No one does the fame thing like Clooney. He floats above it even as he uses it to embellish his influence. He understands his place in the pantheon even as he remains hidden from the inquisitive lens. He’s the master.
You must love him.
For one thing, he’s lovable, professionally so. For another, he leaves nothing to chance. If he can’t win you over with his fame, his charm, and his good looks, he will win you over with preparation. It’s not that he’s needy, like an actor; it’s that he’s competitive, like an athlete. He’s always been good at making people love him; he’s not about to give up his edge now.
Of course, he is not often challenged, and risks the fate of a fighter whose dominance is tainted by a lack of worthy opponents. A few years ago, however, he saw a black cocker-spaniel mix on the Web site of a rescue organization and called the number. The woman who answered said she’d be happy to bring the dog to his house, but then she explained that the dog had been abandoned and picked up malnourished off the street. “He has to love you,” she told George Clooney, “or else I have to take him back.”
At first, he found himself getting nervous—“freaking out.” What if the dog didn’t love him? Then he responded. “I had some turkey bacon in the refrigerator,” he says. “I rubbed it on me. I’m not kidding. When she came over, the dog went crazy. He was all over me. The woman said, ‘Oh, my he’s never like this. He loves you.’ ”
He has told this story before. He has even told it to Esquire before. That he tells it again—that it’s the first story he tells—serves to announce what is essential about himself: that he’s a man who will do what it takes to win you over.
I have done a few of these things—celebrity profiles—before. I have interviewed famous people in hotel rooms and offices, in bars and in restaurants, even, once, on top of a bridge in Sydney, Australia. Where I have not often interviewed them is at their homes. The home is the turkey bacon of the celebrity profile. It generates, if not love, then at least a sense of gratitude akin to what a dog must feel when allowed on the couch. Leonardo DiCaprio met me in a vast hotel conference room, empty but for an end table and two chairs.
George Clooney invited me to his house.
Beyond the garage stands the wooden front door, massive, slablike, arched, trellised with vines, and battering-ram resistant. When it opens, there stands Clooney’s assistant, Angel, and when she walks through the dark-wood-and-leather shadows of the house to the kitchen, there stands her boss, trying to make a cup of coffee on a machine he’s forgotten how to use.
He has been traveling a lot lately. He has been working a lot lately, more, in fact, than he has in a long time: as one of the stars of Gravity, as the director and leading man of The Monuments Men, as the producer of August: Osage County, and as the eminence of a new movie he’s been filming in Vancouver called Tomorrowland. He ekes out a coffee, makes himself a tea, and takes a seat on the couch in his living room, with a large-screen TV broadcasting NFL highlights from the mantel of a stone fireplace. His dog, Einstein, squeezes in next to him; when his iPhone rings, Clooney, without answering, immediately turns it off.
He is fifty-two years old. He is wearing a black hoodie zipped to the neck, blue jeans, and boots laced so assertively they squeak when he flexes his ankles.
The day before, he gave a eulogy at the memorial service for his uncle, Dante DiPaolo. Uncle Dante was married to his Aunt Rosemary—the late great American singer.
“I loved the guy,” Clooney says. “I got along with him a lot better than I got along with Aunt Rosie, that’s for sure.”
He knew Sammy and Dean, a little; he knew them as a kid, growing up Rosie’s nephew, but even those photos came to him as gifts—“I think I was given all of them during the Ocean’s period. And I like the photos, so I put them on the wall because I thought they were cool and they were fun, but I don’t think and live and breathe the Rat Pack life.”
The tile is different. The tile he found after he bought the house in 1995, with ER money. A former owner left it behind. On it is written the house’s street number. And over the address, in paint-brushed print of aching domesticity, it says THE GABLES.
Now, a lot of people, friends included, call George Clooney a throwback. He is a throwback to what they suppose was a different time that created a different kind of celebrity. A lot of people even call him the closest thing we have to Clark Gable, a mantle he has accepted to the extent that he replicated Gable’s rhythms and timing for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and sports a Gablean ’stache in The Monuments Men. But there are a lot of throwbacks in this world. George Clooney is the only throwback who lives in Clark Gable’s freaking house.
