George Clooney strides across the lush lawn of his Lake Como home and points toward a cluster of trees, the only barrier that separates him and this 18th century Italian villa from an increasingly invasive world. “That’s where he got in,” he says, more matter-of-fact than angry. “The guy climbed the fence and got up into the trees there.”
The “he” in question is a paparazzo. Less than 24 hours earlier, news was tearing across the internet that a photographer — one of hordes that swarm around Clooney like the mosquitoes on the nearby lake — had slipped past the guardhouse, crept through the bushes, crawled up a tree and snapped pictures of the star and his wife, Amal, cradling their 7-week-old twins. Clooney vowed to sue. The fact that a stranger could penetrate his sanctum sanctorum — the one place where, for a few brief weeks each summer, he can flee the pressures of his almost unparalleled celebrity — infuriated him. That the interloper would also exploit his babies tapped into the peculiar nexus where Clooney’s sense of private rights and public wrongs collide, adding fuel to both. He long ago abandoned hope of maintaining any part of himself for him alone, but now he’s thinking about his wife and children.
He and Obama have a jocular relationship that at times teeters into the risque. I glimpse a text from the former president on the actor’s phone. “What a jerk!” Obama teases. Has Clooney ever been racy with him? “Sometimes, sure,” he says. “A little bit. Not Scaramucci-racy, but … you know, I have over the years with my friends said a lot of really [outrageous things]. I’ve had an email exchange with Sacha Baron Cohen that’s some of the filthiest stuff, honestly. Amal will be on the chain and she’ll be upstairs and I’ll hear her scream, ‘No!’ because it’s just foul, and you think, ‘Well, that would probably not be great if it came out.’ ”
Clooney understands these risks better than anyone. He knows the pitfalls of fame, alert to all the dangers; whatever naivete might once have been part of him has long gone in the glare of public scrutiny. He was among the first people to receive a middle-of-the-night call from his friend Amy Pascal, the embattled Sony Pictures chairman, in the heat of the now-famous North Korean hack of November 2014. She and her colleague Michael Lynton turned to him for advice. “Amy felt with all that stuff, there were only a couple of people that really stood by her side,” he says. “Grant [Heslov, his producing partner] and I were among them.”
He’s still tight with the former executive, but, looking back, he acknowledges: “They didn’t do a whole lot right. They’d say that, too — I’m not speaking out of school. They should have been more on top of the idea of hacking earlier on. The response initially was good but needed to be better, and then Amy was caught making a dumb, bad joke in an email.” That joke made fun of Obama, speculating about the African-American films he was watching. For Clooney, it’s all water under the bridge. “I hate to think that any one of us could have made dumb, bad jokes,” he says, shrugging. “It’s unfortunate that it was also racist, about the president, and that’s not a very smooth maneuver.”
Racism is at the heart of Clooney’s new film, Suburbicon, a drama set in the late 1950s that he directed and co-wrote with Heslov, starring Matt Damon and Julianne Moore.
The movie, which debuted Sept. 2 at the Venice Film Festival, interweaves two stories: a family drama, as a seemingly ordinary husband and father (Damon) becomes increasingly off-kilter; and a racial conflict, as a white neighborhood turns against a black family that has just moved in, whose superficial “abnormality” masks the genuine abnormality of the white family. It’s Clooney’s most dyspeptic take yet on the state of his country.
“I wanted it to be violent, I wanted it to be angry, and I think it’s a very angry film,” he says, fixing me a coffee as we sit at a long, wooden table in his dark, country-style kitchen, three dogs loping around at our feet. “We’re at a time when we need to address these issues, and unfortunately they’re issues that we have never completely exorcised.”
The project originated with the Coen brothers, who wrote the first drafts of a screenplay they planned to film and then in the late 1990s approached Clooney to star. But their script depicted only the white family’s tale. When Clooney and Heslov contemplated the race issues that had simmered during Donald Trump’s run for the White House, they decided to include a second plot element, drawing inspiration from the real-life drama of Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957, when a housing project of cookie-cutter homes erupted in violence after the arrival of an African-American family named Myers.
“What I found fascinating, growing up in Kentucky, was that whenever you’d see these movies about any form of bigotry, they were always with a Southern accent,” says Clooney. “Those in the North love to think they had nothing to do with it. They love to wash their hands and say, ‘Actually, we were the liberals. We were against slavery and [for] civil rights.’ And the truth of the matter is much more complicated. There were a lot of problems, particularly in places like Levittown. They built a fence around the people’s homes; they hung confederate flags around it; they named their dog ‘Nigger.’ They got instruments and played all night, 24 hours a day, just to try to get these people to leave.”
