Key quotes from the event, where Clooney was in conversation with Francine Stock, are available below, including on transitioning from TV to film; working with some of the biggest directors in the industry; how a lack of “blatant success” preventing him from being typecast; what made him want to direct and the challenges in directing himself; the pandemic and the his new film The Midnight Sky; and what makes a movie star.
BAFTA is thrilled to announce TCL as the new sponsor of BAFTA: A Life in Pictures, a long-running series of onstage interviews, in which some of the world’s leading film and television talent share insights into the experiences that helped them hone and develop their craft. The series has previously hosted figures including Annette Bening, Kenneth Branagh, Cate Blanchett, Viola Davis, Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Fincher, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley Sam Mendes, Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Vanessa Redgrave, Martin Scorsese, Kristin Scott Thomas, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet.
Speaking about how Out of Sight allowed him to transition from TV roles to film, Clooney said:
FS: I suppose your big screen breakthrough was Out of Sight for Steven Soderbergh […] What attracted you to it, was it Soderbergh or?
GC: It was interesting, he wasn’t attached but the script came my way. It had been a year, I’d gotten killed for doing Batman and Robin and I understood for the first time because quite honestly when I got Batman and Robin I was just an actor getting an acting job and I was excited to play Batman. What I realised after that was that I was going to be held responsible for the movie itself not just my performance or what I was doing. So I knew I needed to focus on better scripts, the script was the most important thing. You can’t make a good film out of a bad script, it’s impossible. You can make a bad film out of a good script.
So I looked and I looked and I looked and this came around. I think John Travolta was tied to it for a period of time and that sort of fell by. There was a director who I won’t name who was attached to it and then when they put me on he said ‘he’s a TV actor and I’m not going to direct it,’ and he walked away. So then Stacey Sher and Michael Shamberg and Danny Devito were the producers, so the three of them, we went over to Danny’s house and we met with Steven Soderbergh. I was on my back foot coming off of a couple of films that didn’t do well, and Steven was on his back foot from a movie called The Underneath that wasn’t critically acclaimed and didn’t go anywhere, and we both needed this to be a success.
Now it’s funny, people look it now and think it was a hit, at the time it was a bomb, it didn’t make a dime. It lost money—they tried to release it in the summer it was a bad release strategy, but it was a critical darling and everybody loved it and it changed my career in terms of from that point on I was going to be allowed to make movies and I wasn’t before that, it was all up in the air whether I was allowed to move from TV to film.
Going on to discuss his work with different directors including the Coen Brothers and how working with Steven Soderbergh taught him a lot about film, Clooney said:
FS: Then you go on to work with Soderbergh again and again and again.
GC: We were partners for ten years or so. He taught me a lot about film. He taught me a lot about telling stories from a point of view, because that’s always a trick in a weird way, it’s about—you know, you don’t want to go in a room having just collected a lot of footage and put a story together, you need to think whose eyes are you watching this through, whose opinions. He really understood that and we took our—his world in a way, he came from the independent film world, Sex, Lies and Videotape and he was pushing all of that aesthetic into the studio system which didn’t exist and also pulling in thing we’d learned from films in the mid-sixties to early seventies, that vibe, and bringing those in and that way of telling stories and jamming that into the studio system. When you watch Oceans Eleven and you go on top of it being a really good film, it is also a film that is done in a style of a film you could’ve seen in 1968,
FS: This is another one of a series of partnerships: You’ve worked with the Coens equally over a series of films. So what’s the great advantage of going back? Is it because you develop a shorthand or is it because you feel you can try things, be more adventurous, when you know the people you work with?
GC: No I don’t think it’s about the being adventurous part. I think it’s when you get to work with—look, if my whole career was Stephen Soderbergh and the Coen Brothers and Alfonso Cuaron and you know, Jason Reitman and Alexander Payne, if you kind of go, just work with those directors for the rest of your life, as an actor I’d have an incredibly full career because those guys are all storytellers of the highest level. I think the Coen Brothers—you have to understand about who they are, most directors the sort of secret no one talks about is they only have their thing for a period of time, there are a few people that break that mould—Spielberg obviously, but for the most part it’s a fifteen, twenty year period of time and then the films they make aren’t as good as the films that they used to make, they lose whatever that element is. The Coen Brothers have been doing this for forty years and they still have every element, they’re interested in and excited about, and for them to send me O Brother Where Art Thou and say ‘do you want to do it?’ I didn’t read the script I said yes I’m in! Because I loved them and I’d just watched The Big Lebowski and Fargo had just come out and I was like of course I’ll do it. Then I got to read it and see that it was this incredible part and that just started us on a path where we kept working together.
