the old-time movie star idea, and that’s probably what that meant. But, yeah, it’s embarrassing, you know, when it comes out…”

Our time is nearly up, and I can hear the next female journalist purring and scratching at the door. Having spoken to Clooney a few times over the years, I remind him that on each and every occasion, he has spoken about his plans to take a motorbike tour of our green and pleasant land with some of his buddies. And to finally get to the capital, where his great-grandmother was born.

The last time we spoke, two years ago, he had just made plans with Bono about his imminent arrival. Each time though, George Clooney hasn’t actually made it over to Ireland. What’s the story, George?

“Well, having spent a few hours on the tarmac, I’m getting closer to the town itself. I’m going to do it this summer. We’re going to go on a motorcycle trip all the way through.”

Hmm, I’ve heard those words before.

“Yeah, but this time, I can. Last time, I was editing, I was producing, I was wheeling and dealing. Right now, I got nothing. I’ve got the summer off this year, so, I’m coming to Ireland.”

Great. I’ll put the kettle on.

“Hey, put some whiskey on! I’ll see you there…”

Words : Paul Byrne

Leatherheads is at Irish cinemas now!