- Charles Ealy Special to the American-Statesman
At 56, George Clooney is ready for a change. He no longer sees himself as a leading man — as “the guy who kisses the girl,” as he put it last month during the Toronto International Film Festival, where he met journalists after a screening of his latest directorial effort, “Suburbicon,” which opens in Austin this weekend.
But Clooney isn’t at all regretful about the transition. He says he loved actors such as Paul Newman and Gregory Peck whose careers “morphed into other things, into character actors by the time they were older.” He thinks that might be his future, as well, as an actor.
But right now, he’s focusing on directing — on making movies that might not get made if he doesn’t round up “about 300 people to play in a sandbox.”
He’s quick to acknowledge that it doesn’t hurt to have become a highly successful venture capitalist, recently selling the Casamigos tequila company he founded with two friends for a sum he declines to name — up to about $1 billion, if a report in the New York Times is correct.
He says he got about $50,000 to work on the script, produce and direct “Suburbicon” over the past two years. “And I had a blast,” he says. “I don’t do these things for money any more. I sold a … tequila company, and I’ll be fine. It puts me in a position that where I go … should be something that I’m excited to do, something where I want to go to work with people who feel the same way.”
He knows about working with people who don’t really want to do a job. “It’s so miserable to be on a set with actors who are miserable. One actress in particular walked off the set on a movie I was working on because her trailer wasn’t as big as mine. I grew up in Kentucky, and I’m not into that, and I just told her to take mine. I just want to be around people who adore their work, like Matt (Damon, who’s the star of “Suburbicon.”) He’s just a good guy, on top of being incredibly gifted.”
And that brings us to the story of “Suburbicon,” which takes a highly satirical look at life in the American suburbs of the 1950s, when white folks were fleeing the inner cities and seeking to distance themselves from fellow Americans who happened to be urban and black.
Clooney’s script looks at a white suburb’s racist and violent reaction when the first African-Americans move into their enclave, and it’s based on what actually happened in Levittown, Pennsylvania, the famous suburban prototype.
Clooney says he was trying to approach the story from the perspective of “white angst” — something he knows about since he grew up in Kentucky during the civil rights movement. So he doesn’t get into the feelings of the black family as much as satirize the white racism.
He took that script idea and melded it with something quite different — a long-ago script that was written by “the boys,” a term he uses when talking about the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, his longtime collaborators on such movies as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Hail, Caesar!” That script, which was originally titled “What Jack Saw,” dealt with a suburban family that’s attacked by a group of thugs who end up killing the wife of Damon’s character.
But all is not as it seems, as happens quite frequently in Coen brothers movies. And the Coens are, somewhat predictably, satirizing white suburbia and revealing a rottenness that you might not expect if you’ve bought in to the suburban sales pitch.
That’s the setup for the melding of scripts. And Clooney had no idea that a certain election would disrupt his plans when he started working on the project two years ago.
“I worked on storyboards for about three months, so that we could be precise about building the sets for what we wanted to do. And then while we were shooting, (Donald) Trump got elected (president) and changed the temperature on the film a little bit,” he says. “Everything sort of changed right in the middle. The goofy scenes were too goofy. Josh Brolin had done some really funny scenes … and it became apparent that those scenes weren’t going to fit in the film.”
Clooney says he and his team decided to make the film darker and angrier so that they didn’t “let the air out of the balloon.” But he still wanted, “first and foremost,” to entertain people, to make them laugh, and to not make just a political film. “We had Matt riding along on a tiny kid’s bicycle” after a particularly harrowing scene where Damon is covered in blood, Clooney says.
“They’ve given me this toy box to play in for a certain amount of time,” Clooney says of his movie stardom and his move to directing six films in the past few years. “And anyone who has any idea or understands our profession knows that they will take the toy box away, period, that you’re only relevant for a certain amount of time. … Whether people love the movies or they don’t, that’s part of the game, and I will win some, and I will lose some.”
The jury is still out on whether Clooney will win or lose on “Suburbicon.” It got a good reception at the Venice International Film Festival, where it premiered, but got a less enthusiastic response at Toronto.
Whatever happens, Clooney seems happy. He has new twin kids with his wife, the former Amal Alamuddin. And as an unapologetic liberal, he says he loves to pick fights with the right wing, especially with anyone who accuses him of being a part of liberal Hollywood.
“They say I’m out of touch,” he says mockingly. “I sold ladies’ shoes. I sold insurance door-to-door. I worked in an all-night liquor store. I cut tobacco for a living. I can change the fan belt on my car. I grew up in that world in Kentucky, and I’m not separating from that world in any shape or form. I know what’s good about it. … And I know that this is not a moment we will be proud of when we look back on history,” he says of the ascendancy of Trump and its aftermath.
“So if I’m not standing on the side of history that I believe to be right, I’d be ashamed,” he says. “If that’s liberal Hollywood, then bring it on. … I don’t have to put the word ‘compassionate’ in front of liberal to say that I give a (expletive) about people.”