Clooney showed news footage of Levittown to his cast, who were only vaguely aware of what had happened there. “I didn’t know about that before George told me,” says Damon, who slashed his usual fee and then shot Suburbicon after wrapping four others that he’d made back-to-back. “I was floored. It’s that incredible thing where people are like: ‘Well, we’re not racist; we just don’t want them to live here.’ “
The Paramount release, filmed in Los Angeles last year on a budget of $24 million, blends the political awareness that inspired Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) with the satirical vision of the Coen brothers, though neither was involved beyond writing the original script.
“Grant and I felt an incredible responsibility to the Coens,” says Clooney. “The tone of their film was very, very dark, and we thought that was a good thing. But we have some big plot switches and a couple of good twists that people won’t know from the trailer.”
There was a different kind of twist during the shoot, when Trump was elected president, shocking many of the cast and crew. “We were home by 4 p.m., waiting for the returns,” says Moore. “Everybody was pretty devastated. [Then] as we were working on the movie, we felt the tone shift. The realization of the film became much darker than we’d thought.”
It’s become even darker following the explosive events of Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Paramount is clearly aware of that, shifting its marketing to tout the picture’s new relevance. “I don’t think anyone thought George was prescient in what we were shooting; we all felt we were talking about things that had happened in the past,” notes Moore. “But what’s happened recently has been absolutely shocking.”
Trump himself mentioned William Levitt, the builder who created multiple Levittowns, in a July 24 speech to the Boy Scouts of America. “He talks in his speech about this incredible builder and how he sold his properties and made a huge profit and then fell down on his luck because he didn’t keep going,” says Clooney. “And Trump’s point was always, ‘Don’t quit. Keep going.’ But the reality was: William Levitt was a bigot. And William Levitt wouldn’t let blacks move into his homes and was taken to court and ordered to integrate. And rather than integrate, he sold his property. That’s what really happened.”
Clooney is no fan of the president’s, to state the obvious; he’s met Trump only once in person. “I was sitting down at a restaurant in New York [several years ago] and he came in and we talked for a while,” he recalls. “I’d had neck surgery, and he said, ‘I’ll give you the name of a doctor,’ and he wrote me a couple of times with the name. Then he went on Larry King Live and told him I was very short. I’m 5-foot-11 — I’m not the tallest actor in the world, but I’m not short. That made me laugh.”
But Clooney hasn’t laughed about politics since the election; his horror will only grow in the weeks after our Lake Como meeting, especially following Trump’s post-Charlottesville comments suggesting an equivalence between white supremacists and those who oppose them. “It would be best for the country if some of these Republicans — and some of them I’m very good friends with, actually — stood up [to him],” Clooney says in a late August phone call. “There’s an important distinction that doesn’t get said enough — the difference between Black Lives Matter and the KKK and the skinheads and the alt-right is this: Black Lives Matter was protesting in support of racial equality. Period. Sometimes it got out of hand, absolutely. But that’s what they were doing. You can never say, ‘Well, those guys were bad and these guys were bad.’ And to hear those words come out of the president of the United States, that is a great crime.”
Five years have passed since I last sat down with Clooney for any length of time. Back then, as we lounged in the informally masculine ambiance of his Studio City living room, his cocker spaniel Einstein padding around us (just as he does here in Lake Como, at the ripe age of 15), I was surprised that this coolest of leading men, who radiated confidence and well-being, who seemed devoid of the angst that devours so many of his peers, was in fact full of it. Perhaps I’d caught him at a low ebb, but it was obvious that layers of complexity lurked under his smoothest of surfaces.
A self-professed insomniac, he told me he rarely enjoyed a proper night’s rest and loathed going to bed without the reassuring presence of the TV. “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 admitted. Even then, he noted, “Without question, I wake every night five times.” He also lived with constant pain and debilitating headaches, the result of a bad fall during the making of 2005’s Syriana, the movie that won him a best supporting actor Oscar. “I had a two-and-a-half-inch tear in the middle of my back and a half-inch tear in my neck,” he explained, adding that he was only beginning to come to terms with a chronic condition. “I thought I was going to die, [but] I’ve gone from where I can’t function, where ‘I just can’t live like this,’ to ‘I’ve got a bad headache.’ ” The effects of the pain continued, regardless of his efforts. “It’s called ‘positional,’ meaning the longer you sit upright or stand upright, the worse it gets,” he said back then. “That’s how it is. As the day goes on, it gets worse. My ears will literally pop and my head goes ape-shit.”
