George Clooney: The Private Life of a Superstar
Think of George Clooney, and an image immediately springs to mind -- of a real-life Danny Ocean who lives in "the Playboy Mansion West," as he jokes; who jets back and forth between lavishly appointed, starlet-strewn houses in Los Angeles, Mexico's Cabo San Lucas and Lake Como, Italy; and who hangs out in an enviable modern-age Brat Pack with the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Every movie star has a public persona that to some extent is at odds with the man inside. But with Clooney, the differences are striking.
True, he's as charismatic in person as anyone alive, as charming and gracious. But the private Clooney, 50, also is a revelation. He lives with chronic pain (the result of a devastating accident from 2005); admits to bouts of loneliness, despite being surrounded by friends; makes his home on the "wrong" side of the Hollywood Hills in a comfortable but unpretentious Tudor-style Studio City estate; and watches ESPN and Modern Family as well as everything from The Soup to Jersey Shore. In other words, his life is disturbingly like yours -- except for his sleep: He is in bed by 10 p.m. almost every evening, wakes multiple times a night and loathes going to bed without the TV on.
"Turning off the television causes me to think, and once I start that vision roaring, I have a very tough time getting to sleep," he admits. With the flickering screen, "I'm able to numb out." Even then, "Without question, I wake every night five times."
He also acknowledges, "I drink at times too much. I do enjoy drinking, and there have been times in my life when it's crossed the line from being fun to having to drink late at night for absolutely no reason. So what I do is, I stop. I haven't had a drink since New Year's Eve."
Could one of the entertainment industry's most powerful emissaries -- a man who almost reflexively reminds us of Cary Grant, of glitter and glamour and all the bold brightness of Hollywood -- actually be quite an outsider in his heart of hearts?
There always has been a curious dichotomy to Clooney: He is a leading man in looks and stature who still largely acts like the guy next door; more pertinent -- particularly during this ultra-high-profile awards season -- he's a major star with the soul of an independent, one whose mind and being lurk in the small, significant movies the icons of our age usually struggle to outgrow. Indeed, the last of his projects to have earned more than $100 million domestically was 2007's Ocean's Thirteen.
And yet it works. He won a best supporting actor Oscar for 2005's Syriana, a challenging tale about a morally questionable oil executive in the Middle East. Two years later, he was nominated for his leading role in Michael Clayton, the complicated story of a corporate "fixer"; and two years after that, he was nominated for best actor again with Up in the Air, about a corporate employee whose sole job is to reduce staff (that is, fire them). All were men with ethical challenges; all were movies that tested our intellect and emotions. Clooney has received seven Oscar nominations altogether, for his work behind the camera as well as for playing subtly shaded characters forced to come to terms with their complicity, their failings and moral ambiguity. "Michael Clayton and Up in the Air, and particularly The Descendants, are all versions of moving outside your comfort zone," he says.
With two Oscar nominations this year alone (for best actor in Descendants and for co-writing The Ides of March), Clooney reveals what a long way he has come since one of his initial forays into film, 1997's Batman & Robin debacle. "There's this turning point," he explains. "When you first start out, you are just happy to get a job, any job. And as time goes on, either you move forward or screech to a halt."
The combined budgets of his two current movies are a fraction of Batman's and about the equivalent of most superstars' fees -- $12 million for Ides and $20 million for Descendants. Clooney took a humble $300,000 upfront for the latter. It's one of his more intriguing aspects that he has remained so powerful and prominent in our imagination without bigger hits or taking more than scale -- at most a few hundred thousand dollars, backend excluded -- since the $10 million he received for 2000's The Perfect Storm. He is singularly unmotivated by money, though time and again he returns to the theme, expressing an awareness that, if necessary, he will sell one of his homes. (He puts nothing in the stock market, which he describes as "Vegas, without the fun.")
