Despite the inordinate gossip-media attention George Timothy Clooney gets for his love life, this dapper male star deserves the spotlight for his other assets -- acting talents, social concerns, creative work, self-effacing humor and general good-guy demeanor.
Earlier in 2011, The Ides of March was released, a film Clooney directed and performed that's earning his co-star, Ryan Gosling, award noms including a Golden Globe. And now that the suave 50-something has starred in award-winning director Alexander Payne's latest, The Descendants, Clooney's revelatory performance is garnering numerous nominations, some of which will surely result in wins.
Clooney plays Matt King, scion of an old Hawaiian land-owning family, who re-connects with his two daughters -- 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scotti (newcomer Amara Miller) -- after his wife Elizabeth winds up in a coma through a boating accident. While coping with this tragedy, he grapples with new and old responsibilities.
They travel from Oahu to Kauai to confront the young real estate broker, Brian Speer (played by Matthew Lillard), who was having an affair with Elizabeth before her misfortune. But there's much more to Payne's adeptly woven story than this simple plot line.
Born in Lexington, Kentucky, George is the son of local newscaster Nick Clooney, who hosted a talk show on a Cincinnati station for many years. Since he was five, he often frequented the studios at Clooney senior's invitation. Declining to compete with his father, he quit broadcast journalism to pursue an acting career and made his TV debut in 1978.
As Clooney gained fame portraying Dr. Douglas "Doug" Ross on the long-running medical drama ER (from '94 to '99), TV provided him with his first accolades. During the series, he attracted a range of leads in films such as 1997's Batman & Robin and Out of Sight (1998), where he first teamed with frequent collaborator, director Steven Soderbergh.
In 2001, Clooney's celeb status expanded with his biggest commercial success, Soderberg's re-invention of Ocean's Eleven, the first of a profitable trilogy based on the 1960 movie of the same name starring Rat Pack members including Frank Sinatra, who played Danny Ocean, Clooney's character.
Clooney made his directorial debut a year later with the 2002 bio-pic thriller Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and has since directed Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Leatherheads (2008) and now The Ides of March. He won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the Middle East thriller Syriana and has received two Golden Globe Awards as well.
Also a social activist, this Renaissance man has served as a United Nations Messengers of Peace since 2008. Clooney's humanitarian work also includes seeking a resolution for the Darfur conflict, raising funds for the 2010 Haiti earthquake, 2004's tsunami and 9/11 victims and in creating documentaries such as Sand and Sorrow to raise awareness about international crises.
The following Q&A is culled from a New York Film Festival press conference preceding its 2011 NYC premiere and following its debut at last year’s Telluride Film Festival.
Q: How did you come to do this film?
GC: Well, Alexander failed to find me fascinating when I met with him for Sideways, which I've not yet let go.
Then it was about two years ago -- this time, almost [of the New York Film Festival premiere of the film] -- that we met in Toronto and [Alex] came and said, "I have a script coming I'd like you to look at."
And I said, "I'm doing it whether I read the script or not" -- which didn't work with Batman & Robin, by the way.
Q: And how did you work out your scenes with Judy Greer, who plays adulterer Speer's wife -- which are very intense, pivotal moments in this film?
GC: Do you remember what our first scene was ever? Not in this movie. We did a scene in Three Kings and our first scene together is us having sex up against the desk.
Q: Surely George Clooney in real life will never be cheated on by a woman, so what would you do if it ever happens to you?
GC: No idea, because I know how any answer will read.
Q: So much depends on your relationship with the daughters in this film. What was the process of your coming together as a family? Did you do any sort of bonding exercises?
GC: Yes, we did bonding exercises. I would say, "You guys stay over there and don’t talk to me."
No, it’s a process that I very much embrace in the rehearsal process. We’d go over the scenes a little bit, but mostly it’s about spending time with one another.
Because the truth of the matter is, once you get to a set, everything is so different. We could sit here and work out the hospital scene, but the blocking alone is different.
Everything changes so drastically when you finally get to do that.
The rehearsal process in general is about trusting one another, and so a big part of it was just getting to know the gang and all of us getting the ability to feel comfortable enough to give each other shit. But there’s some truth in that, and once you can get to that place, it’s easy.
The lucky thing is that they’re all such talented actors. But we got a really good script and a really good director, and that sort of protects everything else.
Q: They really managed to put you into the ugliest pants.
GC: Those were my pants.
Q: How did you work with the costume designer and why wear those pants?
GC: I’m not completely against khakis, it’s just the level you have to wear them at. The higher you pull them, the more excruciating it is.
This whole process was just about schlubbing up a little bit, and this seemed kind of easy to me. I grew up in Kentucky; this is standard, just different colored shirts.
Q: Speaking about colored shirts, how was it filming in Hawaii?
GC: Well, most of the time I’m working in places I’m not familiar with. Sometimes that’s Slovakia, and then sometimes it’s Hawaii -- and not to bash on Slovakia, but I really did enjoy Hawaii, as you can imagine.
I think everybody will agree, it’s a great script, great director, and you’re shooting in Hawaii; there’s no downside to this. It was fun for me. I haven’t spent much time there, and certainly not in Oahu, Honolulu, so it was fun to see.
It’s such an island, it really is an island. On the freeway the speed limit is like 45 miles an hour, and it takes you awhile to get into that rhythm. So I’m driving behind people and I’m like, "Move it!" and they’re like "Hey, hey, hey."
I was an alien because I wanted to go 50 miles an hour. But that’s just my problem. Eventually you got into their rhythm, so that was fun. I really enjoyed it there.
Q: So how different then was it to shoot in Hawaii versus being in your places of origin like Cincinnati, where you shot some of shooting Ides of March?
GC: Well, I didn’t have relatives on the set every day. When you’re shooting in your hometown, you’ve never met so many cousins. I mean really, they were like, "This is your cousin;" I’m like, "I have no idea who that is, but okay, you’re my cousin." I didn’t have a whole lot of that in Hawaii.
Q: The crux of The Descendants is notions of forgiveness, maybe redemption. What are your thoughts on forgiveness, both in the context of the film and in real life?
GC: "I forgive you. Now I don’t forgive you. I take it back." You’re absolutely right, there’s a big part of it [that's] forgiving yourself... because so much of what happened was also his responsibility.
I think a big part of that release at the end, when he’s with his wife and he looks at her and he kisses her goodbye, is understanding his part in this as well. Yes, she cheated on him, but he was not there and he was not a good father as much as he thought he was. He was busy working. And that happens.
So part of it was coming to understand that, and I think that forgiving yourself is a very big part of that. I think we all go through those experiences of understanding that the older you get, the more forgiving you are of other people’s mistakes.
When you’re young, you find that anything that stands against something you believe in is just plain wrong. I remember there would be relatives of mine who would say something and I would say, "Well, he’s a bigot," and then come to find out later that I was way too judgmental. I was making the issue much bigger than it was.