Most striking of all, despite his legions of friends, Clooney revealed that he, like most everyone else, experienced bouts of loneliness. “Anyone would be lying if they said they didn’t,” he observed. “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 [your presence is] a distraction to everybody.”
Today, the insomnia has gone and so has most of the pain, following the latest of several operations, three years ago — “a blood patch, where they take your blood and shoot it into your spine and get the blood to coagulate to plug up the holes,” he explains. “I still get headaches sometimes. But even the doctor, when I had surgery in 2005, said, ‘Listen, this pain is going to go away with a whimper, not a bang.’ And there’s some truth there. It took years to slowly diminish and diminish and diminish to where now anything I get is negligible. It’s like having a hangover: You know when you get it, and you can handle it. It’s been much, much better.”
As for loneliness, with a wife and kids and the constant presence of family and friends, that’s just a distant memory. One even wonders whether Clooney occasionally pines for the aloneness of the past. “I sure don’t,” he says. “That seems like a lifetime ago. Now my house is filled with the warm sounds of babies crying. You should see when my friends show up and see me change a diaper, the laughter that comes from them. I go, ‘I know, I know.’ I’ve given them so much shit for so many years, I deserve every bit of it.”
An hour later, seven of us are gathered for a late lunch, huddled around a table at the other end of the garden, hidden by a few trees from the ferries that slide languorously across the lake, their passengers aiming their iPhones in our direction and snapping shots of the house, oblivious to the fact that their true target is in residence. We help ourselves to a delicious summer buffet: roast chicken, two kinds of pasta, a salad, plums and pears. “Try this,” says Clooney, offering me a peach that’s impossibly sweet.
Amal is here, of course, tall and slender in a simple black dress, without evident makeup. (“I’ve put on 10 pounds,” quips Clooney. “She looks great.”) There’s also Samantha Barry, an English friend of Amal’s, who recently moved to New York to work for CNN; Clooney’s elder sister, Ada Zeidler, 57, a thoughtful and distinctly un-Hollywood woman whose life, she tells me, took a turbulent turn after her husband’s premature death more than a decade ago; and Clooney’s longtime head of security, Giovanni Zeqireya. George’s petite and charming mother, Nina, 78, sits at my side; her husband, Nick, is still in the U.S. as he recuperates from a bout with pneumonia and a subsequent case of edema. Suddenly, Nina swats my arm. “A mosquito!” she says, laughing. “You don’t want to be bitten, do you?”
Oh, and the twins, Alexander and Ella, are here, too, lying in cribs at the head of the table, Clooney on one side of them, Amal on the other. It must be said, even by a reporter who has no special fondness for babies, that they are particularly adorable. It feels almost surreal, having read so much about their birth, to be the first journalist to see them up close. “They’re lovely, aren’t they?” I mention to Clooney’s mother. “They’re very special,” she says, nodding with knowing pride.
“Amoula …” calls Clooney, using the term of affection Amal’s parents employ for their daughter. He hands her their infant son and she starts rocking him.
“My sister Tala has twins, and they’re wonderful,” she says, then asks me, as a twin, for any advice. I counsel against encouraging them to compete with each other. “Don’t be competitive,” she murmurs, seeming to weigh my words — as if she needs guidance from me or anyone else. I ask if she’d like more children, and she shakes her head. “I’m 39,” she says. “I already had them quite late.”
Throughout the day, she stays largely quiet, reserved and naturally elegant, focused on the children except for a few brief moments when the conversation turns to her work as a human rights lawyer. (Julian Assange was her highest-profile client.) We touch on her time as a student at Oxford (“I loved it,” she says), then shift gears to that old chestnut: whether it’s easier to date in London or Los Angeles or New York. Samantha jumps in, and so do I, and soon everyone’s chattering.
At one point, Clooney rises to massage his wife’s shoulders. When he moves out of hearing, I ask what has most surprised her in their four years together.
“What a great father he is,” she says.
Later, when I mention this to Clooney, he seems caught unaware. “She said that?” he asks. “Really?”
It was here in Lake Como that Clooney met the then-Amal Alamuddin when she was passing through in July 2013, on her way to Cannes with a mutual friend.
