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In Suburbicon, George Clooney’s latest turn behind the camera, the foibles of American society are again in the spotlight. Here, the actor–director talks about gun laws, the sanctity of the fourth estate and how failure breeds success. “No one wants to look at someone with a string of hits and a string of right decisions. You have to make bad decisions and … you have to make mistakes. You only learn from mistakes. You never learn from success.”

By Donna Walker-Mitchell.

Actor and director George Clooney

George Clooney at a premiere for Suburbicon at the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival in September.
Credit: EUAN CHERRY / WENN

“Can I get you a coffee?” George Clooney asks first thing on a Saturday morning in Los Angeles.

As he takes off his suit jacket and swings it around the back of a dining chair, the actor and director seems keen to show off his barista skills.

“I’m actually a really good coffee-maker,” the 56-year-old tells me as he walks over to where the coffee machine should be. But there’s no machine in sight – not even a Nespresso, the brand he has been promoting for several years with the catchphrase “What else?”

On seeing two large black pots filled with instant coffee, Clooney quickly changes course. “You know what?” he says, laughing. “I’m sorry. I’ve lied to you. I’m not a good coffee-maker today.”

We move on, caffeine-free, and Clooney politely motions to two chairs in his hotel suite with sweeping views over Beverly Hills and West Hollywood.

“Let’s sit here, shall we?” he says.

Tanned and wearing a white short-sleeved dress shirt and silver-grey pants, Clooney has the impeccable style of a ’50s movie star in the Cary Grant or Gregory Peck mould.

But while most stars of his standing are surrounded by a gaggle of publicists, managers and assistants during interviews, there is not one to be seen. Perhaps Clooney’s ease comes from his pedigree. As the son of a respected journalist and news anchor, Nick Clooney, and the nephew of singer and actress Rosemary Clooney, George grew up observing the nuances of fame and what it meant to be in the public eye.

From an early age, Clooney says he remembers his father and his mother, Nina, emphasising the importance of manners. “In the tri-state area of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, my father was kind of a big star and I remember being watched from the time I can remember being alive,” he explains.

“When we’d go out to dinner people would watch us eat because Pop was famous. So growing up, I had a really good understanding of the responsibilities and how to handle fame. I probably was the best groomed, in a weird sort of a way, in not sticking your finger in your nose or always chewing with your mouth closed when I was a kid.

“I grew up around it so I understood what it was like when someone would come up breathlessly when they saw my dad in person as opposed to on their television and how that made them feel and made them change. It makes you understand it when sometimes people get that way with me,” he says.

Moving around “quite a lot” because of his father’s work, the young Clooney knew what it took to be in the limelight. He wanted in.

Although he started his career in 1978, his big break came in 1994 when he was cast as paediatrician Dr Doug Ross in the hit TV show ER. Success followed on the big screen with films such as Three Kings, Ocean’s Eleven and Up in the Air.

Behind the lens he has also achieved accolades as a director on such films as Good Night, and Good Luck, The Ides of March and The Monuments Men.

His latest directorial role is Suburbicon but, unlike in the aforementioned films, he does not make an appearance in front of the camera.

He’s grateful for the change. “It’s embarrassing when you have to direct yourself,” he says. “If you and I were doing a scene together and I, in the middle of it, would say, ‘Cut’, and give you notes, it’s a terrible thing. It’s fun to not have to act. Sometimes I’ve had to for financial reasons … just to help get money for the film. This time around, we didn’t have to do that, so it was such as relief.”

In Suburbicon, which stars his long-time friends Matt Damon and Julianne Moore, Clooney throws a spotlight on 1950s Americana, but it’s not of the wholesome, white-picket fence variety. Instead, his take deals with racial tensions, deceit and murder.

Clooney also co-wrote the film and says his reason for doing so was simple. “I wanted to do this film because at the time there was a lot of talk about building walls, scapegoating minorities and all those kind of things which we think might be new, which of course aren’t new at all. We see this [racism] every day so I thought it was pertinent to keep reminding ourselves that this type of thing is still in play,” he says.

Halfway through filming, Donald Trump was elected and Clooney says the mood on set shifted, with some cast and crew happy while others were shocked and dismayed.

Ask Clooney’s opinion on the current state of his homeland and he doesn’t skip a beat. “Well, it’s a mess. We’re in a nutty time right now.

“Here’s the thing,” he says, moving a glass of water on the side table to his left and shifting slightly forward. “We’re used to divisive language in politics. That’s part of who we are,” he says matter-of-factly. “But when you’re starting to make the argument about facts, that’s when you get in trouble – when facts start to be debatable.”

Clooney, who has a high regard for respected news and media outlets, is emphatic about the truth. “If you beat up on an institution like the fourth estate, we really have problems,” he says.

