George Clooney has learned a valuable lesson in lockdown: he can still fix your sink. “Like everybody else I’ve been doing laundry and mopping floors and washing dishes and changing diapers. Not my diapers; I have children. But back when I was living in an apartment by myself I could fix things. And I learned I can still fix things. I can rewire lamps. I can still take the sink apart and put it back together. I’m very happy that I haven’t forgotten how to do that.”
In The Midnight Sky, a new post-apocalyptic thriller, Clooney plays a lonely, Arctic-bound scientist attempting to intercept a space mission from returning to a now-ravaged Earth. It was quite a stretch for the actor who, these days, finds himself surrounded at home; his wife, Amal, gave birth to a daughter, Ella, and a son, Alexander, in June 2017.
“Listen,” he says, laughing. “I’ve got three-year-old twins. There’s not a moment of peace in my house. I’d kill for some loneliness right now; I’ll give you my left leg for some loneliness. But I do believe that in general, mankind right now is experiencing real loneliness because of this pandemic.”
He points at his Zoom screen. “We’re talking in this way when we should be sitting together in a room. We’re missing out on contact with people – shaking hands and hugging and kissing your loved ones. A lot of my friends are visiting their parents in nursing homes and seeing them through glass windows for the last nine months. That’s a hard thing to do. They are lonely in a deep, profound way. And the only thing I can say is that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that we are going to get through this.”
In common with many recent projects, the dystopia that characterises Clooney’s latest venture has a strange new relevance against the general craziness of 2020.
“Well, we didn’t want to say whether it was the climate or what exactly it was that destroyed the Earth because I think your imagination is a lot more powerful than anything you can show on film,” he says.
“We’ve seen in our world – especially in 2020 but it’s been going along for a while – the division. It’s not just the United States, although we’ve had a great amount of it. You can see it all over the world. Jimmy Carter once said that peace, like war, must be waged. You have to fight for it. And if we’re not out there fighting for peace then it’s not inconceivable that 30 years from now what you see in the film is something we can do to ourselves.”
The Midnight Sky is Clooney’s seventh film as a director. He has directed a feature every three years since 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
“Really?” says Clooney. “I didn’t know it was every three years. When I was writing it took me six months to write Good Night, and Good Luck, then six to produce and six months to a year in post-production. So I guess it just happens naturally. And then you have to take an acting job in between to pay the rent. I don’t get paid on the director gigs. Every three years. That’s good to know. So I don’t have to work for two more years, right?”
The new film will premiere as part of Netflix’s Christmas – read awards season – slate. Clooney, a lifelong cinema patron, insists that the streaming juggernaut and the theatrical circuit can enjoy parallel futures.
'The funny thing is as an actor I’ve had success. But I was never a big action guy. I was never a huge comedy guy'
“I don’t think they are mutually exclusive,” he says. “Look. In 1945 television was going to destroy cinema. Then VHS was going to destroy cinema. Then DVDs. Now streaming. But cinemas are going to be around for a long time. I can’t keep saying to my wife: let’s stay home and watch TV. There is a shared experience in cinema: comedy and horrors are really good in cinema. And what Netflix has done for my industry – for directors, for writers, for producers, for actors – is create hundreds of jobs.
“If I was a young actor coming up it’d be the most exciting thing in the world. When I started acting in 1982 – you could look it up on the ratings – there were 64 television shows. About 40 of them required acting. And there weren’t that many movies. And Netflix will make the films that I used to make with smaller studios, independent studios. I made Good Night, and Good Luck with Warners Independent. Which is gone. I made Confessions of a Dangerous Mind at Miramax. Which is gone. Or that version of it is gone.”
George Timothy Clooney was born on May 6th, 1961, in Lexington, Kentucky. His mother, Nina, was a beauty queen and city councilwoman. His father, Nick Clooney, was a game-show host and news anchor. Good Night, and Good Luck, George’s second feature, was written in tribute to his dad’s work as a newsman, and the business of journalism remains a source of fascination for the actor-director, especially in a post-truth era.
“In the US we used to have three channels,” he says. “They all started with the same set of facts. And you, at home, took those facts and – depending on whether you were conservative or liberal – you digested them and made your decisions based on that same set of facts. So we were never too far apart. It’s completely different now. We’re working with different sets of facts. And I worry about that because it makes people very sure of themselves. Like the pizza-gate guy who shows up at the pizza place because he thinks there are paedophiles in the basement. There’s no basement. There are no paedophiles. But he shoots off his gun.”