“I thought she was beautiful, and I thought she was funny and obviously smart,” he says. Did she think the same of him? He laughs. “I don’t know. She probably thought I was old. Then she sent some pictures from when she was here, and we were writing each other, emailing, talking, mostly about what was going on in each other’s lives, and over a period of time it became clear we were more than just friends.”
In October 2013, Clooney invited Amal to visit him at London’s historic Abbey Road Studios, where he was supervising the recording of the score for his 2014 release Monuments Men. “That was a good first date,” he says. “Then we went for dinner. She said, ‘Let’s go to this place.’ It was one of those places that was incredibly hip and chic. And when we came out, there were 50 paparazzi there. But she handled it like a champ. And pretty quickly, things escalated once I was in London.”
Clooney remained there for six weeks. Afterward, “we spent Christmas together in Cabo San Lucas,” he continues. “Then we went on a safari in Kenya. Amal loves giraffes; they’re her favorite animal. She went to this place called Giraffe Manor, where the giraffes stick their heads through the windows and kiss you.”
When he returned to L.A., he showed a photo of her to his actor friend Ben Weiss. “I had a picture of her, looking back, smiling at these giraffes,” he recalls, “and I said, ‘I think I’m going to ask her to marry me.’ “
That was February 2014, and Clooney started planning his proposal. Like any director worth his salt, he figured everything out, down to the background music. He bought a ring and never breathed a word to Amal. “Nothing,” he says. “It was a full-on leap of faith. She was in England, coming back [to Los Angeles], and she’d had a conversation with her parents, who were like, ‘What are George’s intentions?’ And she was saying, ‘Take it easy. We’ve been going out for six months.’ And then she showed up.”
The evening of April 28, 2014, Clooney made them dinner. “I’m the cook in the family,” he says with a smile. “Believe me, Amal makes reservations. I did pasta of some form, not that impressive. And then over champagne, after dinner, I told her there was a lighter to light the candle in the drawer, and she reached back and pulled out a ring. And I did all the stuff, got down on my knee and did all the things you’re supposed to do. I had a playlist with my Rosemary songs on it [his late aunt was the singer Rosemary Clooney], and I was waiting for this song, ‘Why Shouldn’t I?’ ‘Why shouldn’t I take a chance when romance passes by? / Why shouldn’t I know of love?’ It’s a really good song about why can’t I be in love? And it played, and she’s like, ‘Holy shit!’ And she just kept staring at the ring, going, ‘Oh, my God.’ It was 20 minutes of me on my knee, waiting for her to say yes, because she was so shocked. She only said yes when ‘Goody, Goody’ came on, which isn’t very romantic — it’s kind of mean: ‘So you met someone who set you back on your heels, goody, goody.'”
Clooney harbored few serious doubts about Amal’s response. “My only doubt was if she thought maybe it was too soon,” he says. “But there was no doubt that we were the right couple and that we were the right team. And we were a team from right off the bat. Immediately, we felt we were just happy, and we have been happy ever since.”
This is a man who still seems stunned by his good fortune. “It changes you in every way that every person who’s fallen madly in love changes,” he continues. “Suddenly, the other person’s life becomes more important than your own. That’s not unique to us; that’s [unique to] all people who are lucky enough to find the perfect partner. I’m sorry I was 50-something when it happened, but only because I could have spent even more time with her.”
In September 2014, the couple married in Venice, with some 100 family and friends in attendance. Rome’s former mayor, Walter Zeltroni, presided over the nondenominational wedding. (While Amal’s father is a Druze, “she’s nondenominational,” says Clooney. “She’s not religious at all.”)
“We didn’t tell anybody else that we were going to do it,” recalls Clooney, “but eventually somebody figured it out. Oh, my God! Once people got wind of it, it became an event. We took a bus from here to Venice, then we got on a boat, and once we got on the boat, there were so many paparazzi and so many people standing there waiting. We were sitting down in the boat, and I was like, ‘You know what? Why are we hiding? Why are we ducking? We shouldn’t be ashamed of this.’ And we got up and waved.”
The transition from being a private figure to a very public one has posed challenges for Amal. They’ve added visibility for a woman whose legal work would often better be served by anonymity. “There were moments that were surprises,” acknowledges Clooney. “When we were at the Carlyle Hotel in New York, her brother Ziad lives down the street on Fifth Avenue. He’s a stock trader. And she goes, ‘I’m just going to walk down there,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t think you’re going to be able to.’ She goes, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just me.’ And she walked out and there were 30, 40 [paparazzi that] surrounded her. You know, people say, ‘Just put a hat on,’ but that doesn’t work for us. It’s a little like being in a parade, and it’s not easy — particularly for her — because, in general, we live a very private life.”
