LOS ANGELES — The movie business is predicated on predictability. Studios churn out sequels and remakes, directors rarely stray from their preferred genres and actors gravitate to the same sorts of roles. It’s a pattern most everyone in Hollywood understands and accepts — but apparently not George Clooney, who just wrapped up a career year. And precisely when he couldn’t be more admired as an actor, Clooney says he is pulling back from the very job that brought him renown.
While it would be easy to play it safe — he’s 51, has a supporting actor Oscar for “Syriana” and can pay the bills with his international TV commercials — Clooney instead placed two speculative and not insubstantial bets on himself last year.
Just as people have grown understandably indisposed toward anything political, Clooney directed, produced, co-wrote and starred in the election drama “The Ides of March.” Rather than play the candidate any number of people wish he were (Clooney says he’s not interested in actually running for office), the actor’s “Ides of March” presidential contender is about as honorable as John Edwards. And while starring in an Alexander Payne movie might initially appear risk-free, the film’s cuckolded protagonist is not necessarily the type of character Clooney’s peers would fight to play, and it proved to be a part Clooney said concerned him no end. “I was terrified from the moment it started,” he says.
Clooney’s depiction of Matt King in “The Descendants” is sure to land him in the lead actor race, and the film itself looks destined for a best picture nomination. But like a baseball slugger who decides he’d rather coach than play even as he’s batting .300, Clooney says that he’ll start taking himself off the acting field, that he’s not excited to work in front of the camera and that he’ll be far more selective in performing in the years ahead.
Next November’s lead role opposite Sandra Bullock in director Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi thriller “Gravity” could mark the beginning of the progression toward more directing and producing work, even if Clooney and filmmaking partner Grant Heslov are developing an array of projects with potentially juicy parts, including their recently announced movie about the Smothers Brothers.
“I’m less and less interested in seeing myself on screen,” Clooney says. “I want as an actor to become more economic in terms of the kinds of things and parts I play. As you get older, and you sort of slowly move into that character actor world, there’s actually some fun stuff to do. But I don’t enjoy seeing myself on screen in certain things anymore.” Fortunately, “The Descendants” proved not to be one of those certain things.
As adapted by Payne and screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, “The Descendants” places Clooney in the midst of a family in free fall. Matt King’s wife, Elizabeth, has suffered an irreversible brain injury, forcing the largely clueless father of two daughters to plot a course not only for his wife’s last days but also for his children’s future.
Clooney has said that a mistake actors often make is imagining the best, rather than the worst, version of a movie they are about to star in; it is in tempering your own optimism, he says, that you often make the most informed choices. With “The Descendants,” the question Clooney had to answer was: Could you win in playing a loser?
Payne, who declined to cast Clooney in “Sideways” (he chose Thomas Haden Church instead), said he felt Clooney was exactly right for “The Descendants.”
“I was eager to work with the guy. He’s so affable, and everyone who’s met him just thinks the world of him,” Payne said. “He was perfect for the part. He wasn’t perfect for Jack in ‘Sideways.’ He wasn’t the right guy. This one: right look, right temperament, right age, right degree of fame that could propel an American commercial narrative film — just the right guy. And, boy, was I lucky.”
In selecting Clooney as Matt King, Payne had to believe that moviegoers could imagine a woman married to him would not only be unfulfilled but also cheat on her husband with “Scooby-Doo’s” Matthew Lillard. But Payne says she did so only because Lillard’s Brian Speer paid attention to her when her spouse didn’t.
But King learns from his shortcomings. He “finds love and forgiveness by accepting his role in his failures,” Clooney says. “And I thought that was a very tough and interesting thing to play.”
Tough and interesting are apt descriptions of “The Ides of March” as well, a movie with so many commercial disadvantages that Warner Bros. declined to back it and Clooney and Heslov had to personally sell the independently financed movie territory by territory at the American Film Market in Santa Monica last year.
The film’s candidate, Mike Morris, appears to be Clooney in a nice suit — he’s unapologetically liberal (as president, he’ll eliminate the internal combustion engine), charismatic and, you might at the outset believe, steadfastly principled. But a young campaign strategist (Ryan Gosling) uncovers a skeleton in the Morris closet, and all of a sudden he’s revealed to be as inauthentic and cynical as most actual politicians.
Even if the movie was not a commercial and critical smash (although Gosling has an outside shot at supporting actor attention, as do Clooney, Heslov and Beau Willimon for adapted screenplay), it sharpened Clooney’s interest in directing.