George Clooney has a lot of enemies – as well as a lot of friends and fans. After speaking out forcefully about the war in Iraq, and the Bush administration he was condemned by American right wing activists as a “traitor”. He even got crudely – worded but sinister death – threats posted to his home in Los Angeles, and sent to the set of Gravity, his next movie, which he was making in Atlanta, Georgia, with his old friend Sandra Bullock.
He doesn‘t want to talk about any of that “garbage”, and dismisses “some pretty nasty, pretty explicit, messages” as being the “sort of thing that you might well expect if you speak your mind and if you have a conscience, and you ruffle some feathers. I was brought up to speak up, and to speak out – if I saw injustice, I was to make a noise about it. It’s inside me to do that”.
Because George Clooney is not just a Hollywood A-List actor these days, but also probably the most prominent voice of liberal America. And for once, he‘s a star who puts his efforts and his fortune where his mouth is. Five years ago, he flew to Darfur in the Sudan to see for himself the appalling genocide in the region – and returned to predict that “it looks as if it will escalate further into something far worse than the 1994 disaster in Rwanda”. In the autumn of 2006 he addressed the United Nations in New York, reporting back on what he had seen.
On that trip to the UN, George was accompanied by his father, the radio journalist Nick Clooney (who also went with George to Darfur) and the Nobel-prize winning author Elie Wiesel, and he passionately urged the delegates to intervene in the crisis. And, nailing his colours even more firmly to the mast of care, compassion and concern, he attended the 2006 G8 summit in Gleneagles, alongside Sir Bob Geldof and Bono.
At 50 (he celebrated his 46th birthday in May 2011), he continues to be called “the sexiest man alive”, so why is he still single, and why are there no children? “Oh Come on!” he says, “There are other things to talk about now. There are issues today that MUST be addressed, and we cannot afford to let them slip through the cracks. If my so-called ‘celebrity’ takes them to a much wider audience, then I will use it in whatever way I can – and I really don’t care what other people
think of me. It seems like a pretty good way to spend my ‘celebrity credit`, I think. But I have to be fully informed on the subject, however, so that I don’t do too much damage.
“The thing is,” he observes, “the more strident you are, the less you are able to appeal to people on the fence. A lot of my friends are VERY opinionated and yes, I do agree with them – but I wouldn’t like to be making a movie with them, to hear it very day! You have to find a common cause – and agree on it. I have my own beliefs, but I don’t want to force them on anyone — I just want to report the facts.”
He says: “We live in a very political world, and that can be dangerous. But celebrities backing causes – that’s not new. We spoke out about Vietnam, we talked about AIDS. About civil rights. In World War II we pushed War Bonds and did recruiting drives. If you have a belief- then use your voice. And no, I go on the record as saying that I will never, ever, run for any office. l respect the commitment of those who do, but I will not be one of their number.”
George lives up to every one of his fans’ expectations. He’s six foot tall and broad of shoulder, and has that slightly ‘lived’ in quality. He has dark brown eyes that laugh a lot. He‘s charming, a gentleman, and hugely intelligent. He dresses well – he’s one of those people who could wear a
bin-bag tied in the middle, and still make it into the “best dressed” top three. No wonder the ladies love the guy. Nearly every year, he figures in a list of the “WorId’s Hottest Men.
He has a self-confessed “zest for life” that is almost infectious – as if he isn’t able to cram enough activity into his day. He is always pressed for time. There were two films for this
The first was The Ides of March, in which he starred, which he directed, and which he co-wrote and also co-produced (“and making a movie when you are as involved as that will take two full years out of your life. Acting as well as directing really does take it out of you” he laughs) and the second was The Descendants, in which he plays the father of two daughters, with the family having to come to terms with an impending bereavement. 2012 will mark the release of Gravity and, he promises, “there are plenty of other irons in the fire to keep me busy, don’t you worry yourself about that!”
