George Clooney for “The Perfect Storm”

George Clooney is a rugged 39, and looks as expressive as the characters he plays. Fresh from a photo shoot, he sports a beard that has been somewhat bleached for a photo shoot “and also effected by the sun, which doesn’t thrill me.”

On screen he epitomises the staunch individual, somewhat aside from society’s conventions, but in reality, he is affable, charming and exchanges the odd loving insult with co-star and now friend, Mark Wahlberg, from across the room. “Show everyone your 13″ penis”, he yells, (a funny reference to Wahlberg’s Boogie Nights). Laughter is George’s philosophy of life. “What else is there”, he asks. If one looks at Clooney’s recent characters, from ER’s Dr Ross, to his soldier-of-fortune in Three Kings, and now to the tough sword fisherman of The Perfect Storm, the pattern seems unmistakeable: These are characters all staunchly individualistic, looking at bucking some kind of ordained set of rules.

Coincidence? Maybe so, but Clooney relishes these types of roles, because they “represent great storytelling”, Clooney says. We’re in the small fishing town of Gloucester, about a hundred miles out of Boston, the setting for Clooney’s Perfect Storm, a true-life saga about a group of fishermen combating the elements. “When I was growing up, the guys that you loved were like Humphrey Bogart, where the characters that they played stood up against that kind of convention. For me, it’s very old, traditional storytelling and you see it most of the time when you see characters, but it’s fun to do.” Clooney adds that he doesn’t think people necessarily “think that of me, but just think I’m doing my job. It’s a nice place to be.”

That ‘nice place’ of course was initiated from the stardom generated as antiauthoritarian Doug Ross, whom he played in the hit series ER for five seasons. Asked what he learnt from that experience, Clooney admits that it was far from easy. “It’s hard to do an hour’s show for five years and sort of reinvent yourself a lot. So I think people should do a series for 3, because then you can still keep on doing new things. By the fourth year, I was so BAD, I would do things just not to do the same thing; I’d do things that were completely wrong for the character in order to avoid repeating myself. Not being frivolous, it was to keep me awake.”

He left ER retaining the friendships he forged, and so it more than a pleasant surprise when Clooney turned up in Julianna Marguiles’ farewell episode of the series. Clooney managed to take part in TV’s best-kept secret, he recalls laughingly. “Not even Julianna knew, because we figured she wouldn’t be able to keep quiet about it. She has a lot of agents and people around her, so we figured: She’ll tell somebody, and agents can’t keep their mouths shut.” So giving her a week’s notice, and agreeing to be paid scale rates (around $400), Clooney and Marguiles were finally reunited “It was great, because by paying me scale, nobody could complain that we weren’t publicising it, they’d lock the footage away and just tack it on at the end. If they’d publicised it, everyone would have been pissed off, because I was there for that brief moment. It was fun to do, and I love working with her.”

Clooney’s big-screen career took longer to truly take off. Critics and audiences were dismissive of his Batman and Robin, and the romantic comedy One Fine Day, that he did with Michelle Pfeiffer. Then critics took him more seriously as the laconic crim in Out of Sight, and heaped further praise on him in last year’s Three Kings. That praise is likely to continue for his role as the individualistic fisherman desperate for one large catch in The Perfect Storm. Based on the best-selling non-fiction book, it was the latter that Clooney first read prior to its publication. “I knew I wanted to do it even before Warner Bros had the movie and thought the script was great. I wanted to do it for a long time.”

The trouble was, Mel Gibson became attached to it: “so I said that I’d play Bobby” [the character now played by Mark Wahlberg]. Gibson dropped out and Clooney landed the role of sea captain Billy Tyne. “I would have played Diane Lane’s role if I had to, just to do the movie”, he says laughingly. Shooting Perfect Storm was hard work, and for Clooney and the rest of the cast, there are times when they had to react to a very harsh physical environment. “It’s a lot easier doing it the way we did it, as against doing it against a blue screen. When you’re getting pummelled with water, it’s pretty easy just to react. Some of the more emotional stuff at the end makes it very difficult, as every five seconds you’re getting hit with a wave in between a straight scene, so THAT was tougher to do.” Clooney adds, “The hardest part was not to react BEFORE the water hits you, because it’s a dump tank and you know that when that water hits you, it will knock you around. So we had to try not to react before the water got us, and that was the challenge.”

Clooney wanted to ensure that this would not be another Twister, a special effects film with little else going on. When one sees the film, there’s seamlessness in the way effects and narrative come together, and Clooney is happy the way the movie turned out. “In the first 45 minutes there are simply no effects and no action at all; there IS no formula to this. It isn’t the old-time Hollywood. We do take a long time to set up the story, to the point where you start going: Let’s go already. Then just before people would start to get a little ticked off, we’d really start the story going. It just means you have to have the patience to watch a movie again, which is what we used to do: Care about the characters then put them in jeopardy, which is old-fashioned storytelling.”

The actor feels that “we’ve gotten to this MTV generation where you want everything to happen immediately.” Clooney went from shooting the antithesis of studio formulae, the Depression-set comedy O Brother Where Art Thou, from the Coen Brothers to the more mainstream Perfect Storm. It was an easy leap to make, and both as rewarding, the actor feels. “They were both well-written scripts and both highly talented directors, so all you have to do is show up and say: Now what do you want me to do? With the Coens, you sort have an idea immediately of what you want to do, because their characters are so well written. These are both writer and director-driven; you don’t have to think much, which is good for me [it keeps me out of trouble].”

While most actors reach their peak in Hollywood these days while in their twenties, Clooney is something of an oxymoron in youth-obsessed Hollywood: A major player at 39. He says that he’s grateful that he wasn’t allowed the opportunity to be a star at 20. Maturity in this business has its rewards. “It’s honestly better to have gone through ups and downs before you hit a place of success that could throw you a little. It’s always best to have had quite a few failures along the way, so that you understand what the event is.”

That event, Clooney, claims, “is very little to do with you usually. The truth is, I’m the same actor who was in Batman and Robin, and the same actor who was in all those old bad TV series. That means I wasn’t as bad as people would think, in some of them and I wasn’t as good as people would say I was in other jobs. You’re somewhere in the middle and being older you’re more in a position to identify that, and not think, when things are going well, ‘Oh, I’m so brilliant’, which can happen, especially when you’re young, because you don’t have anything to measure it against.”

These days, Clooney enjoys the status of movie star measured against his maturity as an actor. Clooney shies away from the star tag, admitting, “Stardom is a dangerous place to be.” He has a clear aim as age finally catches up with him. “Ultimately, if you’re smart, your goal is to be Paul Newman. That’s what every guy should try to be. He’s had a long lasting career, and started it the right way. That was, he was a great looking guy in The Silver Chalice when he wasn’t much of an actor, he became an incredible actor by the time he did stuff like Hud and The Hustler, then bit by bit he developed into this incredible character actor, who’s still sort of a leading man, but a character actor. So what you want to do, is just show up and work, and if you can manage to do that for HALF as long as Paul Newman, then you win and try to survive as long as you can.” Next up, Clooney will reteam with his Out of Sight director, Steven Soderbergh, to shoot the anticipated ensemble comedy, Ocean’s 11, again featuring Mark Wahlberg. “Yeah, we’re the new dynamic duo.”