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“The studios are less and less telling the kinds of stories that I like to tell,” says George Clooney, one of the biggest Hollywood stars of our time, as we sit down at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast — Clooney’s first-ever podcast interview — and begin discussing why he decided to adapt Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s classic satirical novel, for the small screen, namely, as a six-part limited series that is set to debut Friday on Hulu. “Mid-range or even small budget. You know, Warner Bros. isn’t going to make Good Night, and Good Luck now; they’re not going to make Michael Clayton, quite honestly, now. So [projects like those] are going to end up at Hulu or Netflix or Amazon or Apple or one of those places.”
Clooney, a first-rate actor, writer, director and producer who also happens to be smart, handsome and charming — all reasons why he has been a member of Hollywood’s A-list for the last 25 years — served as an executive producer, director of two episodes and supporting actor on Catch-22. The show has been met with strong early reviews that suggest the 58-year-old may need to make room on his mantelpiece for his first-ever competitive Emmy, which would certainly go nicely with his his two Oscars; three Golden Globes, plus the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Cecil B. DeMille Award; two Critics’ Choice Awards; one BAFTA Award, plus BAFTA LA’s Stanley Kubrick Britannia Award for Excellence in Film; one Producers Guild of America Award; the Writers Guild of America’s Paul Selvin Honorary Award; and the TV Academy’s Bob Hope Humanitarian Award. “I’ve been lucky,” he says, flashing his famous smile.
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
Check out our past episodes featuring the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Trevor Noah, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen and Carol Burnett.
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Clooney was born in Kentucky and raised throughout that state and Ohio as part of a “traveling family act” — his mother was a former model and his father was a TV news/variety host on whose various shows Clooney and his older sister worked throughout their childhood. A months-long bout with Bell’s Palsy during his freshman year of high school taught the youngster to learn to “deflect” uncomfortable situations with humor, which evolved into a charm that went well with his good looks. For a time, he thought his future would be as a professional baseball player — he played on the varsity team all four years of high school, and twice tried out for the Cincinnati Reds — but that didn’t pan out, and he instead worked a variety of odd jobs — selling ladies’ shoes and men’s suits and insurance, working at a liquor store and chopping tobacco for three summers — in between dabbling at college.
His only connections to showbiz were through his father’s sister Rosemary Clooney, a once-popular singer whose star had faded. In the summer of 1982, her husband, the Oscar-winning actor Jose Ferrer, and their son, George Clooney’s contemporary Miguel Ferrer, both actors, came to Kentucky to shoot a horseracing film, And They’re Off, and invited Clooney to spend a few months with them on set, even casting him in a small part in the film, which was never released. At the end of that time, Miguel urged Clooney to come out to Hollywood, stay with Rosemary for a few months and try his hand at acting; with just $300 to his name, and no better prospects at home, Clooney hopped into his 1976 Chevy Monte Carlo and made the trip. He stayed with his aunt for five months before relocating to a friend’s closet; his car died and he didn’t have the means to replace it, so he bicycled to auditions; and he enrolled in Milton Katselas‘ acting class, where his scene partners included his future producing partner, Grant Heslov, who loaned him $100 to get his first headshots made.
Before long, Clooney began landing gigs, but not of the sort that he had dreamed about. “Every actor wants to be a film actor,” he acknowledges, but Clooney was only getting cast on TV series, and uninspiring ones at that. “I did some pretty bad shows, and I was pretty bad in them,” he says in reference to the 13 pilots and seven series he did prior to becoming a star at the age of 33, the best known of which was The Facts of Life. Things, however, began to turn around for him when he signed a deal with Warner Bros. Television, then run by Les Moonves, and began working on the series Sisters. Sniffing around the studio lot, Clooney caught wind of an upcoming Michael Crichton/John Wells project called E.R. — not to be mistaken with E/R, a 1984-1985 CBS sitcom on which he had appeared — and badgered his way into an audition for the part of Dr. Doug Ross, a heartthrob pediatrician at a bustling Chicago hospital. He won the part, the show was slotted into NBC’s ‘Must See TV’ Thursday-night lineup and it debuted in the fall of 1994, quickly becoming TV’s most-watched drama, with as many as 40 million viewers for some episodes. As Clooney puts it, “That’s a life-changer.”
