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George Clooney: The Full Interview

At home with the world’s most affable enigma.

George Clooney: The Full Interview

1| Entry to George Clooney’s house is granted by speakerphone, at which high gates open on to a twisting driveway shaded by tall trees. And just as one can feel lonelier in the chaos of a party than in the quiet of an empty building, so in LA it is possible to feel more isolated in the middle of the metropolis than one might in a remote cabin in the woods; the atmosphere here is of complete seclusion.

By Hollywood superstar standards Clooney’s is, I’m told, a modest house. By my standards and possibly yours it is grander than that: a mock-Tudor mansion of stone, dark wood and leather, with bar, pool, barbecue area, screening room and basketball court. He bought it in 1995, in the first flush of fame, for less than $1m; it’s worth more than that now.

The house is in Studio City, on the less celestial side of the hills that divide LA from the San Fernando Valley. To get to it from my hotel, on Sunset, one must climb up Laurel Canyon Boulevard, cross over Mulholland Drive, the city’s curvaceous spine, and plunge down the other side towards the endless, sunbaked, low-rise horizon.

Two cars are in the open garage on the day I visit, in late September: a black Porsche 911 and a gleaming red and white Chevrolet Corvette. It’s a 1959 model, Clooney tells me later. It was once his father’s, bought new in the year of Nick Clooney’s marriage to Nina Warren, George’s mother, later pressed into awkward service (it’s a two-seater) as the family runaround; young George would sit on Nina’s lap, his sister Ada, one year his senior, on her dad’s. Early experiments at airbags, says Clooney. Nick, now 79, gave up on the car years ago and shipped it out from Kentucky to his son on the coast, where it has recently been restored. I park my hire car – which suddenly looks shamefully plain – next to a third Clooney-mobile: a hybrid, which is what he uses to get around in when he’s not on one of his motorcycles.

The greeting on the front doorstep is almost overpowering, involving both licking and nuzzling. This is Einstein, Clooney’s spaniel. He’s followed by Angel, Clooney’s assistant, a cheerful, red-haired woman in early middle age, who ushers me inside. Clooney appears and extends a hand. Before I can take him in, I’m being introduced to another man: pinstriped, with owlish spectacles. “My doctor,” says Clooney, his hand on the dapper owl’s shoulder. “If you have time for a check-up, be my guest.”

Then, to the doctor, in a stage whisper: “He’s from England. There’s gotta be something wrong with him.” He pats me on the back and leads the doctor towards the front door. “If you find anything bad, don’t tell me,” he says. “I don’t want to know.”

Then he disappears into the kitchen, telling Angel, over the whirring of a food blender, to keep me entertained. “Do that thing you do.” At which she giggles and I chuckle and Einstein leaps on to a sofa in delight, and falls fast asleep.

The sitting room I’m led to has a luxury suite vibe. It’s comfortable and clubby and there’s no clutter at all. The TV over the fireplace is tuned to ESPN, and muted. Clooney reappears, slurping a purple smoothie and taking about his doctor, who was here to take his blood for some tests. This is not some faddish celebrity indulgence: since injuring himself on the set of the film Syriana, in 2005, Clooney has had to contend with serious medical issues. He is frequently in pain. Not that you’d know it. In fact, I completely forget about it until he brings it up, when I ask about why he no longer plays golf. He says that when you’ve had as many neck operations as he has, not playing golf is the least of your worries.

But that conversation is a long way off. There’s preliminary badinage to get into first, for which Clooney positions himself on the floor, his back resting against a sofa, and we talk sport, their football versus ours, baseball versus cricket. He’s barefoot, in ratty jeans and a T-shirt advertising Casamigos Tequila. (He co-owns the brand with his buddy Rande Gerber, the nightlife and liquor entrepreneur who also decorated this house.) I sit at right angles to Clooney in a leather club chair, looking down at him; the idea of joining him on the floor seems too presumptuous. Neither of us moves from his position for close to three hours.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s a talker, or that his stories are expertly told. Nor should it seem unlikely to anyone who has seen the films he has made in the past decade that he addresses the big topics – love, death, work, family, relationships – with just the right measure of levity, to sweeten the pill. Or that he is both expansive and controlled, never speaking just to hear the sound of his own barrel-aged voice. Early in our conversation, I ask him about his father, Nick Clooney, an entertainer turned TV newsman, columnist and journalism teacher, and an outspoken liberal. Clearly Nick has been a big influence on his son.

“I tell you,” he says, instantly warming to a theme, “I had a wild day on Sunday.” It began with a basketball game, at which, he says, he ran rings around men 20 years his junior (he might be famously self-deprecating but, to his credit, Clooney doesn’t do false modesty); moved on to a memorial service for Clooney’s Uncle Dante; continued back here, where father and son watched their football team, the Cincinnati Bengals, unexpectedly defeat the mighty Green Bay Packers; and proceeded to a ride along Mulholland in the Corvette, which in turn led to an encounter with the LAPD.

Clooney: “I guess I was screaming it around the corners, and we were in suits from [Dante’s] ceremony, with the top down, and the cop is like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ And I just said, ‘This is the first time we’ve driven this car in 30 years.’ And he let us go!”

We’ll never know if you or I would have got away with that but George Clooney did and anyway, that’s not the point of the story. It’s about making the most of your time with the people you love, about the bond between a son and his father. The day after their joyride, Clooney tells me, he screened a rough cut of his next film, a Second World War drama called The Monuments Men, for Nick, who has a small part in it playing George’s character as an old man.

