Dialogue: George Clooney
Full of self-deprecating wit and unbridled devotion to his craft, Clooney makes living the Hollywood life look easy.Sure, he has charm oozing out of his pores, but it wasn't just charisma that earned George Clooney the 21st annual American Cinematheque Award, given to "an extraordinary artist currently making a contribution to the art of the moving picture." With an eclectic body of work comprising mainstream and art house cinema, Clooney has distinguished himself in front of and behind the lens, winning his first Academy Award -- for his supporting role in last year's "Syriana" -- and collecting noms and prizes aplenty for his sophomore directorial effort, "Good Night, and Good Luck." With three new movies wrapped and awaiting release -- Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Good German" and "Ocean's Thirteen" and Universal's "Michael Clayton" -- Clooney recently spoke to The Hollywood Reporter's Gina McIntyre about his latest accolade, balancing art and commerce and all those rumored political aspirations.
The Hollywood Reporter: What does it mean to you to receive this particular prize after a year in which you won your first Oscar and a number of other prestigious awards?
George Clooney: It was a fun year. This one's fun. I've been involved with these guys for years and years. I've presented to Bruce (Willis) and to Arnold (Schwarzenegger) over the years, and what's fun is there's no pressure there. It's a little bit like a roast. You get up there and people say one nice thing and then skewer you.
THR: You are one of the few actors who has a reputation not only for interesting creative choices but for understanding the economics of the business. How important is it to be able to look at a project from both vantage points?
Clooney: It's not important if your job is simply to be an actor, but if you're going to run a company or direct a film or produce a film, you also have to be involved in understanding how the economics work. People who can greenlight a film (really need to think about how the economics of the movie business are changing) -- you take a reduced salary and a real gross percentage and gamble on your moviemaking. I think it forces you to choose better films, and you're not destroying the budget. I happen to have not made money on the last few films, but that was because I made some purposefully bad economic choices -- I didn't just take a dollar for the movie. I also didn't get gross participation points because they were hard enough films to get made. The studios wouldn't even make them if you took no money. You say, "OK, well, I want to make the film, so let's make the film. I'll make some money somewhere else."
THR: How do you choose projects?
Clooney: I'll tell you, it's shockingly hard to find a good script. I always thought that when you got in the position when you said, "Go," (and) somebody would make a film -- if you ever got lucky enough to get there -- there would just be this cornucopia of these brilliant William Goldman scripts lying around. The truth is, there are very few, and when you find one, you'll find it's a dogfight between a bunch of actors for it. My decision-making process is solely based on screenplays. If you find a good screenplay, you jump on it.
THR: You've been very upfront about your politics and have championed films with important messages. Do you think Hollywood is experiencing a return to the activist cinema of the 1970s?
Clooney: This summer, I must have read 20 hard-core political films on all sides of the spectrum, but that in a way doesn't interest me. I like things a little more side-glancing. (1999's) "Three Kings" is a political film, and I liked it because it had something to say, but it did it with a real dark sense of humor. (2005's) "Good Night, and Good Luck" was designed specifically to do, in some ways, what Arthur Miller did with "The Crucible." Obviously, "Syriana" was sort of a head-on hunt, but I thought it was such a well-crafted script that that was fair enough to do. You have to be careful how you do those, remembering that there's a way that you end up hurting the cause that you're trying to help. It's a very tricky balance, but I do enjoy watching social and political comment in film again. I've missed it for 20 years.
THR: Are you tired of people asking if you're planning to run for office anytime soon?
Clooney: I'd be such a terrible candidate. I have absolutely no patience for compromise. Famous people don't have to compromise very often; politicians have to compromise all the time. It would make me crazy. You want to get some appropriation bill through, and you're going to have to build a bridge in Alaska to do it? I'd go nuts.
THR: Getting away from politics, you've had such a long-running relationship with Steven Soderbergh. How would you describe your creative partnership?
Clooney: He's by far the biggest influence creatively I've had. Here's the thing: I got to get firsthand, up-close and personal lessons on writing, storytelling, directing, producing, with someone who will be remembered as one of the greats. And I got to do it on a daily basis for years. He's a huge influence on the way I write, on the way I direct films, on everything -- and a great, great friend.
THR: You and Steven dissolved your company, Section Eight, and you just launched a new production company, Smoke House, with your "Good Night" writing partner Grant Heslov. What's changed?
Clooney: We'd like to keep it along the same vision, which is to try to infuse the things that we've learned over the years from independent and foreign films into the studio system because they have the best resources. That's the same sort of philosophy that Steven and I had with Section Eight. Grant is a great friend, a talented producer, was a great executive and producer for Steven and I, and a good writer. We'd like to carry on that same tradition, and we like the idea of starting it clean again.
THR: Do you find that your experience as a director has changed how you work as an actor, or are those roles entirely separate in your mind?
Clooney: It changes some things because you learn how your job is to serve the scene and not the character. Actors tend to always want to serve their character, which is great, and they should. (You'll say things like,) "My character wouldn't smoke, my character would have an eye patch." Directors go, "I need you to show up here and bring the fruit basket in and leave." You learn much more about how to say, "OK, what you need out of this scene is a fruit basket. My guy wouldn't necessarily carry it in, so what if I come in with another guy and he carries it in instead?" You find, as an actor, ways to solve the problem without creating 10 new ones. That's what directing helps. It focuses you on not wasting everybody's time.