After fixing a cup of coffee, Clooney leads a visitor past the swimming pool and outdoor dining room, up one of many hills on the woodsy, four-acre property that abuts Fryman Canyon. He points out the new funicular — installed to make the terrain more accessible for visiting parents and in-laws — mentioning that the rustic-baronial main house was once Clark Gable’s hunting lodge. (He bought the place in 1995 from Stevie Nicks.)
Settling into a cozily appointed guest cottage — also new — Clooney briefly checks his phone for the box office figures of his new movie, “Ticket to Paradise,” a feather-light romantic comedy in which he co-stars with longtime friend Julia Roberts. Already successful in Europe, the film is opening in the United States on this October day and looks like it’s already a hit, despite the fact that Clooney isn’t a huge fan of the genre.
“My wife, when we’re at home and we’re on Netflix or Amazon, we spend an hour trying to negotiate me not having to watch ‘Bridget Jones Has Got Six Kids,’ ” he says sardonically. Although he hasn’t made a rom-com since 1996’s “One Fine Day,” he made an exception because he saw a need. “It’s been a miserable few years,” he explains. “And I know what my wife is looking for. And I know what all my friends who like this kind of movie are looking for.”
As for proving his bona fides as a romantic leading man? He’ll allow it. “That’s kind of fun, especially at 61,” he says. “By the way, if you look it up, I’m older than what most of the Golden Girls were [when they did that show]. Isn’t that crazy?”
Yeah, crazy! But then again, maybe not.
The sobering realities of getting older will come up repeatedly over a nearly four-hour interview with Clooney, who peppers the conversation with asides about Barack Obama (the two text frequently), getting parenting advice from Bruce Springsteen (“He told us, ‘You’ve got to just be in the room.’ ”) and adapting the John Grisham novel “Calico Joe” for Bob Dylan. “I said, ‘I’ll write it just to get notes from Bob Dylan,’ ” Clooney laughs. (The notes were good, by the way. “They were all about baseball.”)
Right now, Clooney’s recounting some recent old-guy wake-up calls with wry humility. Last winter, when he was directing “The Boys in the Boat” with a cast of young English actors in London, he set up a basketball court and bragged that he used to be able to dunk a volleyball (yes, a volleyball) and hold on to the rim. Trying to demonstrate the move, “I got my finger caught in the net and fell back on my ass,” he recalls, laughing. “They just howled. And I’ll tell you, the shock that it gave me. I was shocked that my jump had shrunk by a foot.”
More recently, he attended a “Ticket to Paradise” premiere “and there’s this shot of this old gray-haired guy from the back, and I was like, ‘God, who is that?’ And it was like, ‘Oh, it’s me.’ ”
Rather than panicked, Clooney is intrigued. “I almost always played characters who were older than me. And now I’m playing my age, and it’s a really fascinating thing.
“[Paul] Newman was the best at this,” he continues. “He figured out, [with] ‘The Verdict,’ quite honestly, that he was a character actor and he accepted that role. He didn’t fight it or push and try to get his face done or look younger and act younger. He just said, ‘Okay, that’s who I am now,’ and he changed expectations a little bit.”
When it comes to expectations, the genius of George Clooney is how instinctively he has shaped them, met them and exceeded them, often simultaneously. It’s easy to believe that his success — first on television, then in the movies — was preordained. How could anyone that handsome, that politically attuned, that reflexively at ease with seemingly constant “on-ness,” not become a celebrity? How could anyone who has occupied so many roles in the public consciousness — the laughing-eyed leading man with the wisecracking Dean Martin cool; the happy warrior doing battle with bullies, blowhards, warlords and crooks; the onetime bachelor-about-town turned genuinely happy husband and father — how could that guy have become anything other than our platonic ideal of the modern-day Movie Star?
The truth is that being George Clooney is harder than it looks.