The bulk he once accumulated for the award-winning Syriana (he got the Best Supporting Oscar that year) disappeared, says George, after going back to “pretty sensible eating habits, instead of cramming the stuff down my throat – which is what I did when I had to gain it! When I found out that I had to pile on the pounds – no way was I going to wear a ‘fat suit’, that would have looked SO fake – I immediately rang up Renee (Zellwegger, an old flame of his) and asked how she managed it for the Bridget Jones movies. She told me that a few pints of Guinness every night, and a couple of plates of pasta with lashings of cream did the business for her. It did the trick for me, too!”
He admits that he is not inclined – much – to frenetic gym activity. “There are people who go to a gym and burn off what they want to in thirty minutes. OK, fine for them. But if I’m on the bicycle in my own bedroom, I go as fast as I can for fifteen minutes. I’ll break the same sweat, but I’ll do it in less time. I don’t have the time to take time”.
He does impersonations (his take-offs of people like Brad Pitt, George Dubbya Bush and Julia Roberts are hilarious) and he loves his food and enjoys a drink, “but both in moderation”. In fact, someone once nicknamed his favourite tipple of Absolut Vodka and soda, “a Clooney”. He has homes in Los Angeles and in the tiny village of Laglio on Lake Como in Italy, where he is so beloved by the locals that the proprietors of the nearby cafes and restaurants have been known to close their doors for the general public so that ‘Signor Clooney’ and his mates can chomp away on their freshly-made pasta in peace. “It’s always good to get back to the sunshine in Italy
and the Italian wine. I love the place. If the locals do see me walking past, they kinda shrug and do the ‘so what?’ bit. That’s infinitely preferable to being in a hotel and having a baying mob outside…no-one could claim to be unflattered by that, but it’s also very embarrassing and very intrusive. I’ve been coming down the steps of an aircraft and someone has shoved an autograph book up my nose and demanded that I sign it. And if you’re polite and say ‘No, sorry, I can’t…
I need to get somewhere‘, you‘re branded as being rude and arrogant. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t! I’m embarrassed beyond belief when I’m out at some ‘do’ and people are shouting ‘George, George!’, and I’m standing next to a legend like Robert Duvall, and I feel like yelling back ‘Look, it’s Robert Duvall, here… what’s WRONG with you?’
“No, the ones that I feel sorry for are the good people of Laglio who find that their roads are jammed full of tourists who want to see me, and my guests. The roads are just too small for all the extra traffic.” Then he grins and adds: guys who own the shops are happy with the new business though, and I’m told that the lads who own the boating franchise refuse to let them out to anyone that they think might be paparazzi, and setting out to take photographs of my place! When I’m in Laglio, I feel as if among friends”.
He is a curiously humble man, despite being one of the best leading men of the day. “Listen, before ER turned up, and raised my profile to being someone bankable, I did an awful lot of VERY bad TV. My worst movie? I cheerfully admit that, after Return of the Killer Tomatoes, (not one of my best career moves), it was Batman and Robin. I watch it from time to time, and it’s a great lesson in humility. It was a great turning point for me, and a real awakening. It was a really bad film, and about a week after it came out I was fully aware of that. I learned two things – never make a ‘vanity blockbuster’ and NEVER ever appear in a rubber suit with nipples. Those are my two great lessons in life. That Batman costume was hot, sweaty and totally miserable and it took three hours every day to get on. Why did I do it? Partly because Joel Schumacher (the film’s director) can be very persuasive, but largely because Batman was one of my childhood heroes. So it appealed to my innate vanity, if you like”.
He pauses and grins: “Oh, and the third life-lesson is that since I got a few big money roles, it is FAR more interesting to take parts in films which are interesting. People are always pitching me parts which I’ve played already. So all you do is end up replicating yourself. But yes, I’m much more successful now than I ever dreamed that I’d be. It’s all icing on the cake from here on in, but you know that I still don’t feel that where I am now is a success?