That privacy came under attack in England recently when the couple looked out of their window and saw a drone, outfitted with a camera, hovering outside. “You see a red light outside your bedroom window at night and you look outside and realize a camera is looking inside your bedroom,” says Clooney. “We caught the guy. We literally took a picture of the guy and he put his hands up and said, ‘You can’t take a picture of me.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding.’ “
Throughout their courtship, neither he nor Amal ever discussed children, nor had Clooney exhibited any particular desire to have them. “It had never been part of my DNA,” he says. “We didn’t plan on it. We never talked about it until after we were married, which is funny. There was an assumption that we didn’t want them. And then, after the wedding, Amal and I were talking and we just felt we’d gotten very lucky, both of us, and we should share whatever good luck we’ve got. It would seem self-centered to just have that belong to us.”
Amal soon became pregnant — without the help of fertility drugs, says Clooney, who was with her in London when they went to the doctor for an ultrasound. “He goes, ‘Well, there’s one.’ And I said, ‘Great.’ And then he goes, ‘And there’s the second one.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ We just sat there, staring at that piece of paper they give you, and I kept thinking there was a mistake.”
On June 6, a month premature, Amal gave birth to the five-and-a-half-pound Alexander and, one minute and 49 seconds later, the four-and-a-half-pound Ella in St. Mary’s Hospital, the same hospital where Prince William and Kate Middleton’s children were born. Suddenly, at 56 years old, the very age when some people might be contemplating retirement, Clooney was a father.
“It was wild,” he says. “You know, everything is conceptual until it’s real. It’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to be parents, yeah.’ And all of a sudden you go: ‘Holy shit. I’m a parent!’ “
Since then, the former insomniac has experienced a new kind of sleep deprivation. “We are unrested — we’re both unrested, and she’s more unrested than me, obviously,” he says. “But I’m a very good diaper guy, which I didn’t know I would be.”
Now this eternal bachelor — this man who professed to have abandoned all thoughts of marriage following his youthful divorce from actress Talia Balsam, this world-class commitment-phobe, this romantic dilettante known for dating models and even, for a while, a professional wrestler — is mapping out his family’s future, envisioning his children in public schools, whether in Studio City or England or both. (The twins have dual British and American nationality.) He’s been asking other binational friends, such as John Krasinski and Emily Blunt, for tips on how to pull off a delicate balancing act.
Fatherhood is both emotional and scary, “all of those things,” he grants. “The first thing you think is, ‘I hope I don’t screw this up.’ I mean, look, we are all responsible for things in life, and Amal and I are responsible for each other in a way — we look out for one another and we care about one another. But you are really responsible for two kids. I want them to be happy. I want them to have a sense of humor. I want them to be interested in things. I want them to be compassionate about other people’s plights. Because that’s the thing, you know? You have to have some sort of empathy.”
Twelve years ago, Clooney was reading The New York Times when he learned that the Sudanese government was carrying out a program of ethnic cleansing in its western region, Darfur. (President Omar al-Bashir would later be indicted for war crimes.) “[Times columnist] Nick Kristof was writing pieces about the slow-rolling genocide,” says Clooney. “And I remembered that my dad [a reporter and anchorman] had gone somewhere and covered a story where there was some bad shit going on, and it got bumped for one about Elizabeth Taylor. So I told my pop, ‘Why don’t we go? You’ll be the journalist, and I’ll be Elizabeth Taylor.’ “
In 2006, right after his Oscar win, he and his father flew to N’Djamena, Chad, and then “snuck across the border, which we weren’t allowed to do.” Facing 115-degree heat, malaria, kids with rifles pointed straight at them and a host of other dangers, the Clooneys “got into some pretty hairy places with the Janjaweed militia around and snuck out with the pictures. Afterward, we took a tiny prop plane and landed it in N’Djamena, which was literally in the middle of a military coup that was just as bad as it could get; a lot of people were getting killed.”