“He’s been underrated for a great part of his life, and that’s because he’s so charming,” says Clooney’s father, Nick. “He has not nearly gotten the credit for the iron that is under that charm, and all the great things he has accomplished. He himself did that. And it was hard for him to do that. It was difficult. … George has that great gift of self-deprecation, and perhaps that adds to people’s misunderstanding of what they’re looking at. He’s had a difficult run. He’s had to work very, very hard.”
Director Steven Soderbergh, Clooney’s frequent collaborator, agrees. “George certainly makes being George look easy and fun,” Soderbergh says. “And I can tell you that it isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always fun.”
Soderbergh and Clooney first worked together on the sleek, sophisticated thriller “Out of Sight,” which Clooney later identified as a crucial pivot in his career, when he stopped doing movies based on the character he was playing and focused on the quality of the entire script. He then made “Three Kings” (1999) and the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) in quick succession, fundamentally resetting the trajectory of his career with a trio of films that earned critical raves and redefined him as a serious — but not too serious — actor.
“The Coen brothers allowed me to just say, ‘Okay, just be a full-out character actor,’ ” Clooney recalls, adding that his playful turn in the Depression-era comedy freed him up to make fun of his own image as a sex symbol, whether that persona was one that others made for him or one that he had constructed himself. “It’s really very freeing to be able to go, ‘Okay, I’ll wear the stupid outfit.’ ”
When they were filming “Out of Sight,” Soderbergh recalls, Clooney had a habit of staying on set even when he wasn’t needed for a scene. He told Soderbergh, “I fought my whole life to get on a film set. Why would I want to leave?” But Soderbergh saw something else at work.
“Clearly he did his whole life want to get on a film set,” Soderbergh observes. “But he was also putting himself through school. When I showed him one of the first cuts of ‘Out of Sight,’ the notes I got from him weren’t about his performance, they were about the movie as a whole and the rhythms of the story as a whole. They were filmmaker notes, not actor notes.”
In 2002, Clooney made his directorial debut with “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” starring Sam Rockwell as game show host and self-described CIA agent Chuck Barris. But the real turning point came three years later, with the Edward R. Murrow movie “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Clooney wrote, directed and produced that film, but he didn’t cast himself in the lead role. Instead, he put on weight and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses to play avuncular producer Fred Friendly.
It was all part of a plan to slip the seductive but constricting bonds of being a sex symbol. “Quite honestly, I was objectified,” Clooney recalls of his early TV roles on “Sisters” and “The Facts of Life.” “I remember doing scenes on ‘Roseanne’ and I’d drop a clipboard and bend over, and they’d all slap me on the ass,” he says. “You had to establish yourself as more than that. … ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ did that for me, in every sense of the word.”
Since then, Clooney has enjoyed his share of hits, including the “Ocean’s Eleven” films, directed by Soderbergh and co-starring close friends Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle and Matt Damon; the 2005 global-political thriller “Syriana” and the bittersweet Alexander Payne comedy “The Descendants” (2011). And he has endured some misses. Although considered by many to be an underrated masterpiece of early 21st-century filmmaking, “Michael Clayton” never earned the audience it deserved; the poorly received football movie “Leatherheads” brought what had looked like a charmed directorial debut to a sudden and brutal halt. More recent directorial efforts like “Suburbicon,” “The Midnight Sky” and “The Tender Bar” have been coolly received, although the latter two did well with streaming audiences on Netflix and Amazon, respectively.
“Making peace with failure was always hard,” Clooney admits. “If you work as much as I do, failing can be frustrating. I take everything to heart. Nothing rolls off my back.”
But if individual films might not have succeeded commercially or critically, the broad sweep of Clooney’s career is nothing short of a triumph. He is famous for having held on to a core group of friends — including Grant Heslov, actor Richard Kind and film executive David Sagal — who have known each other since the 1980s, when many of them were trying to break into show business. Nine years ago Clooney and one of those friends, Rande Gerber, embarked on a fun side hustle creating a custom-made tequila. In 2017, they sold that company, Casamigos, for $1 billion.