“And I’m someone of a mind that thinks that the minute that you’ve truly succeeded, you should call it a day. What I’m truly interested in now is making good movies”. And he is delighted that some of his undoubted clout helps get them made. He‘s taken far less than his normal fee on some films iust so that they could get finished – or even made in the first place. And this for a man who heads the Hollywood A List and who regularly gets cheques made out for $20 million waved under his nose. Still, he reflects, “I did Oh Brother Where Art Thou? for nothing. I did Three Kings for nothing.” And he’s not whingeing, he’s telling the truth. Well, “for nothing” in both cases actually equals f1 million each. He did Out of Sight for $10 million, $20 million for both of the earlier Oceans films, and a reputed $25 for the new one, $15 million for intolerable Cruelty. Not a bad career curve, since his first hit, From Dusk Till Dawn paid him $250,000 in total.
He says reflectively: “I think that I have a lot more characters in me, a lot more range. I need challenges and I don’t need to stockpile cash and then have this list of really bad movies at the end of my life. I’d love to be at a charity retrospective of my work when I’m 70, and not have it filled with crap movies. There‘s a need to do now the stuff that I can be proud of. For me, it’s not the opening weekend that counts, it’s about a career. Ninety percent of movies today are – at best- pretty mediocre, but they do have built-in audience and they open on 3,000 screens across the USA, so that’s how they make the money.”
His work ethic is legendary, sometimes surviving on a few hours of sleep a night, and he even admitted that he was a “workaholic” when he directed for the first time, on the highly regarded Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind. But then this respect probably stems from the first segment of his professional life when he worked steadily on TV in the States, but didn’t really set the world on fire. He was even described by one critic as “the poor man’s Tom Selleck”. Ouch. And then came that little series called ER, and suddenly Clooney was hot property. Dr. Doug Ross was pin-up material, the face that launched a zillion posters and calendars.
But he’s pleased that all the recognition didn’t arrive until he was in his thirties. “If was 24 today, and getting all this attention and white heat publicity, I wouldn’t have handled it well- or at all”, he says. “When you’re young, and people tell you that you’re a genius, well, you believe them. And that’s the greatest mistake you can make”
And George, of course, loves the ladies. Five years ago, George met the British model and TV presenter Lisa Snowdon on the set of a Him commercial, and although the romance has been on-off, they remain “very close friends, and I ring her up a lot”. He was once briefly married, to actress Tania Balsam (they wed in 1989 and divorced three years later) and then came a succession of attractive women to grace the star’s arm. Zellwegger, Mariella Frostrup and Celine Baltran. He is, as I write, dating former wrestler (you read that right, wrestler) model and actress Stacy Keibler (32), whose legs have been called “weapons of mass seduction”.
Not, however, by George – in public, at any rate. He swears that he will never ever get married again because he is “too wrapped up in my work”, and Michelle Pfeiffer and Nicole Kidman (both “close chums”) bet him in the middle nineties that he would be a father by the time he was forty years old. Did he make them pay up on the $10,000 wager? George goes all coy and says that it is vulgar “to talk about money”.
His aunt was the late, great, and legendary Rosemary Clooney, the fifties and sixties singing star, and he was a pallbearer at her funeral a couple of years back. He recalls, quietly, that he once asked her how it was that she was getting better and better? And she told him that in truth, she wasn’t. “She told me that growing older meant that she couldn’t hold the notes as well as she did, and that she wasn’t able ‘show off’ any more. She said to me ‘I’m just singing the song, George, just singing the song’, and that was a HUGE lesson for me, because she meant that she was delivering the numbers by relying on the experience she’d gained over the years. It was my first real lesson in acting – don’t show off, let the song sing itself, or let the lines speak for themselves. I soon learned, when I was working in the theatre, years go, never to shout the lines at the audience – ‘cos no-one will be bothered. What do you do? Whisper them. That way everyone will crane forward and pay attention. I miss Rosemary so very much. I don’t think that she handled not being as famous as she had been after the sixties turned, very well at all. And that taught me a lot about my own approach to fame as well”. He doesn’t have a huge entourage “just a couple of people to look after me”, and he “loathes” having minders around him when he goes to premieres and official ceremonies. Does he still have his pot-bellied pig, Max, back at home in Los Angeles? “No, sadly, he’s passed away to the big pig heaven in the sky. I still miss him – now he, he was the love of my life.” He grins a huge grin, and the laughter lines ripple down his cheeks. He adds: “That’s official!”