The Toronto International Film Festival was full of stars, so how could George Clooney compete with the likes of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Madonna? He showed up twice. Two of Clooney’s films played the festival, and both are going to be opening in theaters soon.
The Ides of March, which Clooney directed and opens Friday, is a political drama about a presidential campaign. The Descendents, which Alexander Payne directed, stars Clooney as a father trying to keep his family together when his wife is critically injured. Both films gave Clooney a chance to reflect on what got him here and what he hopes his life means to the world when it’s all over.
Q: Politicians have always been frustrating because they’ll say whatever they can to attract as many voters as possible. Now there are some politicians who are happy to represent as specific a base as possible. Why do you think that is and will we come back to politicians trying to serve a greater number of voters?
GC: I think everything is cyclical and I think we’re in a period of time right now where it’s probably not our best moment in politics, in the political cycle. But if you look at the things that Jefferson and Adams did to one another, there’s an awful lot. The 1800 election was pretty evil and pretty rotten so things change. They’re cyclical.
Q: Are there any politicians you based your character on?
GC: There’s just so many ways to get in trouble with that. No, there really weren’t. Some of the speeches I used for some of the things and ideas that my dad used to write about in the newspaper. The idea of him having some of these issues that he has seem to pop up pretty much almost every week in politics so it seemed familiar to us in a lot of ways. People thought it was about the John Edwards thing but this was written long before the John Edwards thing broke. We didn’t really model it after anybody. There were enough examples that we could just pick little pieces from everyone.
Q: As a director, what do you think about George Clooney the actor, and what does George Clooney the actor think of the director?
GC: Well, let me tell you. George Clooney likes to talk about himself in the third person. Listen, I don’t like to think in those terms. You have to completely separate yourself one from the other. I’m lucky enough to work with a great bunch of actors who elevate the project. That’s the secret to directing, working with good people. How’s that for a political answer?
Q: Do your politics influence the roles you choose and movies you direct?
GC: I didn’t think of this as really a political film. I thought this was a film about moral choices. I didn’t think of it really as necessarily the political side. I just thought it was a fun moral tale. Once you set it in politics, it amps up all the problems and I thought that was fun.
Q: Do you want people to see the greater good of the process or the cynicism towards politics?
GC: Well, I think you need to remember that films don’t lead the way. People oftentimes think that films somehow are trying to lead society. In general it takes a few years at the very least to get a film made. So mostly we’re reflecting the moods and thoughts that are going on in our country or around the world. This film reflects some of the cynicism that we’ve seen in recent times. That’s probably good. It’s not a bad thing to hold a mirror up and look at some of the things that we’re doing. It’s not a bad thing to look at how we elect our politicians but that wasn’t what the film was designed to do. Honestly the idea was for us that there isn’t a person you’ve ever met that hasn’t been faced with certain moral questions. Every one of us has had that idea of well, if I take this job which is better, I might be screwing over my boss who I like. Everybody makes moral choices that better themselves and hurt someone else along the way. Whether or not the means justify the ends, that to me is universal. It could’ve been Wall Street. It would’ve been probably easier on Wall Street. It could’ve been anything. That was our point.
Q: Why did you want to cast Ryan Gosling in the role?
GC: Listen, I think he knocks it out of the park. This is a very difficult role. You’ve got to be the center of a hurricane and you have to carry everybody and everyone’s point of view on your shoulders. It’s very difficult thing to do, requires intelligence in an actor which doesn’t always happen, for some reason. Working with Ryan is just a delight. Working with all these actors, I’m quite serious as you all know, makes it very easy and Ryan gives just a tremendous performance in this film and I’m honored that he and everyone else did it.
Q: Your career has evolved from acting to directing, but at what point did you turn your attention from TV to movies?
GC: Well, I was on some pretty crappy TV shows. I was pretty bad in them, but you always think of yourself as a film actor. “I’m a film actor, I just happen to be doing this crappy TV show right now. Soon I’ll have this great film career that I actually wasn’t having.” There’s a period of time where you’re just trying to get a job. Then you’ve got to get lucky. ER was lucky. We were going to be on Friday night at 10 o’clock and we wouldn’t have done a third the numbers that we did on Thursday night at 10 o’clock. That’s luck. When they talk about numbers now of ratings, 17 million people for a show, we were doing 35, 40, 45 million people a week. So immediately I went from obscurity to being able to get a film. I wasn’t able to before. I auditioned a lot and I didn’t get them. So that was luck. It had very little to do with me. I was the same actor I was when I was reading for two lines in a film. Then things change and you start to realize how you have to take responsibility for the roles because you’re going to be held responsible for the whole movie. If your name is on it above the title, then you have to actually pay attention more to not just your part but to the film so that was part of it. I got a good couple of lessons on some not great films. Then I realized I’m going to be held responsible, I better pay attention to the films. That’s when things changed. I had a pretty good run right after that with Out of Sight, Three Kings and O Brother where it was like oh, I get it. I’ve got to work with really good filmmakers and off of really good screenplays.
Q: As an actor/director, do you sometimes just want to be a hired hand on someone else’s film?
GC: Well, my career path for the last 10 years or so has been to direct, but directing takes a long time to get one done. Ask Alexander. It could take a while. My day job is acting and that’s how I make my living. Directing is something that I really want to do, really enjoy doing so in between those, if I’m lucky enough to have Alexander or Steven Soderbergh, or the Coen Brothers or Jason Reitman or Tony Gilroy, really good directors around, then I’m lucky. And that’s what I want to do.
