George Clooney plays the kind of man he isn't in "The Descendants" — ambivalent about life, uncertain about his role as father and husband, a passive link in a long Hawaiian chain. As lawyer and cuckold Matt King, he manages to convey both pathos and humor, often in a single scene. In an exclusive interview with TheWrap he spoke to me about that, and about growing up.
In "The Descendants," you've gotten to that point where you're able to play a real guy who is sad and touching but also very funny.
You go through these steps as you get older, and you watch the guys who did it best — Newman and guys like that — as they rolled into character actors. You have to begin to deal with questions of loss: of confidence, of skill. I did that with "Michael Clayton" and "Up in the Air." In this one, this is a guy who never won an argument. He loses arguments to 10-year-olds. I would say it's a coming-of-age story for a 50-year-old man. When I read it I thought, "I'm not sure if I can do this," which is a good thing.
If it weren't Alexander Payne, I don't know if I would have jumped — unless it were the Coen brothers or Steven Soderbergh. You don't do parts like that with people unless you trust them.
Or David Russell — we can talk about him later.
I actually was at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago with David. I saw him and he saw me and I walked over and I go, "Are we done?" and he's like, "Yeah, we're done." And he gave me a big hug, and I gave him a hug, and I said, "Listen, I don't want to be mad at you. We made a really good film ['Three Kings']." And he goes, "I don't want to be mad at you anymore." I go, "So let's stop." And he said, "Great." So it was a nice moment.
Anyway, back to why you weren't sure you could do this movie…
I wasn't confident in doing it. I was confident in working with Alexander, and I was confident that if I could do it, it would be with him.
But what about "Up in the Air," where you showed such a beautiful vulnerability?
There's a difference. That character was immensely confident, and then he gets knocked off his horse. This [Matt King] is a guy who has absolutely no confidence. When I was writing "Good Night and Good Luck," I was writing it to play the part of Edward R. Murrow. And then as Grant Heslov and I finished writing, I really realized that I couldn't play that part because the character has a supreme sadness to him always — a great, heavy weight on his shoulders that no one ascribes to me, ever. And it's something you can't act your way through. This was a part for me that I couldn't have done five years ago. This required me getting older, getting to a place in my career where I could do it.
I think that's why the performance was a standout. It says a lot about you and how you've honed your skills.
Well, this one was harder because it's finding the line, because there was a lot of funny and a lot of sad. Sometimes it turns on a dime, and that's not easy to do.
The scene where you are running down the street — you have that look on your face that's like out of a Coen brothers movie, but it's a real thing.
It was funny because the first time I did the run, Alexander started laughing, and I started laughing, and then I realized now I'm going to have to do this about 40 more times. I just wanted him to actually have absolutely no athletic skill at all. I wanted him to feel like just a running goose, with all of his emotions sort of out there.
It's really fun to be in movies that you're proud of. You know, it's hard to do them.
This article appears in the just-published issue of Oscar Wrap, the insider's guide to all things Oscar.