“Alexander, say ‘Hi, Ann,’” Clooney prods.
The niceties are dispensed with. How is Alexander? “GOOD!” More to the point, is Alexander being good? “YEAH-VEE!” Clooney translates: “Yes, very. He’s being very good because remember we talked about Santa yesterday? What do you want from Santa?”
“UH-HI-BE-CO-DECK-TO” Clooney: “A helicopter . . .”
“A-PIRA-CHE-WI-LOTTA-TIES” “ . . . a pirate's chest with a lot of toys . . .”
“AN-FOOD-YIE-DIS!!” “ . . . and food like this. Which is a jelly bean and a gummy bear. That’s a good Christmas, if you ask me.”
In ways large and small, the Clooney household has experienced the coronavirus pandemic like lots of other Americans: living on top of one other, spending inordinate amounts of time on Zoom, missing loved ones.
“We haven’t moved,” Clooney says simply. “We’ve been here for nine months and, you know, it’s the same thing everybody goes through. I miss my parents, I want to see them, they’re in Kentucky, and Amal [Clooney’s wife, a human rights lawyer] misses her family. That’s the hard stuff for us, and probably for everybody, a little bit.” Clooney especially feels for his father, Nick, who’s 87 and “the life of the party, still. . . . He’s used to holding court a little bit, and he’s not able to do it, which is frustrating.”
Even amid the obstacles of illness spikes, lockdowns and quarantines, Clooney sounds upbeat. Which marks a definite shift from the movie he’s promoting: “The Midnight Sky,” which he directed and stars in, is a deeply affecting portrait of Dr. Augustine Lofthouse, a lonely astronomer who, in the aftermath of a catastrophic world event, tries desperately to reach the crew of a returning space mission to warn them of the devastation they’re facing.
As the scientist in question, Clooney, who will turn 60 in May, is barely recognizable behind a bushy white beard; his face is sunken and his body wizened. In one of the myriad interviews he has done for the movie in recent weeks, he told the Daily Mirror that he lost nearly 30 pounds while preparing for the role, his rapid weight loss landing him in the hospital with a case of pancreatitis.
From its bleak tone to its theme of planetary apocalypse — which is never specified — “The Midnight Sky” feels like 2020 in movie form. As the film opens, a subtitle appears saying, “3 weeks after the event.” This year, that could mean a global flu epidemic. It could mean wildfires, hurricanes, floods and mudslides. It could mean tribal civil conflicts that metastasized into world war. It could mean murder hornets.
Clooney laughs. “I like murder hornets,” he says, adding that he began working on “The Midnight Sky” — which is adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight” — during pre-covid times. His main reference then was nuclear paranoia. “I grew up in the ’60s, and it wasn’t a question of if but when we would all blow each other into kingdom come,” he notes. “We used to do duck-and-cover drills in grade school . . . so I lived with the idea that man is going to really screw this up at some point.”
It wasn’t until Clooney finished shooting that the pandemic hit. As he edited within that context, he says, the contours of the film morphed with the times. “Because you’re sitting by yourself instead of being in an editing room,” he explains, “so everything changed a little bit as we were going. Funnily enough, we took more and more dialogue out, just because the silences felt like they were the part that mattered, the inability to communicate.”
What started out as a cautionary tale about the human race’s poor stewardship of the Earth, Clooney observes, wound up reflecting what for him has been the main takeaway of 2020: “Understanding how deeply we are in need of communication, and being aware of the people we love, and how hard that is on top of everything else, and the toll that takes.”
“The Midnight Sky” embodies before-times and after-times in other ways: Clooney filmed his part of the story in Iceland, with director of photography Martin Ruhe using a handheld 65-millimeter film camera. The setting of the outer-space story line, in which David Oyelowo, Felicity Jones, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir and Tiffany Boone play the space station’s crew, was first conceived in virtual reality. “You’re walking around in an empty gymnasium, but in your goggles you can see everything,” Clooney explains. “You’re setting shots in a world that doesn’t exist, and you’re going to build those pieces of the set.” (“The Midnight Sky’s” production designer is Clooney’s longtime collaborator Jim Bissell.)
The film is also straddling two worlds simply in the way it’s coming out: The big-screen spectacle set amid the snowy expanse of the Arctic was produced by Netflix, meaning it will mostly be seen on TVs or sundry personal devices. Clooney, whose production company was housed at Warner Bros. for 20 years, expresses disappointment with the studio for not communicating with filmmakers when they recently decided to make their 2021 slate available in theaters and on the streaming service HBO Max simultaneously. But he doesn’t see it as the death knell for the theatrical experience.