Q: Who has given you directorial advice when you made your transition?
GC: Before I did my first film I read Sidney Lumet’s book on directing which is really helpful. It teaches you shortcut tricks like set a shot, the very first shot you shoot, set it even if it’s something you’re never going to use in the film. Set it, do one take, cut, move on, print, move on. Everybody in the crew and everybody in the cast gets nervous because they think this could happen really quickly. It changes the chemistry on set and I thought that was very helpful, especially for a first time director when I was doing it. It doesn’t hurt to watch some of his films. I think Network is a masterpiece. I think he probably had as good a decade as anybody, Pakula, 70s film directors.
GC: Yeah, when Steven and I did Out of Sight, we came up with this company together. The idea was we wanted to infuse back into the studio system what they had learned and done very well in the mid-60s to mid-70s, sort of the independent vibe that we’d learned from independent films later in the ‘90s. he wanted to reinvest that back into the studio system. I liked the idea of nonlinear storytelling, that kind of thing. So we started trying to push that back in and I learned a lot about not having to tell a story from the beginning to the end, picking up in the middle and catching it. That less is more and you can trust the audience to figure some stuff out. He was very good at that. He was a huge help to me.
Q: Are you hoping to get a Best Director Oscar this year?
GC: That’s a harsh thing to ask. No, listen, I’ve won an Award once so when I die, they say Oscar winner. It’s a great thing to have on the tombstone but after that, to me I really like it when people appreciate the work. I really do. I enjoy good reviews much more than I enjoy bad reviews. I enjoy people celebrating the work but I really don’t have this dying need to collect things. There’s a point in time where you start in this that you do get competitive. You can get caught up in it, you’re trying to compete with people, you realize that’s silly. We’re comparing artists and I don’t understand that. I don’t remember who won the Oscar four years ago or five years ago or what director won or what film won. I remember films. I watch Network and that was the year, 1976, where it was Bound for Glory, Network, All the President’s Men, Rocky and Taxi Driver. Rocky won. Rocky’s a terrific film. So are those other four films and I remember those films really well. I remember movies. I don’t remember awards. So I like films. In general, I try in my career to do projects that last longer than an opening weekend. That’s it. When they do that thing for you when you’re 75 and they bring out a wheelchair and you’ve got the colostomy bag hanging off the side, you don’t want them to say, “Well, you had 20 films that opened number one.” Who gives a sh**? Honestly, it’s an art form that costs millions and millions of dollars so I understand that it has to make money and I want to make sure it does by keeping the price down, but the truth is I want to make things that people remember. If you’re able to do five or ten of those in your life that last, then you win. Unless somebody steps on your colostomy bag.
Q: How do you feel about competing with yourself with The Ides of March and The Descendents?
GC: I find that it’s a very odd thing to think of competition when you’re talking about what I still consider art. I don’t really think of it as competing and I don’t ever think of competing with actors or filmmakers at all. You do compete in a way at the box office but we’re far enough apart with when both films are coming out so I’m not concerned with that either. Look, we’d like both films to be well liked. We try to make films we’d like to see. They’re not easy to get made. They’re hard to get made. You have to keep the budget low to get them made, but at the end of the day, I don’t really worry about competition because I don’t really think of it that way. I don’t feel like I’m a race with anybody, particularly Alexander because I don’t want to race him. That would be a drag.
Q: Which character was more challenging between the two films, Governor Mike Morris or family man Matt King?
GC: Well, [The Descendents] was obviously a lot more challenging to do as an actor because when you’re directing yourself, you’re really only just doing a part that I know exactly what I need done in it and I’m just filling a gap that I need in the film. I needed that candidate and I knew what he needed to be and I fit the bill, so I knew how to do that. This is one that you’re in a very uncomfortable zone with very comfortable people but it’s a tricky place to play so obviously this is a much more difficult part. But I also had a much better director so I was very lucky in those terms.
Q: Where did you draw upon playing a father?
GC: I’ve played a father before a few times. I don’t really think you have to shoot heroin to play a heroin addict. I’m not running for president but I can play a candidate. Most of the time you don’t really have to have those things in your life to understand what they’re like. I had these girls with me and it was like having children only I got to give them away at the end of the day. It was much nicer.
Q: How did you approach portraying all of Matt’s internal struggle?
GC: Alexander helps a lot. There’s a funny thing that happens. You can make a really bad movie out of a good script, but you really can’t make a good movie out of a bad script, period. It starts with the screenplay, that’s it. It was a really well written screenplay. You surround yourself with wonderful actors and then you put yourself in the hands of a director and he says, “More of this, less of that. Try more of this, try less of that.” When you see the film, the thing that’s Alexander’s specialty is his ability to switch on a dime from funny to really sad. It’s hard to do. It’s really hard to do well. It’s hard as an actor to judge that. Only he knows where he wants it. You really have to just go, “You tell me when I’ve gone too far or not far enough.” Honestly I wish there was credit to be taken for that but it really is about screenplay and directing. It all starts with Alexander. I met him here. I was here with Up in the Air. We had a meeting and I wanted to work with him. I was very close to getting Sideways and he gave it to someone else. So I’d like to thank Thomas Haden Church for being busy on this film. But the chance to work with Alexander, it was before I read the script I wanted to do the project quite honestly because I wanted to work with him. Then I read this part and I thought wow, this is a really great part. A really good script in the hands of a really good director is an easy yes.