‘I was offered $35m for one day’s work’: George Clooney on paydays, politics and parenting

The Oscar-winner discusses directing the coming-of-age drama The Tender Bar, raising twins in a pandemic and choosing causes over cash

George Clooney is smoother than a cup of one of those Nespresso coffees he has advertised for two decades and for which has earned a highly caffeinated £30m-plus. With that, on top of the tequila company Casamigos, which he co-founded then sold four years ago for a potential $1bn (£780m), the ER juggernaut and – oh yeah! – the hugely successful film career as an actor, director and producer, it seems safe to assume that Clooney could, if he were a bit less cool, start every morning by diving into a pile of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck. So, George, I ask, do you ever think: “You know what? I think I have enough money now.”

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Unruffled as the silver hair on his head, Clooney leans forward, as if he is about to confide in me. “Well, yeah. I was offered $35m for one day’s work for an airline commercial, but I talked to Amal [Clooney, the human rights lawyer he married in 2014] about it and we decided it’s not worth it. It was [associated with] a country that, although it’s an ally, is questionable at times, and so I thought: ‘Well, if it takes a minute’s sleep away from me, it’s not worth it.’”

Personally, I would lose a minute’s sleep for a tenner, but Clooney operates on a different scale from the rest of us.

We meet on the terrace of a hotel in London, to talk about his new film, The Tender Bar, which he directed and which stars Ben Affleck, but it feels more like we are in Beverly Hills in the 50s, with Frank Sinatra and Clark Gable at the next table. Clooney, 60, is a very old-fashioned kind of movie star. He doesn’t really bother with relatability, because he knows there is no point in pretending he is just one of the guys when the reason he didn’t go to Barack Obama’s 60th birthday party this summer was because “we were in Italy” – ie at his villa on Lake Como.

‘Such a kind story’ ... watch the trailer for The Tender Bar.

But despite being extremely famous for almost 30 years, he has suffered none of the usual pitfalls of modern celebrity. There are no photos of him falling around drunk, no appearances on reality TV, no misguided tattoos and no affairs with the nanny. Even his wedding in Venice in 2014 had the smack of retro glamour; photos show Clooney in a dinner jacket speeding down the Rialto in a mahogany limousine.

If Clooney has a brand, it is carefully cultivated classiness. He has been – by and large – clever with his film choices, opting for thoughtful and stylish fare. His best-known movies are probably those in the Oceans franchise, a very deliberate hark back to the Hollywood of the 60s. Clooney’s aunt was Rosemary Clooney, who starred alongside Bing Crosby in White Christmas. I ask if growing up around her gave him a template for how to handle fame.

“I didn’t really grow up with her, because I lived in Kentucky and she was in Los Angeles. But we all worshipped her and I loved the idea of Hollywood – I’d dream about it!” he grins.

Yet even the star of your film, Ben Affleck, has had his less-than-ideal moments in the spotlight, I say. “Sure, sure,” he says. So how have you avoided any real public embarrassments? “I was 33, 34 when ER took off, so I was older, right? Also, Rosemary was a huge singer – huge! And then rock’n’roll came and she lost her career. And she didn’t get it, because at 21 she thought she was the real deal and by 26 it was gone. So, I’m lucky enough to understand how little the fame side has to do with me.”

George Clooney as Dr Doug Ross in ER
Heart-throb ... Clooney as Dr Doug Ross in ER. Photograph: NBCU Photobank/Rex Features

Most celebrities operate within a forcefield that repels any information that doesn’t pertain to them. But when I mention to Clooney that, like him, I have young twins, he drinks it in, making repeated references to our twin-parent connection throughout the interview. It is the conversational equivalent of Bill Clinton’s trick of gripping someone’s upper arms when he meets them, immediately creating a sense of intimacy. And it works, damn it, the old charmer.

