The restless one

Times Staff Writer

George CLOONEY had been working since 5 a.m. and was due back on the set of Joel and Ethan Coen's "Burn After Reading" at 8 the next morning. It was approaching midnight and the Upper East Side restaurant was all but empty, as was the fantastic bottle of Italian Barolo he'd shared over dinner.

But Clooney wasn't done yet.

He was eager to talk about Sen. Barack Obama, whose presidential campaign he supports and with whom he talks regularly. He was impressed by new French President Nicolas Sarkozy's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner. He was worried that not enough is being done for the refugees of Darfur, Sudan -- even though he's helped raise more than $10 million for relief, Clooney fears as many as 2 million more may die.

But nothing that Clooney said over the course of a two-hour dinner resonated like the story he told about his aunt, singer Rosemary Clooney.

"She said she was a better singer when she got older," Clooney says, picking at some berries for dessert. "And I said, 'Why are you a better singer now? You can't hold the notes like you used to. And you can't hit the notes like you used to.' And she said, 'I don't have to prove I can sing anymore.'

"And there is that as an actor too. Where you say, 'I don't have to prove I can act anymore.' Or at least I don't feel the need to prove it. Which is incredibly liberating."

That liberation hasn't made Clooney go soft. Rather, he's working harder than ever, all in different directions. After the critical success of "Syriana" (for which he won the best supporting actor Oscar) and his "Good Night, and Good Luck" (nominated for six Academy Awards, including best director for Clooney and best picture), Clooney might very well have steered clear of danger and could easily do nothing more taxing than, well, "Ocean's 13" ad infinitum.

In the next few months, though, Clooney not only will star for a rookie director -- playing a troubled law firm "fixer" in writer-director Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton," which opens Friday -- but also will direct himself as a 1920s football player opposite Renée Zellweger in the long-gestating romantic comedy "Leatherheads."

Although "Michael Clayton" and "Leatherheads" are miles apart in plot, they share one thing: Had it not been for Clooney's participation, both would probably be stuck in development hell. And Clooney is well aware that with that kind of clout comes much greater accountability.

"What you learn after a while is that if you're the person who can greenlight a film, you can no longer read a film as an actor for a part. Because you're going to be responsible for the movie being made," says Clooney, wearing a suit and a neatly trimmed beard. "They don't anymore say, 'He was good or bad in the part, but the movie sucks.' They'll go, 'That George Clooney movie. . .' So now I become held responsible for the movies that get made. I always make jokes about 'Batman & Robin,' but this is true: If I'm going to get held responsible for the movies that get made, then I'm going to focus on better scripts."

That thinking may not completely explain a creatively ambitious but critical and commercial disappointment such as last year's "The Good German." But Gilroy's "Michael Clayton" script does illustrate how a strong screenplay can capture Clooney's imagination. Best known for his writing on Matt Damon's three "Bourne" movies, Gilroy drafted this movie about eight years back. And there it sat -- until Clooney finally decided to take a gamble on it.

Drawn to 'Michael Clayton'

The film's titular character is a problem-solving lawyer at the fictional New York law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. While his white-shoe legal partners are able to fool themselves into believing they don't do any real dirty work, Clayton carries no such delusions. His personal life isn't much better: He owes $75,000 over a failed restaurant, is a divorced dad and has a gambling problem. "I'm not a miracle worker," he says. "I'm a janitor."

In the midst of a $3-billion class-action lawsuit over a toxic agrochemical, one of Kenner's top litigators (Tom Wilkinson) suffers a breakdown, in part because he's convinced the firm's client (whose general counsel is played by Tilda Swinton) has covered up its guilt. Sent by the firm's managing partner (Sydney Pollack) to repair the damage, Clayton has a chance for some small moral victory.

"First of all, all actors like these roles," the 46-year-old Clooney says of Clayton. "I am not comparing me to these, but it's 'The Verdict' or 'Unforgiven' -- it's the character who has such flaws that if you made the movie of their life 10 years earlier, they'd be the bad guy. Now they are seeking some form of redemption. They are not going to win it all. They're going to get a taste. . . . And you like these guys who can somehow eke their way into purgatory -- just one foot in. And there's a funny thing that happens as you get older: You're allowed to play them more."

As attractive as the screenplay might have been, Clooney was not interested in being directed by Gilroy, who had yet to put a foot of film through a camera. For the same reason, Denzel Washington also passed on making "Michael Clayton." For years, Clooney's "Michael Clayton" involvement was limited to producing it through his and Steven Soderbergh's Section Eight production company.

"The very best economic model was to get a movie star who would waive his fee -- and that's a very tough list to work," Gilroy says of the under-$20-million movie. Clooney was high on that honor roll. "But he wouldn't meet me for two years." Instead, Gilroy says, Clooney professed a preference for known quantities: " 'I want to work with the Coen brothers. I want to work with Steven Soderbergh. But I don't want to work with a first-time director.' "

Despite Clooney's obstinacy, Gilroy believed the actor was still his best choice. Desperate not to let the chance pass him by, Gilroy approached Soderbergh, Clooney's longtime creative and business partner, imploring him to set up a meeting.

