There are many phrases that could arguably describe George Clooney’s elevation into the A-list, but the man himself is happy to settle on just one. ‘It was a nutty moment in my career,’ he reflects with a smile. ‘There were six of us who suddenly were thrust into the stratosphere, and it was life-changing for all of us.’ He’s talking, of course, about ER, the long-running American hospital drama that made the actor a star.
Astonishingly, it’s 25 years ago this year since Clooney made his debut on the show as heart-throb Dr Doug Ross. The breakthrough role would, in time, jettison him to worldwide fame via no fewer than two Academy Awards – one for best supporting actor for his role in Syriana and one best picture gong as one of the producers of the historical thriller Argo.
It’s an impressive CV, but while Clooney is entitled to play the showbusiness diva, he wouldn’t dream of it. Today, he’s in relaxed mood as he chats with journalists in Los Angeles, happy to lampoon his global status.
When asked if younger actors are aware of his vintage, he laughs. ‘Yeah I’m very famous. Big, big star. That’s what I tell the young ones. You just didn’t know that. You’re too young.’
One of the good guys
In fact, famously unstarry in the flesh, he is known in the industry for being nice to everyone from the teaboy upwards when on set. That applies even when he’s calling the shots, which he’s been doing recently in his latest project as executive producer on Catch-22, a new six-part series based on Joseph Heller’s renowned novel about a man who’s trying desperately to be certified insane during World War II, so he can stop going on flying missions.
Naturally, Clooney insists he was a tyrant. ‘I am the executive producer, so that’s it, I made it clear, abundantly clear,’ he grins. ‘My trailer was bigger, closer to the set, everything. Sometimes they [the actors] got to eat; if you were a good boy, you got to eat.’
The actor also plays one of the novel’s more outlandish characters, the deranged General Scheisskopf – a name he’s clearly delighted by. ‘Scheisskopf in German means sh*thead,’ he laughs.
Joking aside, it’s clear the project is close to Clooney’s heart: now aged 58 and the father of 22-month-old twins Ella and Alexander, Clooney admits he chooses his work carefully these days, particularly directing and producing, which is ‘normally two years out of your life. So, you really need to commit to it, and it has to feel right’.
Balanced against that, however, is his simple desire to tell stories. Coming from what Clooney describes as ‘a family of storytellers’ – his father, Nick Clooney, is a former TV anchorman and hosted shows on various American networks – the young Clooney originally dreamed not of Hollywood stardom but of life as a broadcast journalist.
‘Because that is what my father was doing and that is what I wanted to do. So I studied that in school and paid attention to that,’ he recalls. Why he didn’t become a TV journalist, he insists, is because he ‘lacked talent, it was the thing that kept me out of it’.
It’s hard to imagine that was the case, but either way the love of stories clearly remained. So it’s perhaps little wonder that Clooney would be drawn to Catch-22, a novel widely considered to be one of America’s finest.
Like most of us, he remembers the ‘dark and dense’ book being compulsory reading at school. ‘And I loved the style of writing, which was different than the kind of writing we had read,’ he reflects. ‘But I was pretty young, so I just liked the characters and I thought it was fun.’
‘It’s nice when you go back and read a book 40 years later and it doesn’t let you down.’
Returning to it decades later, he was delighted to find it had stood the test of time. ‘It’s nice when you go back and read a book 40 years later and it doesn’t let you down,’ he says. ‘That doesn’t happen all that often. It’s like when you see movies – my wife is considerably younger than me and I will say, “Oh you have got to see this film, it’s one of the greatest films you’ll ever see.’’ We watch it and it’s terrible now. So it was nice to read Catch-22 again and not be let down.’
His wife, of course, barely needs further introduction: Amal, whom he married in Venice five years ago, is a highly respected human rights barrister, and together the Clooneys are a powerful force well known for their crusading zeal on matters both environmental and political.
Back to the small screen
Against this backdrop and at a time in history where it can feel like the world is teetering on the edge of meltdown, it’s perhaps no surprise that for his return to the small screen – a 2009 cameo aside – Clooney is bringing to life a book that, despite being more than half a century old, arguably captures the zeitgeist.
‘I think we all wake up every morning these days in this kind of shared global anxiety condition, and this novel is a beautiful description of a prophetic distillation of that anxiety.’
‘I think we all wake up every morning these days in this kind of shared global anxiety condition, and this novel is a beautiful description of a prophetic distillation of that anxiety,’ is how Clooney puts it. ‘This is like the origin story of that anxiety condition.’ A parody of bureaucracy and the military mindset, Clooney is clear that he feels an ‘incredible sense of responsibility’ to the generations who have served – and still do. ‘I’ve done dozens of shows and films where I’ve worn a military uniform,’ he says. ‘And when you put it on, there is of course a sense of pride, but also a great sense of responsibility.’
He emphasises that while the book’s central theme is the insanity of war, it is also more nuanced than a simple polemic. ‘It really made fun of all of the red tape and the bureaucracy of war and the ridiculousness of it,’ he says. ‘And I think that still plays. You’ll have to see the rest of the episodes to see if it still plays or not, but I think it does.’
‘Episodes’, of course, is a word we are not accustomed to hearing from Clooney, associated now as he is with the silver screen not the small one – not that he cares for the distinction.
‘I don’t care about the medium,’ he says. ‘I just care about the quality of the work, and the things that we’re able to do. And television’s doing some amazing things. Our main job in this is to supply six hours of escapism and entertainment and hopefully do a good job.’
He’s not averse to binge-watching himself. ‘It’s great when you get on a plane and you’ve got eight hours where you can watch the first season of Narcos or something,’ he smiles. ‘It’s fun.’
In fact, the way we watch television is just one of the many changes that have transformed the industry Clooney has been at the forefront of in recent years. The rise of #MeToo has meant even seasoned industry veterans are bringing a fresh eye to their work, and Clooney admits he is no exception.
‘My business partner Grant Heslov and I wanted to direct Catch-22 ourselves. The story takes place in 1944, and the characters are all men. But we did make a conscious decision to get as many women involved as we could,’ he says. That meant calling respected cinematographer Ellen Kuras. ‘I gave her two episodes to direct. We felt like we wanted to get more of a woman’s perspective on this. Our editor is a woman. We didn’t want this to be just from a 58-year-old guy’s perspective. We wanted to make sure we’re all participating in this, and we’re all part of the solution and not just part of the issue.’
It’s a typically measured response from Clooney, although he’s soon back to teasing again. Well known for his close friendship with both the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – he has recently spoken out twice in the latter’s defence – he quips that his next big role could well be ‘Godfather of the Royals’ – although he instantly reneges on the idea of being Uncle George to the imminent royal newborn. ‘No. I am now a father of twins, I have got enough sh*t.’
In fact, he’s already turned his attention to another historical drama, Watergate, although – ER fans rejoice – he hasn’t entirely ruled out resurrecting the show that made his name: on learning that a rival medical drama has now seized ER’s crown as the longest- running medical show, he jokes, ‘That’s got to stop. We need to do some more. But I’d play a patient now.’ Clooney fans, of course, would welcome him in any form.
Catch-22 will be shown on Channel 4 at 9pm from Thursday 20 June 2019
Interview by Samantha Reyes & Suzy Maloy/The Interview People
Subscribe today for just £3 for 3 issues...