December 2005 By Philip Berk
E.R. made George Clooney a household name.
But he wanted to be more than a TV star, and he got his wish.
For a time most of his movies were under-achievers.
His first From Dusk Till Dawn did okay, but One Fine Day, which was supposed to make him a big star, fizzled, and Batman and Robin almost ended a lucrative franchise.
After that there was Peacemaker, another disappointment.
Even Out of Sight, which was named the best film of the year by the National Society of Film Critics went nowhere, and the public again failed to respond to Three Kings, even after President Clinton called it his favorite film of l999.
But then the new millennium kicked in, and everything changed.
Perfect Storm was 2000’s biggest blockbuster, and the following year Oh Brother, Where Art Thou earned him a Golden Globe. However it was Ocean’s Eleven that changed the direction of his life. Not that he hadn’t worked with director Steven Soderbergh before (Out of Sight ) but this was the first time they collaborated on a blockbuster.
The film was so successful it spawned a second, and it made George a rich man (It was his company that produced both films.)
Did that success take some of the pressure off him? I once asked him.
“Look, every time I did something, the discussion was always, ‘You know he hasn’t had a hit.’ But the truth is I kept working because the films I’d done always managed to make money. Luckily they were all good movies, so in a way it was a blessing that none of them were blockbusters because that might have pigeonholed me.”
Something no one can accuse him of this year when he has two award winning movies in release, both produced by his production company.
The first Good Evening and Good Luck has won acclaim far beyond anything he’s done. As writer, producer, director, and actor he’s been nominated for Golden Globes and Academy Awards in all four categories.
The other Syriana which he coproduced with Soderbergh won him a Golden Globe as best supporting actor, and he’s the front runner to win the Oscar as well.
He has been compared to Clark Gable and in some ways he has that Gable sex appeal which both men and women find attractive. But there is no denying that even under the glare of studio lights he still looks like he could use a good night’s sleep.
He comes from a show business background. His father was the anchor man for NBC’s news station in Los Angeles until he was unceremoniously replaced. His aunt Rosemary was a big star of the 50s and one of the recording industry’s greatest talents. His uncle Jose Ferrer was the legendary actor best remembered for his Oscar winning performance in Cyrano de Bergerac.
For George they were not mere relatives. He grew up with them and he is the first to acknowledge their influence.
“Jose was my biggest influence for acting, and he and his son Miguel were the reasons I got into acting. My dad had a interview show when I was a kid, and Rosemary was a great education for me because in the fifties she was very famous and then not famous, not because she got less talented but became things change. I’ve learned from her how quickly things come and go, how little control you have about it, and that you should be prepared for both.
“I got great lessons from all of them. I remember Jose coming to the first play I ever did. I thought I was brilliant in it. I was crying and spitting and doing everything on stage. I thought it was beautiful, and after the performance I went up to him and asked him, ‘’What did you think Joe?’ And he said, ‘I would say to you to get the scenery out of your mouth. You don’t know where it has been.’ That was the end of it for me. I knew I was eating scenery. We were good friends, and (his son) Miguel and I are best friends.”
At his press conference in Los Angeles for both Good Night and Syriana he’s his witty, charming self, but get him started talking about the themes of these films (freedom of speech and government corruption) he’s as fearless and passionate as the characters he plays in both.
So risk-taking has always been the name of the game? I ask him.
“Absolutely. I never felt that I had to have a hit. I was always getting offers. But what’s good for me is, if you have one of those hits, you’re able to get projects that aren’t easy to get made, made.”
Such as Good Night and Good Luck and Syriana.
“I’m a fan of making films and trying things that at times are going to polarize people, and I think that’s a good thing. I thought it was a good time to raise questions. Not to preach to people. I’m an old time liberal. I don’t apologize for it, but there isn’t a liberal bent to the story we tell in Good Night and Good Luck. It’s a factual story. And the fun part is, we’ve made a movie that’s had an impact. Syriana in sort of the same way is also saying, ‘Look we have to engage in conversations.’ We’ve gone through a period of time in the past few years where the idea of asking questions makes you unpatriotic. That’s always a bad place to be. So if these films can confront those issues, that’s a good thing.”
Does that mean he’s turning his back on movies like Oceans Eleven?
“I couldn’t afford to, but I happen to like entertaining films. I like Oceans Twelve. I think they’re fun to make. I don’t see anything wrong with them, but I also think there’s a time and a place to say, ‘Let’s talk about some other issues.’ By the way, I was paid a dollar to act and write and direct Good Night and Good Luck, and I got literally the same for Syriana, (to which he adds) so I’m going to come up to your place and live. I have no cash!”
To play the CIA agent in Syriana he gained 35 pounds and as a result was hospitalized.
Is that true?
“It wasn’t the weight, it was the torture scene in the movie that did it. And it was my own fault. I am 44 not 34. I was doing things I thought I could do when I was 170 instead of 20; so that was the big difference. I had finished Oceans Twelve on August 4th and September 7 I started shooting Syriana. So I went to Italy and ate. I ate myself sick. I put on 30 pounds before we started shooting, which really scared me. But the health issue resulted from the scene not my weight. We shot it 20 or 30 times, where I kicked over the desk, and that’s where I tore my spine. And it was my fault. I’m a jock. I play sports, and I think I can take it, but I got a good wake-up call. It’s been a tough year for me physically. I still have medical issues from it. I got on a plane that night and went directly to the hospital. I thought I was having an aneurism, the way my head hurt. I’m much better now, but I still have headaches. But they are getting less.”
