George Clooney: The Mind Behind The Eyes
Hot off the blockbuster The Perfect Storm and soon to hit screens in the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?, George Clooney explains why even his supposed failures were actually lucky breaks, reveals who his "absolute hero" is, and disses the agent who once sent him to read for one line in Guarding Tess.
In Joel and Ethan Coen's upcoming film O Brother, Where Art Thou? George Clooney plays a Depression-era, Deep-South version of Homer's Ulysses. As the leader of a motley chain gang, his odyssey is foretold to him by a nameless, old blind man as follows: "You seek a great fortune ... and you will find a fortune--though it will not be the fortune you seek... But first you must travel a long and difficult road, fraught with peril, pregnant with adventure... And though the road may wind and yea your hearts grow weary, still shall ye foller the way, even unto salvation." The prophesy could easily apply to Clooney's professional journey in Hollywood and to the salvation he seems now to finally have arrived at. With the big box office success of The Perfect Storm, the debate about Clooney's movie-star status can at last be laid to rest. His "long and difficult road" has led from TV fame to membership in an elite group of leading screen idols.
When I meet Clooney, he looks--for an actor so handsome he gets away with not wearing makeup while working--like hell. Turns out he was up partying till around four a.m. While he may have matured as a leading man, at 39 Clooney is still famously Peter Pan-ish. But the world knows all of this already--the string of beautiful women, the bachelor pad, the pet pig, the life-of-the-party rep. What the world might not know is that Clooney has as savvy an understanding of show business as anyone in the business. He's exercised the wisdom of sacrificing a big salary in order to get a film made. He's had the nerve to deliberately keep his fees low in order to get the opportunities that the Travoltas and Fords of the world cost too much to get. He's had the taste and the insight, especially lately, to select provocative, memorable material (think Out of Sight, Three Kings and O Brother) that he can shine in.
But as much as know-how has played a role in Clooney's success, his tale is also one of sheer perseverance. Only after 15 other pilots failed did "ER" prove the charm. And only after meeting with mediocre results (The Peacemaker, Batman & Robin, One Fine Day) and ruinous marketing (Out of Sight) did Clooney fully succeed with his plan to leave behind the security of "ER." Right up to the very weekend when The Perfect Storm hit like a, well, perfect storm, naysayers were openly wondering if Clooney could survive another disappointment. Now, though, George Clooney is looking just about as smart as he actually is.
MICHAEL FLEMING: As The Perfect Storm was being released, the press seemed to be suggesting that if it didn't succeed, you'd be proving yourself just another TV star who didn't make it on the big screen.
GEORGE CLOONEY: Every time I've done a movie, they've said, "Well, if this one doesn't hit, the great experiment is over." At the premiere of The Perfect Storm, one of the top Warner Bros. executives leans over and says, "Everybody here really wants this for you, wants a hit for you." The truth is I've only had one movie that didn't make money--and that movie, Out of Sight, is, in my estimation, by far the best film I've ever done. I look at it this way. I just keep going to work. I might have shortcomings, because I'm not a method actor--I don't "become" the guy--but I go to work, treat people nicely and they treat me nicely, and I do my job as best I can, keeping in mind Spencer Tracy's maxim, "Never let them catch you acting." Then I get off work and have a life.
Q: So none of this commentary bothered you?
A: You have to realize you can't control what people think of you. I came out of sales--I sold ladies' shoes. One thing you learn is, you put out a good product and advertise it as best you can, and sooner or later, people will find their way to you. You may never become a giant franchise store, but you'll be able to make a good living.
Q: It must be difficult, though, when you put out a terrific product like Out of Sight and they sell it wrong.
A: Marketing can be frustrating. They kept marketing Out of Sight as an action film, and then they put it in the summer because Meet Joe Black wasn't ready. I used to get calls from Casey Silver while he still ran the studio, saying, "Look, what do you want me to tell you, we blew it."
Q: Even though Out of Sight failed at the box office, many people took it as clear evidence that no matter how long it took, you were obviously going to be a huge movie star. When you watched the film, were you surprised you were as good as you were?
A: I'd thought: everybody was going to be good, because the script was well-written. Our problem was that we had so much fun making this film. One day, Scott Frank, the writer, and [coproducer] Danny DeVito and I were laughing after a take, and I said, "We're having a really great time--I just hope we don't screw this damn thing up." What we didn't really understand was how brilliantly Steven Soderbergh was going to put it together. If you just told it in a straight way, it was a good story. Steven told it in a way that made it an exceptional movie.
Q: That love scene with Jennifer Lopez was innovative, two adults taking their time.
A: Those freeze-frames are like photographs, moments in time you remember in an exceptionally erotic way. In the script, that scene was written in three different locations, and we said dialogue in three different locations. Steven told us to do all the dialogue in the bar, and we said, all right, whatever dude. And he overlapped it all brilliantly.