If Clooney’s life seems charmed, that belies the work ethic that undergirds everything he does, including appearing that it’s all effortless. “He does make it look so easy,” says Heslov, Clooney’s producing partner at Smokehouse Pictures. “And in some ways, it makes it harder, because people then think it’s easy, and that your time is not so important.”
“If I send George a script at 3 in the afternoon on a Tuesday, by Wednesday morning he’s read it and analyzed it and decided if it’s something he’s interested in or not,” says Clooney’s longtime agent Bryan Lourd. “And he communicates as much with the people he says no to as the people he says yes to. It’s a simple, old-fashioned character code that I admire so much.”
In other words, Clooney is a class act, an approach to celebrity that he says was influenced by two idols who became good friends: Newman and Gregory Peck, the latter of whom would invite George to parties he threw with his wife, Veronique. “The house was the house from ‘Shampoo,’ ” Clooney recalls fondly. “Jack Lemmon would play the piano and Frank Sinatra would be sitting there with a gun under his leg.”
To Clooney, Newman and Peck exemplified the ideal of how to be a movie star. “It doesn’t mean you can’t be goofy and do stupid things, but it means stand up for the things you believe in, carry yourself with a little bit of dignity,” he says. “And both of them had great humor about themselves.” Of course, Newman and Peck were able to avoid the current 24/7 media cycle, which Clooney manages by staying off social media, not only because of the trouble he could get into “if I have three drinks at night,” he says, but — more important — “I don’t think you can be a star and be that available.”
“Ticket to Paradise” isn’t Clooney’s only outing this year: over the summer, he delivered a vocal portrayal of Newman in Ethan Hawke’s HBO documentary “The Last Movie Stars,” about Newman’s marriage to and creative partnership with Joanne Woodward. Reading Newman’s letters and journal entries into an iPhone, Clooney managed to deliver one of the finest performances of his career, tinged with rage one moment and unbearable sadness the next.
“He felt that journey intimately,” Hawke says of Clooney’s real-life friendship with Newman. “It’s interesting that he’s getting the Kennedy Center Honors this year because Newman got it too. They fit in a long line of really responsible artists, people who make a contribution to American culture and are civic leaders. Whether you like George’s politics, or admire where he gives his money and time, you have to admire his willingness to lead, and his willingness to care.”
Clooney traces his political roots to his childhood in Kentucky, where Nick was something of a celebrity, not just as a local newscaster but also as the brother of singer Rosemary Clooney. George has frequently recounted the stories of his father’s exhortations to stick up for people who couldn’t defend themselves. Where he grew up in Kentucky and southern Ohio, “there was a lot of language that was particularly derogatory toward African Americans, and we know what that language is and we know what those words are,” Clooney says. “And my dad said, ‘If any kid says that, you fight ’em.’ ”
For as long as Clooney has been in the public eye, he has been vocal about political and humanitarian causes that range from war atrocities in Darfur to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. This fall, he helped welcome the inaugural class at the Roybal Film and Television Production Magnet, a public Los Angeles high school focused on training young people for below-the-line jobs. “I look at crews, and it’s still 95 percent White, mostly men,” he says. “And that has to change.”
Lourd, who co-founded the school with Clooney, recalls the actor calling him last spring after hearing about a similar facility in England. Five months later, Roybal was up and running. By the time students graduate, Lourd says, “they’ll be able to go into one of the nine craft disciplines, and with [near] certainty go into a paying job on a film or television set. … And all because George called me and said, ‘I’ve got this idea.’ ”
In 2016 George and Amal founded the Clooney Foundation for Justice, which gathers evidence of human rights abuses, provides pro bono legal aid to victims and works to hold perpetrators accountable. In September, the couple hosted the first Albie Awards — named for South African anti-apartheid activist Albie Sachs — given to “courageous defenders of justice who are at great risk for what they do.”
