LOS ANGELES — 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 almost everyone in Hollywood understands and accepts — but apparently not George Clooney, who just wrapped 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 the Kentucky native's 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 substantial bets on himself last 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 that any number of people wish he were (Clooney says he's not interested in running for office), the actor's presidential contender in Ides of March is about as honorable as John Edwards. And starring in a movie by Alexander Payne might initially appear risk-free, but The Descendants' 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 to 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 Oscars' 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 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.
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His lead role opposite Sandra Bullock in director Alfonso Cuarón's sci-fi thriller Gravity, due out in November, 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 onscreen," 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 freefall. 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 for 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, Clooney says, that you often make the most informed choices. With The Descendants, the question he had to answer was: Could you win in playing a loser?
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 — but Clooney said King was not precisely in his wheelhouse, which ultimately was part of the 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 thought 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 think that moviegoers could imagine a woman married to him would not only be unfulfilled but would 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.
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, Calif., 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 Morris' closet, and all of a sudden he's revealed to be as inauthentic and cynical as most real 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 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 to his back, neck and right arm while filming Syriana. "I'm just going to be a mess. I am falling apart."
In Hollywood, though, he couldn't be healthier.