TORONTO — You’re standing in line for a movie at the Toronto International Film Festival when your phone lights up.
“Paramount is considering putting together a small panel/roundtable discussion with George Clooney & Grant Heslov to discuss ‘Suburbicon,’” the message reads. “Can you let me know if you have initial interest or even ability to participate?”
You check your calendar, which shows dozens of screenings and zero availability for the next six days. So you promptly reply: “Um, I think I can make time for that.”
Let’s be serious. You’re not too busy to meet with George Clooney. You’re never going to be too busy to meet with George Clooney, unless it’s on account of you’re having lunch with the even more alluring Amal Alamuddin Clooney.
That’s not just because you’ve admired the actor ever since he and his Omar Sharif eyebrows showed up on “The Facts of Life” and “ER.” As an interview subject, Clooney is a journalist’s dream — informed, opinionated, unafraid to say whatever he thinks and feels in the moment. He’s the guy who told Esquire in 2013, “I think anyone who is famous is a moron if they’re on Twitter. It’s just stupid.”
Plus, could there be a better moment to interview the actor-turned-director, internationally known as a proud liberal activist and vocal critic of the Trump White House? His latest film “Suburbicon,” opening in Boston on Friday, gang tackles issues of race and fearmongering with a tonally challenging mix of black comedy, horror, and Douglas Sirk-style atmospherics. It began life as a screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen. Then Clooney and Heslov got ahold of it, cast Matt Damon (which required shooting in Los Angeles, his home base), Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac, and turned it into an even quirkier variation on the ugly story of social unrest in 1950s Levittown.
Our roundtable discussion took place on Sept. 8 at an upscale Toronto hotel, where a handful of journalists lobbed questions at Clooney for about an hour. His longtime co-writer, Heslov, sat by as a mostly silent wingman while the actor talked about everything from growing up in Kentucky, which he’d recently visited with his newborn twins, to his professional aspirations and his personal finances. (In case you missed it, earlier this year Clooney sold his side-project tequila company, Casamigos, to Diageo in a deal that will earn him and his partners in the neighborhood of $1 billion.)
What he didn’t talk about, because it hadn’t yet come to light in the press, was the Harvey Weinstein scandal. After allegations of sexual assault and harassment began to surface this month, Clooney told the Daily Beast, “Harvey’s admitted to it, and it’s indefensible.” That said, he added, “I can tell you that I’ve never seen any of this behavior — ever.”
Days later, Clooney himself was accused of helping to “blacklist” actress Vanessa Marquez after she alleged sexual harassment on the set of “ER.” He issued a statement denying any knowledge or involvement, saying “I had no idea Vanessa was blacklisted. . . . The fact that I couldn’t affect her career is only surpassed by the fact that I wouldn’t.”
We asked, but Clooney declined further comment for this story. Apparently, there is a limit to what he’ll say in the moment.
Q. Why was now the right time to make this movie?
A. Grant and I were working on a piece about Levittown, Pa. — strangely not about the race issues but more about just hearing these phrases of scapegoating minorities and building fences and all those kinds of things. And I remembered that the [Coen] boys had written this film “Suburbicon” a long time ago and they’d offered me to play the part that Oscar Isaac plays in the film, and it had never gotten finished. So I called them up and said I think I have an idea about sort of mixing these two up and having everybody looking in the wrong direction, which I kind of thought would be the fun way to do it, to talk about these issues but make it into a much more entertaining film than the one we’d been actually looking at. And they were like, “Let’s go. Let’s have some fun.”
Q. Interesting that this movie appears in the same year of “Get Out” and “Detroit,” where the cinematic language is one of real horror, and it’s about toxic whiteness. How self-conscious were you about that?
A. Obviously with a film you’re two years behind the news cycle. It was really written as a piece to talk about the idea that there’s a group of white Americans who are terrified that they are losing their place in society and are blaming minorities for it. And we thought that that was sort of a universal theme. It’s unfortunate that something like Charlottesville happens in general and it’s unfortunate for us, in a way, because it makes it a little more pointed towards the African-American story. That whole idea of “We’re not bigots, but don’t live with us” seems to be fairly universal.
Q. You’re taking some shots for the black family not being drawn fully enough. How do you feel about that?
A. In fairness, there’s a lot of people better qualified to make the African-American story in suburbia in 1950, I grant that. Those are things that polarize a film that there’s nothing I can do about it. We were telling a story about white angst, which I actually know something about, having grown up through the civil rights movement in the ’60s and ’70s. But yeah, I mean, these are going to be discussions we’re going to have for a long period of time and we’re going to come out on the right side of it sometimes and on the wrong side of it sometimes.
