George Clooney Says 'Batman & Robin' Was a Career Wake-Up Call

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George Clooney

"I needed to take control of the films I made," says the actor, who will be honored with AFI's Life Achievement Award on June 7.

George Clooney has done more by the age of 57 than others could in three lifetimes. After his breakout role as the charming Dr. Ross on the medical drama ER, he’s starred in popcorn fare like the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy; cerebral dramas (Michael Clayton, Up in the Air) and quirky comedies (O Brother, Where Art Thou?); earned seven Oscar nominations (winning for supporting actor for Syriana and as a producer for best picture Argo); and built a notable career as a director (Good Night, and Good Luck, The Ides of March).

Along the way, he’s also earned a reputation as one of the most professional actors in Hollywood (and an infamous prankster). On June 7, he’ll become the American Film Institute’s 46th Life Achievement Award recipient at a star-studded gala (also honoring Black Panther cinematographer Rachel Morrison) that will be broadcast June 21 by TNT.

Ahead of his honor (presented by his Money Monster co-star Julia Roberts), Clooney looked back at his career, the best advice he’s received and the actors who influenced him.

What movie from your past had the biggest influence on your craft?

It’s really easy to pick: Batman & Robin. That’s not a joke. Up until that moment, I was an actor only concerned with finding work. After the failure of that film creatively, I understood that I needed to take control of the films I made, not just the role. My next three films were Out of Sight, Three Kings and O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Was there a project that made you feel like you’d finally made it?

Certainly ER was the gamechanger for me. I’d done seven TV series and 13 pilots, and nothing stuck. ER was such a phenomenon that it swept all of us up in it.

What actor influenced you the most?

Paul Newman in literally anything. He and Gregory Peck. I knew them both. Loved them as actors and loved them even more as human beings.

Is there a past performance of yours that you love to watch?

I tend to not watch my old stuff because you always see things you missed.

If you were coming up in the industry today, how would things be different for you?

Things are so different. You needed to get film on yourself to get a job, and you couldn’t have film on yourself unless you did a job. The AFI was instrumental in helping young actors get work. Doing short films for them was a way of getting that much-needed film. There’s also so much more work now. It’s truly the golden age of television. It’s an exciting time to be a young actor. 

You told THR last year that you were less interested in acting. Do you still feel that way?

I was working at a pretty intense clip for 30 years, mostly out of fear of being unemployed. The roles I do now are very different than the roles I did even seven years ago. So I’m more selective about acting simply based on the roles available.

Would you ever think about doing theater?

I did a lot of theater when I was young. I did a play at Steppenwolf Theater called Vicious. It’s been probably 20 years since I was onstage. I loved it. Who knows? If something made sense I’d be interested.

Is there a dream role you’d like to take or project you’d like to make?

I don’t think you know the dream job until you see it.

Who gave you the best advice?

My uncle George. He told me not to wake up at 65 and say, “You know what I wish I had done in my life?” He died a couple of years later with a lifetime of regrets, the greatest of them was not chasing his dreams. 

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'THERE WAS NO HIERARCHY WHEN YOU WERE IN HIS PRESENCE'
Clooney’s collaborators reveal what makes the actor-filmmaker a prince of a colleague.
By Andy Lewis and Rebecca Ford

Grant Heslov, producing partner at Smokehouse Pictures
“George’s success as an actor came a little bit later, and I think that he knew, like, ‘This could be fleeting. And I want to be able to make movies and produce movies and write movies.’ You just never know when all that stuff is going to go away. He has a very strong point of view and incredible taste. He’s a real student of film and has been for as long as I’ve known him, which is a long time. He got that from his father. And he’s a really down-to-earth, humble guy. He’s somebody who does his own dishes.” 

Julianna Margulies, ER co-star
“On the ER pilot, I was just a guest star — my character died. I remember my first day sitting in the makeup trailer and meeting George and being welcomed. I think I was No. 20-something on the call sheet, but he treated everyone equally; there was no hierarchy when you were in his presence. He taught me that none of this works without everyone, from the PAs to the focus puller to the cameramen to the actors. I’ve paid it forward in his honor. I was doing a reading with Eric Bogosian — he was on season six of The Good Wife — and he said, ‘I want to tell you that the energy on that set, you set a tone,’ and I said, ‘It’s all George.’ He taught me how to make a wonderful environment for a great working experience.” 

A version of this story appears in the June 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.