Interview

George Clooney: ‘It’s been a crappy year, but we will come out of it better’

George Clooney in a dark suit looking to camera
George Clooney: ‘Your current prime minister literally compared me to Hitler.’ Photograph: Anette Nantell/Dagens Nyheter/TT/Sipa USA
George Clooney: ‘Your current prime minister literally compared me to Hitler.’ Photograph: Anette Nantell/Dagens Nyheter/TT/Sipa USA

Marriage and fatherhood have given George Clooney a new perspective on life, work and the world we all share. While his young twins play outside, he talks about outsmarting war criminals, battles with Boris and dinnertime debates with Amal

Tom Lamont

Last modified on Tue 15 Dec 2020 15.38 EST

Dad-chat with George Clooney, father of two. While the actor’s twin three-year-olds, Ella and Alexander, are out on the family tennis court, learning to ride their bikes, Clooney sits in a curtained edit suite inside his Los Angeles home, wondering how they’re getting on out there. “They’ve learned how to get going fast,” says the 59-year-old who, unless otherwise specified, speaks at all times in the measured, half-ironic, woodsmoked tones of just about every leading man he’s played in a quarter-century career. “They just haven’t learned to use their brakes yet.”

Clooney rubs at his two-day beard, anxious, fond. He wears a fawn-coloured polo shirt and he has his grey hair cropped short. I think I notice that slightly wild-eyed look of someone still marvelling at the fact of their parenthood, and I ask him, is he a scaredy-cat dad, always trailing behind his children with his arms outstretched in case they fall? Or is he a let-them-fall-to-learn-about-the-hard-truths-of-the-world sort of dad?

“Put it this way,” Clooney says. “The idea of them falling is not my favourite thing. And I try to give ’em enough room to make their mistakes.” It’s a familiar dilemma. Nobody wants to be neglectful of safety. And nobody wants to hard-code adult anxieties into them when they’re young and carefree. Clooney says: “There’s a lot of things you try not to do that your own parents did. Not because your parents were bad parents. But because you can see the way it has affected you… You’re trying to break the chain, man.”

Clooney, who is always looking for the humour in things, but is ready and eager to be intellectually engaged, is spoken about wistfully by interviewers as the Goldilocks of celebrity conversation. Never too reserved. Never too much. He is a good and open communicator of himself and his story. His sentences tend to be crisp. If we all got second or third attempts at conversations, we would all sound like George Clooney. He’s great first go.

“Hey,” he says, smiling. “Where are you?”

We’re talking on Zoom and the actor, leaning into his screen, squinting, has discerned that I’m sitting in an uncommon work environment: a four-year-old’s bedroom. Lockdown has necessitated space-sharing and reconfiguration in our flat. It’s Covid feng shui. Clooney understands. “My old office is now a nursery.”

“China: Through The Looking Glass” Costume Institute Benefit Gala - ArrivalsNEW YORK, NY - MAY 04: Amal Clooney and George Clooney attend the “China: Through The Looking Glass” Costume Institute Benefit Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 4, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
Power couple: with wife Amal Clooney. Photograph: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

The Clooneys – his wife Amal is a well-known lawyer and human rights advocate – have spent almost all of the lockdown in the Hollywood home George bought back in the 1990s, when he first became famous in the hospital drama ER. As Clooney went on to have more and more success, as an actor in movies (working most profitably with directors Steven Soderbergh and the Coen Brothers), as a director himself (seven movies since 2002), and latterly as a businessman (he sold a tequila company in 2017 for hundreds of millions of dollars), more residences have been added. The Clooneys have joints in Lake Como, in Cabo, in the Lake District. But this one in the Hollywood Hills, with its three bedrooms, three carports, office-turned-nursery and tennis court currently serving as a bicycle speedway, is home.

“This has been a crappy year for everyone. Started badly and ran badly all year long, until recently… But I’m very lucky. I ended up having a successful career. I wound up living in a home with some space in it. We can walk around outside.” They haven’t left the compound much since March, Clooney says, because “my son has asthma. They say it’s not so bad on young people. But do we know that? We don’t know anything about the longterm of this yet.”