He has other houses. He has one, famously, on Lake Como, in Italy, and he has built another in Cabo. In this, he is not so much of a throwback—after all, Leonardo DiCaprio has a house in Cabo. Indeed, Clooney and DiCaprio once ran into each other in Cabo and struck up a conversation based on their common interest in basketball. They each have ongoing games, and their ongoing games have attained a celebrity of their own. Clooney suggested they might play someday. DiCaprio said sure, but felt compelled to add, “You know, we’re pretty serious.”
They played at a neighborhood court. “You know, I can play,” Clooney says in his living room. “I’m not great, by any means, but I played high school basketball, and I know I can play. I also know that you don’t talk s* unless you can play. And the thing about playing Leo is you have all these guys talking s*. We get there, and there’s this guy, Danny A I think his name is. Danny A is this club kid from New York. And he comes up to me and says, ‘We played once at Chelsea Piers. I kicked your ass.’ I said, ‘I’ve only played at Chelsea Piers once in my life and ran the table. So if we played, you didn’t kick anybody’s ass.’ And so then we’re watching them warm up, and they’re doing this weave around the court, and one of the guys I play with says, ‘You know we’re going to kill these guys, right?’ Because they can’t play at all. We’re all like fifty years old, and we beat them three straight: 11–0, 11–0, 11–0. And the discrepancy between their game and how they talked about their game made me think of how important it is to have someone in your life to tell you what’s what. I’m not sure if Leo has someone like that.”
He was not a child star—but he was a star as a child. Acutely aware of his powers now, he was not unaware of them then. “The first thing that I learned—and I understood it at a really young age—was that I could get a laugh. Really early. Because my mother and father are funny. My father’s a really funny man, and at the time we were growing up, in the mid-sixties, and I was like seven years old, they always had dinner parties. This was back in the old days, when you would have cocktail parties. And my dad would tell, you know, a story, something a little risqué—nothing dirty at all, just a little risqué. And I knew that I could take the next step, right? The little-bit-dirtier version. You know—‘and deep, too!’ And the place would explode! And Dad would kick me under the table—but I always knew that I had that in my arsenal.”
Nick Clooney was not just Rosemary Clooney’s brother; he was the Walter Cronkite of the local affiliates in central Kentucky and southern Ohio, where Clooney grew up. Clooney remembers him as being “absolutely immovable in doing what was right”—the kind of father who obliged his son to fight anyone who used the word nigger, even if that meant that his son regularly “got my ass kicked”; the kind of father who’d get up and leave a restaurant if he ever heard anyone make a coded remark about “those people,” even if it meant that his son couldn’t finish his shrimp cocktail; the kind of father who made his son work and save his money during the year so that he and the rest of the Clooneys could bring presents to the poorest family in town on Christmas morning. “Everybody loved my dad, because he stood for everything that was right. And he still does. But growing up that way was not nearly as fun. People love my parents, and I know that. I did not love them, for periods of time. I thought it was, you know, a crappy deal.”
He is grateful to them now—grateful, in particular, to his father, for being the guy who tells him what’s what; who tells him to think of the consequences of his actions before he acts; and who, when his son called to ask whether he was “in trouble” for his political stand on the Iraq war, answered thusly: “He was like, ‘Do you have a job?’ I said yeah. He goes, ‘Do you have money in the bank?’ I said yeah. So he goes, ‘Shut up. Grow up—you’re a grown man, you know. Freedom of speech means that when you speak up, you have to be ready for people to say bad things about you. That’s how it works.’ And I said, ‘Got it.’ And you know, I knew it, but it does help to hear it from your old man.”