Clooney majored in broadcast journalism at Northern Kentucky University from 1979 to 1981 and briefly attended the University of Cincinnati. He did not graduate from either. He tried his luck as a baseball player at Cincinnati Reds in 1977 but he did not pass the first round of player cuts. He worked in construction, door-to-door sales, stocktaking, shelf stacking and tobacco cutting before he landed his first role as an extra in the 1978 television miniseries Centennial.
'The thing about acting is that you’re subject to a lot of other things, like directing and editing. You can give the performance of your life and it’s gone'
His subsequent acting career, he says, has generated just the right amount of success. “The funny thing is as an actor I’ve had success. But I was never a big action guy. I was never a huge comedy guy. Because none of my movies ended up being gigantic hits, it allowed me to keep messing around and keep doing very different kinds of performances. And with directing it’s the same. Some of the less-successful films allowed me to continue to try other things.”
The Midnight Sky casts Clooney opposite eight-year-old newcomer Caoilinn Springall. That screen partnership has echoes of the actor’s career-making stint on the medical drama ER.
“Caoilinn was really special,” says Clooney. “She’s never acted before. But she listens. And she made it such an incredibly easy job for me as a director. It’s a general rule about working with kids. I remember when I was in ER I played a paediatrician on the show. I was a womaniser. I was a drunk. But at the end of every show I’d be like: ‘Nobody touches that kid.’ And people would say: ‘Oh, he loves kids!’ So, as a character, you can get away with doing a lot of dastardly things and still survive because you love kids. A lot of TV series – like Family Affair or The Courtship of Eddie’s Father – have used that. It’s The Bad News Bears. It’s an automatic redeeming quality.”
Post-ER, Clooney found himself becoming a test case for the now defunct debate around television stars “making it” at the movies. After Batman and Robin he found himself “losing that argument”. A run of exceptional roles in Out of Sight, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Michael Clayton and the Ocean’s trilogy turned things around. But the experience of shouldering the blame for Batman and Robin created a desire to move to the other side of the camera.
“The thing about acting is that you’re subject to a lot of other things, like directing and editing. You can give the performance of your life and it’s gone.”
'I got lucky there. I was flipping through the air and I ended up landing on my knees and hands. If it had been any other part of my body, I would have been dead'
As a film-maker he was inspired by the “. . . Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman and the directors I greatly admire. I learned the things that work and why they work. Alexander and Jason played with perceptions of what people thought I was. The Coen brothers just want me to be an idiot.
“I remember watching Robert Rodriguez when we did From Dusk till Dawn. And he had such an interesting, casual way of shooting. He planned every shot. He had already shot the film, either in storyboards or in his head. The Coen brothers storyboard every single shot too. And in a weird way it kind of tells you how to act. So I storyboard everything. You know, steal from the best.”
Whether he is acting or directing, Clooney has a secret weapon in Grant Heslov, who has produced all of Clooney’s films as a director.
“He’s been my best friend for 40 years,” says Clooney. “We were in an acting class together. He was 19, I was 21. We started trying to make movies. We couldn’t get anything done. He loaned me 100 bucks to get my first headshot. Which I still use. It works! That was in 1982. He has been my producing partner all along. We won the Oscar together with Argo. He’ll sit next to the camera and your tendency – if you’re an actor and director – is to not do more takes of yourself. Because that would be a s***ty thing to do. But with Grant, I have somebody that I can rely on that I can look over to and tell me if I need to do it again.”
The Midnight Sky is Clooney’s first film role since 2016’s Hail, Caesar! He has, to be fair, been otherwise occupied with fatherhood and Catch-22, a 2019 miniseries based on Joseph Heller’s comic novel. And he did require considerable downtime after a 2016 motorcycle crash in Sardinia, one in a series of brushes with death for the actor.
“I hit the guy at 70 miles an hour and I thought that was it,” he says. “But I got lucky there. I was flipping through the air and I ended up landing on my knees and hands. If it had been any other part of my body, I would have been dead or broken my neck. I’ve had a couple of close calls. I had one time in South Sudan where we got pulled over and had a gun stuck to the head. You learn that life is fragile. But after the motorcycle accident I think the one thing I learned is that I’m not allowed to ride my motorcycle. My wife said: ‘That’s enough.’ And I was like: ‘Okay.’”
The Midnight Sky is on Netflix from December 25th