Clooney: “In the very last shot of the movie, [Nick] walks out through this church and the music is playing and for the screening I had this card come up at the end: ‘In loving memory of Nick Clooney’. And he’s like, ‘I’m not… what the hell?’ And I go, ‘Hey, man, the movie doesn’t come out for a while. I’m just covering all my bases’.”

This cracks Clooney up. He loves it for what it says about his old man and him: high-spirited guys who are not afraid to confront life’s harshest truths. It’s pretty near the knuckle, I say. “Oh, he has a pretty good sense of humour,” Clooney says.

These are by no means the only stories he tells me about senior family members. Indeed, before the Nick stories begin, maybe 10 minutes after we first sit down, Clooney tells me about Uncle Dante, who died, at 87, just a few weeks before our meeting.

By the time they married, in 1997, Dante DiPaolo and George’s aunt, the famous singer and actress Rosemary Clooney, had been together for 30 years. George was in the room when Dante took his last breath.

“There is something very unsettling about being with someone when they die,” he says. “People say it’s peaceful. It’s not peaceful. It’s the most personal thing you can do, is die, and you feel almost like you’re invading someone’s most personal moment by being there. So you can sit there and say, ‘I’m here with you.’ But really, you’re on your own, they’re on their own. And you don’t know how to react. So you go, ‘He was 87, he had a good life. He didn’t want to live any more.’ But I don’t think of him as an 87-year-old. I remember when I was 12 and he was the guy giving me five bucks, teaching us to dance. He was a fun old man, fun guy…”

He trails off and I offer my condolences, and perhaps we both realise that we’ve travelled too fast, almost at Chevy Corvette pace, from hello-nice-to-meet-you to you’re-born-alone-and-you-die-alone. So then he tells the story about speeding with his dad on Mulholland, and then more stories, one leading into the other.

Some are cast in shadow, like the driveway up to the house. Others, like the swimming pool I can see through the windows, are sunlit and dazzling.

***

2 | George Clooney’s stories, like his films, are intended to amuse, to entertain, and even to enlighten. I’m not certain the idea is to illuminate his character. I’m not sure whether even the most apparently personal anecdote is intended to be revelatory in that sense.

Jason Reitman, the writer-director who cast Clooney in his terrific 2009 drama Up in the Air, about a lonely executive hiding his sadness behind a smokescreen of charm, declines to speculate on the reasons why Clooney is moved to tell stories, in person and on screen. For himself, he says, stories are a kind of therapy: “I use my film-making to work through my deep questions and my deep problems. I think I could watch each film and tell you exactly which part of my psyche I’m trying to work out.”

Is this true of Clooney? He tells me, very politely, that he is not much interested in exploring his private motivations with a journalist. He did some of that early on in his career, and he feels it was a mistake.

When I remark that for all his fame and his public affability he remains enigmatic, and thus an irresistible source of speculation for the professionally prurient (like me), he doesn’t disagree.

But then Cate Blanchett, his co-star in two films to date, tells me that the very best thing an actor can be is enigmatic. If we, as an audience, are going to believe someone as something they’re not, we’d better not know them too well. “Under the radar is the only way to fly,” Blanchett says.

Movie stars, in other words, are best admired from a distance. And Clooney is the definitive contemporary movie star. As such he is acutely aware of his own screen persona. There are, he says, two types of leading man: the actor who disappears into a role so that you hardly recognise him and the star who remains essentially the same from film to film. He uses Laurence Olivier and Spencer Tracy as examples, but he might just as easily have said Daniel Day-Lewis and George Clooney.

He tells me a story about why, in 2005, when he made a film called Good Night, and Good Luck, he decided not to cast himself as the lead. The role – crusading TV anchorman Edward R Murrow – called for an actor who could project both gravitas and sadness. Clooney knew that at that time audiences accustomed to seeing him as a suave ladies’ man simply wouldn’t buy him as a wracked intellectual. He cast David Strathairn: an actor, not a star.

Clooney thinks that one of the reasons that the idea of the movie star is dying – apart from the fact that Hollywood hardly makes star-driven material any more, preferring to concentrate on comic-book blockbuster franchises – is that we now know too much about famous people’s lives for anyone to be able to project a consistent invented image on screen. He mentions Spencer Tracy again, a star whose screen persona – decent, sincere, gruff – was at least in some sense at odds with the private individual, a heavy-drinking philanderer. “He was having a long-running affair with Katharine Hepburn,” Clooney says, “but nobody knew about it.” On screen, Clooney says, “you knew what Spencer Tracy stood for.” And that’s what mattered.

Film stars thrive not only on mystery, Clooney says, or secrecy if you prefer, but on scarcity. Their new ubiquity on the internet devalues their currency. As for social media, “I think anyone who is famous is a moron if they’re on Twitter. It’s just stupid.”

It’s not true, as it sometimes seems, that Clooney is unfazed by fame. He rarely complains about it, figuring – quite rightly – that people will think, “What’s the guy in the big house on the hill got to complain about?’” But the truth is, “The big house on a hill is isolating. There’s no other way to say it. There are restrictions to this kind of fame. I haven’t walked in Central Park for 15 years. I’d like to, you know?”

