When George Clooney embarked upon the dystopian space thriller The Midnight Sky—a film he directed, coproduced, and starred in—he didn’t anticipate it would be released straight to Netflix, as it was last December. But after 40-plus years in Hollywood, the 59-year-old has gotten pretty good at rolling with the punches—and laughing them off along the way. For W’s annual Best Performances issue, Clooney reflects on his career high- and lowlights, and offers a rare glimpse into his life at home with wife Amal Clooney and their 3-year-old twins, Ella and Alexander.
The Midnight Sky is a very big movie. There are tons of complicated elements—you had to build a spaceship, a future world. Did you see it as a huge undertaking?
The complicated part was also having to act in it. [Laughs] But yeah, it was a much bigger film than I'd done before. I worked with Alfonso [Cuarón] on Gravity and with Steven [Spielberg] on Solara, so I had some understanding. I knew that it would be complicated. We just had to be really prepared.
Did you try to get out of acting in it?
No. I haven't been acting very much lately. But this was a part that, the minute I read it, I felt like I was probably the right guy to play it.
You directed yourself in the film. When your character was walking through freezing weather in the middle of Iceland, did you still feel you were right for the part?
When we got hit with that first blast of 70 mph, 40 degrees below zero weather, I questioned everything I’ve ever done in my life. There was a moment when I thought, I volunteered to do this?! But nobody said I’m smart. [Laughs] I loved that there was a dreamlike quality to the film. You can’t tell what’s real and what’s not. He might be losing his mind. Or he might be sane.
When Covid-19 happened, the film, which is about a global apocalypse, became relevant in a new way.
Originally, the narrative was about regret and seeking redemption. But as the pandemic took over, the film became about our inability to be home and hug the people we love.
Many of the films you direct emphasize entertaining the audience while making a larger point—they work on two levels. Is that something you consider before taking on a project?
It is, in general. My hope is that, first and foremost, they’re an entertainment, because I don't really want to be preached to. Michael Clayton took on corporate malfeasance. Up in the Air was about firing people. There are ways of playing around issues while still trying to make them entertaining. When we did The Ides of March, I knew that we were going to talk about how we elect our officials. But I also knew that if we just did that, then it would be preachy. So that's why I made him [Governor Mike Morris] the bad guy along the way.
The bad guy, really? He wants to get elected.
He wants to get elected, but he's also having sex with an 18-year-old intern. It's funny, Amal and I actually saw the movie recently. We were just flipping through the channels, and it was on. We watched the last half of it. And I tell you, the first thing that comes to your mind is, I really miss Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was such a powerhouse and so much fun to work with. I miss him.
You started out doing a lot of television—what has been your favorite guest spot?
Murder, She Wrote might’ve been my favorite, just because of all the people. I was on it with Buddy Hackett, and Angela Lansbury is class.
Were you murdered?
I didn't get murdered. But I didn’t murder, either. In the beginning, I did some really weird parts. I played my evil twin in a show called Street Hawk.
How evil were you?
I was a killer. I had a mullet. I also had a mullet on The Facts of Life. On that show, I flirted around with Jo, one of the girls. And then they said, Thank you—they’d had enough of the George the Handyman character.
And then there was ER.
ER changed my life, yeah.
What’s an event in your life that seemed like a disaster at the time but turned out to be a really good thing?
Batman & Robin. It's a terrible movie, I'm terrible in it. I get it and I always make fun of it. But the truth was, the next film I did was Out of Sight, which is a great film. Up until then, I had just been an actor getting jobs. When somebody says, “You want to play Batman?” you're like, “Yeah, man, I'll play Batman!” So after that, I realized I was going to be held responsible for the movies that got made, and what the film was, not just my performance. I thought, I’ve got to focus on screenplays. The next three films I did were Out of Sight, Three Kings, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? It really taught me a quick lesson in what to look for and how to look at your career.
You haven’t had to audition for a role in a long time. What advice would you give to young actors?
Actors go into an audition going, "Please like me, please.” I always say, "Look, the worst thing that could happen is that you don't get a job that you don't have.” That’s the worst thing. If you take the pressure off, it makes a difference in the way you audition. And by the way, it took me a long time to figure this out.
How did you approach auditions in the past?
I was a big props guy. I took a dog to one audition and just held it under my arm, even though there was no dog in the scene. It was for Family Ties. I didn’t get the job, so clearly it didn’t work.
Have you taken on any pandemic hobbies?
I'll tell you what I've taken on as a hobby: two or three loads of laundry a day, dishes all fucking day, because these kids are all slobs. [Laughs] Apparently, you have to wash your children every once in a while.
And cut their hair.
I cut [my son’s] hair, and I cut my own hair too, but I’ve always cut my own hair. My hair is like straw. I haven’t cut my daughter’s hair. I’d get in trouble if I did. If I screw up my son’s hair, he’ll grow out of it. But my wife would kill me if I touched my daughter’s hair.
What device do you use? Trimmers?
A Flowbee. It's got a little suction on it, and then it's got these trimmers so it pulls your hair up and you cut it. It's hooked up to its own little vacuum cleaner.
I’ve never heard of it—sounds scary.
Well, then, you weren't watching television in the ’70s. It’s not scary at all.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My aunt Rosemary [Clooney, the actor and jazz singer] told me, “Never mix grain and grape.” No wine and tequila. Or vodka and champagne.
How old were you when she gave you that bit of wisdom?
I was 7. We learned early in Kentucky.