George Clooney: The Exit Interview
If Esquire over the past 19 years had been a person, it's likely that it would have been this guy. (Or Bill Murray.)
BY David Granger | Apr 21, 2016 | Film & TV
Let's get a couple things out of the way.
No, I did not meet Amal. You go to hang with George Clooney these days and that's the first question anyone asks.
Second, George made me a Nespresso. That fact seems to amuse people. It wasn't a big deal—he didn't call it Nespresso—he just asked if I wanted a coffee and then went over to his Nespresso machine and made us each a cup. I'd been hoping for tequila, but then again, it was only about 2:30.
Third, and this takes a little getting used to: He looks and acts just like George Clooney. He's exactly what you'd expect. It's a little stunning.
He strolls up to the photo shoot about 15 minutes early and he looks perfect. Perfect suit, shirt, and tie—looks like someone dressed him but, given that no one else is in evidence, you have to assume that he managed it himself. He's about 1.8 metres tall. He goes about 70 kilograms. Nice-looking guy. Maybe a little product in the hair—photo-ready. (Bill Murray, in contrast arrived at his shoot wearing cargo shorts and a Cubbies T-shirt under a fishing vest, and sporting an Xavier baseball cap with the Nike logo blacked out.)
The only thing that's a little off with Clooney is the slight limp, which gets more pronounced as the photo shoot goes on.
The previous evening, turns out, there'd been a rousing pickleball game on his tennis/basketball court. I can't say for sure, but there may have been drinking. Couple hours in, he bent over to pick up the Wiffle ball and—bang!—down goes Clooney, a disc slipped, immobile.
On the morning of the shoot, at 7:00AM, he was in the hospital getting an epidural in his spine so he could withstand the rigours of the day. No biggie. He said he'd hang with us; he hung with us.
David Granger: This will be the ninth time you've been on the cover of Esquire.
George Clooney: This year?
DG: Uh, no. Your first time was after your fifth year on ER—1999.
GC: That was a hell of a cover.
DG: It was such an important thing for us. I'd been there less than two years, and we'd floundered. And then Sam Jones took that picture and we thought: That looks like an Esquire cover.
GC: It's the best cover I've ever taken.
DG: Over the last few days, I read all the stories we've run about you. It was an amazing experience.
GC: I bet.
DG: [Whispers] I didn't remember any of them.
GC: I bet.
DG: I think over the time that you've been on our cover and the time I've been editing this magazine, it's only gotten more complicated to be a man, in part because of the growing influence of women, which we all welcome, and in part because of sexual politics. I think over all this time, you have at least appeared to navigate being a man pretty easily.
GC: I had some pretty good examples in my life. My father's very smart and has a great sense of humour. And some people just feel comfortable in their skin. I have good friends who are like that. And my father is like that and my uncle is like that.
DG: Probably didn't hurt that you were in your thirties when you got famous.
GC: Noah Wyle was 23 when ER got picked up, and by our fifth or sixth show we had 40 million people watching. And I remember Noah asking me, "Is that good?" And I said, "It will never happen again in your lifetime." I was lucky enough to have the perspective to understand when things are good.
DG: It's hard to imagine now, but for a big chunk of your life, you were scrambling like any other American.
GC: Scrambling, yeah, but I made a living for a good portion of that time. In a way you get too much credit. But it's scrambling. The show is gonna get canceled and then you're gonna have to find another gig. People always think you manage your career. You don't manage your career when you're trying to get a job. You're just trying to get a job. And you know this as well as anybody, that it's much later in your career that you can go, Oh, here's what I want to do. Early on, it's just: Get work. Just survive.
DG: Do you remember what it was like to just survive?
GC: I'm directing a movie [Suburbicon], so I was just looking at actors on tape—actors I've worked with and auditioned with, and they're so good, and the minute I see them, I'm thinking,We did a play on Melrose Avenue in 1984. It's a real community.
DG: What's the difference between you and that guy you were acting with in '84?
