The Private Life of a Superstar
Never mind those two Oscar noms: Behind George Clooney's confident charm is a very real man who wrestles with doubt, wakes five times a night and is "terrified" of not achieving what he wants.
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, Stacey 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."
He adds, "I have been infinitely more alone in a bad relationship; there's nothing more isolating. I have been in places in my life where that has existed."
He also has been cheated on and even ditched "and left for someone; all those things. And it was sometimes a surprise, and sometimes you saw it coming. The most painful was when I kept trying to get [one woman] back. But we all make dumb mistakes."
A prank of Pitt's may have been an even dumber mistake. "A couple of years ago, he really nailed me. He did one of those shows and they asked him when he was going to marry Angie, and he said, 'I'll marry when George can legally marry [a man].'" He laughs. "He really got me badly, something I have had to deal with the past few years. But I could give a shit. I have to live in the world that I care about and that's all that matters."
That world is one in which his celebrity is firmly grounded -- as evident in a picture he keeps on his living room wall, across from a blazing fire with a huge television screen above the mantelpiece. It's the famous red-and-black Shepard Fairey artwork of President Obama, with a similar red-and-black Clooney next to it. (He is a devoted Obama supporter.) The work is based on an Associated Press photograph taken at a Clooney-backed event in support of Darfur. He says he was standing right beside Obama at the time, but Fairey's rendering "cut me out," Clooney grins. Hence, while Obama has "Hope" written beneath him, Clooney has added "Dope" beneath himself.
Through the years, he says he has learned to think carefully before he speaks out on issues, but that makes his commitment to some causes all the more courageous. His criticism of the war in Iraq made him a highly controversial figure in the early 2000s. "They did a half-hour show on Fox saying my career was over, and there was a cover of one of those magazines with the word 'traitor' written on it, and the White House was passing out a deck of weasels and I was on one of the cards," he recalls.
After initial anger, there was a brief moment when he felt afraid. "I called my dad and said, 'Am I in trouble?' And he said, 'Grow up. You've got money. You've got a job. You can't demand freedom of speech and then say, "But don't say bad things about me." ' And he was right."
Today, he's savvy enough to know that whatever he does to support causes like Darfur -- or Haiti, for which he helped raise more than $50 million in a much-viewed telethon -- there's little way he can effect real change. "All you can do as a celebrity is throw a spotlight on things," he says, shrugging.
Unlike other stars, Clooney learned early just how complicated celebrity can be, growing up the son of a local anchorman and the nephew of singer Rosemary Clooney. Depending on the progress of his father Nick's career, he'd be living in a mansion one moment and in a trailer the next.
"We were famous, always we were under this glass," he reflects. "I got to see how bad it could go with Rosemary -- financially, her career, all the missteps and then the comeback -- and I also got to understand that version of living in the public eye for such a long period of time. There was probably nobody ever better set up for fame than me."
Born in Lexington, Ky., Clooney remembers, "We were constantly moving, always moving, and either you were good at adapting or you weren't. I found myself getting better at it, and my sister, Ada, was less skilled." (She now lives in Kentucky with her two kids, close to their parents.)
While Clooney senior was known locally, that didn't mean money was always available. His wife, Nina, who owned a consignment store, regularly sewed her children's clothes by hand and dealt with the constant upheavals of her husband's profession. "My father had a million careers," Clooney notes. "When I first remember him, he was a newsman in Lexington, Kentucky; then he was on a variety show, and then a newspaper writer -- and when he was unemployed he did four plays. We went from a beautiful house in Florence, Kentucky, to a tiny house in Columbus, Ohio, because the job wasn't as good. And then we moved to Mason, Ohio, and my father lost his main job and we lived in a trailer."
Clooney was 12 at that time, and though he says the experience was "fine," it's hard to believe it didn't disturb him. But endless adaptation honed his skills, teaching him to draw on his innate humor -- and also to use it as camouflage for his most private self.
"There were a lot of transitions," he recalls. "I would go from one school where I'd be the idiot to another school where I was the genius." Popularity ebbed and flowed with his classmates' reactions to his famous name -- and it was never worse than when the family moved to Augusta, Ky. "That was a little more wild and woolly," he says. "Suddenly there were a couple of guys that you were just going to have to fight. I did, and I lost."
At 14, a pivotal age for anyone, disaster struck in the form of Bell's palsy, a kind of paralysis whose cause is unknown that leads to dysfunction in the facial nerves. Clooney has made light of the matter, but it lasted far longer than most of his friends realize.