In 1996 Michelle Pfeiffer and Nicole Kidman, both charmed by his looks and personality, each bet him $10,000 that despite his protestations he’d be a father before he’s forty?
At the time he confessed, “They did, but there’s no way I’m going to lose money on that one, because here’s the deal: I get a vasectomy for $5000 — and I’m ahead $15,000.”
He didn’t need to.
2000 came and went and he’s still a bachelor.
What has he got against kids? I once asked him
“I like kids, but I just think kids are the ultimate responsibility, and unless you have a burning desire to have one, you shouldn’t just kind of half-assed do it.”
Over the years he’s been married, divorced, dated everyone from Renee Zellweger to Kelly Preston, been in long term relationships, but nothing sticks.
When you ask him about his love life, he protests good naturedly.
“Here we go. I knew that was coming. I like that we’re doing a movie about entertainment pushing news out, and then I got to answer that. I will say this out loud officially. I’m not dating Brad Pitt or Matt Damon; I’m not involved.”
So who is he dating”?
What would he do on a date?
“I’d do what every guy does.”
What, for instance, did he do on his last date?
“We went out to dinner. We went to a nice place, had a romantic dinner. Like everyone else, we fumble through dates, we fumble through relationships a lot. Sometimes we do it well; sometimes we don’t. I wouldn’t give advice on it. It’d be the last thing I’d do.”
What has he learned from relationships?
“Well clearly nothing,” he jokes.” “Clearly I should stick to directing.”
How about dating women in the business as opposed to non professionals?
“I’ve failed miserably at all of them. You can’t really say I’ve been a great success. I shouldn’t be putting out books on relationships. How to date by George!”
Is he better with friendships? Can he distinguish between true friendship and phoniness?
“You learn over time. I am friends with Grant (Heslov) who is the co-writer and producer of Good Night and Good Luck. I met him in 1982. He loaned me a hundred dollars to get headshots for a Joanie Loves Chachi ( a failed spinoff of Happy Days) episode that I was going to audition for, that he got and I didn’t. And I still haven’t paid him back for it. And so the truth is, you learn over time about friendships. It’s very easy to be friends with people when things are going well. But you learn more when things aren’t going well.”
What about his other passion, motorcycles?
“I admit I have a couple. I think three in Italy. But the reason, is because you ride with a couple of other people when they’re there. And I have two in Los Angeles that I ride. I’m not really a big collector of things. I have an electric car.”
Why motor biking? Does it give him a special thrill?
“Everybody likes to speed. It depends on where you are. For me the greatest ride in the world is the ride from Como to St. Moritz. It’s one of the most beautiful rides I’ve ever had. The Alps are amazing. We grew up with some, like the Rocky Mountains and Smokey Mountains. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like the Alps. Riding a motor cycle through that, is breathtaking. On acid by the way, which is great.” (joking of course,).
His relationship with Steven Soderbergh is his most enduring. But he hasn’t always gotten along with his director. Case in point David E. Russell, who directed Three Kings.
What happened there? I ask him.
“It was a lot of bad chemistry, because David and I work in completely different ways. I’ve never had that trouble with anyone before. I’m one of those “life is too short” guys. I don’t want to work with people who yell and scream . Everyone on a set is doing his best. Nobody’s trying to screw up, and occasionally things go wrong. David had a bad time. He folded under pressure. That’s okay. He’s an incredibly talented man, and he won’t do it again. He learned a lesson along the way, which is, you don’t hurt people and treat them badly.
“He also came after me a lot, but that wasn’t what started the fight. What bugged me was, he was going after people who couldn’t defend themselves. I was in the position where I could decide how much I was going to take because I was the guy who got the movie greenlit. If I didn’t do it, the movie doesn’t go. I got to sit back and see how much I’ll take. Those kids who were extras didn’t get to do that. The rules I grew up with were, you can’t treat people who can’t defend themselves badly, and at some point it was inexcusable.”
So you came to their defense?
Did he and Russell ever make up?
“Oh yeah. We get along great now. We talk all the time on the phone. He learned a lot. It was just a bad period of time for him.”
For Entertainment Weekly he had a completely different answer.
“It was a big-pressure day and he was under the gun. We were trying to get a shot and then he went berserk. He went nuts on an extra. So I went over and I put my arm around him and I pulled him aside, away from everybody, which seemed fair. And I said, ‘You can’t do that . . .’ And he basically said, ‘F— you! Worry about your acting!’ And I said, ‘Now you’re being an a–hole!’ And we started pushing against each other with our heads. So I got him by the throat. And I was yelling at him and he was screaming at me and we were at it . . . Will I work with David again? Absolutely not. Never. Do I think he’s tremendously talented and do I think he should be nominated for Oscars? Yeah.”
Russell’s subsequent film was I Heart Huckabees.
Finally I ask him if he has any fears?
“Only that I’d wake up at 65 years old and ask myself why I didn’t take some chances. Everybody wants to make some sort of mark in life; you want to have some little notch. My grandfather worked on a bridge in Mayfield, and when I drive by that bridge I say, ‘My grandfather helped build this bridge.’ My biggest fear is not taking a chance somewhere along the way. Other than that I can’t think of anything, although you can’t operate from fear or you wouldn’t do anything.”
Advise he got from his aunt Rosemary!