I ask Grant Heslov, for many years a jobbing actor alongside Clooney, now his partner in the production company Smokehouse Pictures, whether he’d trade places with his friend. “I could never do it,” he says. “I don’t have the make-up. I’ll be honest: when I’m with him I’ve pushed paparazzi guys out the way. I’ve done things I’m not proud of. But I felt provoked. And I also felt like my buddy doesn’t deserve that treatment all the time. I think all of us who are friends with George feel protective of him in that way.”

“I feel bad that he can’t walk down the street,” is how John Goodman, another member of the cast of The Monuments Men puts it. “That’s got to leave some bruises.”

In 2001, Clooney bought a villa on Lake Como, in Italy, as a refuge from his life in LA. (With Rande Gerber, he also owns a beachside property in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico). But even in Italy, he mostly stays in. “If I could I’d be out on the boat every day. I’d sit out on the lake and read a book. But every time you go out, it’s a scene. Other boats follow you, photographers follow you.”

When he wants to ride a motorcycle, he leaves the house at 5am to avoid the photographers. “It’s the Italian paparazzi,” he says. “They don’t get up till 10.”

Stars of old Hollywood, he thinks, wouldn’t be able to cope with the realities of modern stardom. “Not that I’m comparing myself to Clark Gable or whoever but they couldn’t survive in this environment. They’d punch the shit out of some people. It requires a kind of Zen quality.

“There’s a funny thing about fame,” he says. “The truth is you run as fast as you can towards it because it’s everything you want. Not just the fame but what it represents, meaning work, meaning opportunity. And then you get there and it’s shocking how immediately you become enveloped in this world that is incredibly restricting.”

He shrugs, tilts his head, narrows his eyes. “It’s the price you pay.”

***

3 | Long before he was famous, George Clooney used to draw caricatures for money, in an Ohio shopping mall. He still does the very occasional comic portrait, for laughs. If you were to caricature Clooney, you might pick on the strong, mobile jaw and the creases round the eyes when he flashes his sardonic smile. Certainly you would try, and in all likelihood fail, to capture that famous twinkle. You wouldn’t need to meet him to draw him. In person he looks exactly like the screen George Clooney: a Pixar animator’s idea of a matinee idol. Slimmer, perhaps – he really is quite remarkably trim – but neither taller nor shorter and certainly not uglier.

Of course, the George Clooney we think we know is also a caricature, a cartoon. Or maybe he is a series of cartoons, all painted with equally broad brushstrokes. The most popular cartoon – the mainstream crowd-pleaser – portrays him as smooth, genial, unflappable. This is the figure that The New Yorker once described as so at ease with his fame that “he can sometimes look like a spokesman for celebrity itself”.

Another cartoon – black and white, directed by a European auteur, or maybe a chippy Brit (impossible to conceive of, I know) – presents a more conflicted figure, not nearly so golden. Troubled, in fact. Sad. Trapped in his gilded cage.

Heslov says that some of these may be “facets” of Clooney’s character. “Those two things, the throwback movie star and the other [darker] one, those are both maybe accurate to an extent but he’s neither of those things exclusively. Yes, he is charming and funny. And yes, there are dark days for him like there are for all of us. But he is a lot more complicated than that. He’s more than the sum of all those things.”

There are other, even more reductive sketches, often dramatically polarised. He’s a fighter for truth, justice and the American way. He’s a bleeding-heart liberal apologist. He is the last of the great Hollywood ladykillers. He’s gay.

(Doubtless it says more about the infantile circles I move in than it ever could about George Clooney’s sexuality but the question I was asked most often when I said I’d recently met him was: is he gay? The politically correct response, of course, is: who cares? The honest answer: I’ve no idea, but it seems highly unlikely. The celebrity interviewer’s credo: read on, perverts.)

The whispering about his private life is chiefly the result of the fact that, at 52, he is unmarried and childless. His most recent relationship, with a wrestler turned reality TV star, Stacy Keibler, ended last summer. In the month between my meeting him and this magazine going to press, Clooney was linked with at least three women by the Mail Online alone (yes, I get all my news there): a Croatian model, a British lawyer and – perhaps most spuriously – Katie Holmes, ex-wife of Tom Cruise. Oh, and Sandra Bullock, of course, because they are in a film together so obviously they… you know. (And there was me thinking he was gay.)

Clooney, then, is a confirmed bachelor. Except, as Heslov reminds me, “Don’t forget he was actually married.” For four years, in fact, to a fellow actor, Talia Balsam. “He was one of my first friends to get married,” Heslov says. “And it was not a snap decision. There was a lot of love there and he went through a lot with that.” Clooney and Balsam divorced in 1993.

As a husband and father himself, I ask Heslov if he would not wish the same for his friend. “I think he’s fine as he is,” he says. “I know there is always a lot of speculation about it but I just wish for George what he wishes for himself.”

I ask Clooney himself if he is surprised, at his age, to be single again?

“I am surprised, yeah. But I’m surprised by almost everything that’s happened in my life. I’m surprised I don’t live in Kentucky and sell insurance, too. I mean, I really am.”

Why isn’t he married with kids?

“I haven’t had aspirations in that way, ever. I was married in 1989. I wasn’t very good at it. I was quoted as saying I’ll never get married again pretty much right after I got divorced and then I’ve never talked about it since.”

Does he understand why people are suspicious of a 52-year-old man who is single and childless?

“You mean about me being gay or something like that?”

Not necessarily gay. Some people think there might be something weird about you.

“I suppose there is. But what do you do? Should I go, ‘I got to get me some kids right now!’ and rush out and impregnate someone?”