The nearterm needs of children and the longterm prospects for the world: these are the driving themes of a new movie that Clooney has made for Netflix. The Midnight Sky, which Clooney directs as well as stars in, tells the story of a future world in collapse. Clooney’s character is a scientist, stuck in the last habitable place on Earth: the north pole. There, he has to look after a seven-year-old girl who has been left in his care, while also trekking across the melting ice to get to a satellite station and warn a team of astronauts not to return to their doomed planet. One of the astronauts is pregnant.

It’s a long movie. Clooney wanted to combine the thrills of the space blockbuster Gravity with the more patient, landbound, quest-based The Revenant. But the melancholy, elegiac, goodbye-to-planet-Earth tone works, and the ending kept me awake for a night. Clooney’s duelling concerns, as a dutiful dad and a dutiful liberal, are clear to read. “You worry about your immediate family,” is how he describes these concerns, “and at the same time you worry about all of the Earth.”

I ask him what sort of real-talk chats he’s had with his twins about this stuff. The environment. The wobbly state of global politics. Nothing yet, says Clooney. They’re three-and-a-half. “For now we’re still doing, ‘Hey, this is how to make Nutella look like poop in your nappies. Go and show it to Mom.’”

‘You worry about your immediate family and at the same time you worry about all of the Earth’: in The Midnight Sky with  Caoilinn Springall as Iris.
‘You worry about your immediate family and at the same time you worry about all of the Earth’: in The Midnight Sky with Caoilinn Springall as Iris. Photograph: Netflix

Mom, during lockdown, has been working on the case of a journalist from the Philippines, Maria Ressa, who was found guilty of libel and faces years in prison. (“A sinister action to silence a journalist,” is how Amal Clooney has described the charge.) When I ask Clooney what family dinnertimes have been like lately, he says: “Fascinating. We talk. Y’know, it’s just Amal and I having dinner every night. We talk about the Ressa case, that’s a huge topic of conversation right now.”

They’ve also been talking about Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary. “I got in a fight with Orbán this week,” says Clooney, coolly. It was one of the stranger interactions between politics and showbusiness. Clooney had been on the promotional trail, talking about his new movie and explaining that he saw this apocalypse story, set 30 years in the future, as a playing-forward of current events. Pandemic. Climate crisis. Populist politics and the erosion of civil liberties, as embodied in rightwing figures such as Orbán. The Hungarian government issued a statement calling Clooney a fool for speaking out of turn.

He groans. “Amal uses this evaluation of where we are in the world. The people who are exposing crime and corruption are being put in jail. And the people committing the crimes are free. So – yeah! – it’s an interesting time. And I think it’s certainly worth picking fights with people like this, because I would be embarrassed if I wasn’t standing against someone like Viktor Orbán.” He carries on: “I just feel like, with kids this age, having young children in a period of time when there’s all this craziness, I wanna make sure I can say, ‘These are the things we did to stand against this moment in history.’ Not just to make them proud. But to make their world better.”

Clooney grew up in Kentucky, on the fringes of show business. His aunt, Rosemary, was a well-known singer and actor who appeared in White Christmas with Bing Crosby. His father, Nick, was a radio broadcaster and television anchorman. In 1968, when Clooney was around six, he was credited as a stagehand on his father’s TV show. Still, Clooney recalls, “When I decided to move to LA to try to become an actor, my dad really went after me. I remember him saying, ‘You’re giving up your education!’”

The doctor will see you now: with Anthony Edwards in ER, 1994.
The doctor will see you now: with Anthony Edwards in ER, 1994. Photograph: Warner Bros/Rex/Shutterstock

And fair enough, Clooney thinks now, from the perspective of fatherhood himself: “He wasn’t wrong.” But young George left for Hollywood anyway, and he has come to think, since, that “pre-supposing anything on to your children in terms of what you want from them” is doomed. If he tries to think of his twins coming to him one day, to announce bold and foolhardy decisions of their own, “I hope I will be at a place where I can say, ‘All right. Make your mistakes.’”