“This is a moment in time,” he insists. “It’s not going to be permanent. I’m not old enough to remember, but I do know the stories of everyone who said television would bring the death of cinema, and it didn’t. And I do remember ‘VCRs will bring the death of cinema’ and I remember ‘DVDs will bring the death of cinema’ and none of it was true. People still have to gather together. They still have to get out of the house, and it’s still the cheapest date. You’re going to get out and go see a movie and have a meal and it’s a lot cheaper than going to a concert. Comedies work great in a crowd. Kids want to get away from their parents. Parents want to get away from their kids. I can’t keep saying to my wife, ‘Let's stay home and watch TV.’ ”
Which, let’s face it, is exactly what the Clooneys have been doing. He’s a big fan of the addictive series “You” and “Money Heist,” as well as the thickly accented British shows “Peaky Blinders” and “I Hate Suzie,” both of which he makes sure to watch with his wife, who was born in Lebanon but spent most of her life in England. “I literally look at Amal going, ‘What did they just say?’ ”
Clooney has navigated yet another seismic change in the entertainment industry, wherein the middle-aged White guy who used to reign supreme is no longer necessarily front and center when it comes to hot projects. “I’m not worried about how difficult it is for middle-aged White guys,” he says dismissively. “They’ve done quite well over the history of time in pretty much every industry.”
Still, he was stung by criticisms of his last directorial effort, the 2017 comic thriller “Suburbicon” — set amid the integration of a White 1950s neighborhood — that took him to task for sidelining the film’s Black characters. He stands by the film (“The reality is, I probably wouldn’t be the best person to be telling the Black family’s story”), but also admits that he’s on a learning curve, along with most men of his generation.
“I’m constantly having to reeducate myself,” he says. “I did ‘Batman & Robin’; it’s a horrible movie but it wasn’t a horrible experience. Joel Schumacher was a sweet guy, everybody was nice. And I ran into Alicia Silverstone [Batgirl] and she said it was the worst experience of her life. Because she’d put on a couple of pounds and they were really hammering her and people were giving her a really difficult time. I didn’t see it, I didn’t know it and I had no idea that was her experience. My experience was just that it was a bad film and I was bad in it. But I didn’t understand that it was also a terrible experience for someone. So you’re constantly reassessing how other people are seeing something.”
He had a similar experience watching the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” recently with Amal. “My wife and I were sitting there watching it and I hadn’t seen it in forever, and you can’t not love Audrey Hepburn. As you’re watching it, you’re like, ‘God this is so great,’ and then [Mickey Rooney] comes on [playing a racist stereotype of an Asian man] and it literally shocks you.” Still, he adds, “It’s good that that’s disturbing to us now. That means we are moving in the right direction. It’s sad that it wasn’t earlier, but I’m very happy that at least there’s an understanding that these things don’t hold water anymore.”
Clooney is slated to begin production on his next movie, an adaptation of J.R. Moehringer’s memoir “The Tender Bar,” in the spring. It will be the eighth movie Clooney has directed; earlier this month, Deadline Hollywood reported that Ben Affleck was in negotiations to star in the film.
Clooney’s been scouting Boston locations — what else? — virtually. “It’s very weird to have them send you pictures and you go, ‘Yeah, I could shoot there’ or ‘We could do that,’ ” he says ruefully. He misses the serendipity that can sometimes change the whole movie. “Half the things you find are things where you’re walking around and you go, ‘No, you guys, over here,’ ” he explains. “Even driving to the next location, you go, ‘Stop, pull over, what’s that?’ Sometimes it gives you an idea for changing the story, sometimes it gives you an idea for a better place to put the scene. . . . The good news is that it’s a really small story and it takes place mostly inside a bar. It’s opened up a bit, but it’s not like we’re doing ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ on this one.”
Suddenly Clooney sounds distracted; Rosie the Saint Bernard has just charged his producing partner, Grant Heslov, as he came through the door. “Oh my God,” he says, laughing. “She literally just hit him in the head. Are you okay?”
We agree that this is probably as good a time as any to wrap up the conversation. Plus, he needs to get ready for Santa.
Like their parents, Ella and Alexander have been bingeing British TV — in their case, “Peppa Pig” and “Charlie and Lola.” Just yesterday, Clooney notes, “I said to the kids, ‘So we’re going to leave milk and cookies for Santa.’ And Alexander says, ‘No, we leave milk and mince pie.’ And I said, ‘Mince pie?! Are you nuts?’ ” Clooney laughs, then delivers the perfect kicker for 2020. “It’s too much.”