I concede that might not the best move.

“Not the best, no. Look, what I do know is that I was raised in a loving, happy family. I don’t have any dislike or distrust of that.”

There’s one more mention of the gay rumours, when we discuss how the media, and the internet in particular, propagates falsehoods. He was asked once in an interview about an online headline that read: “George Clooney’s gay-gay-gay.”

“And I said, ‘I’m gay-gay. The third one’s pushing it.’ Well, now [according to the internet] I’m gay.”

It doesn’t matter, he says, except it means that since he made his joke, he’s asked to talk about his being gay, or not being gay, or to flat-out deny that he’s gay, “which you’re not going to do, because that’s just insulting to people in the gay community.” And so it becomes one of the tiny things that doesn’t matter but is irritating all the same.

“I could name you 50,” he says. He starts with one: “Donald Trump did fucking Larry King, and said, ‘George Clooney’s a very short guy.’ I’ve met Donald Trump once in my life and I was sitting at a table! Now, I’m not a tall actor. I’m 5ft 11in. It’s not short, it’s not tall. But it certainly wouldn’t be, ‘Ah! He’s a short guy!’ And Larry King’s going, ‘I know George. He doesn’t seem all that short.’ Donald Trump goes, ‘No, he’s very short.’ It’s like, ‘You think I was standing at that table when you met me?’ But now you’ll see people going, ‘Oh yeah, George is really short.’”

If it helps at all, I can confirm that, contra Trump, he is not short. He does indeed look about 5ft 11in. A very decent height, and I should know: it is the single physical trait I share with George Clooney.

Clooney is on a roll now. He tells me that once, when he was asked on TV if he’d had any plastic surgery, he joked that he’d had his balls ironed. “So now, long after I’m dead, it’ll be: ‘George Clooney had his balls ironed.’”

I’m afraid that unlike in the case of the Trump height slur, I can neither confirm nor deny this story. I haven’t seen George Clooney’s balls. He didn’t offer them for inspection and I didn’t like to ask. The ironing sounds unlikely, though, doesn’t it?

So he’s single, and happy with it. Childless, ditto. He’s 5ft 11in. And he has wrinkly balls.

Since we’re putting falsehoods to bed, I ask Clooney if he is a lonely, Gatsby figure, charismatic but forlorn. “I don’t throw parties I don’t go to,” he says, decisively. But he would say that. I ask Rande Gerber if he thinks Clooney is lonely? “Definitely not,” he says. “A private person, yes, but not lonely. He is surrounded by people who care about him.”

Gerber is one of the circle that has surrounded Clooney for close to 30 years. “The boys,” they call themselves: 10 men in total. Some, like Heslov, are in showbiz, or, like Gerber – who is married to Cindy Crawford – are connected to it. Others, like Heslov’s brother Michael, a real-estate developer, have little to do with Hollywood.

Revealingly, perhaps, Heslov says that the reason the boys have managed to stay friends for so long is “quite specifically because of George” and his efforts to that end: organising trips and get-togethers and ensuring everyone is able to make it to them.

“This is my family. I made a family,” says Clooney. He corrects himself. “I didn’t make a family, we made a family. And it really is a family, man. It’s like, I went to Dante’s funeral and the guys showed up for me. And I look around and they’re in the back, sitting there and you wave and they wave. And that means something along the way.”

It’s difficult, he tells me, to find people who will tell you the truth when you’re as famous as he is. The boys are not on his payroll. They knew him long before he made it big. A while ago, when he was drinking a little too much, his friend Matt took him aside and told him to ease off on the booze. That, Clooney says, is not the kind of advice he would get from most people, who would be only too happy to have too much to drink with him.

“These are lasting, important relationships,” he says. “And I wouldn’t know what to do without them.”

***

4 | Clooney once said he was as well prepared for fame, when it came, as anyone who ever lived. He grew up around it, studied it. His first recorded professional credit is for The Nick Clooney Show, in 1968, when he was seven years old. He’s listed as “actor and stagehand”.

Nick was a celebrity around Ohio and Kentucky, and The Nick Clooney Show was a family concern; Nina was Nick’s glamorous Girl Friday and in the summers, because they couldn’t afford babysitters for Ada and George, the whole family would get up at 5.30am and drive to the studio, where all four would work on the show.

At 10, George was learning to be a floor director. He was a performer, too, improvising with his dad, dressing as a leprechaun or the Easter Bunny depending on the holiday. It wasn’t acting, he says. It was playing. He wasn’t some sort of precocious child star, thrust into the limelight by pushy parents. Nor was Clooney’s childhood especially privileged.

“It all sounds very glamorous,” he says now, “but in the early Seventies, my dad was probably making $9,000 a year.” The family moved around many times, following the fluctuating fortunes of Nick’s TV career. They finally settled in Augusta, Kentucky (population: 1,500), where George went to high school. Nick and Nina still live there, with Ada nearby.

So he grew up close to fame but a long way from the bright lights of American showbusiness. Even back then, though, there was a Hollywood connection: Nick’s sister Rosemary, George’s aunt, had been a huge international star in the Fifties. Her husband, José Ferrer – they married twice and divorced twice – was the first Hispanic actor to win an Oscar. They lived in some splendour in Beverly Hills where, aged six, George visited them for the first time.

