Three years ago George Clooney was in a motorbike crash that could have killed him. “I was waiting for my switch to turn off,” he says. He was in Sardinia, going at 75mph, when a car turned in front of him and he flew over the handlebars. Groggy, lying on the ground and screaming, he realized a crowd was gathering — he was being filmed by people on their phones.
“I’m fine now,” he smiles, beaming and relaxing on a hotel terrace in London lit with winter sun. He turned 60 in May and his trademark salt-and-pepper hair and beard are now mainly salt. Hollywood’s most charismatic superstar is over to discuss his eighth film as a director, The Tender Bar. But that narrow squeak in Italy, when he lay stricken while people filmed him like it was just another movie set, has left its mark.
“If you’re in the public eye,” he says, “what you realize when you’re on the ground thinking it’s the last minute of your life is that, for some people, it’s just going to be entertainment for their Facebook page. I’m a pretty positive guy, but that told me — clearly — that you really are here just for their entertainment.”
Lamenting an age when some people’s first thoughts on seeing an injured man is to shoot them for social media “likes”, he adds: “You want to take every one and shake them!”
Such are the circles that Clooney moves in, he tells of doing a fundraiser for Barack Obama: “Everyone was filming. I said, ‘They can’t say they met the president — they filmed it.’ People are living their lives this way and I fight against it. If my kids do something cute, I want to take a picture, but I have to say, ‘Be in the moment — you don’t have to record everything.’ ”
Clooney is a charmer like no other. Casually dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, he greets me with a tap on the shoulder, like an old friend — we had met once before, he probably doesn’t remember. He is a man who makes people feel comfortable in their own skin, Hollywood’s equivalent of moisturizer. He’s as easy talking about his friend Joe Biden’s “crappy couple of months” as he is about his own domestic bliss, or Hollywood since the disgracing of Harvey Weinstein.
Clooney spent the pandemic in Los Angeles, where, for a year, it was just him and Amal, his British-Lebanese barrister wife, and their four-year-old twins, Alexander and Ella. “I felt like my mother in 1964, doing three loads of laundry a day,” he says, giggling. “But we were all together — and I certainly didn’t get that from my folks. There’s got to be something good that comes out of that?” He likes the fact that his kids have learned to read so young. “I’m from Kentucky,” he says with a laugh. “I was 12 when I could read!”
Earlier this year he finished directing The Tender Bar, based on a memoir about the US journalist JR Moehringer’s teenage years at his uncle’s bar. It is a sweet film that tackles the importance of family at a time we have either seen far too much or too little of them. Ben Affleck plays the uncle and Clooney is a terrific gossip about his friend: he was worried about filming in a bar, because Affleck is a recovering alcoholic. He comments on “handsome” Affleck’s pigeonholed career. Booze is important to Clooney. He’s as much an entrepreneur as he is an actor — in 2017 he sold his tequila company for $1 billion.
He is a man who makes people feel comfortable in their own skin, Hollywood’s equivalent of moisturizer.
They’re all great stories, fit for a memoir like The Tender Bar. If Clooney wrote one, what would he call it? “I don’t know,” he says. “But my sister has a great one. She wants to write ‘My Brother the Only Child’.”
Clooney was born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1961 — brother to Ada and son of Nina and Nick, the latter a political anchorman on American television. For years Clooney struggled, acting in junk like Return of the Killer Tomatoes! before his life changed in 1994, when he was cast as Dr Doug Ross in ER, a hospital drama that at its peak attracted 48 million US viewers and sold across the globe — most to see that smoothest of operators, Clooney.
What does extreme fame give you and what does it take away? “It’s a bug light,” he answers. “Those lights where mosquitoes fly into the zapper? When you’re a young actor you run to success, which also includes fame. And the minute you get there you can get burnt good. Everything gets elevated in terms of what you can do or say — you have to learn how to be responsible. I’m lucky I got famous when I was 33, not 23. I’d have been shooting crack into my forehead if I had been 23 and given money and success.”
