George Clooney says that he is not afraid of risk-taking and he's not talking about showing his bum on screen in his latest film.
George Clooney's self-image is put to the test with his latest film Solaris. A remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's sombre Soviet-era film, Solyaris (1972), it reunites Clooney with Steven Soderbergh, the director that he worked with on Ocean's Eleven and Out Of Sight.
Clooney fought hard for the role of a soulful psychologist whose dead wife seems to have come to life on an abandoned space station. A mournful drama, the role demanded that he cut himself off from his debonair playboy image and push his acting skills.
"I'm really just trying to keep doing stuff that interests me. It's so hard to find a good script, so every time a good one comes around, especially with a good filmmaker, you just want to work on it," Clooney explains in a Los Angeles hotel room. "I just want to do stuff where I keep on raising the bar, whether I succeed or not, time will tell, but it's fun just to keep trying."
Yet as profound as Solaris is with its metaphysical ideas on death, the media's focus thus far has been not on profundity, but on George's bare buttocks.
"I think that happened because it was the first stuff to come out... the bottom line is this: I think Fox is in a very difficult position in selling this film," says Clooney.
The hoopla surrounding his backside was a distraction from the real issue: how does a major studio sell a film that is as cerebral and thematically dense is this? With great difficulty.
"The trailers for it don't work. It's not good marketing. I don't blame Fox - I don't think they quite have a handle on what to do," he says. "So, the first thing that comes out is this bum story and they sort of let it slide and let it out there just because they want some sort of ink on it. I understand that, it's fine. You know, it makes me laugh because you know nobody really cares if they got an "R" and certainly it isn't really an "R" rated film when you see it. But, I think that ultimately, you know, the dilemma is going to be in trying to sell a film for adults in a 30-second sound bite and I think that that's the problem."
Clooney remains honest and philosophical as to the likelihood - or not - of the success of Solaris. "I think Solaris is going to have a very tough time finding an audience, which is okay, but I think we'll do well overseas. I think it's the type of film that'll catch on a little bit more internationally because they'll be willing to sit still a little bit longer and watch it," Clooney concedes, laughingly.
"After the MTV generation, everything has to be sort of these rapid-fire cuts, and this is a movie that dares the audience to sit still and ask questions."
And that, Clooney says, means trouble, especially for American audiences. "Getting an audience to think is always dangerous, but you want to try and do films that are going to last past an opening weekend."
Thriving on fear
Clooney may have had no illusions that Solaris is not his most commercial film to date; yet the actor was anxious to do it anyway. He thrives on fear, he says. "It's the weirdest thing, but you know it as well as I do, you end up just repeating yourself over and over and over again," Clooney says.
"Most of what I have done lately have been to try and push things. Oh Brother Where Art Thou scared the hell out of me when I did it because I thought that's a real different kind of stretch and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind certainly scared the hell out of me, not to mention doing a live TV show. I enjoy it that way because this was certainly terrifying in a way to do, but if you work with people you trust, it's a lot easier."
That person is Soderbergh, who brought out the best in Clooney in Out of Sight. They have their own production company, Section Eight. He and the Oscar-winning writer/director get along so well, explains Clooney, because "we share the same sensibilities. We like the same films, we stick up for the things that we like, and we're both willing to lose money doing it." Did he say he likes losing money? "I don't mind losing money if it's to get something done right, yeah. It's fine."
Clooney and Soderbergh love taking risks. Solaris is one of them. The actor has a very unusual attitude in a business here in Los Angeles that is money-driven.
"I just love the idea that we're in the position where we can afford to lose money on projects we believe in, and so we'll go: 'Okay, well let's put our money where our mouth is and throw out the kind of cheese that we're able to make and get the films we want made.' Then, we're allowed to make Solaris and Confessions."
For that matter the other films I did, Three Kings and Oh Brother, were all for a lot less money, just so that you can get the film made. Some of that's fun."
Now Clooney is taking his experience of working with the likes of Soderbergh and the Coen Brothers into his directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which stars Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts. Clooney jokingly admits that for his initial directing gig, he "stole from all those guys as well as Mike Nichols and from all my favourite directors."
But directing for the first time was clearly a great learning experience. "What I learned most in film directing as an actor, actually, is the responsibility to the piece more than to the character. Actors in general say, 'Well my guy wouldn't do this,' or 'I would only do that, or 'He wouldn't react this way.' And that's important to defend, but what happens is this. Sometimes you try to do too much, right? Sometimes as an actor I go, 'Okay, I'm playing the pizza delivery guy, but the reason I'm really delivering pizzas is because my parents are alcoholics, and you go through the thing. Well the truth is as a director I just need that pizza delivered, period. That's all I need. I need these people to get pizza 'cause the rest of the movie has to go on, and so what you learn is, as an actor, is simplicity. I remember once asking my aunt who just died, and who was a wonderful singer, 'Why are you a better singer now than you were 30 years ago? You can't hit the notes you used to, you don't hold the note as long as you used to? And she goes, 'Because I don't have to prove I can sing anymore.' She just served the material."
"I was really brilliant"
One would think that despite Clooney being on top of his game, he has little to prove either. Asked if it is possible to compare himself as a director to himself as an actor, Clooney is amusingly nonchalant.
"It's really hard to have perspective of yourself ever, because I thought I was really brilliant when I was on The Facts of Life," he adds with a self-deprecating laugh.
Eighties sitcom The Facts of Life seems an eternity ago for an actor who really did pay his dues. Clooney suggests he was lucky to find success relatively late in his career because it gave him time for "growing up".
"There's a great advantage to being 41 now and having not been famous for 25 years," he says. "There's also a great advantage to the fact that my Aunt Rosemary went down the road before me and so I had a lot of help. I never really thought that I'd be in a position of making decisions. After all, how many people get to green light a movie? It's amazing, and the funny thing is what you learn as you do it longer is the responsibility, and that's why Steven I take it seriously and we try to spend people's money as if it were our own. We do the best we can to make films that we think people will enjoy, and all we want to do is just constantly keep raising the bar."
It's good to fail
Failure, says Clooney, is what has kept him grounded. "I can't explain to you enough what an advantage it is to have been in so many failed things for such a long time. You know, I watch shows like The Facts of Life and realize that I was so horribly over-confident and under-talented. But at that point I think if things had really hit for me, I would've been in real trouble." Clooney happily admits that now "I'm in a great place confidence wise, because I feel as if when I blow it at least I'll be blowing it trying to do something good."
Asked whether directing has made him a better actor, he smiles slightly. "I think everything we do makes us better at what we do as we go. I'm sure, just life in general makes you a better writer, because you know that you just get better at it." For a while, at least, "and then the alcohol and drugs start to kick in, and that's why I like to shoot up right into the head," concludes a laughing Clooney.
"Scary" new Coens film
Following Confessions Clooney returns to the screen in the new Coen Brothers film. Tight-lipped about the project, Clooney merely admits, "That was the scariest performance I've ever given, which makes what I did in O Brother Where Art Thou look like Tosca. I mean they're like, 'Just imagine you're like Popeye.'"
As much as he is in a perfect place professionally, and happy to talk about that, getting him to be serious when it comes to relationships, is near impossible. Clooney avoids being overly serious with humour. Asked when he intends to finally settle down, the actor laughingly responds "Yes, tonight". And her name is? "I'll let you know this afternoon."
We're still waiting, but at least Clooney's professional legacy continues to thrive.