Q: You obviously have a high opinion of Soderbergh's talent as a director.
A: Steven Soderbergh is my favorite director to work with, bar none. I loved Wolfgang Petersen, the Coen brothers, I think they're geniuses and want to work with both again. But Steven and I, we work great together, we enjoy each other's company. He understands how I work best, of anybody.
Q: Your experience with Soderbergh seemed to be a turning point with respect to choosing better projects.
A: I decided I'd rather make movies that last the test of time than do lousy movies that make a lot of money. The reason you work with the Coen brothers is that you say to yourself, "It'd sure be nice to do one of their movies and have it sit around awhile." Even movies of theirs that everybody else hates, The Hudsucker Proxy and The Big Lebowski I just love. When they hit-- Blood Simple, Fargo, Raising Arizona--they're shockingly good.
Q: O Brother, Where Art Thou? is an unusual film even for them.
A: I was working on Three Kings in Arizona when I got a call to see if I'd meet the Coens in Phoenix. So I drive to Phoenix. They throw a script on the table: We wrote this and we want you to do it. As soon as I read the title, I said, "This is the movie that Joel McCrea's character wanted to make in Preston Sturges's  movie Sullivan's Travels. I'm a huge fan of Sturges and Sullivan's Travels." So I said, Yeah, sure, I'd read it. I checked into the hotel room because I didn't feel like driving back and I read the script. First page it says it's based on Homer's The Odyssey, and I realize I'm playing Ulysses. And it's a musical, and it has a little sex in it. I couldn't believe my luck. The whole thing made me laugh. It took a couple weeks to set up the movie and we were off and running.
Q: Looking at your career odyssey, it's amazing you ever got off television. At a time when being stamped a TV star meant you had no chance of a movie career, you did 15 pilots and seven major series. Were you intent on being a TV star back then?
A: Every actor wants to be a big movie star. I don't give a shit what anyone says. Truth is, you're already beating the odds if you're just making a living, since 95% of our union doesn't. When I first got out here, there were these so-called Brat Pack kids. I was a couple years too old for it. By the time "ER" came around, I'd been the wrong guy at the wrong time for so many years. Finally I was the right guy at the right time. I always wanted to get into movies, but there was this chasm you just wouldn't believe. As recently as when I was on the series "Sisters" and Warner Bros, was paying me $40,000 a week and I was a very successful, unfamous guy who could get a pilot greenlighted by a network, I couldn't get a film agent at my then agency, William Morris, to represent me. At all. I went to see this guy who used to work there named Brian Gersh, who sat there like a bloated pain in the ass and went down a list of big stars that had Bruce Willis at the top. "Here are the clients that I represent, what do you think I can do for you?" They sent me to audition for one line in Guarding Tess. It was incredibly frustrating.
Q: Were you concerned you were running out of chances?
A: There's a point where you resign yourself to the idea that you're going to be a journeyman. But I had a nice house, a couple of cars. I was living an exceptionally nice life. There was a turning point after I'd read five times for Ridley Scott for the part that Brad Pitt ended up getting in Thelma & Louise. That was the closest I'd ever gotten to a big film. I literally stopped and took an honest look at my career. I thought I'd be doing television series the rest of my life.
Q: It must have hurt to watch Brad Pitt catapult to full-fledged movie stardom with that role.
A: I wouldn't see that movie when it first came out. I was just... so... mad. And Brad just kept going and going and going. I finally saw it a year later when it came out on tape. I sat there with my mouth open, saying, I would never have thought of doing things the way he did them. Suddenly I realized how right Ridley Scott was. When you don't get a part, you think, the directors just an idiot. Truth is, he couldn't have been more right. Brad couldn't have been more perfect for the role.
Q: What was the lowest point you hit before "ER"?
A: When I realized I'd fallen into full-on mediocrity and I was getting out of a marriage that wasn't working. Things just weren't going my way. I was doing a series called "Baby Talk," and [executive producer] Ed. Weinberger and I were fighting like mad. What Ed lacked in couth, he made up for in pure anger. It was the first time I ever thought of doing something else with my life.
Q: You walked off that series, didn't you?
A: When I quit, I thought I'd be fired for good. But the minute I stood up to this guy, who was a jerk, things changed. Actors always come from a place of fear that they're never going to work again in this town. Like there's this little club where they sit around and say, "You know this guy Clooney? Let's never hire him again." The truth is the opposite. Suddenly, I could make ballsy decisions, take falls.
Q: The success of "ER" got you your first starring role, in the vampire pic From Dusk Till Dawn, followed by One Fine Day, The Peacemaker and Batman & Robin, all of which were considered disappointing.
A: That's not how I thought of them. All of them were great breaks for me. From Dusk Till Dawn was a huge break Quentin Tarantino, coming off Pulp Fiction the year he got the Oscar, wrote it and played my brother. Robert Rodriguez, coming right off El Mariachi and Desperado, directed.