Indeed, George Clooney credits Nick Clooney for what is the most striking feature of his ongoing practice of fame: his understanding that appearances matter, and that if you look like an asshole, you probably are. For example, he has declined to enlist in environmental causes not because he doesn’t believe in them but because he’s aware how it would look—“I probably wouldn’t be a good spokesman for an electric car, because I’ll still get on a private jet, and one flight on a private jet undoes all my electric-car good deeds.”
It is often noted that it took him a long time to become a star. He didn’t get parts. Or he got bad parts on TV shows that were good or good parts on TV shows that were bad. He didn’t get the career-making role on ER until he was almost thirty-three. Like his friends Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, he likes to say he “came from somewhere” and “can still fix a fan belt” on a car. But he was, in many ways, born to be a star, groomed to be a star. And now, he knows how to be one. “I had my Aunt Rosie, who was famous and then not, so I got a lesson in fame early on. And I understood how little it has to do with you. And also how you could use it.”
He knows what audiences want from him, in movie theaters; what gawkers want from him, on the red carpet; what reporters want from him, in interviews—and, by and large, he tries to give it to them. Even his lightheartedness derives from a sense of obligation; his casual approach to fame turns out to be one of the things he’s serious about. Being famous is not just what he knows how to do better than anyone else; it’s arguably what he knows how to do better than anything else. He is the president of a club of famous people he doesn’t consider assholes, and he convenes it every time he makes a movie. He has made movies with Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Julia Roberts, and Cate Blanchett. He has never been in a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio or Russell Crowe.
A few months ago, I spent time with Matt Damon while he was on the set of The Monuments Men, and he told a story about Russell Crowe and George Clooney. It involved Clooney reading a poem by Crowe on the night of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards, with uproarious results. It was a great story but not, well, a true one. I told this to Clooney, and he said, “Matt’s a storyteller.” Then he said, “The truth is that [Crowe] did send me a book of poems to apologize for insulting the s* out of me, which he did. He picked a fight with me. He started it for no reason at all. He put out this thing saying, ‘George Clooney, Harrison Ford, and Robert De Niro are sellouts.’ And I put out a statement saying, ‘He’s probably right. And I’m glad he told us, ’cause Bob and Harrison and I were also thinking about starting a band, which would also fall under the heading of bad use of celebrity.’ And that’s when he really went off on me. ‘Who the f** does this guy think he is? He’s a Frank Sinatra wannabe.’ He really went after me. And so I sent him a note going, ‘Dude, the only people who succeed when two famous people are fighting is People magazine. What the f** is wrong with you?’
“But then I had a year. Then I had Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck, and he was gonna see me at the Golden Globes ’cause he was nominated for Cinderella Man. So he sends me a disc of his music and a thing of his poetry. I think he said, ‘I was all misquoted,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah. Whatever.’ I did take it with me to the BAFTAs, but I didn’t win. I might have used it if I had won. I was nominated for four!”
He sends a lot of e-mails. But when he is really serious or wants to keep his correspondence confidential, he writes letters. He is picky about the forms of communication he chooses. He handwrites his scripts, because “I like paper.”
As might be expected, he does not like Twitter. More to the point, he does not approve of Twitter, especially for a certain segment of the population. “If you’re famous, I don’t—for the life of me—I don’t understand why any famous person would ever be on Twitter. Because first of all, the worst thing you can do is make yourself more available, right? Because you’re going to be available to everybody. So one drunken night, you come home and you’ve had two too many drinks and you’re watching TV and somebody pisses you off, and you go ‘Ehhhhh’ and fight back.
“And you go to sleep, and you wake up in the morning and your career is over. Or you’re an asshole. Or all the things you might think in the quiet of your drunken evening are suddenly blasted around the entire world before you wake up.”
As a result, the famous people he admires most—the ones he claims not just as friends but as club members and counterparts—are those who make themselves unavailable. “For a long time now, Brad has been the biggest movie star in the world,” he says. “He’s bigger than me, bigger than DiCaprio. And I really admire how he deals with that. It’s not easy for him. But he tries to be the most honest version of Brad Pitt that he can be. And he also remains unavailable. He’s still a giant movie star because you can’t get to him. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think of him as incredibly talented and smart and all those things. But you also can’t get to him.”