"As I started high school, half my face was paralyzed for six months," he says. "That's a long, long time. You wake up one morning and your tongue is numb, and you can't drink. Milk starts pouring out of the side of your face. You don't know when it's going to end; you don't know if it is going to end. And there's no treatment."
Clooney used humor to deflect attacks, even lampooning a school superintendent who had had a stroke, exaggerating his own paralysis to create a dead-on impersonation, which mortifies him to this day: "There are terrible things you do as a kid. You developed a personality, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill."
He did well in school, attending Northern Kentucky University and then the University of Cincinnati, where he majored in journalism. But before graduating, he followed his cousin Miguel Ferrer's advice and moved to Hollywood. Bit parts and occasional series failed to propel him to stardom; as he entered his 30s, the possibility of failure loomed large.
He drank, partied and even sampled cocaine, though he says, "I didn't have an issue with it. I'm not a big druggie, not at all. Blow is absolutely a nonstarter."
"I was unhappy," he reflects. "I was doing a series [on ABC] called Baby Talk, and I had a really big fallout with the producer and quit, and they threatened to sue, and I was doing a lot of television that I wasn't particularly proud of and wasn't particularly good in. I was mostly failing at things." Just as he began to question whether failure would be his future, everything changed in 1994 with ER, the hospital drama in which Clooney played Dr. Doug Ross and almost overnight became a sensation.
ER executive producer John Wells recalls how Clooney avidly pursued the gig, recognizing the quality of the script trumped the fact that Ross was a supporting role: "George was -- as he is now -- an extraordinarily talented networker, and he'd befriend the secretaries and get all the material before anybody else did. I hadn't even hired a director and he insisted on coming in." After Wells finally let him read, the producer called then-WB executive Les Moonves and said, "I've found our guy."
How Clooney handled himself once the series aired is indicative of the fundamental decency that remains his hallmark. He stuck to his five-year contract without trying to renegotiate or wriggle out of his deal; he even refused to take a $1 million bonus that was offered to the leads during season two because he didn't want to imply he'd stay.
"We were the number-one show, and it was very clear that George was breaking out, and Quentin Tarantino -- who directed an episode in season one -- wanted him for From Dusk Till Dawn," says Wells. "He was great and very professional, and when everyone else was getting huge raises, George always said no. He said, 'I'm going to honor my commitment to you.' "
ER helped launch Clooney as a movie star in pictures such as 1996's One Fine Day and 1997's The Peacemaker. For three years, until he left ER in 1999, he worked seven days a week to the point of exhaustion, juggling television and pictures.
But with 1997's Batman and Robin, Clooney, cast in the lead role opposite Chris O'Donnell, was forced to reassess. The movie was simply terrible, and so was Clooney -- and he knew it. This was one of his many "revelations," to use Heslov's word. Now he wanted not just to work, but to do work that mattered.
When he teamed with director Steven Soderbergh on 1998's acclaimed Out of Sight, it was transformative, and he followed that film with a host of memorable pictures, from 1999's Three Kings to 2005's Syriana.
It was while making the latter that he fell during a scene in which he was taped to a chair while his character was tortured. His head split open, days before he was scheduled to wrap.
"I knew immediately [how serious it was]," he says. "I thought I'd had a stroke. It was like a train horn going off in your head and you can't see and you can't stand." Instantly, he chartered a plane from Morocco back to Los Angeles and checked into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
For three weeks, nobody was able to diagnose him, even though spinal fluid was leaking out of his nose. It was only when actress Lisa Kudrow led him to her neurologist brother that he discovered fluid also was leaking from his spine and he had torn his dura, the outermost layer enveloping the spinal cord.
"Then we started doing these things called myelograms, where they shoot contrast into your system and you can see what's leaking out," Clooney adds. "I had a two-and-a-half-inch tear in the middle of my back and a half-inch tear in my neck. The doctors did these blood patches, where they tie you down to a bed, and you're awake because they have a long needle and need to know if they're touching your spinal cord. And they take blood out and shoot it directly into your spinal column to try to get the blood to coagulate in those spots. I did about 15 of those over 15 days. It's like getting a spinal tap every day, and you're awake. But what we didn't understand was how big the holes were."
The pain was so great, he has said he contemplated suicide. "I thought I was going to die. Talk to any doctor about a CSF -- a cerebral/spinal fluid leak -- and they'll tell you it's way up there on the pain scale. There was this whole coming to terms with [mortality]."
On Christmas Day 2005, Clooney endured a successful nine-hour surgery. "Then you start on a series of painkillers. They'll hand you a giant tub of Vicodin, which is not a good drug for me; I had a lot of stomach pain and I really didn't like the high it gave me. Then there were a lot of other drugs. I was on morphine for a while, which created this horrible anxiety where I really thought I was in trouble."
