The perennial leading man talks about his Irish roots, getting older, and his passion for activism.
George Clooney has nothing to prove as an actor and he knows it. It’s part of what makes him such a pleasant and relaxed interview – quick with the self-effacing jokes, interested in the wider world beyond where he now sits, at home in his own skin. At 51, he is aging beautifully and has more mischief in him than people half his age. If all the charm, the intelligence, the wit and the chivalry is all an act – which after interviewing him six times by now, I don’t believe it can be – it’s a damn good one. What you see with George Timothy Clooney is what you get.
“I’m not out trying to prove anything. I’m sort of finished with that, so I get to play in other sandboxes and try and figure out what I like and I’m interested in,” he says. “When my Aunt Rosemary said that later in her life she could sing better than ever, even though she could no longer hit or reach every note, she said to me that she was a better singer then because she didn’t have to prove anything and she could relax. I sort of feel the same.”
Notwithstanding the fact that he hit the half century mark in May of last year, Clooney appears to be getting cooler and even more relaxed with age. Take his wheels for example; these days he’d prefer the comfort of a minivan over a sports car and his nonchalance has a way of making that cool too.
“In LA, I have two cars and two motorcycles. In Italy, I have three motorcycles because other people want to ride and you can’t ride them all at the same time. When you’re young you’re into sports cars and shit like that and it really does matter. But now in Italy, we pull up to the Villa d’Este Hotel and I’m in a minivan! I lost all my cool – straight out the window!” he laughs. “After a while, you just want transportation, and things like cool cars or motorcycles are all about getting attention. I get all the attention I could ever need, so I kind of like being in a minivan and people not paying so much attention to me.”
The long-planned trip to Ireland he said he was finally going to take, will be a tour of the country by motorbike. “It’s finally happening,” he told me, grinning broadly. “I ran into Bono in Toronto, who was in town for the documentary about U2, and he’s as much of a bike nut as I am. He started telling me about lots of cool places I should check out, so I’ve committed to going.”
The actor makes frequent and fond references to his Irish roots and his Catholic upbringing. Clooney has Irish roots on both sides of the family, but most of his green blood comes paternally. His father’s great-great-grandfather Nicholas Clooney, came from County Kilkenny.
The name Clooney is an anglicized version of the Gaelic O’Cluanaigh, which translates as a descendant of Clugnach, meaning a rogue or a flatterer. His father’s mother’s maiden name, meanwhile, was Guilfoyle.
“I’ve been in Dublin before, but never with my folks,” said Clooney. “My dad went to Ireland two years ago and found a town called Clooney. When he told them his name, he said everyone insisted on buying him drinks and he got smashed and had a great time!”
Growing up the son of the well-known and respected journalist and broadcaster Nick Clooney formed much of the character which makes George Clooney the man he is today. Seeing celebrity up close through his father and his aunt Rosemary, made him recognize the traps of fame, but it also imbued in him the sense of justice and fairness which has led him to become involved in various political issues.
“My father was and is a great journalist. Thirty years ago, I was studying broadcasting in college and the problem was I wasn’t nearly as good as my father. I wasn’t as quick or as smart as my old man, and I realized it would be a long time before I was ever going to be, and I decided to do something else. My uncle was Jose Ferrer the actor and he got me a part as an extra in a movie he was in. After that I got in my ’76 Monte Carlo and drove to LA to be an actor and I got lucky, quite honestly.
“My parents were disappointed I didn’t finish college and they were really upset when I went to Hollywood to become an actor. I was a big disappointment to them. My father used to write me long letters for about seven or eight years, which I still have, where he used to say ‘knock this off and get a real job.’ That was the first time they felt ashamed of me. But we are really close.
“I’ve been lucky to be in a few films that will last. I’ve made some turkeys along the way, some dumb choices, but luckily that was early in my career when people weren’t paying attention!”
Currently writing, directing and producing a slew of new movies, on top of this year’s Golden Globe win for The Descendants, Clooney’s intelligence and appetite for a wide range of topics is once again on display. One of his upcoming movies is called Enron, which probably needs no explanation, and another called Hardan v Rumsfeld, whose title also says it all. His next directorial feature, The Boys from Belmont, is lighter fare about the reunion of a gang of thieves who get together to finish off a job they started seven years earlier.
Using his fame as leverage for creating awareness about political issues is one of the ways in which he evens out the toll of living in the glare of publicity. His March arrest in Washington, D.C. on the grounds of the Sudanese Embassy, was a clearly planned publicity stunt to draw attention to what is happening in South Sudan.
“Probably the thing I am most proud of is being involved with places and issues [and people] who might not otherwise have had their voices heard. I have all this attention on me, which I’ve been able to deflect to Darfur and South Sudan and people who could use it. The telethons and the things like that, that we’ve been able to put together, I’m proud of these things. Being able to take something that’s going well for you, and deflecting it on to other people, those are real successes.
“I have a lot of things I want to get done and I don’t really have a lot of time. The best advice my Aunt Rosemary gave me was ‘Don’t wake up at 65 and say what you should have done.’ I think that’s a smart piece of advice. She also told me never to mix wine and vodka and that’s a lesson I forgot to take last night!”
Given that he has crossed the half century mark, has he given any thought to plans for after his death?
“I tried to donate my liver, but no one would take it! Imagine how disappointed I was! We have a thing in the U.S. where you check a box on your driver’s license to donate an organ. I really think it should be the other way around. I think you should automatically donate your organs because that would turn the balance of organ donation in a huge way. I would donate whatever anybody would take and I’d probably do the cremation bit.
“I don’t really like the idea of getting stuck in a box. I have these best friends of mine, I put them all in my will and I said I would give them each some ashes and some money and have them take me on a trip somewhere I’ve never seen before. It wouldn’t be such a bad way to see the world!”
Clooney’s love life and the seeming never-ending succession of 20-something-year-old girlfriends is an endless staple of the tabloids. He quickly replaced his Italian girlfriend of two years standing, Elisabetta Canalis, with Stacey Kiebler (31), a wrestler turned model. When I try to ahem, wrestle a comment out of him about his latest flame, he pounces.
“I knew it was coming!” he laughs. “Some of the sneaky questions about this topic are often disguised in serious questions like, ‘this thing in Darfur is so sad with these children,’ and you go, ‘oh yes,’ and then they go, ‘have you ever wanted to have children?’ They think if you sneak it through the serious stuff, I’ve got to answer. I’ve found that answering these questions has never been beneficial to me in any way. It’s beneficial to people selling magazines and newspapers, but not to me. So I always avoid them.”
Back to politics, where he’s more at home. He’s firmly backing Obama in the fall. He just used the phone and his extensive database of the powerful and wealthy to organize a fundraising dinner at his home in Studio City, Los Angeles on May 10, which raised $15 million for the re-election campaign.
“It’s very easy for people to be critical of President Obama’s first term, but let’s face it, he didn’t exactly inherit the country in the best shape. I’m a lifelong Democrat and I get very impatient when I hear people criticize the President because he didn’t fulfill all their wishes overnight. I’ll die a Democrat. But let’s hope that won’t be any time soon.”