George Clooney: 'Ageing on screen is not the easiest thing to do.'
It is the morning after the night before and George Clooney has no right to be looking as good as he does. He does not recall what time he got to bed but he knows he took in a premiere and at least two parties where he was out late - something he says with a wry grin that his Aunt Rosemary (the late singer Rosemary Clooney) told him he should never do.
Instead of looking tired and haggard he is bright, clear-eyed and as charming and urbane as ever as he settles into a chair in a Toronto hotel suite and reaches for a glass of water, then pushes it away. "I can't drink this if there's no caffeine in it," he jokes.
He has spent the past few days doing the promotional rounds at the Toronto International Film Festival for two films, although in effect he is working against himself: he has high hopes for The Ides of March, the political drama he directed and stars in, while at the same time he is tub-thumping for The Descendants, in which he stars but which was directed by Alexander Payne.
The Ides of March is a Clooney-driven project. He wrote the screenplay, based on Beau Willimon's play Farragut North; produced the film with Leonardo DiCaprio; and portrays a smooth-talking presidential candidate whose idealistic assistant, played by Ryan Gosling, discovers the dark side of politics on the campaign trail.
Clooney, who turned 50 years old in May, shows his age in The Descendants, an emotional, bittersweet drama in which he plays a husband and father who takes off with his two daughters to track down his comatose wife's lover. It isn't a typical movie-star role, as the character is somewhat helpless and vulnerable - what Clooney calls "a schlub" - with untidy hair and unstylish clothes.
"I just have to share getting older with everybody in the world on screen and it's a little trickier, but I'm OK with it," he says. "I felt this was a good place to talk about fears and loss in your life and Alexander Payne was the perfect director to do it with. In this film I got to rediscover what it was like not to be confident. "
For the most part, however, Clooney contemplates his greying hair and middle age with equanimity.
"I'm old," he says with a laugh. "It's an interesting thing to watch yourself grow older on screen. Fifty wasn't a big landmark for me, probably because I have been in the business so long people already thought I was 50 a long time ago.
"It's funny, because most male actors work with actresses who are considerably younger; it's just the way the world works. But earlier in my career I was working with a lot of actresses who were my age or older, so people always thought I was older anyway and now I'm going through this thing with people thinking I'm about 60.
"But I'm kind of comfortable with getting older because it's better than the other option, which is being dead. So I'll take getting older."
Clooney is instantly recognised wherever he goes and it would be difficult to find an actor with a bigger legion of female fans. Yet he appears to have maintained a relatively down-to-earth attitude to it all, insisting that he still stands in lines rather than using his star power to queue-jump and frequently flies commercial rather than in private jets.
He has the image of a carefree playboy, always with time to spare for wine, women and enjoying the good things of life. While living up to his magazine reputation as the Sexiest Man Alive and possessing the sort of matinee-idol good looks that send normally self-possessed women gaga, he also comes across as a man's man - one of the boys.
All that is true, up to a point. But with Clooney what you see is not always what you get. Those who know him well say that behind his gleaming and sometimes slick façade is a driven power player, determined to do things his way. And far from being a superficial Hollywood hedonist, he is in fact a widely read and deeply thoughtful humanitarian who admits to occasionally feeling restless and frustrated with his position in Hollywood.
His charity work on behalf of the starving and dispossessed in the Sudanese region of Darfur and Congo is well known, and although he can command a salary of US$20 million (Dh73.46m) a film, he regularly turns big-money offers down in favour of projects he sees as meaningful and important.
Although he is intrigued by politics - his father, Nick Clooney, a veteran journalist, unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2004 as a Kentucky Democrat - he insists he has no intention of ever seeking office, preferring to deliver his messages and make whatever changes he can through his films.
"In politics you have to answer to people, while in film, particularly when you're directing, you're the dictator, you can take sides and you decide what kind of story you want to tell and do all the things you can't do in politics," he says. "I very much enjoyed the ability to talk about corporate corruption in Michael Clayton and oil problems in Syriana and the idea of the responsibility of a free press in Good Night, and Good Luck. I like to be able to do that and I don't have to answer to anybody except the ticket-buying public and when they stop buying tickets, then I'll stop making those movies.
"I'm trying to make films I have a say in and that take on issues that make me able to look my dad in the eye."
Clooney is easy to talk to. He is affable and easygoing and chats freely about most topics although he prefers to dodge questions about girlfriends and commitment. Briefly married to the actress Talia Balsam between 1989 and 1993, he has a long list of past girlfriends that includes the actresses Renée Zellweger, Kelly Preston, Dedee Pfeiffer, Kimberly Russell, Brooke Langton, Traylor Howard, Krista Allen and Jennifer Siebel; the models Celine Balitran, Lisa Snowdon and Sarah Larson; and the Italian television personality Elisabetta Canalis. In Toronto he is accompanied by the statuesque Stacy Keibler, a 31-year-old actress and former professional wrestler.
He is the envy of many men who would love his seemingly footloose and carefree lifestyle. But he worked hard for it. The son of a beauty queen mother and a television personality father, he grew up in a small town in Kentucky, leaving at the age of 21 to move to Los Angeles to stay with his Aunt Rosemary.