“They lived on Roxbury Drive,” he remembers, wonder still in his voice. “James Stewart lived on the block. I’d never seen anything like it. It was magical. They had a swimming pool, a tennis court. I was in awe of it all, the wealth and the excitement. I was very taken with my aunt Rosemary, with them all.”

Nevertheless, Clooney had no ambition to follow his aunt and his dad into showbusiness. Young George was a jock. There was no question in his mind that he would grow up to play baseball for the famous Cincinnati Reds. And then he went for tryouts, two years in a row, aged 16 and 17, and it became clear that he didn’t have a prayer of making it as a pro. Instead, he went to college to study journalism. And, like many a journalist before him, at the first sniff of nightlife he fell fast.

“Suddenly I’m in downtown Cincinnati, at the end of the disco era – this is 1979, 1980 – and it was drive-through liquor stores and bars that stay open till 4am and you could drink at 18, so it was, ‘Woohoo, party!’ I would go to class, but I really enjoyed going out at night a lot more. I was not,” he concludes, “a good student”.

Meanwhile, to pay his way, he sold ladies’ shoes in a department store. He did his caricatures. For three summers in a row, he cut tobacco in the fields. He made an abortive attempt at TV reporting, for his mother’s cable show.

Then his cousins, Miguel and Rafael Ferrer, came to Lexington, Kentucky, where their father was making a horseracing movie. George was invited to hang out on set. They even found a small part for him in the film. He was smitten. “It was so exciting to be around a camera,” he says, “to be around pretty girls.” Miguel – today an established character actor – encouraged him to try his luck in Hollywood.

In 1982, Clooney dropped out of college and headed west in a rusty Chevy Monte Carlo that was “leaking oil so bad I would go to the gas station and fill it up with oil and check the gas”. He claims that he slept in it with the engine running, too afraid to turn it off in case it never started again.

He had a place to stay, with the Ferrers, and a bicycle to get around on. He was so green, he says, that for his first few years in LA he thought L Ron Hubbard was a drama coach, since he was quoted alongside Stanislavski in a handbook for actors.

Still, he loved it. He loved it. It was the fast-living early Eighties, he was young, single, great looking and making his way. Better still, he’d finally found something he was really good at.

Grant Heslov met Clooney in 1982, at an acting class. They did a scene from Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs. (Last February, 30 years later, they stood on a Hollywood stage with Ben Affleck, holding aloft Oscars for Best Picture for Argo, which they produced together.) “George was a guy who always had a lot of activity around him,” says Heslov of the 21-year-old Clooney. Define: “activity”? “He was a funny guy, he was charming. And there was a certain level of confidence.”

He had a hustle, too. “Moxie,” Clooney calls it. At the first agency he signed to, he flirted with the girl on reception. She would secretly slip him the breakdowns – updates on which casting director was working on which project, and what, or whom, they were looking to hire.

“So I would call and pretend to be an agent, and pitch myself: ‘There’s this young actor, George Clooney, who you should see for this part. This guy’s really great.’ I got myself five or six auditions that way.”

After almost two years with no paid acting work at all, slowly it started to happen. He had guest spots on TV shows with macho, Reagan-era titles: Riptide. Street Hawk. Then a sitcom called E/R, 10 years before the show of (almost) the same name that made him a star. That led to a part on a hit show, set in a girls’ boarding school, called The Facts of Life.

“I was in my mid twenties,” he says. “I was making $7,000 a week. I’d been living in my buddy’s walk-in closet for almost two years and all of a sudden I could put together enough money for a year’s rent to get into this one-bed apartment. It was $400 a month. I was there for seven or eight years.”

He says he is often given far too much credit for his years of supposed struggle. “The truth is I was doing great, I was happy.” He says he wasn’t even disheartened seeing actors of his age or younger become movie stars. In 1983, he was hired for a film: Grizzly II: The Predator: “Because Grizzly I just screamed sequel,” he says now. The principle cast was Clooney, 22 at the time, with Charlie Sheen, 18, and Laura Dern, 17. They went to Hungary for a month to shoot it. It was never released. “Never even finished,” Clooney says. Back in LA, Sheen almost immediately got Platoon and then Wall Street – becoming, briefly, the hottest young actor in Hollywood. Dern was cast in Blue Velvet. Clooney went back to “seventh banana” on The Facts of Life. But, “to me, it wasn’t, ‘Oh, God, those guys are successful’. It was always, ‘Well, [their success] means it could work out for me, too.’”

Positive outlook notwithstanding, as time went by his options narrowed. Clooney played Roseanne Barr’s boss in the first series of Roseanne. John Goodman, who played Roseanne’s husband, Dan, remembers Clooney from that time. “Oh, boy! Do I ever?” he tells me. Clooney, he says, was, “A: the life of the party. And B: the eye of the storm. And C: just a great guy to work with.” I ask Goodman to expand on the “life of the party” comment. “Well,” he says, “we liked to have a good time back then. And George was instrumental in that.”

(Gerber, who met Clooney for the first time a few years later, explains their early bond less euphemistically: “I like to drink, and George likes to drink,” he tells me.)

But Goodman is keen to portray Eighties Clooney as more than a pretty party boy. “He was full of good humour but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t serious about what he was doing. Even then I could tell he had a bigger agenda. He was very conscientious, he loved good acting, he loved to talk about it. And, yeah, [he had] the visage of a goofball – with a lot of hair.”