“How old are your twins? I have to ask you, are they very different kids? Ours are so different; it’s like night and day. Alexander loves to laugh and Ella’s very serious, always making sure everybody plays by the rules. They really are born with their personalities!” he grins.

Given that their father is an extremely successful movie star and their mother is an extremely successful barrister, I assume the twins have an army of nannies, but he insists not.

“We don’t, because it’s so important to Amal [to be involved]. We have a nanny four days a week and the rest of the time it’s just us. And during lockdown it was just us – for a full year! I felt like my mother in 1964, doing dishes and six loads of laundry a day,” he says. He has the relaxed demeanour of a man recalling a beach holiday as opposed to pandemic parenting.

Unlike so many celebrities, Clooney keeps his children, now four, firmly out of the spotlight. I tell him that I like that he gave them old-fashioned names instead of the usual Hollywood coinages. “We talked about it from the beginning and said: ‘Their lives are going to be unusual, right? There’s no denying that. So let’s give them a head start by giving them normal names,’” he says.

I suspect that parenthood and the soft emotions it inspires is partly what drew him to direct The Tender Bar. Unlike so many of his other movies – such as The Ides of March and, my favourite of all his films, Good Night, and Good Luck, both of which he produced, directed and starred in – there are no prickly political overtones here. It is a straight‑down-the‑line coming-of-age story about a young boy, JR (Daniel Ranieri and then Tye Sheridan), whose single mother (Lily Rabe) and irascible uncle (Affleck) help him to get ahead in life. It is well acted, especially by Affleck, even if, at times, it veers close to soft-focus Wonder Years territory.

That was the point, says Clooney: “The whole country, for the last five years, has been engaged in hate and anger, and I’ve been part of it at times. I’ve been angry, and this was such a kind story. It’s such a gentle film, and I wanted to be part of that, and I thought maybe an audience would want to be part of a gentle experience,” he says.

After Suburbicon, this is the second film Clooney has directed not acted in. It is striking how much he has slowed down on the acting since he got married. Is that because of age or wanting to spend time with his family?

“In general, there just aren’t that many great parts – and, look, I don’t have to act. My wife and I had this conversation when I turned 60 this summer. I said: ‘I can still bounce around pretty good, and we both love what we do. But we gotta make sure we don’t book ourselves silly.’ So, part of it is just us making sure we live our lives.”

with Daniel Ranieri on the set of The Tender Bar
‘I don’t have to act’ ... with Daniel Ranieri on the set of The Tender Bar. Photograph: Claire Folger/Amazon Content Services

As an aside, he then mentions that he is about to go to Australia to make a film with his frequent co-star Julia Roberts, while next summer he will be in the UK to make a film with another regular co-star, Brad Pitt. So, Clooney’s idea of slowing down is, again, not on the usual scale.

Clooney grew up in Kentucky and Ohio, the son of a city councillor and a news anchor. His father, Nick, is revered for his journalistic integrity: “My dad says: ‘I spent the first half of my life being Rosemary Clooney’s brother and the second half being George Clooney’s father.” It has always been obvious how much Clooney has been influenced by his father, not least in Good Night, and Good Luck, which is about the news anchor Edward R Murrow, who stood up against Joe McCarthy.

“Both my parents are really respected where we’re from and I wouldn’t want to do anything to embarrass them. Also, my dad made one rule for me and that was: ‘I don’t care what you do in life, but challenge people with greater power than you and defend those with less power,’” he says.

It would be interesting to know what Nick made of his son’s early acting career in classics such as Return of the Killer Tomatoes, but since he hit the big time as the heart-throb Dr Doug Ross in ER, Clooney has tried to live up to his father’s dictum. For 20 years, he has campaigned indefatigably for causes such as pursuing a resolution to the Darfur conflict and helping Syrian refugees, as well as taking on enemies from Donald Trump to the Daily Mail, after the latter published an untrue story about Amal’s mother.