“Look, [former president Richard] Nixon did this. I remember a moment when he went after a reporter named Daniel Schorr, who testified in front of the senate and said if you try to disenfranchise the press you can do anything. Right now, there’s a real attempt to disenfranchise the press. That was in the early ’70s. It’s the same thing here, where Trump is saying these facts aren’t true. That’s the part that can do the most harm.

“I’m the son of a newsman so the idea of that to me is probably the greatest piece of damage you can do,” he says.

However, Clooney does see one positive – he believes quality journalism flourishes in times such as these. “What we’re seeing now is great journalism is really coming back.

“I think they lost a bit of their power for a period of time,” he says. “We’ve had some issues. I wrote [2006 Academy Awards Best Picture nominee] Good Night, and Good Luck because I felt the press took a powder on questioning the war, and anyone who questioned it was called a traitor to their country. I felt like, and most of my friends who are reporters and anchormen would say that, they didn’t ask enough of the tough questions.”

Clooney draws parallels between those times and now as he believes it also happened in the lead-up to Trump being elected.

“They went harder at Hillary than they went at Trump,” he says. “And if you can turn on the television and see an empty podium and it says, ‘Trump to speak soon’, it’s a problem. He has too much access. He’s a famous person and a famous person can get access.”

Clooney is also quick to add that America has had presidents in the past who were not beyond fault.

“You know, we’ve survived bad presidents. We’ve had a lot of them over our lifetime. We’ve had populist presidents who were a mess: Andrew Jackson, [and] Andrew Johnson, who we impeached. We’ve had some bad ones. We survived that. What we worry about more is the destruction of the institutions which matter the most, the underpinnings that get us through all of the election cycles.”

One subject that grabs headlines right throughout the election cycle is gun control. Clooney, who grew up in Kentucky, has firm views on the matter.

“In the last 30 years or so the NRA became a sort of political arm,” he says. “Before that, it really was just a hunters’ group. The reality was, the second amendment was not designed to do what they are saying. Of course it wasn’t. The reason the second amendment was designed is because we didn’t have an army. We’d gotten together to fight the British and when it was over we disbanded and we reserved the right to form a militia, which we needed. Hunters and sportsmen, that’s all fine, but, I mean, look at all the other modern countries that make it very difficult to have a gun. We kill 33,000 people a year. That’s more than most of the wars.”

Clooney believes the problem is a cultural one.

“I live in England three or four months of the year and where the difference between the right and the left really is exaggerated is where religion is co-opted. That’s a big part of it as well. The difference between – and they would argue with me about this all day long – the difference between the two parties in England is not nearly as far apart because religion doesn’t play a part in it. That’s where you start seeing this divide.”

Clooney, along with his wife, Amal, and their six-month-old twins, Ella and Alexander, spend several months each year at their Georgian manor in the English countryside and at their picturesque 18th-century villa on Italy’s Lake Como. They also have a home in Studio City in Los Angeles and Clooney is the first one to admit his life is one of great fortune.

“Luck has played a huge part in all of this,” he says. “You also have to be available and ready when luck hits. I like the story of the golfer who hit this long putt and this guy says, ‘Lucky putt’, and the golfer said, ‘It’s amazing how the more I practise the luckier I get.’ ”

Clooney laughs. “But luck still plays a part in it. I had to be in the right place at the right time, quite a few times in my career, but I also had to be ready for it and taken some of the chances that you have to take. But I have an awful lot of friends who are very talented who haven’t enjoyed the kind of success I have, so I have to look at it overall and think, luck has been a significant factor in my life, for sure.”

Not that it has all been smooth sailing for the star and he is the first to admit he’s thankful for the times when he hasn’t had the Midas touch either on the silver screen or behind the lens.

“It has to be like that,” he says, smiling. “For me, my favourites, not just because they were movie stars, but also the people I admire in real life, are Paul Newman and Gregory Peck. I was friends with both of them, very good friends with both of them. Both were true gentlemen, both were incredibly talented. They did a lot of things socially which were very important to them and they stood up for a lot of things. But if you look at the trajectory of their careers, careers don’t just go up in a straight line. They have huge ups and downs. No one wants to look at someone with a string of hits and a string of right decisions. You have to make bad decisions and … you have to make mistakes.” Taking a sip of water, he adds: “You only learn from mistakes. You never learn from success.”

Looking back at his long career, Clooney says: “To have success, you have to take chances in life, and when you take chances, sometimes, yes, you are going to blow it, and that’s okay. I don’t mind.

“To me, I’ll look at it and yes, at that moment it can be devastating because you think you did something good and you didn’t. But when it’s all over, you can look back and think, ‘You know what, I did some pretty great things in my life.’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 4, 2017 as "Gentleman George". Subscribe here.

Donna Walker-Mitchell
is an Australian journalist based in Los Angeles.