Clooney looked down at the corpses lying on the ground, the dead bodies beginning to putrefy without any indication they would ever be moved, evaluated the hundreds of men around him, all armed to the teeth, and knew he had to get out. But there was no sign of the Gulfstream G4 jet he’d chartered to take him to safety. “We landed in this airport in N’Djamena, and there was no plane,” he says. “We’d already been told that the Muslim Brotherhood had directed [its soldiers] to shoot us out of the air, and my dad and I were like, ‘Where the hell is the plane?’ And then, from behind this sort of hangar, there was a dirt track, and this G4 pulls up. Drops the stairs down. And a Marine comes out and says, ‘Let’s get the fuck out of here.’ And we’re like, ‘Yes, let’s get the fuck out of here!’ “
Since then, along with his ongoing commitment to Darfur, Clooney has raised millions of dollars to back South Sudan’s independence, finally won from Sudan in 2011. But to his dismay, things have only soured. The new country’s president and vice president have waged war for control of the land and its rich oil resources, decimating their country and its people. “Within a year, it had devolved into the two being at war with each other,” says Clooney. “It’s a man-made disaster of epic, epic proportions.”
Just like the paparazzi, he tries not to let this weigh on him. But the stakes are so much greater, the remedy so infinitely further away that he has trouble pushing it aside. His star power may have helped create a nation-state, but that wasn’t enough to salvage it.
“The simple truth is that we have failed and we continue to fail at all of the things we’re trying,” he concedes. “But that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop. There are always these moments when you think, ‘Great, we’ve taken a real step forward,’ and you end up taking a couple of steps back. But we needed to take those steps forward, or we’d have taken a lot more steps back. It’s very seldom we’re going to find a great victory; it’s just going to be incremental. But that’s OK; that’s our job. The job is to go in and fail and keep trying.”
Now Clooney is taking a new approach. He’s begun to track the politicians’ and military leaders’ personal revenue, hiring forensic accountants formerly with the FBI, who have already unearthed some $4 billion in misappropriated funds. He’s also contacted the heads of several major banks to warn them against supporting South Sudan’s leadership and believes he has had some success in persuading them, though he won’t name names.
Taking on such issues has often placed him in personal danger, and yet he says whatever he has faced pales beside the dangers that have confronted Amal. “I only get in trouble in the places I go to,” he notes, only half-joking. “She gets in trouble all the time.”
Three years ago, he says, “she had to go to Egypt to try to get a journalist [Canadian-Egyptian citizen Mohamed Fahmy] out of jail. She got there and it was really a bad scene, and [president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi] and those guys were not thrilled.” Worse still, in September 2015, “Amal went to the Maldives to try to get President Mohamed Nasheed out of jail” — that’s the former leader, imprisoned on terrorism charges that were deemed bogus by the U.S. State Department. “The Maldives has the highest per-capita rate of recruiting ISIS, so it was a very nerve-racking time, and as Amal was coming into town, her co-counsel [Mahfooz Saeed] was pulled off a motorcycle and stabbed in the head as a warning.”
Such actions have made his wife, even more than Clooney, a target for enemies, including ISIS. “We’ve had a lot of real threats, and we take them very seriously,” he says.
After Amal’s trip to the Maldives, however, the couple had a long talk about how much they should put themselves on the line, given that they are now parents. “When she finally got out of there, she had another client in jail in Azerbaijan,” adds Clooney, “and I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, let’s make a deal: I won’t go to South Sudan and you don’t go to Azerbaijan. How is that?’ And she said, ‘For now, fine.’ “
He smiles wryly. “I don’t know that she’ll stick it out.”
Weeks before our meeting, Clooney’s bank balance ballooned when Casamigos Tequila, the company he created with two friends (Gerber and entrepreneur Mike Meldman) was sold to the beverage giant Diageo for $700 million, with the possibility of another $300 million down the pike. Clooney’s share was about $200 million, he says. With that — and $100 million that he could potentially make as a spokesman for Nespresso — he has a pot of money he never imagined possible in the days when he was struggling to earn a living, cutting tobacco, working in a liquor store and selling men’s suits and women’s shoes. “I think we’re getting paid in a couple of weeks,” he notes of the Casamigos deal.
He and Amal will take some of that money and use it to support the causes they hold most dear. Days after our interview, the Clooneys will announce a $1 million grant to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and that’s just the start. “Amal and I are going to take $20 million and put it directly into our foundation [the Clooney Foundation for Justice],” he says. “It will go toward educating refugees, it will go toward housing, it will go to all the things that we want to work on.” That includes aid for the settlement of refugees in the U.S., building schools where refugees are based and creating a trial watch to monitor courts that advance governmental repression.