With Sony's Ides, in which he plays a flawed presidential candidate who succumbs to an aide's blackmail (and where for once he doesn't end up on the right side of the moral equation), Clooney saw his sleepless nights pay off. "I woke and sat down and wrote the whole scene in the kitchen between Ryan [Gosling] and myself: 'You want to be president. … You can start a war, you can lie, you can cheat, you can bankrupt the country, but you can't f-- the interns.' " He personally attended the 2010 American Film Market -- that annual November gathering in Santa Monica where buyers and sellers haggle over rights -- just to raise money for the film, then gave away his share of profits to get it made. "[Co-writer] Grant Heslov and I sat there for a day and a half, and they'd bring in 12 people from Japan, from the Netherlands, and I would pitch them the whole movie, and then the next group would come in," he says with a laugh. "I was an encyclopedia salesman!"
With acting, Clooney also has learned to check his pride at the door. He recently turned down $15 million for one project that came with a promised $45 million on the backend. But he ardently committed to the role of a father struggling with his dying wife's infidelity in Fox Searchlight's Descendants. Director Alexander Payne had rejected him for 2004's Sideways (opting for Thomas Haden Church instead), and yet that didn't stop Clooney from agreeing to appear in Descendants before he'd read the script. Even then, he sweated that Payne wouldn't like his work.
"The trickiest part was the first week," he recalls. "We had to shoot the scene [where he runs down the street in flip-flops after learning his wife has had an affair]. You're worried you may be too big, or not big enough. I was trying to understand what Alexander wanted. I was nervous; but I'm always nervous [early] in shooting, because there's so much that can go wrong."
Critics widely praised his work. (The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy applauded his "underplayed, sometimes self-deprecating and exceptionally resonant performance.") A Golden Globe followed.
"He has an amazing range and technical craft," says Payne. "He'll maintain his emotions and intensity while adjusting his head 4.5 degrees this way or that."
Clooney's house, bought for $980,000 back in 1995 with ER paychecks (hardly chump change, but not the kind of price that proclaims movie-star excess), looks as if it could belong to any normal man who happened to make some money, apart from its subtle and discreet taste. There are no Oscars, Emmys or other awards visible in public places, no servants bustling in hushed tones -- just his personal assistant of many years, Angel, and a black cocker spaniel named Einstein that Clooney adopted from a local shelter. A few days earlier, Einstein ate all the loose cash left out by Clooney's present girlfriend, Stacy Keibler of Dancing With the Stars (a former professional wrestler). The women who pass in and out of his life, few lasting longer than two or three years, have been the source of endless Internet speculation, likely because they rarely appear to be his professional or intellectual equals, and range from waitresses to models to an Italian starlet.
He won't go into his relationship with Keibler because "there is so little in my life that is private," but he does admit that this man who once won a bet with Michelle Pfeiffer that he wouldn't be married again by 40 hasn't ruled it out. Divorced from actress Talia Balsam, he has in the past rejected the idea; now he argues, "I don't even think about it, really."
Though women come and go, Clooney has kept the same tight-knit group of friends for years; indeed, almost all of his intimates -- such as Heslov, businessman Rande Gerber and actor Richard Kind -- have known him for two or even three decades, many since they were in acting class with him. It is these people, not other celebrities, with whom he spends most of his time (many gathered at his place to watch the Feb. 5 Super Bowl). Much has been made of Clooney's friendship with Pitt, but his fellow best actor nominee doesn't belong to that innermost circle. "Brad is one of the great guys," he says. "We're good friends, but it's different from what people think, meaning we don't spend a lot of time together. He has been to my home in Como; we motorcycle together. But until recently, I hadn't seen Brad in a year."
Despite his sociability, his enormous interpersonal skills and considerable warmth, there remains something apart about him, something that perhaps has stood in the way of a long-lasting romance. "Anyone would be lying if they said they didn't get lonely at times," he says. "The loneliest you will get is in the most public of arenas: You will go to a place and end up in the smallest compartment possible, because it's a distraction to everybody, and you end up not getting to enjoy it like everyone else."