“It was fun to be doing stuff I really believed in,” George Clooney says. “You want to raise a little hell while you can.” In 2005, Clooney turned forty-four and found new ways to spend the capital of his seemingly effortless old-school Hollywood charm. First was Good Night, and Good Luck, his second film as a director: the story of journalist Edward R. Murrow fearlessly taking on Joe McCarthy in 1954—with some pointed implications for the toothless state of TV news today. Then came Syriana, where Clooney was executive producer and star: a dense, intense drama about the stranglehold oil has on our lives and politics.
Clooney literally broke his back to make Syriana. His character (CIA agent Bob Barnes), in Lebanon to plan the assassination of a progressive Mideast prince, gets captured instead, and has his fingernails bloodily pulled out. Filming that scene, Clooney suffered a serious spinal injury; he tore a membrane and started leaking spinal fluid through his nose. Even today, after his spine has been anchored with plastic bolts, he still has headaches and short-term memory loss.
Visiting New York City on a break from filming The Good German with Steven Soderbergh, Clooney looks healthy and slender, having dropped the thirty pounds of flab he packed on for Syriana. He glows with the passion of the politically righteous–or maybe that’s just really good skin. And he hasn’t lost his wicked, deadpan sense of humor. When he called Pat Robertson to recruit him (successfully) for the One campaign for Africa, he called him “Reverend Robertson.” The televangelist preferred a different title: “Call me Dr. Robertson.” Clooney’s response: “Okay, you can call me Dr. Ross.”
When you look back on this year, what will you remember?
It was my best year and my worst year. I mean, personally it was by far my worst year–especially physically. It’s funny how hard it is to enjoy things when you really, truly hurt. It was one of those years. My brother-in-law: perfectly healthy, stood up, dropped dead of a heart attack. My grandmother fell down and broke her hip. She made a joke about it and then she died a couple of weeks later. But creatively, it was my best year by far. It’s certainly a year that I won’t forget. (half-joking) I may forget it, because it’s in my brain–and I’m losing my brain.
It must be hard for you to watch the torture scene in Syriana where you got hurt.
It is, especially because I can’t even blame anybody. It was all my own fault. I said, “Tape me to the desk.” Then I sort of threw myself over the desk, I couldn’t protect myself, and I tore my back pretty badly. I’ve had a lot of surgeries since then. It’s a fairly difficult scene to watch anyway, I think.
With Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana, you nailed the two main forces driving the United States right now: media and oil.
We got lucky in our timing. It was about two and a half years ago when we were getting these things made. And believe me, no one was encouraging us to do it at that point. But we were mad. I was sick of the idea that any sort of dissent would be considered unpatriotic. To me, the most patriotic thing you could do was question your government. We’re a whole country based on dissent. It’s not just your right, it’s actually your duty to question authority.
You got a lot of personal criticism for criticizing the Iraq war.
It was fascinating to be called a traitor and told that your career is over because of your political views. But that’s fine, I can handle that. I’m a big kid. You can’t sit around demanding your freedom of speech and then say, “But don’t say bad things about me.” Just don’t say that raising these questions is unpatriotic. There will be people who say we’re saying in Syriana that bombers are good people, but clearly we’re not. All we’re saying is if you’re going to fight a war against an idea – terrorism — as opposed to a state then you’re going to have to understand how such evil, horrible things happen. One of the answers, perhaps, is that it’s not just evildoers but people misled for a number of reasons into doing really horrible things.
Very few people wake up in the morning and say, “I’m going to do some evil today.”
Yeah, I think they believe in what they’re doing and that they’re going to get seventy virgins after they die—but really, who wants seventy virgins? I want eight pros.
How do you take the measure of whether these movies are working?
I don’t know if there’s a measuring stick. I know that when you watch Bush come out and hold a press conference, trying again to say “How dare you do this while the troops are out there,” it holds a lot of water when you have 68% popularity and it doesn’t when you have 37%. It’s not a bully pulpit now, it’s the kid-with-glasses-getting-sand-kicked-in-his-face pulpit. So it’s much harder for him to say “You can’t ask these questions because our troops are there.” No, we’re asking the questions because our troops are there.
When do you get the handle on a character you’re playing?
Usually about a week after I finish. So much of shooting films is technical stuff—you can do all the preparation you want, but it usually takes a couple of days of being on the set shooting, bit by bit figuring out what works and what doesn’t for the character. I’m not a big method actor. If I play a CIA guy, I don’t pretend that I killed a bunch of people. But I thought it was necessary for this guy in Syriana to be heavier, to be the guy who nobody would notice standing in the back of the room.
How did you end up in the movie?
[Director Stephen] Gaghan had another actor involved who decided he couldn’t do it. The studio was willing to take it on politically, but like any studio, they needed a star. It didn’t matter whether I was going to be fat and bearded, they still needed a star.
Get me a fat bearded star!