“Everything changed so quickly,” he reflects, noting that the E.R. cast was featured on the cover of Newsweek and strangers began calling him by his name on the street. Superstardom was quickly upon him — he was crowned People magazine’s ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ in 1997, as he would again be in 2006 — and, as he puts it, “Then came choices.” Though film opportunities began pouring in, Clooney did not try to escape his five-year E.R. contract to take advantage of them, acknowledging that they only existed because of E.R.; “I got there because of that show,” he emphasizes. Instead, until his departure from E.R. in 1999 (he famously returned for one more episode in 2009), Clooney made films during his hiatuses, starting with Robert Rodriguez‘s vampire thriller From Dusk Till Dawn, to which he was recruited by Quentin Tarantino, the film’s producer, when Tarantino guest-directed an episode of E.R. and expressed interest. The 1996 release was “a huge break for me,” Clooney says, “such a departure from what I was doing.”
He followed From Dusk Till Dawn with the rom-com One Fine Day (1996), the thriller The Peacemaker (1997) and, infamously, the comic book adaptation Batman & Robin (1997). “I wasn’t good in it and it wasn’t a good film,” Clooney readily acknowledges. “What I learned from that failure was that I had to rethink how I was working, because now I wasn’t just an actor getting a role; I was being held responsible for the film itself.” In other words, henceforth, any movie in which Clooney appeared would be ‘a George Clooney film,’ which meant he needed to choose them accordingly.
He began focusing on scripts and rebounded in a major way with a string of successes, starting with 1998’s Out of Sight, his first collaboration with Steven Soderbergh; they “hit it off” and formed the Section 8 production company, which yielded, in 2002 alone, Todd Haynes‘ Far From Heaven, Christopher Nolan‘s Insomnia, and Anthony and Joseph Russo‘s Welcome to Collingwood. Then came 1999’s Three Kings, which was drawn from a “brilliant” script about the absurdity of war — a favorite subject of Clooney’s — by David O. Russell, with whom Clooney clashed during the making. And then, in 2000, were both The Perfect Storm, the first Clooney film to open big at the box office, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, his first of several collaborations with Joel and Ethan Coen, which brought him his first Golden Globe. “It was important for my career, the one-two punch,” he says.
Clooney cemented his image as a modern-day Frank Sinatra when he reteamed with Soderbergh and took on Ol’ Blue Eyes’ part in a 2001 star-studded remake of Ocean’s Eleven. That film, and its 2004 and 2007 sequels, were “an incredible pleasure to do,” Clooney says, because of the company he was in, which included pals Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle and Julia Roberts. (Clooney says Johnny Depp and Mark Wahlberg declined invitations to be part of the ensemble.) He then made his first pivot towards directing, 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a film about Gong Show host Chuck Barris in which, like most of the other films he would go on to helm, he played a small supporting part in order to secure the financing to make the film with a lower-profile character actor in the starring role.
In 2003, possessing greater stature in the Hollywood community than ever before, Clooney decided that he had to speak out in resistance to the Iraq War, which he vociferously opposed from even before it started. “Everyone was shockingly silent,” he says in reference to politicians, the media and indeed his fellow denizens of Hollywood, so his voice was more noticeable, which made him a target for George W. Bush boosters like Bill O’Reilly, then of Fox News, who railed against the actor on his highly rated show. (Clooney does not hold back when discussing the since-disgraced O’Reilly: “He’s a jerk, and he loves a loofah on himself, while using a vibrating instrument on himself, while he’s sexually harassing an employee … and settled for several million dollars.”) One tabloid even labeled Clooney a “traitor.”
This climate shaped Clooney’s choice of his next two movies — both released in 2005 — Syriana, a thriller about the political complexities of the Middle East, and Good Night, and Good Luck, a black-and-white drama about the media’s handling of a previous national crisis, the McCarthy era. For Syriana, Clooney grew a beard, shaved back his hairline and put on 30 pounds — and then suffered “a pretty serious accident,” namely, a traumatic spinal injury, while performing a scene in which he was tied to a chair being tortured. “Good Night, and Good Luck I wrote because I was mad about being called a traitor to my country,” he says; he also directed and played a small part in that movie. He picked up his first Oscar nominations for those films — best director and best original screenplay for Good Night, and Good Luck and best supporting actor for Syriana, the first time a person was nominated at an Oscars ceremony for directing one film and for starring in another — and won for Syriana. It marked the beginning of a string of acclaimed pics as he entered his fifties.