On how a lack of blatant success for any of his films allowed him to continue to experiment and not be typecast, Clooney said:
GC: I was lucky in a weird way that as an actor I never got massively successful in anything, you know, in a funny way. I never was—I did an action film like Peacemaker and it wasn’t a hit, if it had been Die Hard, which it wasn’t, then that’s who I would have been. I would have been the action guy. I did One Fine Day, if I’d done romantic comedies and any were a massive hit, I would have been the romantic comedy guy, and then I couldn’t have done drama and the other way I couldn’t have done comedy. Because they weren’t, and if you go through my career a lot of the things weren’t home runs at all, it’s allowed me to do and try other things. I’m allowed to do a comedy or a drama, so I can do something as whacky as O Brother Where Art Thou and something as straight as Michael Clayton. I’m not relegated into one category or another, partially because of my lack of success in a weird way. As a director I’ve also enjoyed that thing where I can go I want to focus on these things, I want to try this, and I’ve failed a few times, a couple of times, and I’ve succeeded a few times and you know it’s about figuring it out. We go into it with the best intentions.
Speaking about what made him want to direct, Clooney said:
FS: So then in 2002 you directed your first film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Had you all along since you started working on big movies decided that you wanted to direct yourself?
GC: When I was in television. I never went back to the trailer when I was an actor. I’m from Kentucky, being in a trailer is not something to brag about, but I always was on the set. I like to be around the crew, I like to see what the director was up to and the writers were up to. I always had the intention of doing it and there was only one reason, it’s completely self serving, which was I was completely aware of the idea that I’m going to age out of the kind of things I’m going to be allowed to do, and I’m going to be sixty or sixty-five or seventy or whatever that age was and have to rely on what some casting director thinks I can play anymore. I love this industry and I love filmmaking and I love being part of this and I wanted to be able to continue to be part of this. So I started writing very early, directing was something that was a natural progression that I wanted to do. I found a really good script and I thought because I have a good script in a way I’m protected as a director for my first directing job and that was sort of how I got there!
FS: I see, so originally it was a kind of defensive idea?
GC: Yes. I think always my idea was that I needed to make sure that I didn’t have to rely on other people for things that I can’t—there’s nothing I can do about aging so I want to have other jobs.
On directing himself, Clooney said:
FS: And how is it directing yourself?
GC: A drag. Embarrassing. It’s embarrassing! You don’t want to do more takes on yourself than you do on other people because then you look like a jerk. It’s hard! Well it’s not hard, cut tobacco for a living that’s hard, but it’s tricky because you know, you’re asking other actors—if you and I are doing a scene together, it’s a really rotten thing for the other actor to say to you OK we’ll do it again, this time do it a little faster. Two actors aren’t supposed to have that conversation, but as a director I’m looking at another actor going ok well… So it’s a drag when you’re in the scene and you’re directing. It’s not fair to the other actors either, I don’t enjoy it.
Speaking about his charity work and how luck shapes a career and should be shared, Clooney said:
FS: So it is that idea of personal responsibility I suppose and that would bring me round in a rather inelegant way to say humanitarian work. That was always in mind once you had the wherewithal as it were and the ability to do it?
GC: Well yeah. I think people go through these places in their lives and you know, when you’re just trying to get a job that’s not where your focus is. I was doing all these Block Bork parties when Judge Bork was going to be on the Supreme Court and all the anti-apartheid stuff in the early eighties, I was protesting and doing all that kind of stuff, but it was very hard to be deeply involved because you’re trying to get work and you’re broke. Then when you start, or things start to work out or whatever, then you’re able to point towards the direction that you were raised in a way, which is to say you’ve gotten some luck and now it is your job to make sure you spread that luck to some other people in whatever way you can because no matter how you look at careers, and people love to look at their careers and they’ll say ‘well eventually talent would rise up,’—there were a lot of talented people I had in acting class and it didn’t hit for them. Luck plays a huge part in this. You create some of that luck, I think it was Jack Nicholas who sunk a sixty foot putt and they said lucky putt and he said yeah it’s amazing the more I practice the luckier I get! You create some of that luck but you still need it, it’s got to hit. You’ve got to have a show that hits Thursday night at ten o clock on NBC. You need those moments that had nothing to do with your work. If you’re going to get that and it’s going to hit in the way that it hits, then I believe it of course is your responsibility to make sure that that luck gets shared you know. Luck can grow like crazy, it’s like a seed in the ground, and you can turn around and say let’s figure out other ways to make sure that this isn’t just selfishly hoarded, this thing of luck and it’s this ability to push it out to other people.