"I was always jealous of my cousins in Beverly Hills because it sounded like such an exciting, glamorous life," he recalls. But after spending a decade struggling in forgettable roles, he was having second thoughts.
He appeared in an astounding 15 pilots for television series that never made it to the screen and had small roles in little-seen films such as Return of the Killer Tomatoes! (1988) and Grizzly II: The Concert (1987).
"My father used to write me long letters, which I still have, in which he used to tell me to knock it off and get a real job," Clooney says with a laugh. "My parents were disappointed in me at times but I've never felt they weren't proud of me, either."
In 1994 he landed the regular role of the charming but troubled Dr Doug Ross in the hit television series ER, which launched him as a heartthrob and made him a star. He went on to appear in the films The Peacemaker (1997), Three Kings (1999) and his first major hit, The Perfect Storm (2000), while providing fodder for the gossip columns with a string of romances that built his reputation as a love-'em-and-leave-'em ladies' man.
He has starred in a diverse collection of films, ranging from the Ocean's Eleven trilogy to the fact-based drama Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) and the satirical The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009). He was nominated for best-acting Oscars for Michael Clayton (2007) and Up in the Air (2009) and won best supporting actor for Syriana (2005). He was nominated twice for Good Night, and Good Luck, for best director and for best screenplay. He admits, though, that not all his work has been of the highest quality.
"I've certainly done some turkeys along the way and made some dumb choices in my career," he says. "I'm one of the lucky ones who got to make a lot of mistakes very early when no one was paying attention. I did a lot of terrible TV shows and was really terrible in them and I've done terrible films I was terrible in, but nobody really noticed."
Clooney lives well even by movie star standards, with an Italian villa on Lake Como and a Tudor-style mansion in the hills above Studio City in Los Angeles, but he has kept the same group of pals he has had since he arrived in Hollywood. His house is their central meeting place and the site of a regular Sunday barbecue.
"I never thought I would ever be in the position I'm in," he says. "I'd been working a lot but I hadn't really broken through and I didn't think I was going to be successful. So it's all icing on the cake and fun for me. I'm able to handle the idea of fame a little easier because I wasn't famous for so long and I understand how little it has to do with me and how much it has to do with other elements, like luck and being in the right place at the right time."
But now he thinks is the time to move on, possibly away from acting and into writing and directing.
"You have to remember it's not just that I've done a bunch of films and been around for a long time," Clooney says. "It's also that I've done hundreds of television episodes and acting has been my career for a long, long time. I've had some success at writing and directing and I like it; it's infinitely more creative than just acting and I have things I want to say and do."
Could turning 50 have something to do with it?
"Ageing on screen is not the easiest thing to do and there are guys who did it really well," he says. "Paul Newman probably did it the best because he figured out that at about 55 years old it's probably best to start looking at character pieces. You're getting greyer and getting older and you start thinking that there's a point when people aren't going to want to see you on screen anymore and you have to beat them to the punch. You don't want to be the last guy at the party with all the toys going 'Where did everybody go?' You want to be ahead of the curve, not behind it.
"So the way I look at it, I'd rather be directing and writing and picking the acting parts when they're right, and that's what I'm trying to do more and more of. I have a real interest in just sticking my neck out and seeing what happens. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but I'm learning to handle the 'it doesn't' part better.
"It's part of the fun of it."
The Ides of March will be shown at an outdoor screening on October 25 at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr and is scheduled to open in UAE cinemas on October 27.
The Clooney file
BORN May 6, 1961, Lexington, Kentucky
SCHOOLING Blessed Sacrament School, Fort Mitchell, Kentucky; St Michael's School, Columbus, Ohio; St Susanna School, Mason, Ohio; Northern Kentucky University
FAMILY Father Nick Clooney, a TV anchorman, and mother Nina, former beauty queen
FIRST JOB Floor manager at a TV station
FIRST ACTING JOB In the TV series Riptide (1983)
WORST ROLE Batman in Batman & Robin
CAN'T STAND Deceit
LAST BOOK READ Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins
FAVOURITE QUOTE "Don't wake up at 70 years old sighing over what you should have tried. Just do it, be willing to fail and at least you gave it a shot" - Rosemary Clooney
George Clooney concedes he took roles in some "terrible" films while he has paying his dues as an actor, and at least one such role after he became a star. Among the worst were:
RETURN TO HORROR HIGH (1987) This comedy horror film got only a limited release and Clooney disappears after 15 minutes. Some critics say it's one of those productions that is so bad it's good.
COMBAT ACADEMY (1987) Despite being made by the creator of Police Academy, this made-for-television comedy was a critical disaster. Clooney was third billed.
RETURN OF THE KILLER TOMATOES (1988) The first sequel to the 1978 cult favourite Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, this unfunny comedy holds a zero per cent score on the web site Rotten Tomatoes.
THE HARVEST (1992) Two years away from his breakthrough in ER, Clooney plays - wait for it - a "Lip Synching Transvestite".
BATMAN & ROBIN (1997) Clooney and Chris O'Donnell were nominated for a Razzie as Worst Screen Couple and Clooney himself later told The Boston Globe of this critical failure: "I think we might have killed the franchise."
Updated: October 22, 2011 04:00 AM