George Clooney on ‘Ides of March’ and ‘The Descendants’

Oscar-winner George Clooney takes a look back at his career to date, and his two new movies in particular.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

At the Toronto International Film Festival, I had two opportunities to hear George Clooney speak. Like a seasoned politician, George Clooney gives press conferences, and gave one for each of his films at the fest. In The Ides of March, he plays a politician, and he also directed. In The Descendants, he plays a father for director Alexander Payne. In both sessions, Clooney shared his diplomatic wisdom about navigating a career in front of and behind the camera.


‘The Ides of March’ is not political.

George Clooney: I didn’t think of this as really a political film. I thought this was a film about moral choices. I didn’t think of it really as necessarily the political side. I just thought it was a fun moral tale. Once you set it in politics, it amps up all the problems and I thought that was fun. I think you need to remember that films don’t lead the way. People oftentimes think that films somehow are trying to lead society. In general it takes a few years at the very least to get a film made. So mostly we’re reflecting the moods and thoughts that are going on in our country or around the world. This film reflects some of the cynicism that we’ve seen in recent times. That’s probably good. It’s not a bad thing to hold a mirror up and look at some of the things that we’re doing. It’s not a bad thing to look at how we elect our politicians but that wasn’t what the film was designed to do.


We’re all as dirty as the politicians.

George Clooney: Honestly the idea was for us that there isn’t a person you’ve ever met that hasn’t been faced with certain moral questions. Every one of us has had that idea of well, if I take this job which is better, I might be screwing over my boss who I like. Everybody makes moral choices that better themselves and hurt someone else along the way. Whether or not the means justify the ends, that to me is universal. It could’ve been Wall Street. It would’ve been probably easier on Wall Street. It could’ve been anything. That was our point.


Don’t fret about the state of politics today.

George Clooney: I think everything is cyclical and I think we’re in a period of time right now where it’s probably not our best moment in politics, in the political cycle. But if you look at the things that Jefferson and Adams did to one another, there’s an awful lot. The 1800 election was pretty evil and pretty rotten so things change. They’re cyclical.


Bringing production back to… Michigan.

George Clooney: We loved it there. First of all, Ann Arbor’s an amazing city. We were there on St. Patrick’s Day and everyone was drinking green beer and getting screwed up. I was like, “This town is for me.” We loved being on campus there. We loved shooting around Detroit and Ann Arbor. When you go to Detroit you see a town that’s just resilient, that’s just fighting to win again. There’s an energy to cities like that. I remember New York went through that in the mid-80’s/early ‘80s. Just watching a city really fighting to get back on its feet and watching the inner strength of the city is just tremendous. We loved shooting there. Could’ve done without some of the weather but that’s nothing we couldn’t take care of.


No personal questions. Look what happened to the guy who tried.

George Clooney: You know, it’s funny. I knew someone would do it. I’m a little disappointed it’s you. Everyone here is a little ashamed of you right now. What’s your name? [Reporter gives his name] Everybody remember that name. Hard hitting interview by Paul. Listen, I think it’s tremendous that you asked the question. Go back and tell your editor that you asked the question.


Back to the political talk.

George Clooney: Some of the speeches I used for some of the things and ideas that my dad used to write about in the newspaper. The idea of him having some of these issues that he has seem to pop up pretty much almost every week in politics so it seemed familiar to us in a lot of ways. People thought it was about the John Edwards thing but this was written long before the John Edwards thing broke. We didn’t really model it after anybody. There were enough examples that we could just pick little pieces from everyone.


A modest director.

George Clooney: Well, let me tell you. George Clooney likes to talk about himself in the third person. Listen, I don’t like to think in those terms. You have to completely separate yourself one from the other. [The director is] pretty much the same guy as George Clooney the actor. I’m exactly the same height, same hair, pretty much the same. I’m lucky enough to work with a great bunch of actors who elevate the project. That’s the secret to directing, working with good people. How’s that for a political answer?


Trying to make ‘70s films today.

