The movie business is predicated on predictability. Studios churn out sequels and remakes, directors rarely stray from their preferred genres and actors gravitate to the same sorts of roles. It’s a pattern most everyone in Hollywood understands and accepts -- but apparently not George Clooney, who’s wrapping up a career year. And precisely when he couldn’t be more admired as an actor, Clooney says he is pulling back from the very job that brought him renown.
At a point in his life when it would be easy to play safe -- he’s 51, has a supporting actor Oscar for “Syriana” and can pay the bills with his international TV commercials -- Clooney instead placed two speculative and not insubstantial bets on himself this year. .
Just as people have grown understandably indisposed toward anything political, Clooney directed, produced, co-wrote and starred in the election drama “The Ides of March.” Rather than play the candidate any number of people wish he were (Clooney says he’s not interested in actually running for office), the actor’s “Ides of March” presidential contender is about as honorable as John Edwards. And while starring in an Alexander Payne movie might initially appear risk-free, the film’s cuckolded protagonist is not necessarily the type of character Clooney’s peers would fight to play, and it proved to be a part Clooney said concerned him no end. “I was terrified from the moment it started,” he says. .
Clooney’s depiction of Matt King in “The Descendants” is sure to land him in the lead actor race, and the film itself looks destined for a best picture nomination. But like a baseball slugger who decides he’d rather coach than play even as he’s batting .300, Clooney says that he’ll start taking himself off the acting field, that he’s not excited to work in front of the camera and that he’ll be far more selective in performing in the years ahead.
Next May’s lead role opposite Sandra Bullock in director Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi thriller “Gravity” could mark the beginning of the progression toward more directing and producing work, even if Clooney (and filmmaking partner Grant Heslov) are developing an array of projects with potentially juicy parts, including their recently announced movie about the Smothers Brothers.
“I’m less and less interested in seeing myself on screen,” Clooney says. “I want as an actor to become more economic in terms of the kinds of things and parts I play. As you get older, and you sort of slowly move into that character actor world, there’s actually some fun stuff to do. But I don’t enjoy seeing myself on screen in certain things anymore.” Fortunately, “The Descendants” proved not to be one of those certain things.
As adapted by Payne and screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, “The Descendants” places Clooney in the midst of a family in free fall. Matt King’s wife, Elizabeth, has suffered an irreversible brain injury, forcing the largely clueless father of two daughters to plot a course not only for his wife’s last days but also his children’s future.
Clooney has said that a mistake actors often make is imagining the best, rather than the worst, version of a movie they are about to star in; it is in tempering your own optimism, the actor says, that you often make the most informed choices. With “The Descendants,” the question Clooney had to answer was, Could you win in playing a loser?
While no one would doubt Payne’s stewardship -- his previous three films, “Sideways,” “About Schmidt” and “Election,” were nominated for a combined eight Academy Awards and won one Oscar -- Clooney said King was not precisely in his wheelhouse, which ultimately was part of its attraction. It’s hard to make Clooney look bad, but King bears scant resemblance to the polished-to-perfection Danny Ocean in “Ocean’s Eleven” or Ryan Bingham in “Up in the Air.” As Clooney himself describes King, he’s a schlub, inside and out.
“It was a part that worried me, and I always like parts that worry me, that take me out of my comfort zone,” Clooney said. “I’ve played characters that are flawed and don’t know it. I’ve played characters who have had to come to terms with a lifetime of failure, in ‘Michael Clayton,’ ‘Up in the Air,’ films like that, when [the character] thinks he has it together, and he doesn’t.
“This was sort of the next step in a way as a character. It’s a coming-of-age film, but the person who is coming of age is a 50-year-old guy. There’s a much different kind of vulnerability to this character. The characters I’ve played before were always overachievers, successful. They were good at what they did, and no one beat them. They were these characters who always win the scene, they win the argument. And they’re good at it -- until they realize they’ve given up their soul. This is a character who loses every argument -- he loses to a 17-year-old, he loses to everybody.”
Payne, who declined to cast Clooney in “Sideways” (he chose Thomas Haden Church instead), said he felt Clooney was exactly right for “The Descendants.”
“I was eager to work with the guy. He’s so affable, and everyone who’s met him just thinks the world of him,” Payne said. “He was perfect for the part. He wasn’t perfect for Jack in ‘Sideways.’ He wasn’t the right guy. This one: right look, right temperament, right age, right degree of fame that could propel an American commercial narrative film -- just the right guy. And, boy, was I lucky.”
In selecting Clooney as Matt King, Payne had to believe that moviegoers could imagine a woman married to him would not only be unfulfilled but also cheat on her husband with “Scooby Doo’s” Matthew Lillard. But Payne says she did so only because Lillard’s Brian Speer paid attention to her when her spouse didn’t.
But King learns from his shortcomings. He “finds love and forgiveness by accepting his role in his failures,” Clooney says. “And I thought that was a very tough and interesting thing to play.”
Tough and interesting are apt descriptions of “The Ides of March” as well, a movie with so many commercial disadvantages that Warner Bros. declined to back it and Clooney and Heslov had to personally sell the independently financed movie territory by territory at the American Film Market in Santa Monica last year.
The film’s candidate, Mike Morris, appears to be Clooney in a nice suit -- he’s unapologetically liberal (as president, he’ll eliminate the internal combustion engine), charismatic and, you might at the outset believe, steadfastly principled. But a young campaign strategist (Ryan Gosling) uncovers a skeleton in the Morris closet, and all of a sudden he’s revealed to be as inauthentic and cynical as most actual politicians.
Even if the movie was not a commercial and critical smash (although Gosling has an outside shot at supporting actor attention, as do Clooney, Heslov and Beau Willimon for adapted screenplay), it sharpened Clooney’s interest in directing. “Directing is infinitely more creative, as is writing, and it’s more fun to do,” says Clooney, who hasn’t yet decided which movie he will helm next.
Besides the planned Smothers Brothers movie, Clooney and Heslov are producing “Argo,” a thriller about the Iranian hostage crisis directed by and costarring Ben Affleck; “Our Brand Is Crisis,” a feature film remake of the documentary about South American politics; and the serial killer story “The Monster of Florence.”
But first Clooney aims to tend to himself, repairing damage, dating back to an injury while filming “Syriana,” to his back, neck and right arm. “I’m just going to be a mess. I am falling apart.”
In Hollywood, though, he couldn’t be healthier.
Envelope writer Sam Adams contributed to this report.