In three of them, Clooney played dark men who find their conscience, and each of those brought him Oscar nominations in the category of best actor. He was a law firm’s ‘fixer’ in 2007’s Michael Clayton, working with first-time director Tony Gilroy. (He cracks, “It’s funny, people keep calling Michael Cohen ‘the fixer’; I’m like, ‘I’m the fixer, man!'”) He was a lifelong bachelor who fires people for a living in 2009’s Up in the Air, which was co-written and directed by Jason Reitman. (“I knew that there would be the comparisons to my real life,” he says.) And he was a man forced to spend time with his daughters and do some thinking about his life while his wife was in a coma in 2011’s The Descendants, for writer/director Alexander Payne. (Clooney confirms that he had met with Payne years earlier about the part in Sideways that was ultimately played by Thomas Haden Church, whom he jokingly refers to as “that fucker” for beating him out for the part.)
In recent years, he also directed and acted in The Ides of March (2011); played a key supporting part in Alfonso Cuaron‘s Gravity (2013); and, in 2012, produced — via Smoke House Productions, which he and Heslov founded in 2006 — Ben Affleck‘s Argo, which ultimately brought Clooney, Heslov and Affleck best picture Oscar statuettes. (Clooney admits he subsequently counseled Affleck against playing Batman — “I actually did talk to him about it. I said, ‘Don’t do it.'” Nevertheless, Affleck suited up for 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad and 2017’s Justice League, relinquishing much of the goodwill that Argo had brought him, before walking away from the part earlier this year.)
Now, Clooney is doing something he never dreamed he would ever do when he walked away from E.R. more than 20 years ago: returning to TV. As the film industry has lost much of its willingness to make anything other than remakes and sequels, the TV industry, with more content providers than ever requiring more content than ever, has embraced creatively daring projects, a description that Catch-22 certainly fits. “This is a tough nut to crack — famously, one of the toughest nuts ever to crack,” Clooney says of the literary property, which was first adapted for the screen by Mike Nichols in 1970, and to which Smoke House subsequently acquired the rights. “But, given six episodes, you can get to know the characters, and if you get to know them, when they die, it matters.”
Clooney, Heslov and Ellen Kuras each directed two of the series’ episodes and were on set for the making of all six. The leading part of Yossarian is played by Girls alum Christopher Abbott, who is, at 33, the same age that Clooney was when he landed E.R.; Clooney, for his part, plays Scheisskopf, a supporting part smaller than the one he originally intended to play (for which Kyle Chandler was ultimately cast), since his producing and directing duties required more of his time than he anticipated. He says he spent every day of a five-month stretch in an editing bay piecing together the show’s episodes.
Clooney expects that the rest of his career will play out somewhat like this, as he no longer sees himself as a leading man (“I would rather see Chris Abbott kissing the girl than me,” he insists), but rather a character actor who also produces and directs passion projects and focuses on humantiarian causes important to him. “I would say probably 50 percent of my time is spent chasing warlords and their money,” he volunteers; indeed, he has been very hands on in the war-torn region of Darfur, Sudan and, he notes, “This last thing with the Sultan of Brunei was fun. [Clooney organized a boycott of the L.A.-area hotel properties of the Sultan, who condones the stoning of homosexuals.] It’s fun to pick good fights.”
Does Clooney ever question if all of this was worth losing his anonymity, his ability to be just a regular guy? “No,” he says immediately, “because I have a pretty good life, right? I have a beautiful wife [attorney Amal Clooney, whom he married in 2014] and two beautiful kids [1-year-old twins], and I get to work on things I want to work on, and, I have to say, most people don’t get to do that, I’m well aware of it. There are things I miss, because the kind of fame that hit me [with E.R.] was a very different kind of fame than movie stars’ — I was in 40 million people’s bedrooms, and they could make you talk or not talk with a remote, so they knew me personally.”
Clooney elaborates: “It’s the kind where going to a ballgame and sitting out with the gang isn’t really possible — it’s distracting for everybody else, and not necessarily fun for me. I miss some of that. My wife and I wanted to walk our kids in Central Park, and that’s just not possible. We tried, but we walk out the door and everybody surrounds them. And there’s a bounty on my kids’ head for a photo, so that’s something that we are very conscious of. Everything changes when you have two kids on how you have to protect them. My wife is taking the first case against ISIS to court, so we have plenty of issues — real, proper security issues — that we have to deal with on a fairly daily basis. We don’t really want our kids to be targets, so we have to pay attention to that. But, you know, we also live our lives. We don’t hide in corners.”
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