The pain never has vanished but at least has diminished over time.
"It's been a long recovery," the actor says. "I had to accept that I'm going to beat this on a very different level, almost psychological. I went to a pain-management guy whose idea was, 'You can't mourn for how you used to feel, because you're never going to feel that way again.' Meaning, you wake up with the worst hangover ever, and that's your day, and you have to come to terms with it."
This is his life now. He recognizes he's getting older, must deal with pain that afflicts him on average three times per week and speaks of it with a characteristic lack of complaint.
"I've gone from where I can't function, where 'I just can't live like this,' to 'I've got a bad headache.' It's called 'positional,' meaning the longer you sit upright or stand upright, the worse it gets. That's how it is. As the day goes on, it gets worse. My ears will literally pop and my head goes ape-shit. But I'm scrappy."
He brushes it off. "My friend [actress] Karen Duffy, who is in unimaginable pain [from sarcoidosis, a disease in which inflammatory cells coalesce around various organs], has taught me so much: That any complaints I have are the most ridiculous thing in the world, because her pain is so much greater."
It was during this time that awareness of others' pain led to his concern for Darfur.
He first learned about the Sudanese government's killings of ethnic groups from a 2005 column by New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, then contacted Kristof and decided to go to Sudan himself. He plans to return in March, though he doesn't want to go into detail because his entry into the country will put him at risk.
That aside, "It's really hard on your system," he says. "I got malaria two years ago, and it really knocked me out. I've had a couple of recurrences. I didn't understand that it keeps coming back." His last attack was during the Christmas holiday, but he still wants to return, with just a cameraman and two others, because he believes he can draw attention to the hundreds of thousands who have been killed and whose story is often ignored.
"Everything about it is difficult, and you never feel safe, and we are not traveling with guns and security guys," he continues. "I ran into the Machine Gun Preacher [Sam Childers, a former gang member who crusades for Sudanese orphans], and he's like, 'Who do you travel with?' And I say, 'I just go with three people.' "
Once, while in Sudan with his father, Clooney was held up at gunpoint. It was "in the middle of nowhere and we were pulled over by a bunch of 13-year-old kids with Kalashnikovs, and that's where it's dangerous because it's random violence." Luckily, a colleague just walked over to an assailant and pushed his gun away as if speaking to a child and said, "No."
"I couldn't believe it was that simple," Clooney marvels, "because I was embarrassed at how scared I was."
When he needs refuge from all this, he heads to Lake Como, where he owns a huge waterfront home discovered almost by accident in 2001, when his motorbike broke down right outside it. After the owners invited him in for pizza and asked if he wanted to buy it -- and Clooney learned it was $7.5 million, half the price he had expected -- he pounced.
"I truly bought it as an investment," he says. "I didn't think I'd ever spend time there. I thought, 'Screw it, I'll buy it, hold it for a year, roll it over' -- and then I stayed there and went, 'Oh my God!' It is the thing singularly that I've done for myself that's brought me the most joy. It changed everything in my life."
Clooney has invited Hollywood friends such as fellow Oscar nominee Viola Davis to honeymoon there and has welcomed guests from Walter Cronkite to former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan. Payne and his editor even cut Descendants in Como. Clooney loves the back-and-forth of conversation and speaks glowingly of late dinners in the fading light.
But his world increasingly is centered on his social causes (he was honored by former Nobel laureates in 2007 with the prestigious Peace Summit Award), his work and his friends. He will appear next in the Proposition 8 play 8, running for one night -- and was thrilled the afternoon of our Feb. 7 discussion that a California court of appeals had overturned the anti-gay marriage resolution. "But they've still got a long way to go and a lot of court battles ahead," he says.
After the play, he'll star in Monument Men, a Nazi-era drama he currently is writing with Heslov, in which he wants his father to play his older self. But he admits at this stage that directing, more than acting, is his greatest passion. "I like acting now, because I am able to be much more selective," he says, "but there's nothing more creative than directing."
His drive as actor, writer and director consumes him, along with his need to create a body of work that genuinely stands the test of time. "When you make those kinds of films, often it's just by the skin of your teeth," he says. "The major thing that scares me isn't failure; I've experienced that a lot. What scares me is not making the attempt."
This man who already has an Oscar, and a body of work that almost anyone in Hollywood would envy, becomes even more pointed. "I'm terrified of dying and having not accomplished the things that I want to do," he says. "I am terrified of not finishing, or at least not participating enough. Everybody has a fear of death, but my fear isn't dying; it's of not getting the job done."