"I told him, 'I don't want to meet George a year from now and find out we really get along,' " Gilroy says he told Soderbergh.

A get-together finally was arranged.

Gilroy saw in Clooney an actor who could play Clayton almost too easily. "There was so much squandered opportunity about his character -- someone waking up too late," Gilroy says. In fact, the talents that served Clooney so well playing other parts -- Danny Ocean, most prominently -- were precisely this character's downfall.

"He'd skated by on his looks, on his charm," Gilroy says of Clayton. "All of these things that were a huge part of [Clooney's] repertoire were of no use to him as this character. It was a really fascinating tension."

All the same, Clooney wasn't sold. While he may occasionally overestimate audience interest for some of his artier projects such as "Solaris" and "Welcome to Collinwood," Clooney is unusually perceptive about the forces that bring movies together -- and can tear them apart.

"You have to be careful with first-time directors and with this kind of material, especially," Clooney says. "You don't get a chance to make a film like this twice. 'OK, I'm going to do my corporate corruption film.' So if you only get a shot at it once, you want to do it the right way.

"The problem with actors is they don't look at films as what they could be at their worst. They look at what they could be at their best. So you need to look at a movie and say, 'How bad could it be if it's bad?' If you blow it, it's really blown, badly."

Clooney's meeting with Gilroy stretched to four hours and then six and then 10. They talked about their favorite films and possible "Michael Clayton" influences -- "Network," "Three Days of the Condor," "The Parallax View," among others.

"But that doesn't mean anything," Clooney says, "because everybody can talk a good game. 'I want this to look like "Lawrence of Arabia!" ' And you go, 'I'm in!' Whether or not [Gilroy] could still put all of that on film -- you don't know. So you're still taking a flier a little bit."

By the time they started filming, though, Clooney realized he'd made a good decision.

"If Tony doesn't agree with you, he says, 'No, no, no. You can't do that!' Which is good because people don't say that to me. They say, 'Great idea!' But Tony will say, 'You can't do that,' and then he'll give you six reasons why you can't."

There were almost as many reasons for Clooney not to take on the double duty of "Leatherheads" -- a romantic comedy set against the NFL's formative years in the 1920s -- as there were for him not to be in Gilroy's film.

Clooney suffered a violent injury in late 2004 while making "Syriana"; strapped in a chair for the film's torture scene, he fell backward and struck his head on a cement step. Ever since, he has been hit by debilitating headaches, which were not at all alleviated by taking shots to the head as a football player with hardly any padding.

And, after the split focus of directing himself in "Good Night, and Good Luck," Clooney wasn't eager to do it again. But he nevertheless felt he was right for the job. "He absolutely doesn't play it safe and never has," says "Leatherheads" producer Casey Silver. "George is unafraid."

A game plan for 'Leatherheads'

The "Leatherheads" story had interested Clooney for more than a decade. Any number of top screenwriters -- "Out of Sight's" Scott Frank, "Quiz Show's" Paul Attanasio, "True Crime's" Stephen Schiff -- had tried and failed to revise the 1992 screenplay by Sports Illustrated journalists Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly.

"I always felt like this was a part that I really wanted to do," Clooney says. "And I was rapidly becoming too old to do it. I woke up in the middle of the night -- I was in Italy -- and I knew how to fix it. I knew. . . why we didn't have a third act. And that was that I had to give the other football player a problem," he says of the character played by "The Office's" John Krasinski.

For several weeks at his villa on Lake Como, Clooney furiously rewrote the "Leatherheads" script. He was inspired as much by classic comedies -- including "The Philadelphia Story" -- as by John Kerry's swift-boating. And with that, he found Krasinki's character's problem -- and a story Zellweger's reporter could start chasing. (Despite Clooney's extensive revisions, the Writers Guild of America did not award him any screenplay credit, a decision that infuriated Clooney.)

But the movie is far from political. Opening Dec. 7, "Leatherheads" is an old-fashioned screwball comedy, which Clooney admits is harder than anything he's directed (his first movie was 2002's twisted Chuck Barris biography "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind").

Some of Clooney's closest friends have been encouraging him to consider a run for office -- possibly succeeding Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. But having watched what his father, journalist Nick Clooney, went through running for Congress in 2004 -- his son's politics became almost as big a campaign issue as Nick's -- Clooney isn't sure he wants to go through a similar ordeal. Clooney also says while he's happy to be pigeonholed as a director, he doesn't want to be seen as "the angry political director."

"When I was doing 'Good Night, and Good Luck' I was mad -- I'd been called a traitor to my country," Clooney says. "And it's really easy when you're mad. You just go straight in and say, 'Screw it, I don't care.' But then everybody was sending me political thrillers to direct. And I didn't want to become that guy: 'I'm going to be the moral conscience of America.' That's not my style."

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john.horn@latimes.com

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