Clooney’s own are there for everyone to see on his IMDB page. 1988: Return of the Killer Tomatoes. 1997: Batman & Robin. These are the two silliest examples from his back catalogue and I pick them out because they bookend his emergence to fame, which came from playing Dr Doug Ross on the late-Thursday-night hospital drama ER. It started broadcasting in 1994. Pretty soon, something like 40m people were staying up until 10.59pm every week to watch. Opportunities everywhere, the newly famous Clooney made a trio of movies, between 1995 and 1997, that shaped so much of what was to come over the next 25 years.

He did a vampire movie with Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, From Dusk Till Dawn, in which he played a violent but charming crook. Though audiences were most used to seeing him as a saucy hospital doctor, Clooney was oddly plausible in this role. Then he did a romcom, One Fine Day, opposite Michelle Pfeiffer. Fine. But not a genre he would revisit more than once. And he put on a mask and a cape and he played Batman in Batman & Robin, a $125m blockbuster and a dismal, haunting flop.

When I ask him what aspects of his younger life he would approach differently, as a man on the cusp of 60, he says: “Now, the obvious answer to your question would be to joke, Batman & Robin. And I wouldn’t do it at all.” Actually, the flop was an important lesson for him, he says. “I learned that if you’re gonna be held responsible for a film, instead of just being an actor in that film, you’d better pick better films.”

It had worked really well when he played a charming crook in From Dusk Till Dawn. So he did this over and over again. “I’ve been a crook in almost everything good I’ve ever done. Out of Sight [1998], crook. The Ocean’s 11 trilogy [2001, 2004, 2007], crook. In Michael Clayton [2007] I was a crook.” Add to this his brilliant performance as an escaped convict in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen Brothers movie from 2000, and his pitch-perfect voicing of the title character in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mister Fox, from 2009, and you’ve got a career absolutely dominated by agreeable villainy.

He won an Oscar in 2005 for his role as a CIA assassin in Syriana, by which time Clooney had started writing and directing his own stuff, starting with 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, about a cheery gameshow host who is also a killer. It hasn’t left him with a lot of things he can show to his kids.

Band on the run: as an escaped convict in O Brother, Where Art Thou? from 2000.
Band on the run: as an escaped convict in O Brother, Where Art Thou? from 2000. Photograph: Allstar/Alamy

“Maybe One Fine Day?” Clooney suggests. “Though I do kiss Michelle Pfeiffer, so the twins would be, like, ‘Eeeeeeergh! Bluuuurgh!’ I think some of the Coen Brothers movies I could get away with showing them. Well – maybe not that one where I’m building a sex machine in the basement.” That would be Burn After Reading, from 2008. In 2009 and 2011, Clooney was in a couple more acclaimed movies, Up in the Air and The Descendants, and in 2013 he was perfect as a slightly sleazy, ultimately heroic spaceman opposite Sandra Bullock in Gravity.

Up to 2013 he was working a lot. Clooney’s first marriage had ended years earlier, in the 1990s, before he got famous on ER. Through his most productive professional decades he was mostly single, and obsessive about being busy. “Taking projects because I felt like I needed to keep the continuum and keep working,” he says. “Everything changed when I got married to Amal.”

It’s worth taking a slightly more forensic look at his life in this period, as his freewheeling workaholic singledom came to an end and Clooney began a new phase of life. He has always loved telling stories, and the months straddling 2013 and 2014 gave rise to a lot – like the one about Clooney getting so rich off the success of Gravity (he earned a percentage of its box office) that he gathered together his 14 best friends and gave each $1m. In cash.

Now Clooney tells me another story, about the very earliest weeks of his relationship with Amal (then) Alamuddin, in February 2014. That month he was in the UK to talk up a new movie he’d directed and co-written, The Monuments Men, about soldiers at the tail-end of the Second World War who were tasked to protect priceless works of European art from Nazi looters. Innocently enough (he now insists), Clooney had mentioned a belief that the United Kingdom might return the Parthenon marbles to Greece.

