In conversation with George Clooney: Talking Hail, Caesar! and a sense of humour

Hollywood gold


By Su Fen Tan

In conversation with George Clooney: Talking Hail, Caesar! and a sense of humour

I read that the character you played in the movie Hail, Caesar! was actually kind of a portrait of Fred MacMurray and he is someone who would not have entertained the ideas of the communist party…

That’s true.

Did you do any research before started to work on your character? Or did you feel like the movie is such a farce that it wasn’t really necessary to look into Hollywood of the 1950s?

Well I know something about the 1950s. I think I have sort of explored a major part of the period while working on my movie Good Night, and Good Luck. But I didn’t do any special research for Hail, Caesar!. Joel and Ethan wrote some comments in the script about what they think of my character which were sufficient, and that’s the way they usually work. I remember when we were shooting our first movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? and I came out and played my character Everett as if he was a complete idiot and they said: “No, you are the smartest guy in the room”. I liked that formula and since then I tried to think of all my characters as if they are the smartest.

The story is the same with Baird Whitlock in Hail, Caesar!—no matter how he looks on the screen I played him as if he was a genius. And also I’d like to remember the story about Victor Mature who is one of my favorite performers of all time. Once he tried to get into the LA country club and got the refusing: “We are sorry Mr. Mature, but we don’t allow actors”.  He said something like: “I have 75 films to prove I am not an actor”.  Being natural and not playing anything is much more important that making research. By the way, I guess Baird Whitlock really looks like Victor Mature. 


Speaking of an idiot, what does it take to play that role with confidence and dignity? 

The first step to being an idiot is thinking like: “Oh my god, I am a movie star!”. And clearly not dignity, because if you have seen me in my outfit, all dignity goes out of the window. This is our fifth film together with Coen brothers so they know me quite well. They told me it was going to be a very unglamorously goofy role. So they just said: “Go and have some fun”. And I did have fun. So definitely not dignity, but confidence I suppose. But you know where the confidence is, it’s in the directors. I remember Ethan asking me to say my line like Popeye (laughs). And I was okay with that even though I’d tell all the other directors to go and f*ck themselves after such a suggestion. So there is some great confidence in those guys. 

And what is the most idiotic about being a star in this day and age?

Well, there are many things. For example, on your way to some event a security that you have never met before has cleared the path for you and people are pissed off. Or you are like at a restaurant and some guy decides that it’s his job to clear and he will push people out of the way. I suppose the most idiotic thing is how out of touch you become with a lot of the normal things in life.  It’s been a long time since I went to a hardware store and bought 2 by 4s and hammers and I do miss all of that but it’s also not really very conducive to the way my life is.


Can you tell us what it’s like to be on a Coen brothers set?

Well, it’s crazy. They work very quickly and they don’t fool around and they only do what they need. There aren’t master shots and then close-ups and then two shots—they just go, no one will ever be there and they have already edited the film. The dialogues never change from the minute you get the script. They stand next to the monitor which is right next to the camera and they laugh so loud and so often that I always think: “Jesus, these guys are ruining their own picture!”. And I have to say I have never seen it tense, I have never heard them raising their voices. They don’t disagree on anything and they really work in simpatico and they are very connected and very funny. I really enjoy them.  


Watching Hail, Caesar! last night made me remember all those old technicolor movies. Can you share some of your childhood memories of watching movies and what was your first or favorite movie date?

Okay, my first date movie was Alien and that’s a good move right? The minute this awful animal comes out of John Hurt I will remember forever as at this moment my girlfriend was like all over me. Come on, that’s not stupid! That was like 1979 and I was 18 years old! That’s a true story. By the time I grew up and started to go to the cinema they had stopped making those technicolor movies or the sword and sandal movies. But television showed them all, so I would watch Spartacus over and over again, Ben Hur and The Robe was always on at Easter, and the Wizard of Oz at least once a year. I think it’s wonderful that those masterpieces got a rebirth on television though it’s still a pity I was a little too young to see them in the movie theatre. And yes we tried to make Hail, Caesar! in the aesthetics of the old Hollywood. I love watching Scarlett do that bit where she dives into the water, and how great is Channing in the tap dance scene. We tried to revive that very special atmosphere.


Your character in this film is rejected by the studio system.  And we know you to be quite a liberal.  So how do you think would you have survived in that old Hollywood system?