“You’re not prepared for it,” he expands. “You need to have failed a shitload. If you have you never trust success. Every day I think, ‘If all hell broke loose, I have a couple of houses I paid cash for, I could sell one.’ My mentality is still that. Failures teach you everything — you learn nothing from success.”
Recently Kristen Stewart said she had made only “five really good films” out of 45. Has he made five great films or more in his career? “Well, I’m a lot older, so I have more I can be proud of,” he says, grinning, a little put out.
“I worked with Soderbergh for years and did films with the Coens. But, early on, I just took any job, so I’m not going to be held responsible for that shit. Later, for the most part, I didn’t take jobs I didn’t think could be good. Batman & Robin was a monumental disaster and I was bad in it, but that was a lesson. From then on I said it has to be all about scripts.” Three films shortly followed — Three Kings, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Out of Sight — that had the critics swooning.
The Tender Bar is largely about the relationship between sons and fathers. Clooney remains very close to his dad — a “great guy” who instilled in his offspring the necessity of activism. Clooney works very closely with the Democrats and in the push for human rights in Sudan. His politics tend to end up in his films. He sees the era in which The Tender Bar is set — 1973, the year after Nixon was re-elected — as similar to our own divided times. (Interestingly, for a staunch liberal, he admits to being good friends with people who voted for Donald Trump, putting it down to knowing “a lot of people in finance”.)
“Yes, 1973 was a really volatile time,” he says. “But the reality was that all took up about 1 per cent of your day — in the other 99 per cent you were paying the bills and taking care of your family. That gets exaggerated now due to the internet… It has been two different tribes in the States for the last few years and they hate each other. And I’ve been angry too. But we still pay the bills and go to work — we just have to figure out how to get along.”
Which brings us to Harvey Weinstein. When the producer, who Clooney knew and worked with, was accused of sexual assault and rape in 2017 Clooney reflected that a society that elects a president who admits to grabbing women’s crotches is one that will be able to keep Weinstein’s crimes secret. The scandal started the #MeToo movement — four years ago. How much has changed?
“It’s changed in this way,” he says, after a quick ramble to gather thoughts. “On top of the terrible things Weinstein did, being a jerk at work is now not OK.” He mentions the film producer Scott Rudin. “Just because you’re a boss, it doesn’t mean you get to shit on people. I’ve been the boss and the guy being shat on. You can’t get away with being a dick anymore — you’d get ratted out. Now there’s sometimes an overcorrection, where everyone points fingers, but that will settle. It always does. And I can’t imagine some producer having a casting session alone in his hotel room with a young girl anymore. It’s moving in the right direction.”
What still needs to happen? “We’ll know when we see how wrong something else goes,” he says, sighing. “I’m sure there’s more and someone will tell us, then we’ll have to pay attention to it.”
For Clooney’s 60th birthday Amal organised a party for close friends. It was during a lockdown break in California and the actor found it emotional being in a room with so many others. How does he feel about this milestone age? “Turning 60 is a bummer,” he reasons. “But it’s that or dead.”
So while Clooney is calm, he’s also aware of time. After his party he took stock of his life. “I said to Amal, knock on wood, I’m healthy,” he says. “I still play basketball with the younger gang. I feel good. But in 20 years I’m 80 — and 80 is a real number. I said the next 20 years are halcyon and we need to celebrate that, we should focus on the work we do being just the stuff we have to, that we feel in our chest.”
As such, his next job is a romantic comedy with Julia Roberts on a tropical island. Such hard choices aside, Clooney says he won’t produce as many projects as he did. Of course selling your tequila company for a sum akin to the Gambia’s GDP simplifies decision-making, but he comes back to that bike accident. It was a moment that could have changed everything at a time he wants nothing to change. “We have young kids,” he says softly. “I want to be able to live all of this.”
Jonathan Dean is a senior writer at the Sunday Times Culture section