This is not to say that Clooney can’t get to him. He is well aware of what kind of year Pitt had—a year that “almost killed him.” And so Brad Pitt became one of the people to whom Clooney wrote. “I saw him in London when he was doing the World War Z reshoot. We met up. And I was like, ‘How you holding up?’ And he took out a knife and stabbed it in the table and we drank a lot of vodka and he just said, ‘This one’s going to kill me, man.’ It was a huge reshoot and Brad was putting it on his shoulders. He picked it up and put it on his shoulders and took it away from all the people who were screwing it up. Carried it over the finish line. Got it made into a film that was well reviewed and made a lot of money. And I just wrote him an e-mail and it said, ‘This one is all on you, brother. Congratulations, because I know this was a killer.’ You know? You don’t want your zombie movie to be the killer, but it was.”
Being Clooney, he does not only write to Brad Pitt, however. He also writes as Brad Pitt. A few years ago, he even had some stationery made up with Brad Pitt’s letterhead. Then he found a book about acting and accents and sent it to Meryl Streep, with an accompanying note. It said, “Dear Meryl, this book really helped me with my accent for Troy. I hope it helps you too.” He signed it “Brad Pitt.” Then he sent another letter to Don Cheadle on “Pitt’s” stationery. As long as Cheadle has been acting, he has dreamt of playing Miles Davis. So the letter informed Cheadle that Pitt’s production company had acquired the rights to Davis’s life story. The letter said that Pitt wanted him to star in it.
As Charlie Parker.
A few years ago, John Bolton, George Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, asked Clooney to come to New York and address a special session of the Security Council on the subject of Darfur. Clooney was surprised; he was already well-known for his opposition to President Bush in general and his foreign policy in particular. “I asked my father, ‘Why would he invite me to do this?’ And my dad said, ‘Because you’re the liberal who’s gonna chastise the UN, that’s why.’ ”
He went, and had no problems with Bolton. It was the other members of the Security Council who were offended by the fact that an actor had been dispatched to address them. “Very heavy stuff. I’m sitting with Elie Wiesel, and the Chinese ambassadors walked out, and the Russian ambassadors walked out, because they don’t want to let an actor speak. And the Qatar ambassador starts off by going, ‘I have to post my protest that we would allow a very fine actor in here to speak.’ He’s speaking in Arabic, and he just keeps on going: ‘How dare he come in, and who does he think he is?’ He just goes on and on. And then the British ambassador goes, ‘Well, I have to let Mr. Clooney respond.’ And believe me, I was very nervous doing this, but I just went, ‘You know, my translation cut out after I heard “very fine actor,” if you’d like to repeat it.’ And my dad was sitting behind me and kicks me under the table. And I was nervous doing it, but you know, there’s that moment where you go, ‘Well, are you gonna do it?’ And then you go, ‘Well, f** it.’ ”
Did he get a laugh? “Huge laugh.” He was also able to give his speech and have his say and do what he’d been called upon to do. “It’s funny, but in really stressful moments I’m the Zen master. I can do almost anything. In emergencies, when someone’s hurt . . . I’ve been in some really wild situations and been able to go, ‘Okay.’ And the same thing in doing something live or anything like that. You know, they pull you up onstage and they say, ‘Do this.’ I’ve always found a way to say, ‘I can take a breath and I can do it.’ ”
At his house, he spoke little of politics, more of his political experiences, more still of a letter he’d received posthumously from Ted Kennedy and the political curio that had come along with it. Kennedy had written the letter on behalf of an old friend. The friend had recently found the letter and sent it to Clooney, along with JFK’s wallet, circa 1946. It was not an empty wallet; rather it was a time capsule whose contents Clooney laid out on the coffee table as he read out loud the description of the items. There were ticket stubs to a Harvard–Yale game Bobby played in, the Saint Christopher’s medal Kennedy had probably carried in World War II, a postcard from the Statler Hilton, “a very scary greeting card signed Mary,” and, among very many other things, “an empty matchbook from the Chowder Bowl, Palm Beach, which has lipstick blotted on it and I’m sure an interesting story behind it.”