GC: It's a combination of about 500 different things, but the one thing that you have to have is luck. I've done 13 TV pilots and seven series. I've done series that were considered very good and series that were considered very bad. None of them stuck. And all of a sudden we got a show on Thursday night at ten o'clock. That time slot was the cradle of love—and we had a groundbreaking TV show. Go back to 1994 and look at the first year of ER. It's some great television.
DG: You came to fame right at the beginning of the modern age of fame, when—
GC: When all the fun was gone. Used to be you could be as famous as you wanted. You show up at premieres and everybody cheers and you sign autographs, and then you go off and you drive out to a restaurant and go to dinner and you'd be left alone. Every once in a while some paparazzi would sneak around, but now everybody's got a phone. If all this stuff existed when I was 25, it'd be me getting carried out of some bar by my feet. Cuz I did it all. I had all the fun that you should have. And it would have been multiplied by 10 times had I been famous and rich. I'm just lucky that the advent of camera phones happened when I was 43 years old or something.
DG: Fame is, at this moment, a kind of a double-edged sword. You're one of the most famous men in the world on one end of the spectrum. And Donald Trump is on the opposite end of the spectrum. But it's not just because he's race-baiting that he's doing well. It's because he's famous that people are buying into this stuff.
GC: And he's been famous for 35 years.
DG: You know Hillary Clinton well. Is there a moment you've had with her that crystallises who she is?
GC: I was a big supporter of Barack Obama in 2008. When I came back from Darfur when she was secretary of state, I would have thought she would have been a little ticked off to meet with me. And she wasn't.
DG: What is it like meeting with a secretary of state?
GC: When I walked out of that room, I was very, very, very glad that she was secretary of state and that she was an informed, responsible, smart person. I don't think she's nearly as good a campaigner as she would be a leader.
DG: Is Obama funny?
GC: Deeply funny. He gets the joke. He's called me a couple of times after I've gotten in an argument with somebody about him. And he's like, "What are you doing fighting with that guy?" That kind of stuff has been very funny.
DG: Have you ever played basketball with him?
GC: We played here in L.A. I did a fundraiser here with him, and he said, "What are you doing tomorrow morning?" I go, "What time?" He goes, "5:30. You wanna play some hoops?" And I go, "Yeah." And he goes, "All right, we'll set it up. You got any of your friends want to play?"
DG: Do they want to play?!
GC: So I started writing my friends, going, "You wanna play basketball with the president of the United States?" Now I have this picture of my buddy elbowing the President. It was really fun. He's a good basketball player.
DG: I'm surprised he even has time to play at 5:30 in the morning.
GC: The truth of the matter is, in my lifetime certainly there's never been a president who's been up against so much obstructionism. There just hasn't been. Period. I don't give a shit what anybody says. Yet he's managed to do an awful lot of things, and he's had to do it with a sense of humor that I wouldn't have kept. At some point, I would've said, "You know what, boys? Why don't we step outside?"
DG: You seem to manage conflict with aplomb. You take stances, you get angry sometimes, and yet I can't remember a time when you've been tarred by your fame.
GC: What you learn is you gotta pick your fights, and the fights you pick have to be about someone besides yourself. You go, "Don't say that my wife should be executed." The Daily Mail sort of pulled one of those, which was inaccurate on every level. Those are the fights you gotta pick.
DG: I was in Milan in January and everybody I met was like, What is going on with the United States?
GC: A Danish reporter asked me, "What's going on with Donald Trump?" And I said, "Well, what's going on with you? You guys just passed a new law says that you're going to take the belongings off of every refugee that comes in to pay for them coming in, which sounds an awful lot like 1938, '39 in Germany." But how am I to defend us when the only voice that's coming out from across the sea is banning Muslims? That's the problem with what's going on. It's not that it's gonna happen; it's that we're broadcasting this to the rest of the world.
