Clooney: Hollywood's Man of the Hour

It's hard to think of a Hollywood star who's more popular, diverse and respected than Clooney, a triple threat-artist, accomplished as an actor, producer, and director. Having just been nominated for Best Actor for “Michael Clayton,” his second nod after winning the 2005 Supporting Oscar for “Syriana,” Clooney, 46, is at the peak of his career.

It was not always this way. By standards of the industry, he is a late bloomer, an actor whose career has had its share of false starts. Born 1961 in Lexington, Kentucky, he studied broadcasting and theater at Northern Kentucky University before heading for California, where at first he specialized in short-lived sitcoms and failed TV pilots before winning the hearts of women as bad-boy Dr. Doug Ross on NBC's “ER,” a series he starred in for six seasons.

Clooney's screen career started on a bumpy road with the shlockcy Tarantino-Rodriguez's “From Dusk to Dawn,” the middling romantic comedy “One Fine Day, and the failed thriller “The Peacemaker” opposite Nicole Kidman. He hit bottom in Joel Schumacher's glitzy but vacuous “Batman & Robin,” the worst segment of the franchise. However, better and worthier movies followed, such as Soderbergh's playful noir “Out of Sight,” David O. Russell's inventive and daring war film “Three Kings,” alongside event movies like Peterson's summer flick “The Perfect Storm,” and of course the three glossy, star-driven “Ocean” pictures.

Clooney acknowledges with a smile that, at age six, when his father asked what he'd like to be, he said, “I wanna be famous.” This may not be surprising, considering his father, Nicholas Clooney, is a news anchor and politician, and his aunt, Rosemary Clooney, was a notable singer.

“Ten years ago, I wouldn't have ever thought I would be in the position I am in. I didn't really think I was going to have the kind of success I have. I was 33 when “ER hit” and have already run the gamut of jobs. I'd been working a lot but I hadn't really broken through.” Which explains, in his words, “Why I am able to handle the idea of fame a little easier: I was unfamous for an awful long time. I now understand how little it has to do with you and how much it has to do with other elements, like luck, being in the right place at the right time. If 'ER' hadn't been picked up for Thursday night at 10 pm, then I won't have had a career. It's that simple and random.”

“I think Barack Obama is going to be the President,” Clooney says bluntly, while promoting his next movie, the romantic comedy “Leatherheads,” which opens April 4. “Barack's got a pretty sizeable lead in the pledge delegates and a lead in the popular vote, so it's gonna be hard to defeat him come the convention.”

Many stars have campaigned for their favorite politicians or issues, but Clooney represents a one of a kind actor-political activist, a celeb whose bases of fame seem contradictory. On the one hand, he's an old-fashioned star with the good looks, charisma and devil-may-care attitude of Cary Grant and Clark Gable, and on the other, he's very contemporary in terms of the socially conscious movies he makes.

Take “Good Night, and Good Luck,” about Senator McCarthy and freedom of speech, arguably his best work as director (for which he was nominated for multiple Oscars), or “Syriana,” the geo-political conspiracy thriller about the CIA and oil industry.

In a town known for typecasting, Clooney is determined not to get stuck with label of a “serious” actor or director. Hence, his next picture is a frivolous comedy, “Burn After Reading,” by the Coen brothers, who have just won Oscars for their modern Western meditation, “No Country for Old Men.” While the plot is veiled in secrecy, all Clooney will say is that it's a flat-out comedy in which he plays Tilda Swinton's lover. It's sort of a reunion, having starred in two previous Coen movies, “O Brother Where Art Thou” and “Intolerable Cruelty.” “Joel and Ethan call it my trilogy of idiots,” he says, “and the only thing that makes me feel better is that Brad Pitt, my co-star, is as stupid and dumb as I am.”

Clooney is close friends with Pitt, having co-starred in the three “Ocean” movies directed by Soderbergh. They share another thing in common: They are the only men to have won twice the title of People Magazine's “Sexiest Man Alive;” Clooney was crowned in 1997 and again in 2006.

Amiable, Clooney projects the image of being cool, nonchalant, of not taking too seriously his stardombut he does calculate every move and decision. Once he realized he would be held responsible for his movies, not just the performances in them, he began being pickier, choosing those he wanted to make and forcing the studios to make movies they don't want to do. Like “Michael Clayton,” Tony Gilory's corporate thriller about a lawyer and compulsive gambler and irresponsible father whose financial and family entanglements engulf and suffocate him. Clooney allowed himself to look his age, haggard, depleted, with no make-up or bottox. He enjoys playing broken people, because “it's more challenging than just being the hero. You're buying increments of what makes us all human. You don't get it all.”

“As a director, after 'Syriana' and 'Good Night,' every film that I got set was heavy-duty political message, the Richard Clarke story, and I want to be a director, not an issues director, because it's dangerous–issues change. That's why he decided to direct “Leatherheads,” a 1925 sports comedy co-starring Renee Zellweger and John Krasinski, which pays homage to favorite screwball comedies by Hawks (“His Girl Friday”), Cukor (“Philadelphia Story”), and Preston Sturges (“Hail the Conquering Hero”).

He identifies with his current role of an aging football star that time has passed him by: “It's like 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,' you're trying to hold onto something that the train has already left. I like characters like that. Actors don't ever grow up, because if you grow up, you go and do another job.”

Recently, Clooney has been in the news due to his involvement in the Darfur conflict. Why Darfur and not other issues “You have to pick one issue that's important to you and focus on it,” he explains. “If you spread yourself out too thin, then you're just the issues guy again. There are million issues, but Darfur is something specific that's not getting attention. Darfur is my issue. I go to the UN and I speak in front of the Security Council, and it's a big deal. This is a fairly cut and dried issue, where there's good and bad because innocent people are being killed.”

“The environment does get attention. I have two electric cars and a hybrid car, but I also have a weak spot and I know that I could harm that issue because I've flown on private jets, so it's hard for me to stand up as a spokesman for ecology; it puts me in an awkward position.”

Are any limits to using his celebrity status “There's a responsibility,” Clooney allows, “if you're going to do it, make sure that it's something you're well informed on, so that you don't harm the cause. There are drawbacks for championing specific political causes. “You get in trouble,” says Clooney, “I spoke out against the war in 2003, and you couldn't find five people to do that in this town; people would come and whisper it to me. That's why I wrote 'Good Night, and Good Luck.' That's why we did 'Syriana.' But I was picketed and called a traitor to my own country–that's definitely a boomerang effect.”

How did Clooney become a UN Messenger of Peace He recalls: “I said to them, 'Let me shine a light on this area. Let's take the cameras where they don't get so much attention, and that seems to be effective. But I couldn't get a visa to Darfur, and the Secretary General said, 'We've got a way to do this, we'll make you the Messenger of Peace with special focus on peacekeepers. But they also said, with this come other responsibilities, not just Darfur.”

Clooney concurred, “I told them, 'I'll do that and be your greatest supporter but I'll also be your greatest critic, and they said, 'fair enough.' We went to 30 outposts in the middle of nowhere. We were in Chad just three days before they murdered hundreds of people.”

But Clooney is the animated when he talks not about his new movie or even Darfur, but about Obama as a politician “who's been very good at sort of joining people from across the aisle.” He explains: “It's the first time we've seen young people show up to vote ever; they didn't do it for Kennedy or for Reagan. There's a real movement, and if you guys have ever been in a room with him or see him give a speech. People say, it's not just about making speeches, but in many way it is. We don't need a manager; we need a leader. I'm fond of his leadership style, that's why I'm rooting for him.”