LOS ANGELES — For better and often for worse, actors have dabbled in politics and causes, but few have shown the kind of sustained and informed interest and commitment, onscreen and off, that George Clooney has.
In his new film, The Ides of March, Clooney plays a liberal presidential candidate. As a director, he previously celebrated the power of a journalist crusading against McCarthyism in Good Night, and Good Luck, and as an executive producer, he explored the corrosive influence of lobbyists and spinmeisters in the HBO series K Street. He also had a front-row seat for his father's 2004 U.S. House campaign in Kentucky, which ended in disappointment.
Two weeks ago, the Kentucky native, 50, traveled to Hong Kong to promote his Sudanese human rights effort, the Satellite Sentinel Project, to a global investor conference. He has addressed the United Nations about Darfur and has co-founded an aid organization, Not on Our Watch.
He has been asked numerous times about running for office himself. But even with his intricate understanding of political tactics and rhetoric (or perhaps precisely because of that knowledge), Clooney said he would rather play a candidate than be one.
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"I don't wake up in the morning and say, 'I wish I had President Obama's job,'" Clooney said.
"Every two years, somebody tries to bring my name up and talk about politics in the real world — 'You should run for governor!'" he said. "I'm not getting in politics. I have no interest in politics — because of the compromises you have to make. I don't have to make those kind of compromises when I get to go to the Sudan or Darfur. I get to come back and sit down in front of the Security Council at the United Nations and say, 'This is right, and this is wrong. Now, how you deal with it, I don't know, but this is right and this is wrong.'"
Still, The Ides of March, loosely adapted from Beau Willimon's off- Broadway play Farragut North, offers a particularly ripe opportunity for Clooney to meld his professional interests and political ideals.
On one hand, the political thriller is a vehicle for Clooney (who directed and co-wrote the movie) and longtime writing and producing partner Grant Heslov to fulfill their wishful thinking about how a stand-up Democrat could walk and talk. But it also takes a hard look at the personal price of politics and its inevitable betrayals and compromises. The film's ultimately pessimistic take might surprise some, given that it comes from such a hopeful liberal as Clooney.
Clooney's Gov. Mike Morris is poised to take the Democratic nomination with a platform so uncompromisingly left-leaning that it might make Fox News commentators burst into flames. He opposes the death penalty, foreign military intervention and even internal-combustion engines, and he supports gay marriage, mandatory national volunteer service and higher taxes for the richest Americans.
Amid the critical Ohio primary, the governor's campaign team, led by Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and underling Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), must fend off the cutthroat tactics of Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who's calling the shots for the governor's hard-charging opponent, Sen. Pullman.
Drawn into a relationship with the sexually assertive and well-connected campaign intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) and confronted by a secret that the governor has harbored, Stephen is forced to make a momentous decision about his loyalties, his ambition and, most important, his principles.
The Ides of March's narrative is laced with references that will please political junkies, many drawn from recent presidential contests. At one point, right-wing pundits encourage Republicans to support Pullman because he would be easier to defeat in the general election.
Clooney and Heslov think the first half of The Ides of March will be appreciated by Democrats — finally, a candidate they can believe in — and the second half will be loved by Republicans — Morris is just as much a fraud as every other lefty.
Clooney said some of his character's positions are based on views his father, newsman Nick Clooney, put forward as a journalist and as a 2004 congressional candidate in Kentucky, where he lost in a negative ad-filled race to Republican Geoff Davis. The skulduggery — and back-room dealings — in Ides are based not only on what George Clooney saw his father experience but on what he and Heslov observed while producing 2003's HBO series K Street, a verite drama about Washington lobbyists peppered with real politicians.
If The Ides of March upsets some moviegoers, Heslov and Clooney said, they would be pleased.
"We didn't want to make this a civics lesson," Clooney said. "We wanted to make a movie that scares people. Not scares them politically but scares them this way: 'Oh, my God. What's going to happen to him? What's going to happen to her?'"