Here's the thing about Trump—I was just in Amsterdam, and I'm up onstage, and they go, "What's going on with Trump?" And I said: "Look, we're not going to do these things. We're not going to deport Muslims. We're not going to build a wall." But the problem is all these other countries hear these things, and all of a sudden you see in France that [Jean-Marie] Le Pen is going, "Bravo." You get all of these nutcases on the far-right fringe saying, "Well, if America thinks that…" That is the real problem with Trump—his ideas bleed into the rest of the world. That he says, I'm gonna find every terrorist, and I'm gonna find their family, and I'm gonna execute them…. I'm not gonna let him walk away from that. I'm gonna execute a family?! That's a war crime of the highest level that no one would do. When you say that, that tells all the other people, Okay, well, if they're saying that, then why don't we?
DG: Are you hopeful about the future?
GC: I actually think it looked a lot bleaker in 2008, when the economy tanked. I really thought we were in real trouble.
DG: We were.
GC: This country is a big carrier ship that has to slowly turn all the time to right itself, and it takes longer than we want it to. But if you look at us over the history of time, we really fucked up. We fucked up with the Indians; we fucked up with slavery. We were terrible to women. We fuck up and we fuck up and we fuck up, and we get better. We're not great yet; we haven't fixed it all yet. We didn't figure it out in 1776. We didn't have a Constitution until 1787. It takes a while to figure things out. But what happened in 2008 was: Just when you thought you couldn't figure it out, that the world was gonna go straight to hell, we elected the first African-American ever, who, when he speaks, he makes us feel proud, and makes the rest of the world calm down about the United States.
DG: Probably helped that CNN and Politico weren't covering the emergence of America as an independent nation.
GC: This is the thing that makes me crazy. What's going on in Syria doesn't get airplay. A little boy drowns and washes up on a shore, and [in response] everything was moving in the right direction until Cologne or San Bernardino, and everything changes. We don't have any coverage of what is truly one of the great catastrophes in our lifetime. Six million refugees, it's just a number. But six million. But what if six million of those little boys washed up on the shore?
DG: It's not a rating until that happens.
GC: It's not a rating.
DG: Trump's a rating….
GC: Last night's debate will be known as the I-have-the-biggest-dick debate. When you could have been saying, Let's talk about what we really are going to do about refugees.
WHAT YOU LEARN IS YOU GOTTA PICK YOUR FIGHTS, AND THE FIGHTS YOU PICK HAVE TO BE ABOUT SOMEONE BESIDES YOUSELF.
DG: Looking at the recent films you've been involved in, I get the impression that you basically only work with people you like to work with.
GC: That's pretty true. You try to push out every once in a while, but if I can work with the Coens, if I could work with Soderbergh. If I could work with Alexander Payne. That's where I am in my career right now.
DG: You're retiring from acting, allegedly.
GC: Somebody said, "What are you doing in 10 years?" And I said, "Well, I don't think anybody really wants to see anybody age." But humour doesn't make it in print. The reality is what I was talking about was the kind of parts that I was doing I'm not going to be doing anymore. Paul Newman did it best. He was a movie star, he was a leading man, and then he was like, Now I'm a character actor.
DG: And they were memorable roles.
GC: They just weren't as often and they weren't as much. I'm much more interested in doing films where the role makes sense for me. I'm not gonna be carrying movies the way I did before. There are actors you'll see that try to hold on to this leading-man status long past the due date.
DG: It starts to look ridiculous.
GC: And you get a softer lens, but it doesn't work anymore.
DG: I'm also talking to Bill Murray for this issue.
GC: He's a nut.
DG: Everybody thinks they know him. Is there anything people get wrong about him?
GC: He's oddly emotional. He's incredibly warm and emotional. He gave a toast at our wedding that was so elegant and beautiful and warm and he's such a loving individual. And he's adaptable to anyplace he goes. Everybody's life is a puzzle that's missing this one piece, and he fits in each time.
DG: I wonder if he gets back to you faster than he gets back to me.
