George Clooney is that rare Hollywood animal: A major star who loves to talk. Consistently charming, genuinely warm with a sharp, self-deprecating sense of humour, Clooney gets to show off his comedic side, with a hilarious turn in the new Depression-era comedy from the Coen Brothers, O Brother Where Art Thou.
The film, inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey, concerns the journey undertaken by three chain-gang escapees (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) through rural Mississippi in the 1930s. They are nominally in search of hidden treasure, but their adventures taken them through a strange series of trials, which yield many unexpected results. It turns out, in fact, to be a journey home for their self-appointed leader (Clooney), whose middle name is Ulysses. Their encounters along the way include a brush with a Cyclops (John Goodman as a sinister salesman wearing an eye-patch), sirens (Mia Tate, Christy Taylor, and Musetta Vander), and even a suitor who has taken up with Clooney’s wife (Holly Hunter) during his absence.
The actor has gone from big-budget Hollywood action (The Perfect Storm) to pure comedy, and the actor relishes the challenge. “The great thing is, if you’re going to do a big, old screwball comedy, the safe place for ME to do it, is with the Coen brothers”, the actor explains in a New York hotel. “You have to be able to trust the guys, because they tell yAnswer: Now we want to you dance, and you go: Ok. You have to trust that they’re not going to embarrass you.”
No signs of embarrassment in this film. One sequence has Clooney dancing on stage to thirties country music having a rollicking old time. Self-choreographed and all, or “self-inflicted” as George adds laughingly. “They did have a choreographer there and these guys are very elegant and would say in this prim voice: We’re going to talk to you about what you are going to do now. Now I’m from Kentucky and so I tell these guys: I know this really bad chicken dance that I’d like to do, then I’d do it and they sat there with their mouths open, while Joel and Ethan were in the background laughing. We did it but those poor choreographers HATED it.”
Despite hailing from a small town in Kentucky, Clooney gets to poke fun at the Deep South, playing a real Southern guy, accent and all. Perhaps he based the character on people he has known, one asks. “Know ’em? I’m related to ’em”, comes the Clooney response. “I grew up in a town of 1500 people, right, and just moved out when I was 21, because I had to get to the city.” Clooney recalls rebelling against country music and the whole Southern mentality. “I didn’t want to be a part of any of that.”
When Clooney read the O Brother script, he remembers feeling how intensely southern it was. So to help him out, he turned to his Uncle Jack, who still lives in a small Kentucky town. “He’s a tobacco farmer, and I sent him a tape recorder with the script and asked him to read all of my lines, send it back, and I’ll get him a credit in the movie.” His uncle did just that, and with a perfect Kentucky accent, Clooney adds that his Uncle Jack was concerned that “I don’t think we speak like that”. Clooney had his voice. “I just did my Uncle Jack through the whole thing.” By the way, his Uncle Jack, who has never stepped onto a plane, is being flown to the premiere, along with his grandmother. “I think I owe them that”, Clooney says smilingly. Perhaps he has rediscovered his roots.
Clooney’s movie career has had its ups and downs, but the actor remains philosophical about the choices that he has made. Though he has said, semi-jokingly, that he single-handed, managed to put an end to the Batman franchise, he is also proud of other cinematic accomplishments. “I think I have three good films under my belt: Out of Sight, Three Kings and O Brother where art Thou. I mean obviously what you try to do is do films that you’re proud of, and when you get hit by the bus, you end up with a library of films that you’re proud of. Those are three films that I think will last for a period of time. The other films I’ve done were good for a specific time or day.”
Such as Perfect Storm, which remains the actor’s most commercially successful film. “I thought that film would do ok. I thought it was a ballsy move by the studio to try and tell THAT story. I figured if I was going to do an action film for that studio, it might as well be one where all six guys die in the end. It was a true story and it had a lot of elements in it, which I thought were really admirable. But I WAS surprised at the success, before every time I’ve done a movie up to that point, the box office has been disappointing, but tracking was always high. So you never know.”
Of course, with Perfect Storm the big hit it became, life for George must change as a result. “I get to step all over people and take advantage of them”, he retorts in typical style. “The funny thing is, I haven’t actually worked since then so nothing’s changed”, he adds laughingly. Clooney does concede that yes, they DO offer more money with success, but for THIS Hollywood player, money is not everything. “It really screws with everything because you don’t want to take more money out of the budget of a film, since then you lose good co-stars and the quality of the film. What you’d rather do, is push it all in the back end.”
It’s easy to come away meeting Clooney, with the impression that what you see is what you get. There is no pretence, but a genuine quality that few stars of his ilk possess. Perhaps it is his Kentucky heritage, or his dad, from whom he has learned a lot. “He taught me a million things but mostly about being responsible for your own actions. I’m never going to be as honourable as my dad, because he lost a lot of good jobs and has been broke a lot because he stands up for the right thing.”
Clooney is next teaming up with his Out of Sight director Steven Soderbergh for the eagerly awaited Oceans 11, with a star studded cast which includes: Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Alan Arkin and Don Cheadle. Plenty of room for egos gone mad. “Not if you’re working with a guy called Soderbergh.”
There is no doubt that Clooney had a ball making his latest film, but then, he says, he just loves making movies, even the bad ones. “It’s a great way to make a living”.
O Brother Where Art Thou opens on Boxing Day..