That’s a good question. I think if you look back at some of the actors of that era you’d see they were forced to do what studios told them. As for me I realized that I should try to do films that, if I was going to get blamed for a movie, it should be my decision and not somebody else’s. But I love this really warm sense of camaraderie with knowing everybody at the scene which was long ago in the Hollywood but not today. I miss that feeling because nowadays making a movie becoming less and less a team work. I remember during the earthquake in 1994 a big part of the wall of the soundstages broke off and they found a rolled up set of call sheets from Casablanca. That was an exciting moment as if we got connected with the great actors and moviemakers from the past through these rolled up sheets. I asked for a piece of is and now I have one framed at my house as a symbol of strong cinematographic traditions. 

Part of the charm of this movie is the peek behind the curtain of how movies get made and how the studio is trying to put a round peg in a square hole. For me one of the most engaging was Alden’s character. He is so obviously miscast. In your numerous years of being in the entertainment industry, have you witnessed that? And are we better off today with the TMZ’s and the bloggers or with people like that?

Well, it’s an interesting question.  When we did Good Night and Good Luck we talked about the importance of the ability to have the press have a giant that could take on something dangerous. And there is the reverse of that, which is to have a giant that could actually ruin your life and cause great harm. So it’s always a kind of controversy question what is better to know or not to know. And miscast, that is an interesting thing. Yes, I have seen instances where an actor has been miscast and it always affects their performance and I have been like that a few times myself. I believe you are working much harder when you are miscast. It could be a really simple, stupid movie, but you will just be like: “God, this is harder than the really hard ones”. 


Did Amal influence your style in the movie?

No, she didn’t. And in fact I think she would proudly say she had nothing to do with my fashion sense in this film. You know, it’s a funny thing when you get fitted for this outfit and there is this moment you are putting on an outfit and you are getting fitted for it and you go, this could be the one that actually finally ends your career.  I remember when Joel and Ethan came into the wardrobe and saw me they just started laughing loudly.


But in general has she influenced your style a little bit?

Actually no. She has never said anything but I can imagine how it may be horrifying
for her that I am still wearing some of the suits that I have worn for many years. When you are a woman trying to get ready for a ceremony you try to find a dress that nobody else has worn and one that you like and hair and makeup and all that staff. But I can play basketball for a half hour until we have to go and then just pun one of my old suits on.  But her sense of style is all her own and we happily don’t cross paths on that.


I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the meaning of the sense of humor in your life, how does it help you to get through life and also for example, can you live with a person who has a completely different approach to humor?

Oh, I don’t think anybody would want to have anyone who doesn’t have a sense of humor.  Look, I think sense of humor in general is a kind of fearlessness and the fearlessness is not to be afraid to make fun of yourself. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler destroyed me with two very, very funny jokes at the Golden Globe last year. One was something like it’s better floating off in space rather than date someone my age and the other one was about my wife’s amazing CV and my only achievement which’s the lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globe. And if you don’t have a sense of humor about how you are perceived and what your life is and all of the mistakes you have made then you are not going to enjoy anything because you are going to be constantly guarding this thing that you are so afraid might be exposed. I am a big believer that the secret to a sense of humor is the ability to make fun of yourself before you are going to make fun of someone else. And for Amal and I, I think probably number one in our relationship is her sense of humor. She does very serious things and works on very serious subjects, but she is also one of the funnier people you will ever meet.

Can you walk me a little bit through your day?

I wake up around seven and make myself a cup of Nespresso.  Now we live in different places so I spend time in LA, England and Italy. England for me is the place where I can do a lot of writing and focus on the humanitarian stuff. When I am in LA in general I am about to direct a film and I can work on prep and doing all that stuff too.  For me, I am pretty regimented on how I do things, I have a system of everything. And when my system is disrupted I sort of get off-kilter a little bit.  And Amal I think finds it easier in some ways to work out of Los Angeles for the work she has to do because when we are in England she has friends and family she has to visit and stuff, and so she can isolate herself a little bit more here.


And finally, can you give us a list of actors who should play Donald Trump in a movie?

I don’t know.  Listen, I wouldn’t even dare to scar someone with the idea that they should play Donald Trump in a movie.  I’ve been in Holland with a fundraising project recently. There I had a great meeting with about 2500 people, and beside other questions they asked if it was really possible that Donald Trump would become a US President. They say people around the world are panicking about that prospect. I said them to relax a little bit and understand that this is an election era and this is an election cycle and it’s a kind of tradition for Americans to go through some craziness during that period. None of Trump’s xenophobic fascist ideas will never come to life. All those crazy thoughts that we have to ban Muslims from our country and to kick twelve million Mexicans back down to the border and to build a wall between them and us—these thoughts are just groundless and would never be supported by people. I believe it was Winston Churchill who said: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all of the other possibilities”. So all of this chatter is going to be around for another two or three months but eventually all the insanity will stop and we will start to talk about issues that really matter and things that actually matter in the world.


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