George Clooney: Before I did my first film I read Sidney Lumet’s book on directing which is really helpful. It teaches you shortcut tricks like set a shot, the very first shot you shoot, set it even if it’s something you’re never going to use in the film. Set it, do one take, cut, move on, print, move on. Everybody in the crew and everybody in the cast gets nervous because they think this could happen really quickly. It changes the chemistry on set and I thought that was very helpful, especially for a first time director when I was doing it. It doesn’t hurt to watch some of his films. I think Network is a masterpiece. I think he probably had as good a decade as anybody, Pakula, 70s film directors.


How to make George Clooney happy.

George Clooney: To me I really like it when people appreciate the work. I really do. I enjoy good reviews much more than I enjoy bad reviews. I enjoy people celebrating the work but I really don’t have this dying need to collect things. There’s a point in time where you start in this that you do get competitive. You can get caught up in it, you’re trying to compete with people, you realize that’s silly. We’re comparing artists and I don’t understand that. I don’t remember who won the Oscar four years ago or five years ago or what director won or what film won. I remember films. I watch Networkand that was the year, 1976, where it was Bound for Glory, Network, All the President’s Men, Rockyand Taxi Driver. Rockywon. Rocky’s a terrific film. So are those other four films and I remember those films really well. I remember movies. I don’t remember awards. So I like films.


The long road to ‘ER.’

George Clooney: Well, I was on some pretty crappy TV shows. I was pretty bad in them, but you always think of yourself as a film actor. I’m a film actor, I just happen to be doing this crappy TV show right now. Soon I’ll have this great film career that I actually wasn’t having. There’s a period of time where you’re just trying to get a job. Then you’ve got to get lucky. ER was lucky. We were going to be on Friday night at 10 o’clock and we wouldn’t have done a third the numbers that we did on Thursday night at 10 o’clock. That’s luck. When they talk about numbers now of ratings, 17 million people for a show, we were doing 35, 40, 45 million people a week.


Looking at Hollywood with post-‘ER’ glasses.

George Clooney: Immediately I went from obscurity to being able to get a film. I wasn’t able to before. I auditioned a lot and I didn’t get them. So that was luck. It had very little to do with me. I was the same actor I was when I was reading for two lines in a film. Then things change and you start to realize how you have to take responsibility for the roles because you’re going to be held responsible for the whole movie. If your name is on it above the title, then you have to actually pay attention more to not just your part but to the film so that was part of it. I got a good couple of lessons on some not great films. Then I realized I’m going to be held responsible, I better pay attention to the films. That’s when things changed. I had a pretty good run right after that with Out of Sight, Three Kings and O Brother [Where Art Thou?] where it was like oh, I get it. I’ve got to work with really good filmmakers and off of really good screenplays.


Still a hired hand for other directors.

George Clooney: Well, my career path for the last 10 years or so has been to direct, but directing takes a long time to get one done. Ask Alexander [Payne]. It could take a while. My day job is acting and that’s how I make my living. Directing is something that I really want to do, really enjoy doing so in between those, if I’m lucky enough to have Alexander or Steven Soderbergh, or the Coen Brothers or Jason Reitman or Tony Gilroy, really good directors around, then I’m lucky. And that’s what I want to do.


The George Clooney holiday double feature.

George Clooney: I find that it’s a very odd thing to think of competition when you’re talking about what I still consider art. I don’t really think of it as competing and I don’t ever think of competing with actors or filmmakers at all. You do compete in a way at the box office but we’re far enough apart with when both films are coming out so I’m not concerned with that either. Look, we’d like both films to be well liked. We try to make films we’d like to see. They’re not easy to get made. They’re hard to get made. You have to keep the budget low to get them made, but at the end of the day, I don’t really worry about competition because I don’t really think of it that way. I don’t feel like I’m a race with anybody, particularly Alexander because I don’t want to race him. That would be a drag.


The George Clooney Legacy.

George Clooney: In general, I try in my career and I think Alexander has done in his career, I want to do projects that last longer than an opening weekend. That’s it. When they do that thing for you when you’re 75 and they bring out a wheelchair and you’ve got the colostomy bag hanging off the side, you don’t want them to say, “Well, you had 20 films that opened number one.” Who gives a sh**? Honestly, it’s an art form that costs millions and millions of dollars so I understand that it has to make money and I want to make sure it does by keeping the price down, but the truth is I want to make things that people remember. If you’re able to do five or ten of those in your life that last, then you win. Unless somebody steps on your colostomy bag.