It is the one gift appropriate for the man who has everything: an artifact pulled from the back pocket of a man who had, for a time, even more. A guy who has abstained from the fame of politics to master the politics of fame.
He and Noah Wyle shared a lot of things, at the start. They shared a break—being cast on a show that became as popular as ER. They shared the advantage of being the charismatic characters on a show anchored dutifully by Anthony Edwards. They shared an interest in liberal causes. They even wound up sharing an assistant, Angel. She worked for Wyle for two years; now she works for Clooney, and she knows better than anyone what made them, in the end, so different.
It wasn’t just the course—the outcome—of their careers. It wasn’t just the fact that Wyle never really made it to the movies and Clooney never looked back once he left television. It wasn’t even that Wyle didn’t get lucky and Clooney did.
It was that Clooney became a guy gracious enough to ascribe all that came to him as a matter of luck—while holding an ingrained conviction that nothing is ever really accidental.
“It was a hard, hard job, ER. We were working sixteen-hour days, five days a week. We were learning Latin, you know, to do the show. But you knew that you were never going to get a second chance to introduce yourself to a wide audience. And I was thirty-three. I wasn’t the young one there; I was the oldest one there. So I knew this was my opportunity. I think all the actors were given a bit of an opportunity that summer on a film. I think every one of them was given an opportunity. And I think most of them were so exhausted from the work that they wanted their summer off.
“In fairness, they were also doing a lot. I had the smallest part in the show. And when [Robert Rodriguez’s] Dusk till Dawn came around . . . well, it was a great part for me, because it was a complete departure. And that movie changed everything for me, temperature wise. It made it so I was going to be allowed to do some films, you know?”
It was one of the choices that Clooney made and Wyle didn’t. But it wasn’t the most important choice. The most important choice was the choice not to do something—the choice not to make a choice that Wyle eventually did.
“George made a conscious decision not to have a family, because he was hungry,” Angel says. “Also, Noah was young and could take things for granted. George never did. George paid cash for all his houses, because he thinks that will protect him if it all goes away. Look, Grant Heslov is his writing and producing partner now. But he also is the guy who, when they were first starting out together, lent George a hundred dollars so that George could have his publicity stills made. That kind of thing still really matters to George.”
Then she tells a story about working for George Clooney. When she first started working for him, he bought her a truck. Last year, he asked how it was running. Angel said fine. She liked the truck—and the thing she especially liked about it was that it had so many dings in it she didn’t have to worry about it. A couple of days later, she walked out of her boss’s house and her truck was gone. A new one gleamed in the driveway.
“Hey, where’s the Tesla?” I said when I was leaving his house. I was just giving him s*; I didn’t know if he had a Tesla or not, and was trying to see if even George Clooney was susceptible to Hollywood cliché.
“I had a Tesla. I was one of the first cats with a Tesla. I think I was, like, number five on the list. But I’m telling you, I’ve been on the side of the road a while in that thing. And I said to them, ‘Look, guys, why am I always stuck on the side of the f**ing road? Make it work, one way or another.’ ”
We take the Lexus to the new office he and Heslov have rented for Smokehouse Pictures. He’s never been to the new office before, though, and he doesn’t know where he’s going. He won’t use his smartphone for directions; instead he keeps referencing the directions he printed out from a computer, because, you know, he likes paper. He drives along. Then he sees a billboard for the movie Gravity, which is opening that week. It’s his movie; and it’s his billboard, with his own helmeted and visored face stamped enormously upon it. As it happens, the billboard stands on the corner where he has to make his turn. “Oh,” he says, “they should have just said, ‘Go to the poster of you and make a right.’ ”
It’s not even a smile that crosses his face. It’s a kind of awareness that doubles as a smile, or a wink. He signals. Then he makes a left.