His ambition was not satisfied by his next show: Baby Talk, a spin-off from the Look Who’s Talking movies, in which an adult actor voices the thoughts of an infant. Nor by his next film, Return of the Killer Tomatoes! As he turned 30, Clooney was flirting with failure.

Around this time, his uncle died. Not Dante, a different uncle, Uncle George. (I may have raised an eyebrow at this point in the story: “Maybe I shouldn’t be around my uncles so much,” he acknowledges.) George was a sadder figure than Dante: disappointed, a “bad drunk”.

“He was a guy who at one time had all the promise in the world,” says Clooney. “He was a B-17 bomber pilot, he dated Miss America, he was my Aunt Rosemary’s band manager. And although he was much loved, he ended his life sleeping in the tack room of a cheap horse-race track. I remember watching him in the last couple of days of his life. ‘What a waste.’ He just kept saying that. And I remember thinking, ‘Fuck, man, it’s over like that. And I didn’t want to get to 70 and go, ‘What a waste’.”

With Uncle George’s fate in mind, Clooney quit Baby Talk. Almost immediately the quality of the work he was offered improved. And then ER came around.

“I wanted it,” Clooney says, “I fought for it.” The role was initially a small one, Dr Doug Ross: a boozer, a womaniser. (“I’d been working on it for years at that point,” Clooney deadpans.) But Clooney recognised what he could do with the part and what it could do for him.

For its first two seasons, he thinks, ER was as good as anything on TV, and more popular: at its peak it was watched by close to 50 million people each week in the US, plus countless millions more around the world. The actors were treated like rock stars, and Clooney was the heartthrob.

He remembers the precise moment his life changed: “Thanksgiving [of 1994], I was walking in New York with my buddy Ben, and some guy goes ‘Hey, George!’ I’d been recognised before but it was always my character’s name. The fact the guy knew my name? I remember Benny looked over and he goes, ‘You just got famous, dude’. And I was like, ‘I just got famous!’ It was exciting.”

ER was the launch pad for his movie career, which did not have auspicious beginnings: a vampire schlocker, From Dusk Till Dawn (1996); a generic romance, One Fine Day (1996); a lacklustre thriller, The Peacemaker (1997). Then the fiasco of Batman and Robin (1997). Clooney is rueful about it today – “I was like, ‘Fuck, yeah, baby. I’m Batman!’ I was thrilled!” he says of his reaction to the initial approach – but it almost derailed his career.

Instead of attempting another blockbuster he made smaller, better films, most memorably Out of Sight (1998), his first with the director Steven Soderbergh, who would become a key collaborator. A seductive adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, it captured two stars at their most alluring: Jennifer Lopez as a sexy cop, Clooney a sexy robber. It still wasn’t a hit.

By 2000, as he neared the end of his last season on ER, the question was still being asked whether he could make it in films. “It was a fair question,” he says. At last The Perfect Storm hit: his first real commercial success. And then he won a Golden Globe for his goofy, self-defeating schemer in the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? His film career was saved. He had demonstrated an ability to embody the rugged masculine hero as well as an eagerness to send up his debonair image. That instinct, for old-fashioned, gently subversive silliness, marked him out as the Cary Grant of his generation: handsome and stylish but also a klutz and a fusspot. The world swooned.

In 2001, he cemented his position on the A-list with the Sinatra role in Soderbergh’s slick update of the 1960 Rat Pack caper, Ocean’s Eleven, which spawned two sequels of variable quality. But the Ocean’s films are not representative of the movies Clooney and Soderbergh would go on to make as partners in the production company Section Eight, almost all of them reflecting their tastes for more offbeat material.

Perhaps because, unlike other above-the-title leading men of his generation – Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Will Smith – he came relatively late to fame, as an actor Clooney’s great subject, especially over the past decade, has been the tribulations of the middle-aged, middle-class, middle-management, middle-American male. For all his starry cool in public, it’s as an Everyman in crisis that Clooney has most often excelled on screen. Dapper Danny Ocean is an anomaly.

In Syriana (2005), he’s a paunchy spy betrayed by his bosses at the CIA. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for it. In Michael Clayton (2007), he’s a shadowy, solitary legal fixer having an explosive identity crisis. In Up in the Air (2009), he’s an even sadder figure, a glib frequent flier who fires people for companies too cowardly to do it themselves. Successful and smug, at the start of the film he believes himself above such things as love and companionship. In fact he is lonely and empty and, worst of all for his self-image, surplus to the requirements of his boss, his family and the woman he’d like to be his girlfriend.

When I speak to Jason Reitman, he is careful not to say that he wrote the part in Up in the Air with Clooney in mind because he thinks of him as a loner. Nonetheless, “I knew by casting George it’s going to get a certain response, having a guy who is a lifelong bachelor in real life playing a lifelong bachelor on the screen who then falls in love and has that love taken away from him. So there’s connective tissue between the actor and the role that made that movie a little more interesting.”

A few years after Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney’s movie-star persona had developed enough that audiences could buy him as unlucky in love and disappointed in his career – an anti-hero, not a superhero.

Recently, even when Clooney signs up for a suspense thriller, as in the case of The American (2010), he finds a way to debunk the traditional idea of what an A-list actor in a hitman drama might mean: the film turns out to be less Bourne than Bertolucci, a European art flick in the tradition of The Conformist or Le Samouraï, with Clooney taciturn and remote, trapped in another existential crisis.