On how the pandemic affected The Midnight Sky, the world and him personally, Clooney said:
GC: I’m concerned about, you know, leaders of certain countries who have decided to politicise things that Nixon and Regan didn’t politicise. I’m concerned when we talk about the kind of hatred and division that we’ve been going through, and it’s not just in my country it’s all over the world and you know it also takes place in Hungary with people like Viktor Orban, all these—if you played those out over thirty years it’s not at all inconceivable that we would blow ourselves up or burn ourselves to the ground or blow a hole in the atmosphere. That was sort of the idea [behind The Midnight Sky], that’s what we stepped into when we started the movie. We wrapped in February and then the pandemic shut us down for post-production. We did that from my home, the editing room in my home. As we were working on it, it became clearer and clearer that it was also about how deeply important it is for us to be able to communicate, and deeply important it is for us to connect with one another in real life and not like this. I miss my parents, I miss being with my mum and dad and it’s a rip off to take a year away in their late eighties. It’s not fair. So I miss—you know the whole world is going through the same trauma at the same time, it’s going to be years of getting through that. Not me personally, of course it’s traumatic but I haven’t lost a family member or a job… I’ve been incredibly lucky in this pandemic so I’m not making it about my misery, I just mean the globe in general is dealing with this inability to be next to one another. You can’t say goodbye to your family members. It’s rough, it’s a rough time and it’s going to take some time to heal.
On what motivates him to continue his career and to continue to challenge himself, Clooney said:
FS: What is your motivation now, what’s the great inspiration?
GC: It’s fun. Do you know what, it’s fun. It’s fun—it’s a fun thing. I get sent a script that may or may not be made into a film unless they can get a name that can make it as an actor. This is a tough one because there’s only a couple of actors who can do that now and get it made. So to take it on and say ‘ok let’s go do this.’ Netflix jump in and say let’s go do this, very brave of them to do [The Midnight Sky] because this isn’t a big action film. We did it to be slow paced, to be able to absorb sound and time and music and score. It’s a tough thing to be able to get made and to be able to say let’s put 500 people to work and let’s go do this for a year and a half, it’s fun. I mean look, as I said, I did construction work, I cut tobacco for three dollars and thirty cents an hour, I sold ladies’ shoes at a bargain store, I sold insurance door to door. Those aren’t fun jobs. You live for the weekend when you do those jobs, you do it, you take your pay check, you get home and the weekend comes and you celebrate it because you’re not working and you’re with your family and friends. I celebrate every single day because I get to do what I love. These are the toys you get to play with and until they take those toys away, I’m going to keep doing it. it’s exciting and fun to do and anybody who tells you it’s torture, they’re just lying. We love what we do for a living. If you’re an actor, a director, a writer, a producer, you love what you do or you wouldn’t do it and it’s so much fun. There’s lots of hurdles to overcome but people aren’t dying because if it you know. We’re not frontline workers, we’re very lucky in the way, in the world, the careers that we’ve chosen that we get to do it. I think it’s exciting that we get to tell stories.
Clooney comments on the current movement towards inclusivity and how streaming services are helping this shift by creating more opportunities, saying:
GC: There’s an interesting moment right now going on. First of all, I do see a turn towards inclusion that I hadn’t seen in a long time that I’m excited about on a lot of levels. I also see, you know I know there’s this panic about cinemas because they’re not being looked after by our governments which is a huge industry issue. We subsidise oil companies, we could subsidise the movie theatres for a period of time. I’m not worried about us being back, cinema will always exist, we’re all going to be back together, you still have to go out some time right? You still have to go to a concert, go see a movie. You want a collective. But here’s what streaming services have done they’ve democratised and opened up so many different avenues of storytelling for young, interesting storytellers. […] Now between the streaming services there’s thousands and thousands of acting jobs and directing jobs and producing jobs. The world is open and the world is in need of content. So I’m really excited as I see this blossom, in the idea that we’re going to be getting more and more and more of this opening up. I completely understand the question and I think we’re going in the right direction. I hope, look I’ve been wrong before about this but I think we’re going in the right direction.
George Clooney on what makes a movie star:
GC: I can’t remember who it was, a government official once said, you know I can’t give you the definition of porn but I know it when I see it. It’s sort of that way with those stars, there’s not one specific thing, there’s something intangible about them that I see, that is impossible to describe it’s just… You watch Gary Cooper who is an interesting actor and Bogart and actors like that and you go ‘why are those guys movie stars? He doesn’t look like Cary Grant,’ but you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Same thing with Spencer Tracey, you couldn’t take your eye off that guy. No matter what he did you’d watch him like clockwork. Can’t describe it, can’t figure it out but it is something I think is a real thing and people are attracted to that. Sandy Bullock’s a movie star, and I worked with her and I’ve known her since she wasn’t a movie star when we were both young actors and even then there was something about Sandy that you just knew she was going to be a hit. I knew it when I first met her and she was dating my friend Tate Donovan, and she was just this really nice young girl who was a good actor—well didn’t know if she was a good actress because we hadn’t seen her act. But she had something about her. My wife will say things like ‘they just have to have that.’ There’s something about that with the actors that I know, if you’re asking me about other movie stars. For me, I wouldn’t dare comment and couldn’t comment on how other people perceive me.
The Midnight Sky is now available to stream on Netflix.