“Amal and I decided that our role has to be post-government,” Clooney explains. “We’re trying to squeeze into places where the government falls short.” As well as bird-dogging the trials of dissidents and political prisoners, the Clooney Foundation tracks “bad guys’ money,” providing information to the U.S. government for freezing assets. “We gave information to the Trump Treasury Department, and they said, ‘As long as you don’t say that it came from you, we’ll use it.’ And I’m like, ‘Fine. I don’t give a s---. Just use it.’ ”
Clooney calls his wife “the brains of the family,” adding that “no one has pulled as many journalists out of prison. … She got the Al Jazeera journalists [Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed] out, she got the Myanmar journalists [Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo] out, she got the Azerbaijan journalist [Khadija Ismayilova] out. … My job is to, wherever we can, make those situations louder. That’s sort of the megaphone I’ve been given along the way. So we kind of ham-and-egg it.”
Clooney has been so public about his political commitment for so long that it’s easy to forget how counterintuitive it is, says Soderbergh. When one achieves Clooney’s level of stardom, he explains, “the default mode really doesn’t lead you to a place of thinking about fairness, or defending people who can’t defend themselves. It’s great when people use that juice for those purposes, but that’s not the way the stream flows. The stream flows in the direction of self-orientation and being in a mode of extracting whatever you can from this business, and whatever you can from the world at large. … He’s one of the few people who punches upward. That’s rare.”
Clooney is in postproduction for “The Boys in the Boat,” which he adapted from Daniel James Brown’s book about the University of Washington rowing team that won the 1936 Olympics. He estimates that he will finish that film in January, at which point he will co-star with Pitt in the thriller “Wolf,” directed by “Spider-Man: Homecoming’s” Jon Watts.
Then, he says, he wants to slow down.
During the pandemic, some people got a puppy or an air fryer. The Clooneys purchased a 650-acre vineyard and olive oil farm in the South of France, where they intend to move next spring. (To be fair, they got a puppy, too.) “The kids, I think, will flourish,” Clooney says, adding that they’ll also be closer to Amal’s mother, who lives in London, and her father, who lives in Beirut, as well as to Clooney’s house on Lake Como in Italy. (Although the couple have a house in England, “the weather just kills me,” Clooney says.) He only recently discovered that they’ll be neighbors of Pitt, whose vineyard is 10 minutes away.
“Amal and I have had these long conversations about my age,” Clooney says. “I said, ‘You know, I’m 61, I can still do most things I used to do. But in 20 years I’ll be 81, and things will be different. … So these are the good years, this next 20 or 25.’ I said, ‘Let’s make sure we’re living [life] differently.’ Which means that I probably won’t be directing, unless it’s something I absolutely have to do. Acting in movies is an easy job. … I certainly get paid a lot more doing that, it’s a lot easier, and I can still have a lot more time with my family.”
Now, he says, his job is to “make peace” with aging, and “accept what those roles are. And I don’t just mean roles as an actor. I mean roles as a person. … Your life is going to be picked apart by everyone else, what they like about it, what they want about it, and all you can do is try to live it as fully as possible.” For a long time, he adds, he thought living fully meant more work. “Amal changed that for me, in a big way. Because now there was this incredible love, this incredible sense of family and these two kids, who are [something] that I didn’t really think I was ever going to do.”
If he weren’t working on this Friday afternoon, he says, he would probably be hitting tennis balls with the twins, and getting ready to cook something for dinner. He’ll be taking them to a hip-hop dance class next week, “which should be really funny,” Clooney says. “The last couple of years in particular, it’s been really fun. Because now we’re in the spot where they still think we’re smart and funny, and they really laugh. Every day they come up with a new prank.”
Part of living fully, he says, involves following Springsteen’s advice about being in the room. And, he adds, “there’s all the other things in the world that matter. And the fights I want to fight.”
He continues: “I would be so ashamed if years from now my kids looked at me and said, ‘They wanted to execute people in Brunei for being gay and you didn’t say anything.’ The people representing the worst of our instincts, like [Donald] Trump? I’d be ashamed if I hadn’t stood on the other side of that.”
“Think about it,” he says matter-of-factly. “All you have, really, is your actions. What you have done in your life. When it was not convenient.”
The Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast Dec. 28 at 8 p.m. on CBS.