Better yet, in The Descendants (2011), Clooney plays a lawyer whose wife, who has been cheating on him, is in a coma after a powerboating accident; at one point he has a vicious domestic dispute with a woman on a ventilator. Clooney’s character is mild, passive and faintly ridiculous, his eyesore shirts tucked in to his high-waisted slacks.

At least the guy in The Descendants has been married and managed to reproduce. Clooney’s characters in Syriana, Michael Clayton, Up in the Air and The American are all unloved: very deliberately so, he says. And, of course, without wishing to spoil the plot of a film still in cinemas, Clooney’s astronaut in the megahit Gravity is about as profoundly alone and as far from home as any man has ever been.

None of this is to say that every performance is an unflinching excoriation of the parlous state of modern masculinity. Nor is it true that every Clooney film is a success. But the Clooney movie that does not make money is rare, even when the material is outside the mainstream. This is because budgets are kept relatively low and expectations are adjusted accordingly. A summer superhero blockbuster typically costs more than $200m. Michael Clayton, Clooney says, cost $17 million and took more than $90 worldwide. Up in the Air cost $22m and made more than $160m. The Descendants also cost $22m and did even better.

The films Clooney develops and directs himself often cost even less and don’t expect to make back nearly as much. Good Night, and Good Luck was made for $7m and made more than $50m. The Ides of March, his 2011 political drama, cost $12m and made $75m. Even so, Clooney frequently waives his own fee altogether, and he hasn’t charged his market rate on any film in over a decade. On Good Night, and Good Luck, he mortgaged his house and then worked for scale, and there was no “back end”, so he didn’t share in any profits. Same deal on The Ides of March.

In the case of The Monuments Men, Clooney wrote, directed and acted in it, “all for under a million bucks. Now, it sounds like a lot of money and it is a lot of money but I get offered $15m to act in a movie.”

He always turns the big money down, “because the truth of the matter is, if you’re going to do a movie for $15m then almost invariably it means it’s a shitty movie. I mean, nobody comes in and says, ‘I want to pay you $15m to do this Coen brothers movie.’ It just doesn’t happen.”

His rationale is: “How much money do you need? I own my house. I don’t live above my means. So it’s more fun to do the projects you want to do and have something you’re proud of when all is said and done.” This is important, he says, because all might be said and done sooner rather than later: a leading man of 52 doesn’t have long left. Those who enjoy a period as Hollywood players – producers, directors, stars, or in his case all three – are frequently on borrowed time.

“Not frequently — always,” he says. “There’s not one single person in the game they don’t take it away from in the end. At some point the studios, or the audience, just go: ‘Take a breather, we’ve had enough’.”

Getting older, Clooney says, is about “making friends with change”. “Nobody wants to see you doing a love scene any more. Got it. Makes sense. So what are you going to do? For me, about 12 years ago I started really focusing on writing and directing.” The Monuments Men is the fifth film he has directed.

It takes immense determination, he says, to maintain his position among the Hollywood elite. “You need to have one or two movies in development, and you’re posting [finishing work on] this one and you’re acting in the next one, you’re directing one and you’re writing. The cycle I’m in right now, I’m working seven days a week and I don’t have five minutes to myself.”

At the same time as racing to finish The Monuments Men, he has post-production work to do on August: Osage County, another film he has produced with Heslov. Then he has to go to New York and London to do press for Gravity. Meanwhile, in Vancouver, he’s been shooting Tomorrowland, a sci-fi movie from the Pixar whizz Brad Bird.

“He works a lot,” Rande Gerber says. “But I think it doesn’t really seem like work to him. It’s stuff he enjoys doing. He takes up things that mean something to him.”

The image frequently presented in profiles like this one, of the on-set Clooney as an incorrigible prankster, tells only a small part of the story, Jason Reitman says: “The defining experience of working with George Clooney is of working with someone who really understands how movies work. He never leaves set. He never goes to his trailer. He loves the crew. He loves the process of making movies more than any other actor I’ve ever met.”

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5 | In the US, more than anywhere, showbiz and politics often breathe the same thickly perfumed air. It might seem unusual to outsiders that a guy who got famous playing a roguish TV doctor should be friends with, and even have some influence over a president. Not to George Clooney. He grew up with the idea that showbiz and politics could mix; his Aunt Rosemary was a campaigner for JFK and Bobby Kennedy – she was there when the latter was assassinated – and on occasion she would call her brother Nick from the Kennedy White House: guess who I’m with?

There’s a photo of Clooney and Obama together on the wall as you walk into the former’s house; it sits near a frame containing two of JFK’s ties. They have known each other since 2006, before Obama’s first Presidential campaign. The photo of Obama’s face used on Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster is actually a crop of an image of the Presidential candidate sitting alongside Clooney. (Clooney has an image of the other half of that photo, with his own face over the word “Dope”.)

In 2012, the President was a guest in this house, at a $40,000-a-head fundraiser hosted by Clooney and the DreamWorks CEO, Jeffrey Katzenberg. The evening yielded $15m for Obama’s campaign. “We raised a lot of money because everybody loves George,” the President said. “They like me, they love him. And rightly so.” The following morning Clooney joined his pal for a game of basketball.

Clooney describes himself as “left of centre”. In 2003, he spoke out against the Iraq war and was called a traitor. Good Night, and Good Luck, about the noble Edward R Murrow’s on-air battle with right-wing demagogue Senator Joe McCarthy, was Clooney’s direct response to that. “My father raised me to challenge power,” Clooney says. “The most American thing you can do is to ask questions of your government. And I thought that before we sent off 150,000 kids to get shot, we should have asked some questions.”