GC: Bill comes to see us in Italy every summer. I text him [to see when he wants to come], and then I won't hear from him for three months. Then I'll be in Italy, and he'll call me and say, "I'm here." And I go, "Where?" And he goes, "At the front gate." And I open it, and he comes in.
Another story: We were recording Fantastic Mr. Fox at the house. Wes Anderson and all the guys came there to do it. Bill was coming the next morning. And we all woke up to the news that Owen Wilson tried to hurt himself. And Wes and everyone said, "We have to go back." But Bill was supposed to be in Venice in ten days. And he's like, "Well, what should I do?" I'd only known him from a few parties, but I said, "Well, you can stay here." And he did. And we would just sit and we'd watch television together, or we'd go into the gym and work out. But you could do it and not even talk for hours. I'd come outside and he'd be lying in the grass looking up, and I'd come out and I'd lie in the grass and look up, and we'd just sit there and look up at the stars for two hours. He really is that guy. He's incredibly warm, and he really fits into everyone's life when he shows up.
DG: That's beautiful.
GC: I feel that he gets a good amount of joy out of how much people love him. I think he really likes that.
DG: My image of him will always be at one of his Christmas parties. There will be 400 people there. Emma Stone, Chris Rock, David Letterman. But then he'll turn to you and say, "Would you please talk to that woman over there? She runs the emergency room on Martha's Vineyard. She's a really nice lady. She needs somebody to talk to."
GC: There's this gentleness about him. He's just such a funny, sweet man. Obviously talented, but in many ways he's just a normal guy.
DG: I was asking my staff what I should ask you, what they were curious about. And there was one really simple question that Tyler Cabot thought I should ask. And the question is: "What do you want?"
GC: That's a good question. So I made money. I was broke, but I made my money. I've never been happier in a relationship by any stretch of the imagination. At 52 I found the love of my life and I'm really happy. I enjoy the work that I've been lucky enough to do and I wanna keep doing it. I want to remain creative and be able to stay creative as long as they'll let me. So I wanna do that. But as I've gotten older and as I've gotten more secure in my life, there are a lot of other things that I care about more, which is: the people who don't have the luck that I have. There's a lot of people out there who could use some luck. There's a lot of people in this country, but there's an awful lot of people in this world that could use some luck. And sometimes luck is just shedding the spotlight on the fact that their lives are hell.
DG: A couple years ago I was in the doctor's office for tests and the technician says to me, "So, are you still in the workforce?" And it just bugged the hell out of me.
GC: There isn't this 65-year-old retirement age, you know? We can be working on the things that matter to us, and that we're interested in, until somebody pulls the plug. That's a great place to be. I have a tequila company, right? It's off-the-charts successful. That's going to end up being the most successful thing I've ever been attached to financially.
GC: By far.
DG: And you've done pretty well.
GC: I mean by leaps and bounds. That's one of those things where you go, "Well, how much money do you need?" And then you go, "Well, then, what can we do to make this actually do some good around the world?" That's my interest now: Where can you focus your energy, not just in writing and directing and producing and acting but in actually changing people's lives?
DG: And you have a lot of time to do that.
GC: I'm 54 years old. I'm in good shape and good health for the most part.
DG: Are there any physical compromises you've been forced to make?
GC: I played basketball three times a week up until about a year and a half ago. But each injury takes longer to heal. As we're talking, I've just come from having injections in my back for a slipped disc this morning. So I'm not feeling peak, but I can still hang with the young guys in most sports.
THERE ISN'T THIS 65-YEAR-OLD RETIREMENT AGE, YOU KNOW? WE CAN BE WORKING ON THE THINGS THAT MATTER TO US, AND THAT WE'RE INTERESTED IN, UNTIL SOMEBODY PULLS THE PLUG.
DG: It is an odd experience sitting here and talking to you—you have a way of making me and probably everybody else feel like we've known you forever. It seems comfortable. It's fuckin' weird.
