Fun fact about George Clooney: He’s a hugger.
Meeting someone for the first time, he brushes right past an extended hand and instead delivers a warm embrace, a gesture that somehow suggests both the proprietary confidence of celebrity as well as its utter dismantlement. He’s dressed in jeans, a chunky gray knit sweater and the weather-proof boots that everyone is slogging around in on this dreary, slushy Wednesday. But even looking like a civilian, Clooney, 52, manages to exude preternatural charisma and self-assurance. There might not be another actor alive who so thoroughly personifies movie stardom, or deploys it so adroitly — as commodity, means of production and public trust.
On this day, Clooney has joined his longtime producing partner, Grant Heslov, to talk about their latest film: “The Monuments Men,” about the U.S. Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit that, in the waning days of World War II, sought to rescue millions of pieces of art looted by the Nazis. The film marks Clooney’s fifth directorial effort, and he also stars, heading up a cast that includes Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin and Cate Blanchett. Inspired as much by the wartime capers of the 1960s and 1970s as by true events, “The Monuments Men” represents the kind of film that Clooney and Heslov have been dedicated to making since forming their company, Smokehouse Pictures, in 2006.
“Our whole theory has been, let’s try to force-feed the kind of films that aren’t gonna get made unless we make them,” Clooney explained. Working with lean budgets, deferring their own salaries and asking their actors to work for fractions of their going rates, Clooney and Heslov have specialized in the kind of movies that studios have largely abandoned in favor of comic-book franchises and cartoons. Their first film, “Leatherheads,” was a screwball comedy inspired by Depression era classics; “The Men Who Stare At Goats,” which Heslov directed, was a gonzo war comedy. “The American,” starring Clooney as a taciturn hit man, owed its reflective mood and brooding silences to Antonioni; both “The Ides of March” and “Argo,” the latter being their biggest hit to date, recalled the taut political thrillers of the 1970s.
Indeed, watching Clooney’s character, George L. Stout, scrambling around Europe trying to save artistic treasures from Hitler’s all-encompassing, destructive clutches, it’s possible to read “The Monuments Men” as an allegory for Clooney’s own mission, as he valiantly tries to save the archaic genres and sometimes risky, subversive material that seems increasingly endangered by Hollywood’s corporate agenda. “It’s hard,” Clooney admitted. “We have deals where we go, ‘So our back end is nothing.’ But [we say], ‘Let’s keep doing these until they don’t let us do them anymore.’ ”
When Clooney talks about the back end, he refers to a strategy of leveraging his star power that he didn’t invent but has nonetheless potently reinvigorated over the past several years, agreeing to waive or dramatically reduce his usual $15 million salary in favor of a percentage of the film’s revenues. It was that strategy that allowed films such as “Syriana,” “Michael Clayton,” “Up In the Air” and “The Descendants” to be made, and it’s that strategy that Clooney has adhered to at Smokehouse and, earlier, at Section Eight, a company he started with Steven Soderbergh. As both director and producer, he paid himself $1 to co-star in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” about journalist Edward R. Murrow. (Clooney and Heslov also fund Smokehouse by doing commercials — starring Clooney and directed by Heslov — that air only overseas.)
It’s also a strategy borne of what might be called the “After ‘Batman’ ” era of Clooney’s career, which hit a painful pivot point in 1997, when he starred in “Batman & Robin” — for those keeping score at home, the most universally panned installment of the ever-expanding franchise. “I don’t have the same career without that film,” Clooney said simply.
“Until then, I had just been an actor,” he said. “I had only been an actor in TV series, and then I got ‘E.R.’ and ‘E.R.’ became this big thing.” His breakout feature roles — “One Fine Day,” “From Dusk Till Dawn” and “The Peacemaker” — all came about because he was eager for the work and what looked like juicy roles. “And then I get a call, ‘Do you want to be in ‘Batman?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’”
“With all of those things, it was just me as an actor going, ‘Look at the part,’ ” Clooney continues. “And after I got killed for ‘Batman & Robin,’ I realized I’m not going to be held responsible just for the part anymore, I’m going to be held responsible for the movie. And literally, I just stopped. And I said, It now has to be only screenplay. Because you cannot make a good film from a bad screenplay.”
Heslov, who’s known Clooney since they were acting students and who famously lent his pal money to get head shots made when he was first starting out, recalls the “Batman” moment with rueful vividness. “It was the lowest point of your career,” he says to Clooney.
“It was brutal,” Clooney agrees.
“He took it on the chin,” Heslov said. “And he took it with a sense of humor, because that’s how he does it, but he was hurting. And definitely if you look at his filmography” — “It turns on a dime,” Clooney offers. “It’s like, ‘Okay, I get it.’ ”
The next movies Clooney did were “Three Kings,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Out of Sight,” directed by David O. Russell, the Coen brothers and Soderbergh, respectively. “Those were all great screenplays,” Clooney said. “And great directors. So there’s an understanding of, that’s what I’ve got to focus on.”
The After “Batman” era of Clooney’s career has been a testament to shrewd commercial choices — the “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise was a huge success, and he had one of his famous back-end deals on last year’s science fiction epic “Gravity,” which is approaching $700 million worldwide at the box office. In the ensuing years, Clooney has also mastered the art of celebrity comportment, becoming the kind of old-school movie star that most famous actors today, with their dressed-down play dates and daily-grind trips to Whole Foods, eschew. With features out of the Grant-Gable look book, a rakish motorcycle, an Italian villa and a near-constant string of gorgeous girlfriends, Clooney is our closest thing to a matinee idol of the old school. Even when he’s up to his ears in problems and production details while directing a movie, he’s been known to take time to greet locals who have been waiting for hours to catch even the briefest glimpse of him. Along with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, Clooney has made working a rope line less a smile-and-wave quick-step than an improbably moving ritual of connection and magnanimity.
“I grew up in Kentucky, and I remember Raymond Burr coming to my home town,” Clooney said. “I understand what it’s like to see someone famous in person. It actually sort of catches your breath, and I understand what that’s like. So . . . it’s a dance you do, and it requires a little bit more patience than you would think, and it requires tuning out things that would really upset you otherwise.”
“The Monuments Men” marks a rare foray into optimistic, family-friendly filmmaking for Clooney and Heslov, both of whom are attracted to tough-minded, skeptical, even cynical movies. They made a pact on the last day of shooting, Clooney says, to go back to the dark side for their next project. “We want it to be low-budget, dark, screwy. . . . We want to have those scenes [like in ‘The Ides of March’] in the kitchen with Ryan Gosling and myself, where it’s just as dark and cruel as it can possibly be. We like that world a lot.” (But first, Clooney will star in “Tomorrowland,” a Disney film by Brad Bird that will keep cynicism at bay for at least a little while.) They’re thisclose, they say, to formally announcing that Sandra Bullock will star in their dramatized adaptation of “Our Brand Is Crisis,” which was a 2005 documentary about political consultants exporting their techniques to foreign countries.
“We’re not children at this,” Clooney said. “What we do know is that at some point they take all the toys away. And they go, ‘Okay you don’t get to play anymore.’ We understand that. We’re grown-ups. But while we get the toy box and the key to it, we’re going to play with all the toys that no one wants you to play with.” And with that, Clooney heads back out into the slush. One more quick hug, and he’s gone.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains images of smoking and wartime violence. 119 minutes.