His fascination with the collisions between politics and entertainment has informed numerous films: his debut as a director, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), was based on the memoirs of a gameshow host who claimed to have been a hitman for the CIA. The Ides of March is about dirty tricks among press officers on a presidential campaign trail. Argo is about a spy posing as a Hollywood producer to free American hostages in Iran. Culture and current events butt heads again in The Monuments Men, in which a team of art historians battles to save masterpieces stolen by the Nazis.

But Clooney’s politics have real-world manifestations more extraordinary and unexpected even than his best films. Most spectacular of these is a satellite over Darfur, in Africa, monitoring military activity in a region that has seen some of the worst human rights abuses in memory. Clooney paid to put it up there and he pays to keep it there, which costs around $5m each year. He raises about $3m of that through charitable donations, by giving speeches, by doing adverts: Nespresso coffee, Omega watches. The other $2m he simply hands over himself.

The satellite was his idea. He decided, while on a visit there, that those committing atrocities in Darfur should be afforded the same level of privacy as he is: not much. “It just seemed fair,” he says.

Clooney runs the Satellite Sentinel Project with the activist John Prendergast, with whom he also works on Not On Our Watch, a humanitarian organisation. In 2008, Clooney was made a UN Messenger for Peace. In March 2012, he was arrested, along with his dad, while protesting outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington.

This is not just gesture politics. He tells me a story from the early days of Obama’s first term, when he visited the President in the Oval Office to lobby him for a full-time envoy to Darfur.

Clooney: “The President said a few things that were helpful but he didn’t say, ‘OK, I’ll give you an envoy’. He said, ‘Well, we’ll do this and we’ll do that’. And I went, ‘OK, Mr President, here’s the thing: I’m walking outside after this and there are 10 cameras out there: CNN, ABC, all wanting to know what we talked about. And I want you to tell me what I should say to them’. And he goes, ‘Oh, goddamn it. That’s why you don’t let actors in the room’.”

Obama asked Clooney to wait while he consulted Samantha Power, his foreign policy advisor, and then, says Clooney, the President told him, “‘OK, go out and tell them that in 10 days you’ll have an envoy’.”

There is a possibility, of course – and you’ll have to go with me on this one – that George Clooney really is as admirable as his friends and colleagues say he is. I think it’s a strong possibility, myself.

The following quotes have been heavily edited, not for clarity or even brevity, but to spare everyone’s blushes. And yet, still…

Sandra Bullock, his friend and Gravity co-star: “He’s handsome, he’s charming, he’s charismatic, he’s smart, he’s kind, he’s funny and talented. He’s an activist and a philanthropist and he looks really good in a suit. I could keep going but his head would get too big.”

Cate Blanchett: “Yes, he’s funny as hell. Yes, he’s gorgeous. Yes, he’s canny, he’s intelligent, he’s well dressed. He’s also deeply loyal. He has no time for pretention and laziness and arrogance. He has incredible grace.”

John Goodman: “I envy him a great deal. I try to learn from him. He has such faith in himself and such coolness under pressure. He’s incredibly gifted. He’s generous. And he’s graceful as a cat.”

Rande Gerber: “He takes care of a lot of people and he keeps it very quiet. He takes care of his friends. He takes care of people he doesn’t know but feels he could help. And the things he does that you don’t know about and he wouldn’t want me to talk about are actually the most impressive.”

Doesn’t it ever get annoying, I ask Grant Heslov, knowing someone so damn perfect? “No!” he says. Really? Isn’t it tiring being humbled all the time? Don’t you want him to do something stupid?

“He does do things that are stupid,” Heslov says. Yes! At last! “But I’ll never talk about them.” Oh… “I think I’m not so much humbled as proud of him.”

And all this while suffering serious health problems. Speaking of which, I tell Clooney, we haven’t even got to his injury – at which he first winces, then grins, because we’re almost out of time. In 2005, during a scene in Syriana in which his character is tortured, Clooney fell and split his head open. Not long after that, cerebrospinal fluid began to leak out of his nose.

Back in LA, he was hospitalised for weeks while doctors tried to discover what was wrong. On Christmas Day 2005, he endured a successful nine-hour surgery. The recovery has been slow and while the pain has diminished, it is still with him. In 2012, he told The Hollywood Reporter: “You wake up with the worst hangover ever, and that’s your day, and you have to come to terms with it.” He sleeps fitfully. His discomfort worsens throughout the day. And yet, being George Clooney, he tries to make sure he always seems like “George Clooney”.

Cate Blanchett remembers meeting him for the first time shortly after the accident. “It was a terrible injury and he was in shocking pain,” she says. “But I only learned that in retrospect. I encountered him in low gear, but George Clooney in low gear is most people in overdrive. So I had no idea that he was being kept alive by intravenous drips of various pain-relieving drugs. You just would never have known.”

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6 | Clooney leaves the room for a moment and returns carrying thick grey socks and a pair of brown leather boots, which he laces as we talk. I can take a hint; he really has to go now. We leave at the same time, in separate cars, and I follow him to Laurel Canyon Boulevard, where he turns towards Ventura: a grey-haired, middle-aged white guy in a T-shirt, at the wheel of an executive saloon, merging into traffic, for a moment unwatched, except by me.

On Saturday, he will host a party at his house for his friends and their wives and kids. Then he’ll go back to work again.

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