First time I met George Clooney, he was soaked in blood and he had an evil looking snake tattoo twisting around his neck. He was drinking coffee with director Robert Rodriguez and wife (and producer) Elizabeth Avellan, while a couple of zombies tucked into lunch at the table next to us. It was a break during the filming of From Dusk Till Dawn back in 1996.
His movie career back then wasn't a pretty picture. We're talking Return of the Killer Tomatoes, Return to Horror High, Grizzly III… sequels to somebody else's crud. He was a huge star, but a TV star. ER's Dr Ross. A sex symbol to millions…
'It's hard being a sex symbol,' he confided. 'Imagine: Robert's wife is always like: "George, can we rehearse the love scene?"
'It's the tattoo,' Avellan deadpanned, while her husband snorted: 'The thing about being a sex symbol, when it comes down to the hour and he drops his pants, then he has to live up to it.'
'I do have a stunt double for that,' Clooney explained. 'A weenie wrangler.'
Mr. Clooney wasn't taking himself too seriously that day… even if he knows full well that self-depracation is part of his charm. He was on the brink of a whole new level of stardom, and he knew that too: 'Right now it's the year of my life,' he said. 'I'm getting offers: any film I want, they'll hold the filming till I can do it. The world has changed for me… But I know that next year it could be me saying, "Sir, do you want fries with that?" You're never as good as they say you are when you're good, and you're never as bad as they say you are when you're bad.'
It was eight years before I got another chance to interview him, and as far as I know he hadn't spent any of that time stuck in a McJob. Not unless you count Batman and Robin…
I wouldn't make huge claims for Clooney as an actor. His range is limited and he's prone to tics. But as a movie star he's a natural. He's is in his mid 40s now, but like Harrison Ford and Cary Grant, middle age suits him. There aren't that many leading men around right now, but it's a type studio executives identify with very readily. I don't know how much they pay him per picture, but it's plenty. What's admirable about Clooney is that he uses his weight to make the kind of films he wants to see – a surprisingly rare quality in Hollywood. The bonus is, he has good taste.
'I can't tell you what an amazing feeling it is to sit down with a bunch of studio heads and say, "This film you don’t want to make, I will do for nothing" – and have them make it,' Clooney told me last time we met. 'Believe me, Fox wasn’t thrilled to do a $47 million sci-fi film that has nothing to with sci-fi and everything to do with a man’s belief-system. But they’ll make it because they want to be in business with me and they’ll get their money back eventually. It won’t last forever, but if you’re gonna be the 800lb gorilla, why not force-feed them the best stuff that you can?'
His association with Solaris director Steven Soderbergh has been crucial. They first teamed up on the Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight. The movie steadied Soderbergh's erratic career, made a star out of Jennifer Lopez, and consolidated Clooney's stature after a couple of so-so vehicles (One Fine Day and The Peacemaker). Director and star hit it off, and formed a production company together, Section Eight. As well as their own movies Section Eight has backed the likes of Insomnia, Far From Heaven and The Jacket… they're definitely on the smart end of mainstream.
'I thought I was just hackin’ around and the next thing I know I’m doing press for Batman and Robin. You think, "How did that happen?" People were taking me seriously, the work was being analysed, I was being held to a different yardstick – and I realised I better hold myself to a higher standard. After that I did Out of Sight, and from then on it's been things I'm proud of… There were a couple of slips in there, but that's okay, everyone has slips.'
The story goes some way to explain the choice of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind for his first film as director. Based on a fictional autobiography by game show entrepreneur Chuck Barris, 'Confessions…' told how a smart, educated man woke up one morning to discover he was famous for all the wrong reasons. Barris (played by Sam Rockwell) decided he could serve his country in better ways… as a secret CIA assassin, for example.
If Barris seemed to have a split personality, so did the movie. Was it a crazy comedy, or a serious psycho-drama? Couldn't it be a serious comedy and a crazy drama, or all these things at once? Charlie Kaufman's screenplay had wonderful things in it, but as a director Clooney probably should have made more effort to resolve these conundrums. At least it was different. And you could tell he'd been keeping a close eye on his pals the Coen brothers too, because it wasn't short on style.
I have a feeling Clooney's next adventure behind the camera is going to be something else again: Goodnight, and Good Luck (which he also co-wrote) will be in black and white and set in the 1950s. It focuses on journalist Ed Murrow's attempts to expose Communist witch-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy. To play Murrow, he has lined up another good but little known actor, similar in some ways to Sam Rockwell. David Strathairn is a character actor who crops up regularly in films by John Sayles but keeps a very low profile off screen. You could be forgiven for thinking Clooney isn't overly impressed with movie stars – although I put it to him he didn't become a star by accident:
'Fame is an interesting thing,' he says now. 'You run to it. You sprint towards that light, that white heat of fame – you think if you can just get there, then things will be different – and of course you get singed by that same heat. The things you thought would be so great, they're almost invariably embarrassing. It's nice being famous in a room with seven friends who laugh at all your jokes, but when you're in a room full of strangers and everybody's looking at you, you don't know what to do – it's embarrassing.'
It's a strange admission coming from somebody who seems so confident and self-assured. Maybe he's a better actor than he's given credit for…