Get me Burl Ives! Get me Raymond Burr! So I called up Gaghan and he said, “I really don’t want a movie star in this role.” I agreed: I said I can play this part, but I’m going to need thirty days after Ocean’s Twelve to change a little bit. So I shaved my hairline back about an inch and a half, grew a beard, and put on thirty pounds in thirty days. And when we told Warners that we were going to do it for no money, it’s hard to say no to that.
Your accountant must love you.
I don’t want to take out twenty million dollars up front, because then you don’t see it on the screen. To me, the idea is to gamble on yourself. Take no money, have a percentage of the back end: if the movie makes money, you make money. If not, well, you’ve made the movie. And your tendency then is to do films you believe in, as opposed to saying, well, it’s a really crappy film, but I’m getting twenty million bucks. The two Ocean’s films paid me considerably better than I would have gotten had I taken money up front. On the other hand, Confessions [of a Dangerous Mind], Solaris—you can go down the list of other films—they haven’t paid me very well at all. In fact, nothing. Good Night, and Good Luck, literally without exaggeration, the craft-services guy was paid more than I was to write, direct, and act. But we made the movie we wanted, so who cares? I’ve got money. I have a nice house in Italy—I can always sell it if I need the cash.
When are you most like yourself?
(jokes) Doing interviews. (thinks) I think most people answer the same way: when you’re around your friends. When I meet people, I don’t really get to see them as themselves. They’re on their best behavior—fame is the elephant in the room. With producers, for instance, I have the waiter test. Producers will tell you how great they are and how they love everybody. And then you go to lunch and you see how they treat the waiter. If they’re snapping their fingers at the waiter, you can say, “When the chips are down, this guy is going to be a real jerk, and I don’t want to deal with that.” But with my friends, I’ve been unfamous much longer than I’ve been famous.
Did coming to fame relatively late in life—
It was a big help. If I was as famous as some people are at 18 years old, I would have been shooting crack into my throat. But you can’t remain famous like that over a long period of time. Lindsay Lohan is going to have a down time in her career.
I don’t know her at all; she may be completely together. But at that point, I wouldn’t have been prepared for the down period if I hadn’t gone through it for a long time beforehand. You realize there are other elements, including luck. I’m no better an actor in Out of Sight than I was in Batman and Robin, which I had shot six months earlier. And I was killed for Batman and Robin and praised for Out of Sight. The second and third rounds in your career are the ones that define you.
This run of politically oriented art really began with K Street, the HBO show you did with Steven Soderbergh.
Without doing that show and Unscripted, I couldn’t have done Good Night, and Good Luck. It was a learning experience about piecing together things. I really like overlapping dialogue, and we’ve gotten away from that in movies. The thought is you won’t understand, but you hear what you need to hear. I talked to Robert Altman and Elliott Gould about how they did it—was it done in the mix? Mostly, it was done by the actors knowing what was the most important thing and leaving a little bit of space around it.
What did you learn this year?
Any time I think I’m smart, I’m not. I spent time with interesting guys like Norman Lear and Carl Reiner. Here are two guys in their 80s who could tell you the greatest stories in the world—and they’re asking questions constantly instead of pontificating. There’s a great movie, Out of the Past, where Robert Mitchum says, “I never learned anything by hearing myself talk.” So what I’m learning more every year is to listen to other people. We talked to John McCain for a while when we were in Washington, and he talks about how the polarization of the Senate really happened in ’94. Guys stopped spending the weekend in town having drinks and solving each other’s issues.
So the problem with Congress isn’t just that it’s too gerrymandered–they don’t drink enough.
We’re going to have to get these guys doing shots of Jagermeister. I want to see Orrin Hatch downing some Goldschlager and making a deal.
What other political changes would you like to see?
Everybody says, look at how bad these guys [the current administration] are. Well, that’s easy, they’re beating themselves into the ground. But we can’t just be the party of “I disagree,” we have to be the party of “here’s the way out.” These Democratic senators voted for the war and say they were misled. They weren’t misled, they were afraid of being called unpatriotic. Who’s the guy or girl who’s going to step up and say, we’re going to run out of oil sooner or later, so let’s take the bull by the horns and say ten years from now, no cars built that run on internal combustion. It’s going to have to happen at some point, so why don’t we take the lead? And then we don’t have to bomb people in Middle Eastern countries—we just don’t need their product.
Are you hopeful about the future?
I think we’re really great at this as a country: We do dumb things, and then we fix them. 1941, Pearl Harbor: we grab all the Japanese-Americans and throw them in detention camps. Well, that’s not very sporting of us, but we fix it. In the 50s, we’re grabbing people because they read a newspaper and bring them in for investigation. Pretty dumb. Vietnam? Pretty stupid. But there seems to be a tide turning. The Democrats aren’t providing the answers, but the Republicans aren’t getting free passes on everything. You don’t get to say you’re either with us or with the enemy anymore. So I’m an optimist about the United States.
Interview by Gavin Edwards. Originally published in Rolling Stone 990/991 (December 29, 2005 – January 12, 2006), in a shorter version, under the rubric “Renegade of the Year.”