If there’s a do-it-yourself movement in Hollywood, George Clooney could be its leader.
After years of taking what was offered, including bad movies such as “Batman & Robin,” Clooney took charge of his career. The result has left the former star of TV’s “ER” an Academy Award-winning actor and Oscar-nominated filmmaker who uses his stardom to do films he truly cares about, including the new legal drama “Michael Clayton,” opening Friday.
Clooney, 46, now can look back on a post-Batman decade of wild success on far-flung projects as an actor, writer, director and producer, sometimes handling all four jobs at once.
He has traded on his commercial clout from such hits as “The Perfect Storm” and the “Ocean’s Eleven” flicks to make demanding dramas like 2005’s “Syriana,” which earned Clooney a supporting-actor Oscar, and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a best-picture nominee that brought him directing and screenwriting nominations the same year.
It’s a major turnabout for a man who hated the publicity tour he had to do for “Batman & Robin” in 1997.
“It was really hard, because I knew it wasn’t a very good film, and it makes you a liar, sort of, but you have to, because it’s your job to promote a film,” Clooney said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Michael Clayton” played. “I was like, I don’t want to tour again for a film that doesn’t work on any level.”
Clooney turned to more story-driven productions with such filmmakers as future producing partner Steven Soderbergh on “Out of Sight,” David O. Russell on “Three Kings” and Joel and Ethan Coen on “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
He and Soderbergh have collaborated on the “Ocean’s” romps and many other projects, while Clooney and the Coens reunited for the romance “Intolerable Cruelty” and the upcoming comedy “Burn After Reading.”
The box-office returns can be modest to nonexistent compared to huge Hollywood franchises, but Clooney has felt good about going to work and even better about the movies created.
“You start going, OK, well these are films I would go see. I’m proud of them. I think they’ll last longer than an opening weekend. I get it now. I have to focus on the script first and foremost, then I have to focus on directors. If that means working with Steven Soderbergh as often as possible or Joel and Ethan as often as possible, I’ll do it. If it means directing them myself, I’ll do it,” Clooney said.
Even his failures look noble. Soderbergh directed Clooney in two ambitious duds, the science-fiction saga “Solaris” and last year’s film-noir throwback “The Good German.” Yet both earned them admiration for the effort when they simply could have made another formulaic Hollywood yarn.
Clooney began directing with 2002’s Chuck Barris fantasy memoir “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and continues with this December’s football romance “Leatherheads,” in which he co-stars with Renee Zellweger and John Krasinski.
“Michael Clayton” stars Clooney in the title role, a former prosecutor now on the verge of financial disaster and toiling as a fixer at a huge Manhattan law firm, a man who makes unseemly problems go away for high-rolling clients.
Clayton’s dormant humanity is put to the test after a colleague (Tom Wilkinson) undermines a lawsuit involving a huge corporate client, prompting ruthless action by the company’s in-house legal eagle (Tilda Swinton).
The notion of a handsome, charming middle-aged man staring failure in the face is not a huge stretch for Clooney, the nephew of singer Rosemary Clooney and son of TV newsman Nick Clooney.
The actor moved to Hollywood in the early 1980s after failed bids at baseball and journalism careers. Success did not come until he was in his 30s, following a long apprenticeship that included such TV shows as “The Facts of Life” and “Roseanne.”
“It’s not hard for George to envision if the road had turned the other way,” said “Michael Clayton” writer-director Tony Gilroy, who felt that an actor who succeeded at an early age would be unable to get at the character’s core. “There’s something infinitely more sad about someone who you really feel has squandered everything. Here’s a guy who has skated on his looks and skated on his charms, and you realize he’s completely lost. He was perfect for that. ...
“We’re putting the camera right up his nose in this movie, all the way through. You can’t front a performance like this, you can’t front successfully that kind of fear of failure and that kind of self-loathing. He’s really there in this role.”
Co-star Swinton said Clooney is an easy screen counterpart, a performer who has figured out “what works for him, this sort of landscape within where he can be sincere and comfortable.”
Clooney is working again with Swinton on the Coens’ “Burn After Reading,” which also co-stars his “Ocean’s Eleven” chum Brad Pitt.
There’s a comfort factor in collaborating with trusted friends, including other frequent co-stars such as Matt Damon and Don Cheadle, also part of the “Ocean’s” gang, Clooney said.
“There’s a bunch of actors who can be really good in a film, but they will make everyone suffer, or the director suffer, because it becomes about them. Some of them thrive in this world where things have to be going wrong, other people have to be unhappy, for you to get your performance out. When you find people who aren’t like that, you tend to like to work with them.
“Also, there’s a funny thing that people tiptoe around you when you get famous, but we don’t have to tiptoe around each other. So Matt gives me a really hard time all the time. I give him a really hard time. But that’s because that’s also fun.”
A lighter affair
Fun was the idea behind “Leatherheads,” Clooney’s latest directing effort, a lighter affair than his previous two. A revival of old screwball comedy, the film is built around a romantic triangle that Clooney jokes he stole from “The Philadelphia Story.”
Set in the 1920s, “Leatherheads” stars Clooney as a pro football player who recruits a college star (Krasinski) for his team, the two ending up contenders for the affection of a reporter (Zellweger) doing a story on the sport’s new golden boy.
Though once married and divorced, Clooney is considered one of Hollywood’s most-eligible bachelors. He said getting married again and having a family are not conscious priorities, preferring to leave that to fate.
“I don’t actively pursue any of that stuff, because I think if it turns around and finds you then it turns around and finds you,” Clooney said.
His focus is on work, and a lot of it. Clooney knows from his own family how fleeting fame can be, so he views his time now as a narrow window of opportunity to make the sort of films he wants.
“My aunt Rosemary was the biggest star on Earth, and then she was a flop because rock ’n’ roll came in and pop music went out. She didn’t become less of a singer. In fact, she became a better singer, but it didn’t matter. Things change. So understanding that is a really important element to what it is I do,” Clooney said.
“I’m going to force people to make films they don’t want to make. Believe me, no one’s encouraging us to make ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ or ‘Syriana’ or ‘The Good German’ or ‘Solaris.’ To me, the idea is there’s a period of time that I have where I’m able to force-feed films down people’s throats, and I don’t know how long that lasts. So I’ve been sort of on a mad rush to try and slam films down that I’d like to see made.”