Quietly, the Clooneys have also taken a Yazidi refugee from Iraq into their home. Now a student at the University of Chicago, he lives in a house the actor maintains in Augusta, Kentucky. “He was on this bus to Mosul, and ISIS shot the two bus drivers and said, ‘Anybody who wants to go to college, we will shoot them,’ ” says Clooney. “He survived and came to America. He got through all the checks, and once he got through those, it was like, ‘Listen, we got your back. You want to get an education? You want to move your life forward? This is something that we can do.’ “
Clooney’s passion for such matters is so intense, his sense of injustice so profound, one can’t help but wonder if he’ll ultimately abandon movies for politics. Acting, once the be-all and end-all of his life, no longer holds the same allure, he says, and he hasn’t appeared onscreen since 2016’s Money Monster.
“I haven’t acted in almost two years,” he observes, “and I am not really sure when the next version of that would be. If somebody brought me The Verdict, I’d jump. But I’m not going to do movies just to be in front of the camera. I did that for a long time and I had a good run. And as you get older, the parts aren’t as interesting. I’m not a leading man anymore. Nobody wants to see me kiss the girl.”
While he still has the urge to make his mark as a writer and director, and his enthusiasm for Suburbicon is clear, he has yet to commit to anything after that. “I still have some game left in filmmaking,” he says, adding that he’s spent his time in Lake Como working on two new projects and has read some 80 scripts that have been submitted to him as a director over the past year by his agent, CAA’s Bryan Lourd. “That excites me, because I learn all the time and I’m invested in it, and I like the art of storytelling, so I’m going to keep doing that for now. But at some point — which happens with everyone — they take the toys away, put them in the box and take it away. And I know it will go away. I know how this works. I know how it ends. And when [it does], I will have another act.”
Precisely what that act will be remains unclear. It could mean running his foundation, leaving his day job to do so, just as Bill Gates left Microsoft to run his. “I’d imagine that the third act will be more foundation-oriented,” he says. But perhaps it will mean something else, on a larger stage — on the largest stage of all.
More than two decades have passed since Clooney first came to fame with NBC’s ER. He has amassed a memorable body of work, from 1999’s Three Kings to 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? to 2007’s Michael Clayton to the Ocean’s Eleven series, and yet he yearns for something more.
His drive is greater than ever — “like crazy,” he admits. Only now it seems more outward-bound, less oriented toward Clooney himself, less about individual success than the success of society. He claims to have no aspiration to run for office, and yet other, less accomplished men have run — even for the highest office in the land — and won. It’s impossible not to imagine him moving in that direction.
“I’d like to not think I would be in politics,” he says when asked about his aspiration for elected office, his tortured syntax making this declaration so much less convincing than his other comments. “I’d like to think that would make my life miserable. I don’t really think about that. But I do think you always have to participate, in your town and your country and the world.”
It’s the end of the afternoon and Amal and the twins have retreated into the house, vanishing somewhere inside its cavernous confines, as we sit in the garden under a white gazebo, briefly alone. Citrus and pink and lime houses, sprinkled like confetti on the hills all around us, tremble in the half light. A foghorn moans, and then there’s nothing, only the lapping of the waves and the cries of the birds. Everything is silent, just as it must have been centuries ago when the Romans first discovered this greatest of Italian lakes and when the grandest of Italian grandees chose to find refuge here, as Clooney is doing now.
Sitting in the shadow of the house that locals still call by its historic name, the Villa of the Oleanders, a place where past and present intermingle, Clooney reflects on his own past and the miracles it has brought him.
“Every single day of my life, I just feel lucky,” he says. “Lucky in my career. Lucky enough to have found the perfect partner. Sometimes in life it doesn’t happen on your schedule, but you find the person that you were always supposed to be with. That’s how I feel, and I know that’s how Amal feels.”
He speaks of luck and coincidence, but more than any star I can think of, Clooney is the master of his fate, the captain of his soul. Unmoored from his life as a single man and from the ambition that dominated his youth, he’s at a pivot point, newly embarked on a voyage as a husband and father and philanthropist. He could afford to pause, and yet it’s not remotely in his nature. The itch for something more remains.
“I am restless, always,” he confesses. “Fifty-six years have come and gone very quickly, and if I get hit by a bus, I want everybody to say, ‘Well, you jammed a whole lot in.’ The worst thing you can do in life is be satisfied with where you are.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.