George Clooney in Syriana, for which he won an Oscar
Political performer ... in Syriana, for which he won an Oscar. Photograph: Reuters

He has always “liked a good fight”, he says with relish, although he is very aware of the eye-rolling sparked by actors getting involved in politics; he can quote how TV hosts such as Bill O’Reilly and Bill Maher have mocked him. “But I would be so ashamed if, for instance, in this last Trump regime, I hadn’t been on the record of being against some of the horrible things he’d done. My kids would be like: ‘So, they were putting kids in cages and you didn’t say anything?’ The blowback is nowhere near as bad as the shame I’d feel.”

Given the political edge to so many of his films – including Michael Clayton and Syriana, for which he won an Oscar – I start to ask if Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird was an influence on him. He answers before I finish the question.

“Huge. Huge! The two actors who were personally friends and also had the most influence on me were Paul Newman and Gregory Peck, both of whom were men I greatly admired for who they were and how they were on screen. They were proper old-fashioned movie stars and they mixed it up in [politics]. So it was really fun to be friends with them and copy some of the things they did.”

Does it worry him that Peck and Newman each lost a son to, respectively, suicide and an overdose?

“That has not gone unnoticed by me. The pressures on a son of a famous man are a lot. But I have an advantage, which is that I’m considerably older, so the competitive juices will be different. I’ll be 75 when my son will be in any way compared to me, so it won’t be the same vibe. Also, it is very important to Amal and me that they grow up knowing that their own path is the only way, and they have nothing to live up to but their own expectations.”

For someone who is fairly private, Clooney mentions his wife a surprising amount. Did I know that her last two clients, Maria Ressa and Nadia Murad, each won the Nobel peace prize? Do I know how many journalists she has got out of jail? Wait, I watched ER when I was on maternity leave? So did Amal, because she had never seen it before! That’s crazy!

Yet not very long ago, Clooney was at least as famous for his – shall we say – bachelor lifestyle as he was for his politics. What was it about Amal that persuaded him, at 53, to cash in the single life?

“It’s true, I’d been dating for quite a while. But she’s a very impressive person! She’s beautiful, smart, funny and we fell in love right away and got married after six months. And now we’re having such a great time,” he says, which is not something you hear often from a parent of young twins.

Rich, handsome, successful, smart: I don’t know if Clooney is the perfect man, but he is certainly the perfect interviewee. He is excellent at selling himself, which isn’t to say he is inauthentic – on the contrary. But a man can be genuine and hyperaware of what people want from him. His answers to my questions – neither too rambling nor too terse – reveal just enough to gratify me, but not too much to embarrass him. He is deft at getting ahead of criticisms before they are brought up. When I bring up his advertising deals, he neatly segues into talking about how proud he is to work with Nespresso, adding that whenever people have pointed out problems with the company, they fix them, thereby heading off questions about last year’s report of child labour in the company’s supply chain before I can ask them. “It’s fun to be able to [change] things like that,” he smiles.

By this point, I am convinced that we are best buddies, so I tell him I have a very important question. “Bring it on,” he says, straightening up.

How can I get an invite to his house in Como?

“It’s not hard; it’s usually just someone driving by. I remember Ernest Borgnine – one day, he and his wife were riding by in a boat and I hear: ‘George!’ and I stick my head over the fence and he goes: ‘It’s Ernie Borgnine! What are you doing?’ And I go: ‘I don’t know, come on up!’ So we sat there and drank prosecco and had a hysterical time,” he chuckles.

Great, I’ll bring the twins, I say. “Oh yes, because there’s nothing more fun than more twins. Now, tell me, are yours identical?”

Alas, we have run out of time. We leave the terrace and walk into the hotel room, where his crew of PRs and assistants are waiting. I turn around to wave goodbye, but he is otherwise engaged. “So, what’s next?” he asks his gang. Clooney is already on to the next project.

• The Tender Bar is released in the UK on 17 December


Hadley Freeman

The GuardianTramp

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