Q. What other tonal changes did you make to the original script?
A. The killers were goofier. The Coen brothers wrote them very similar to the guys in “Fargo,” doing some really pretty slapstick stuff. Along the way [after Trump got elected], the tone in general became much more of a “[expletive] this; it’s so infuriating, it’s so outrageous,” and you felt like anything you did that was away from that was letting the air out of the balloon.
Q. Why is Matt [Damon] so important to you? What does he bring to this film that made him so essential?
A. Quite honestly, he’s great to work with. I don’t do these things for money any more. I just sold a [expletive] tequila company. I’ll be fine. So it puts me in a position where I go: Well, if we’re going to do this and I’m going to spend two years working every day, then it should be something that I’m excited to do, something I want to go to work on, and it should be with people that really feel the same way. . . . Matt adores his work. He’s just a good guy, on top of being incredibly gifted. Those things are not necessarily very common qualities.
Listen to audio of the comment above. Warning: contains adult language.
Q. Do you see yourself morphing more towards directing as opposed to acting?
A. I read scripts still. I used to read three or four a week, now I probably read one every two months. I’m waiting for another “Michael Clayton” or another “The Descendants.” I’m not going to do stuff just to be on camera. I don’t want to be a bad guy in a “Transformers” movie; I’d suck at it, and they’d blame me for destroying another franchise.
Q. You’ve said that you wanted to pick fights with this movie. What did you mean by that?
A. I like picking fights. I like that Breitbart News wants to have my head. I don’t think films can tell people what to think and I don’t think films can lead to anything, because it just takes too long to make them. You know, “All the President’s Men” came out in ’76 — that’s two years after Watergate and basically everything had been put to bed. What films can do is they can point to a moment in time in your history and tell you what you were thinking. But that’s the most you can hope for.
Q. You skewered Hollywood liberalism brilliantly in [the Coens’] “Hail, Caesar!” Where does Hollywood liberalism go now?
A. Well, think about it this way. First of all, Steve Bannon is a failed [expletive] screenwriter. And if you’ve ever read that [expletive] screenplay, it’s unbelievable. Now, had he, in some miraculous way, gotten that thing produced, he’d still be in Hollywood, still making movies and licking my [expletive] to do one of his stupid-ass screenplays. That’s who Steve Bannon is. Donald Trump pays $100,000 a year to the Screen Actors Guild and has a star on Hollywood Boulevard. I don’t have a star on Hollywood Boulevard; Donald Trump does. I mean, you go down the list of these people — [Treasury Secretary] Steve Mnuchin was a financier in Hollywood — I feel as if Hollywood is being quite well represented right now in the West Wing. … I know my friends and I know what they believe. I also know that this is not a moment that we’ll be proud of when we look back on our history. So if I’m not standing on the side that I believe to be right, I’d be ashamed. If that’s liberal, bring it on. I didn’t move to Hollywood and become a liberal, I was raised a liberal in Kentucky. You think I give a [expletive] about what somebody says about me now? Try being a liberal in Kentucky.
Q. How well do you think the media has done on this topic?
A. I’ve been excited by the institutions that have been in place for a long period of time stepping up. I’ve been excited by the courts, I’ve been excited about the judiciary, and I’ve been mostly excited about the Fourth Estate. The aggression that I see now reminds me of what I saw growing up at 13 years old watching the Pentagon Papers and watching Woodward and Bernstein, watching the news. There’s a really smart documentary that came out about two years ago called “Nixon by Nixon.” It’s spectacular because you hear him talking about how he’s going to sic the IRS on [CBS commentator] Eric Sevareid and [CBS anchor] Walter Cronkite and you see [CBS reporter] Daniel Schorr testifying in front of Congress saying this administration is setting out to make us illegitimate. Watching that reminds us: Every time we think we’ve never been here before, we’ve been here before.
Q. What about politics for you?
A. I don’t think so. This isn’t just because of Trump. This has been going on for a while — [people saying] that I’m going to run for governor. Because I’d love to live in Sacramento [laughter]. No, you know, the reality is, there are many more people out there much better qualified to do that than me. I think the reason people talk about it is because the bench doesn’t seem very good on the Democratic side. . . . Hillary did win the most votes by 3 million people, so I wouldn’t start blowing up everything. I think you should just start finding a candidate that excites you. That shouldn’t be me. That should be someone who’s spent a lot of time building consensus in government.
Q. What would the young George think of the 56-year-old George?
A. The young George would be shocked, because I didn’t really think I’d be successful at anything. Mostly I tend not to reflect on things, because I’m not quite sure that’s helpful. But if there was a 20-year-old version of me standing around looking, I think he’d be very surprised by where I came out on things.
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