Romcom Romeo: with Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day, 1996.
Romcom Romeo: with Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day, 1996. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

“And that,” Clooney tells me, picking up the story, “was when your current prime minister compared me to Adolf Hitler.”

Excuse me?

“Boris Johnson. Literally compared me to Hitler.”

Clooney doesn’t often let the measured, cool-bean persona slip – but now he giggles like a schoolboy, reddening, properly amused. “It still makes me laugh. Bit of a stretch. But he said my comments about the Marbles made me an art thief like Hitler was an art thief.”

Anyway, here’s the weird part, says Clooney. Being compared to a fascist by a major British politician, “It was kind of great for me! Because Amal and I were secretly dating at the time. No one knew. There was all this uproar about what I’d said. And I was meeting Amal for dinner that night.” By coincidence, she had been hired as a lawyer to advocate on Greece’s behalf for the return of the Marbles. “She goes to me, ‘Y’know I’ve worked on that case? So listen. Here’s a lot of stuff you should say.’ She told me about Unesco rulings. Gave me all this info.” Next time Clooney spoke about the matter in public, hoping to settle Johnson’s hash, “I was just loaded with facts. Fantastic!”

That dinner discussing Boris and Hitler set the template, in a way, for the family-table conversations they would be having seven years later, in lockdown. George and Amal against the rakes and the bullies of the world stage. In the nearer term it set them on their way to marriage, in Italy in September 2014.

Looked at one way, I say to Clooney, you owe everything – your marriage, your kids, your present state of domestic contentment – to Boris Johnson. “You’re right,” he says. “So, what, I should send him a thank you note? I’ll send him a note. A thank you note. And a comb.”

Sweden: George ClooneyUS actor George Clooney in Stockholm, Sweden, March 13, 2019. (Photo by Anette Nantell / Dagens Nyheter / TT / Sipa USA)
‘After all the pretty insane stuff in the US, there is now some normalcy.’ Photograph: Anette Nantell/Dagens Nyheter/TT/Sipa USA

With Amal, Clooney set up a foundation in 2016 with the intention of holding to account international figures who have abused human rights. If you’re wondering why you haven’t seen him in all that many films in the past few years, this is why, says Clooney. “Working less on movies, working more on life. I gotta tell you, it’s been pretty fun chasing some war criminals around.”

One of the things the foundation does is try to help on financial sanctions for those who profit from war crimes. Clooney really, really likes this bit. “We have forensic accountants we’ve hired away from the FBI to find these illicit bank accounts. People who are supposed to be safeguarding their people and, instead, are profiteering while those people are murdered? It’s really nice to be able to freeze all their assets and make them suddenly broke. It’s about as fun as anything can be.”

With the strides being made by the foundation, recently, in helping to prosecute war criminals in Darfur, and given the recent outcome of the US election, Clooney says he’s feeling more optimistic about the future than he has in a while. Way-back-when, in the 1990s, Clooney used to see Donald Trump on the New York party circuit. “I knew him as the guy who was, like, ‘Hey, what’s that cocktail waitress’s name? Is she single?’ That’s all he was. Literally that’s all he was. And to see that become president, it felt as though the world had gone crazy.” Now, he says, as the page turns to president-elect Joe Biden, “The hope starts. After four years of some pretty insane stuff coming out of the United States, there is some normalcy.”

We’ve been talking for a while. Clooney rubs his beard and stretches his neck. Outside, riding up and down on their bicycles, his twins could be up to anything by now. I expect he’ll go out and check on them once our conversation is over. We’re in that wrapping-up, valedictory phase of a good and thorough chat, a time for by-the-ways and final thoughts. He says: “It’s been a crappy year. It has. But we’re gonna get through it. I believe that with my whole heart. If I didn’t believe that I don’t know how we’d raise kids in this world. We’re gonna get through these things and my hope and my belief is that we will come out better.”

At last he leans into his camera. He raises an eyebrow. “And, hey, listen, when we’re done here – let your kid have their bedroom back, will ya?” I promise I will.

The Midnight Sky is in select cinemas now, and on Netflix from 23 December