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The Descendants - George Clooney interview

The Descendants

Interview by Rob Carnevale

GEORGE Clooney talks about playing a father coming to terms with his wife’s infidelity while she is in a coma in The Descendants.

He also reflects on his own career choices to date, the lessons and advice he learned and was given along the way, and what he thinks about the awards buzz surrounding him.

Q. Did you find playing a father and husband a challenge?
George Clooney: I have actually done this, I’ve been a father and a husband in several films. But this one was very different because it was much more emotional and much more attached to the family. I found it challenging only in the sense that I wanted to be able to serve the material very well. It’s a tricky piece, you know, the movie starts basically with the death of the wife. It’s kind of a coming-of-age film… unfortunately the person who’s coming of age is a 50-year-old man. And so there were tricks to understanding how to play this in the right way, but that again you know. It’s really a well written script and whenever you get that the work is a lot easier when the script is well written.

Q. But did playing a father come naturally? And what is the best advice your father or members of your family ever gave you?
George Clooney: Well, I played a father in One Fine Day and I played a father in Syriana… My father’s best advice, I think, was don’t ever mix grain and grape. And truthfully that’s really been the best advice he’s ever given me. My family in general have been mixed versions of great successes and cautionary tales in terms of success and understanding how little success actually has to do with you. My aunt was as big a singer as you could be in 1950 and then she was done by 1960, and she didn’t become less of a singer along the way. And then she had a nice comeback. I got the great lesson in how little it has to do with you and how much it has to do with other elements including luck, and a 10pm time slot for a hospital show. So, the best advice I got was by example from all my family members, I think.

Q. How do you go about selecting which films you do? And how did you first get involved with The Descendants?
George Clooney: I learned that I should probably read a good screenplay every once in a while before I said ‘yes’. You could make bad film out of a good script, but you’re never going to make a good film out of a bad script, so I needed to start with a good screenplay. This particular film, I’d wanted to work with Alexander [Payne] for a long time, and I got the opportunity. We had dinner in Toronto and he said he was going to be sending me a script and I sort of thought I was going to do it, no matter what the script was, because quite honestly I haven’t seen him miss yet as a filmmaker. And then I read the screenplay and I thought I was very lucky.

Q. So, what do you look for in screenplays?
George Clooney: There are really only two elements that solidifies the kind of choices that you make, and that is director and screenplay. I’d been on that Batman & Robin, Peacemaker kind of run where, when you first start getting work as an actor, you just take jobs. I’d been on a lot of TV series, and I got a couple of films and I was very excited, you know? I was calling everyone to say: “I got Batman! Whoo!”; “What part are you playing?”; “Batman!” “WOW!” But that happens and then I started to understand that I was going to be held responsible for not just the role that I was going to get to play but for the films that were going to get made. So, the next three films I worked on were Out of Sight, Three Kings and O Brother Where Art Thou?, which were all very good screenplays. I was lucky to get to them. But since then I’ve tried to focus on the best screenplays possible and the second thing I’ve tried to do is make sure that the directors I’m working with are on the same page and want to do the same kind of films. You can really protect yourself as an actor if you work with really good people. It can hide a lot of flaws along the way.

The Descendants

Q. The film deals with a plethora of emotions– did it have an effect on you at all?
George Clooney: Alexander’s set is such a fun place to be. There are people who like to work in chaos, and some people work better under that, and create that sort of chaos, but that makes a set not necessarily very fun. I like to work on sets that don’t have that. I feel it is more creative and more welcoming, and Alexander makes the most welcome set you have ever been on. And so there are very difficult scenes to do, scenes where you are kissing your wife goodbye, basically where you’re yelling at a corpse essentially, but when you are finished it is a really friendly, fun place to be. So there isn’t a whole lot of carrying things around with you, there’s not a whole lot of moping around. We were just so happy to be together. We were in Hawaii – what was there to be unhappy about? [laughter]

Q. Some of the film’s most affecting scenes are the ones without dialogue. Is the dialogue or the visuals more important for you?
George Clooney: We live in an age and a time now where we’re trying to show 500 things going on at the same time… you turn on Bloomberg television and there’s 50 things going on at the same time. I find that silence, stillness, if you’re flipping the channels and you see somebody staring at the camera and it’s quiet… there’s nothing going on, you’ll tend to stop now. That seems to be the new unusual thing to see. I enjoy the quiet moments in films, I think that they’re important. You can’t do it all the time, you have to earn them, and Alexander is so good at earning those moments.

Like the very end of the film, with us sitting together… even though it’s not completely silent because there’s Morgan Freeman [in voiceover on the TV]… whenever you’re in trouble get Morgan Freeman. But it’s a family, and we understand all of that. You earn it because you couldn’t have done that scene that long in the beginning of the movie because people would have gotten up and left. But you earn it because of what Alexander does in filmmaking and then to watch the stillness of that particular scene speaks volumes.

The Descendants

Q. What do you think about the Oscar buzz surrounding the film and your performance in particular?
George Clooney: That’ll all work out fine, don’t you think? I’ve been on both sides of that equation a few times now and what I have learned about it is that whenever someone says that, what they’re doing first and foremost is complimenting the work. And for that you say ‘thank you’, that’s a very nice thing to say, and it’s the result of a lot of other people doing a lot of hard work. On the other hand, I don’t remember who wins awards. I’ve won a few but what I really remember are movies. I remember 1976 was Taxi Driver and All The President’s Men and Network and Bound For Glory and Rocky, and I know Rocky won but I love those movies and I watch those films constantly, films like that. I love films, so I’m not concerned about speculation about winning things because I really enjoy being in films that last longer than an opening weekend. That’s my goal in life. I don’t want to be at that event at 75-years-old where they wheel you out and say: “OK, you opened 15 films to number one…” “That’s not my goal in life, to be the richest guy in the cemetery. So, I don’t pay attention to that is the short answer.

Q. How has directing changed you as an actor?
George Clooney: I have been directing and involved in producing and the creating of films for quite a while now as well as acting. I always think in terms of what the director needs, and not just for this scene but for the film. On television, you would have a different director come in every week and when I’d be doing ER every week I would have a kid. And every director that would come in would say ‘this is a scene that really gets you, maybe you could cry a little bit.’ But if I was crying in 22 episodes it would be too much and so you have to adjust towards the long term and that also works in film. You understand that there are some scenes that you have to lose in order to win something at the end. A good director will keep pointing you that way, but it is also your job as an actor to understand that there are scenes that you do, particularly when you are the lead, where other people get to come in and steal and you have to let them. I understand that but a good director always reminds you where those moments are.

The Descendants

Q. You have turned 50 this year, how has that changed your approach to work? Do you find success difficult to deal with sometimes?
George Clooney: I hope to trend towards directing more because, as we all know, as you get older, there are less and less roles for 50-year olds. And I want to be part of this business for a long time. I remember when I was a young man living in Kentucky, we were broke, my mum was making my clothes for me, and I was doing some dull job and I remember hearing some famous actor, who will remain nameless, on television complaining about how hard it was for them. I thought: “What a jerk!” I thought: “You’re living the dream and you should enjoy that. And we should think you enjoy that because you got lucky… you got the brass ring.” And that’s important to continually remember because I got the brass ring along the way and I’m going to enjoy it. There are things that aren’t fun, and we all know them, but I’m not going to complain about that to anybody. I get a very easy ride and I understand that so I enjoy my life.

The Descendants is released in cinemas on Friday, January 26, 2012