GC: I didn't grow up afraid of conversation or afraid of people who actually write for a living. I find an actual conversation is not hard to have.
DG: As I've been preparing to leave Esquire, people keep asking me, "So, what's your legacy?" And I've always thought there's no such thing as legacy. Three months after I'm gone, people will have forgotten I was there. Do you think about what lives on beyond you?
GC: I had this conversation with my dad not long ago about legacy. He said, "No one will really remember all the things that I did—the work that I've done." And we were talking and I said, "I look at some of the films that I was able to do—the ones that mattered. Good Night, and Good Luck; Michael Clayton; Out of Sight; Up in the Air; The Descendants. I look back and think I've got seven or eight films that will stand the test of time." And I said, "That's my legacy, I suppose." And he said, "Name me the top ten movie stars in 1930."
He said, "You get 80 years." And he's absolutely right. So if your legacy's gonna count for anything, it actually has to count for the next generation's lives. My family—we were Irish immigrants. And we were shit all over because we were Irish. And people said, "Oh, they're gonna be terrible and a disaster for the country." And Amal had to flee Beirut during the civil war and she ran to England. We have to do better. We have to stop this incredible fear that some guy who wants to kill us is going to go through the year-and-a-half or two-year process of immigration to be a terrorist, you know? I don't understand that. It doesn't make sense to me that people think that way. Your legacy is about immigrants and refugees. Amal and I are working on things now that matter to us on a whole other level, in a whole other world. If there's a legacy for me, it's yet to be written.
DG: I appreciate you taking the time and doing this.
GC: Well, I'll say it on the tape because I want it said: You're gonna be missed. You really are. Your voice and the magazine as it was through your voice has been exceptional. That is a legacy. They might not remember any of our names. But what they will remember is an era when there were great stories told, and there were great questions asked that a lot of places don't ask and don't do. So you'll land somewhere that you like, and all that stuff. But you do have a real legacy here, and you should be proud of that.
DG: I'll make sure to print that.
GC: I'm a big fan of loyalty. All this O.J. stuff is coming up right now because of the show [The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story]. When I look at loyalty, I look at Al Cowlings. And I think, I hope I'm that friend. Right? I hope I'm the kind of friend you can come up to and say, "Listen, they're saying I killed my wife. I didn't kill my wife. They're trying to railroad me. Just get in the car and drive." I like loyalty.
The Dossier: George Clooney
Date of birth: May 6, 1961
Which makes him: 54
Hometown: Lexington, Kentucky
Which proved useful when: He sent the O Brother, Where Art Thou? script home to his uncle Jack, along with a tape recorder to capture his accent. Though he later learned that: Uncle Jack, a strict Baptist, had omitted all the damns and hells.
Other relatives of note: Aunt Rosemary Clooney, cabaret singer and actress; father Nick Clooney, talk-show host and news anchor.
First onscreen appearance: The Nick Clooney Show, at age 5.
Childhood aspiration: Baseball player
Not an unrealistic goal, considering: That he tried out for the Cincinnati Reds when he was 17.
But ended up: Studying broadcast journalism at Northern Kentucky University.
After dropping out of which he: Moved to California with money saved from cutting tobacco.
First film: Return to Horror High
As: Oliver, a wannabe actor.
Who: Dies in the first 15 minutes.
But not before a female character sneers: "Gonna be a star, Oliver?"
And he responds: "Gonna try."
To which she says: "Yeah, right."
To which we say: Yeah. Right.
Spouse: Amal Clooney (née Alamuddin), human-rights lawyer.
Of whom he has said: "Oftentimes, I feel like an idiot talking to my own wife."
Upcoming projects: Money Monster, a thriller costarring Julia Roberts; Suburbicon, a dark comedy written by the Coen brothers about a suburban home invasion gone wrong.
Shown to him in: The late 1990s
And resurrected when: "I called up the boys and said, 'Any interest?' And they're like, 'Let's go.’"
From: Esquire US.