interview: Talking With George Clooney
...Syriana... Interviews ... Part 2 of 2
By Kapil Amarnath
George Clooney is one of Hollywood’s most well known actors. He recently directed and starred in “Good Night and Good Luck,” a potential Oscar candidate this upcoming awards season. He’s a leading actor in “Syriana,” and The Tech and other newspapers recently talked with him about the film.
Q: You had to gain approximately 30 pounds in 30 days to play the role of Robert Barnes. How difficult it was for you to transform into this character?
George Clooney: The truth is it’s not nearly as fun as it sounds, the idea of putting on that kind of weight, but at the end of the day, in general, that’s what we do for a living. So my job was just to eat as fast as I could, as much as I could … But mostly you just ate until you wanted to throw up, and made sure you didn’t throw up. So that was my job for a month, was eating.
Q: I read somewhere that you got a spinal cord injury on the set. How exactly did that occur?
GC: It was my own dumb fault. I was taped to a chair and a guy was pretending to hit me. It’s all fake, you’re not really getting punched, and I flipped myself over on the chair, and cracked my head and tore what’s called my dura, which is the wrapping around your spine, and ended up with what they call CSF leak, which is a cranial spinal fluid leak — good fun. I highly recommend it for everybody out there.
Q: What was the hardest scene for you to shoot?
GC: In “Syriana,” the hardest obviously was me getting tortured. The problem was that I got injured along the way. I thought I had an aneurysm. It was a long, drawn out — it was a couple of days of sitting in a room taped to a chair and getting buckets of water, which isn’t in the film anymore. There’s a lot more torture to it that you don’t see, sort of like what we’re doing in the administration — just kidding. But anyway, I think that was by far the toughest scene to shoot, but it should have been; it was designed to be that way.
Q: Have you had any significant or moving or shocking personal anecdotes that you could share with us, while come in contact with some of the non-American cultures during the making of the film?
GC: I wouldn’t say shocking, but I would say it’s always eye-opening, because it’s important, I think, for everyone to travel, to get points of view of the rest of the world. It is always eye-opening to understand how many people are mad at us over some of our actions. I think it’s also important to — I remember sitting there on the roof of a building in Casablanca. It was during Ramadan. A siren would go off, and everyone would get out of their cars and face Mecca and would pray in the middle of the street. There were hundreds of people, as far as your eye could see.
I remember sitting there watching that and thinking anyone who thinks that they have the religious hierarchy over anyone else should be standing here looking at these people, and understand that they have a very strong belief in what they are doing as well.
Q: Tying into that, how was your experience with learning Arabic and Farsi for the film?
GC: I had an Iranian roommate in college, so Farsi wasn’t so hard, but Arabic almost killed me. There’s no Latin to it, so there’s nothing I could really cling to. So it was really hard. I had to learn it phonetically and it was a tricky thing, but you spend a few weeks just practicing and you start learning.
Q: What political message is being conveyed in Syriana?
GC: I think it’s sort of important, although I’ve certainly been outspoken at times politically, I thought it was important between “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Syriana,” both films, that the idea was not to be political necessarily. Obviously it’s a political film, but we showed this to a lot of neocons who liked it and agreed with it. Our argument, of course, is to raise a debate, not to tell people what the answers are, because clearly we don’t have any answers for this, the issues or the problems.
Q: There’s a big ensemble in this movie, and I was wondering if you change how you approach a film, when it’s an ensemble as opposed to being the leading man.
GC: I think every movie I’ve ever been in is an ensemble. Unless you’re doing a one-man show, I think it’s an ensemble. So I’ve never really thought of things as a lead or not a lead, and you don’t really change the approach, because I’ve had all of my great successes in things that are famous ensembles. “ER” is easily the biggest success I’ve ever had in my life, and that was famously an ensemble. So I don’t think you really change anything. You just carve out little places for you to do your thing and watch other people be really good.
Q: You’re moving away from your sleeker image, especially in “Intolerable Cruelty,” where you’re checking yourself out in the mirror in the first shot, but I’m wondering if in general you’re trying to move away from that kind of sleeker image that you have, if you enjoyed playing with that.
GC: The truth is I’m really not looking at an image. I’m not trying to portray an image of any kind. I was actually just trying to get specific films made and projects done that I wanted to get done. So in general, I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to get away from an image.…
Q: How was it making the transition from your previous characters, who are sort of charming, charismatic, like Danny Ocean to the semi-under-appreciated Bob Barnes?
GC: Well, it wasn’t so hard. I’m fairly familiar with the guy. I spent a lot of time with Bob Baer, the real CIA guy. So the transition was mostly about making sure that there weren’t any elements of Danny Ocean in this character. The way you do that, first of all, you do it changing physically, and then you spend a lot of time with the real guy to understand why he’s so disenchanted with his role at the CIA and how he feels deserted, and then you sort of toss that into the mix. So it’s a little bit of everything, a lot of information and a little bit of shaving your hair back.
Q: In Syriana you acted, and in “Good Night, and Good Luck” not only did you act, but you also directed. Which tickled your fancy more, directing or acting?
GC: I’ll tell you, directing you get to be the boss all the time. In acting you have to listen to the director. So it’s fun to be the boss. By the way, directing is something you can do when you get old and fat. So, believe me, directing is the way to go. It’s actually much more creative. All kidding aside, it’s actually a very creative place to be.…
Q: It seems like the bottom line of your films these days is the effect that it could have on your career, whether it’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” or this film. So in a case like this, where Matt Damon is also in the cast, nobody is talking about him making a big political, earth-shaking movie. Does it bother you always being at the center of any controversy that comes up?
GC: I haven’t found myself too much in the center of a controversy in a long time. The last controversy I was really in was during the lead-up to the war, when I saying we should ask some questions, and I was put on the cover of a couple of magazines and called a traitor. But the truth is, with “Good Night, and Good Luck,” it was very hard to find political criticism because it was factual.
And with this one, we’ll wait and see what the fallout is, but I feel as if, since I’ve been fairly vocal about the idea that these are about raising questions, not about providing answers or demanding other people agree, I think I’m doing all right there. Matt, he gets some flak every once and a while, too. I’m going to give him some flak later today.
Q: Many of the films that you’ve made like “Syriana,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and “Three Kings” all have politically charged plot lines, with various different stylistic executions. I was wondering, when you are choosing your projects, are you more interested in the style or the politics of the movie?
GC: I don’t really look at politics necessarily. I don’t look at it per se for politics, and style, you’re just trying to find the proper style for the story you’re telling. “Good Night, and Good Luck” we tried to shoot like a Pennebaker documentary, because I felt that was the right style to do it. “Syriana” we felt should look a little more realistic, and we didn’t want it to look like “Three Kings,” which was a very extreme, blown out — it was the first of the digital blow outs, where you could use digital intermediate and really make it black and blue and sandy colored and stuff.
Those aren’t nearly the elements. What I look for as an actor, or a director for that matter, is the script first. That’s what you need more than anything, a good script, whether it’s a comedy or whatever it is, because you can make a really bad movie out of a good script, but you just cannot make a good movie out of a bad script, period. So it’s the script first, and that’s what I usually look for.