Q&A: George Clooney

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Armando Gallo / Retna Ltd.

George Clooney

For TIME's series on Great Performances, Lina Lofaro interviewed George Clooney about his work in Michael Clayton

TIME:It took you a long time get on board Michael Clayton and Steven Soderbergh had to intercede. What finally convinced you?

Clooney: Steven called me up and said you should do this script. I read it, and I thought yes, it's a really good script but I was in the middle of doing Good Night and Good Luck so I wasn't anxious to jump and do anything else. I'm very careful to work with first time directors. I had worries. I thought this is a really tricky piece of material, really well written, but there's a lot of traps. It could end up being jokey, which it can't be, if you're not incredibly adept. We finally met after I finished Good Night and Good Luck. I spent a seven or eight hour lunch with Tony, who I had never met before. We hung out. By the end of it, on top of thinking he could handle it, you just liked him. Somehow that makes a big difference in filmmaking. You go, I think that this guy knows what he wants and I believe he knows how to get it.

Did the theme attract you? The exploration of morality and conscience?

I've always liked that. There isn't any actor who doesn't like a role in this. These are the characters that, if you caught the movie 10 years earlier in their life, they're the bad guy. Like Paul Newman in The Verdict — I'm certainly not comparing my acting, just talking about those kinds of characters — or Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven. Those characters did a lot of terrible things and now they're searching for some sort of redemption. The redemption is usually not very big. It's not like, 'oh, I'm really a great guy .' For me [in Michael Clayton], we decided I just wanted to get my kid to look me in the eye.

Aside from the poignant scene between Michael and his son; does Michael Clayton redeem himself?

When you go to make films like this, there's a certain number, studios say this is all this movie can ever gross because of these factors. The way it reads, it doesn't feel very redemptive. It's not a big gotcha kind of film. Arthur dies. I don't get a job. If you made It's A Wonderful Life today, they'd have to haul Lionel Barrymore off at the end and put him in jail. That's how the bad guy has to get got. The reason that movie's a perfect film is because the redemption comes through the fact that Jimmy Stewart gets to go home to his family and say, hey, you know what, living well is the greatest revenge. In this film, everybody doesn't have to get got. You're buying tiny bits, increments of what makes us all human. People become the bad guys rather gradually. I don't think they start off saying, 'oh, I know what I'll do.' You do incrementally stupid things that you figure, well, this helps my family, I can justify it. And you wake up one day and it's Tyco.

You've said the two things you look at before getting involved in any project is 1) the script 2) the director. Here, Tony Gilroy, is both. What's it like for a director to take direction from a first time director?

Tony did a really good job as a filmmaker. That's all that's required. I was a security blanket on the set, not because of shot selections. He did all of that himself. I was a security blanket if he decided, here's something I want to do that was apart from what the people who were financing it read, apart from whatever the norm was or was going to be. He'd say I think this guy should do this. I'd go, 'do it.' I was protective of him, so he could get away with the things he wanted to get away with. If you're going to be an actor and you're going to direct, you cannot go into movies, particularly saying, okay I'm going to direct these scenes. You have to surrender to it until you wake up one day and they're not doing their job. Tony never had that. There was never a second of that. The first day he's shooting with Robert Elswit, who is a cinematographer I did Good Night and Good Luck with, who I did Syriana with, who I trust with every bone of my body. Part of it is, you're economical. Tony shot about a nine hour day the first day. He knew exactly what he wanted. That makes everybody in the crew follow him. I do it. I learned from Soderbergh and the Coen brothers. I shoot what I need — one, two, three. Once I get it I move on. What happens is, everyone, is on their toes and they work quicker and harder.

Did you model this performance after any specific performances in film? I know it's been compared — even you, have spoken in reference to The Verdict and Paul Newman.

No, although I'm sure I've ripped every single guy like that, off. I've certainly ripped off Paul Newman three or four times, [though] not as well. Watch him at the end of the monologue in that film, where he's talking to the jury. Actors usually load up for a monologue. He finishes it and he starts to talk again, and then he walks away. To me, it's one of the great performances in any film, ever.

How do great actors around you — Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, Tom Wilkinson — make you better?

Tom is intimidating only because of the things you do to yourself. You go on the set, there's Tom Wilkinson about to knock a scene out of the park, you know it's coming, you get intimidated by it, but certainly not by his personality. He's the warmest, kindest, gentlest man I know. Tilda, Tom, Sidney are actors who know exactly what they're going to do. Tony doesn't give them any direction as good directors don't do. Good directors point you in the right direction. If they get off on the wrong direction, you come over and say 'point it a little more that way.' That's a very tricky things with really good actors like Tilda and Tom. If you overdirect them they'll get ticked off at you. If you're not getting it, then that's one thing. But, usually that's about casting more than it's about your acting ability. Truly, acting is so much about casting. Tom was the exact right guy to play it. He knew exactly what to do. He's a pro. We all sort of work in the same vein, Tom, Tilda, myself, we're of the ilk that says, learn your lines, hit your mark and say your lines. There isn't a lot of making a whole lot of making everyone on the set suffer through it. I really appreciate that on a film like this. We shot it very cheap and we didn't have a lot of time. There was no time to screw around.

I know you don't want to be stereotyped into making "statement" movies, but this does make a statement about corporate greed, yes?

It's a genre film, a thriller, but it's a statement movie in that it's put in a world that we recognize really well in the middle of all the corporate screw ups that have gone on lately. There's two ways of addressing these kind of things. You can make a movie about Tyco and all of that or you can make a movie about a man who's failed in life, failed in his family, failed in his own expectations, and put it in the world of something we recognize as a real issue at this point and corporate greed in particular, is a great one. This isn't plucked out of thin air. You can find this case from a certain defense attorney who became a special prosecutor who defended a car company after they had hidden the fact that they discussed whether or not 400 lives a year was worth recalling 20 million cars or not. They decided that, profitability-wise they could take the loss of the class action suit. A piece of paper, an interoffice memo was kept away from the judge and the defense for something like, three or four circuit courts. These things do exist, these people do exist, this did come from a basis of reality.

You often speak about the element of luck, in interviews, I recall when you were honored with the American Cinamatheque award — you said John Wells who was sitting in the audience gave you a chance in ER, which had a great time slot, following Seinfeld. Otherwise who knows where you'd be. I know Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood often speak about the element of luck in this business, but surely it's not just luck now?

I work really, really hard at it. I'm just saying that there were an awful lot of better actors, better looking in acting class, than me in the classes I studied in. Without ER, I got none of this. I don't get to do movies like this. It's not predestined that you're going to be famous enough that you can greenlight pictures and then decide what pictures you want to make. Once I got in there and figured it out, and it took me a while to figure out, being famous, and I did some relatively dumb movies early on, but once I got to the realizaton that I was going to be held responsible for the movies, not just the performance in them, then I started picking movies that I wanted to do and getting them made when no one no one wanted to make them. Is it luck? Absolutely, every bit of it. Honestly — really, truly, luck. But when you get there, hey, somebody just gave you a big, big break, so go do something with it. What are you going to do with your life? That's how I've been playing ever since then. Also, when you get hit by the bus, I've had a good couple of years, people say I've made some good decisions, well, you know, check in in two years.It's always about luck in a weird way. You try to do films that you think are the right thing and your taste is right, but you never know.