If you think today's political landscape is unusually brutal and dirty, George Clooney has a history lesson for you: It was just as bad 200 years ago.
"I think it's cyclical, and we're at a period of time that it probably not the best for politics," said Clooney at a Toronto International Film Festival press conference for "The Ides of March," a smart and cynical drama that he directed and in which he plays a charismatic presidential candidate.
"But if you look at the things Jefferson and Adams did to each other, that wasn't very nice either. The 1800 election was nasty, too. It's cyclical."
A week after claiming the crown as the king of the Telluride Film Festival, Clooney brought his charm a Toronto press conference that preceded his film's gala screening by a few hours.
Although he was joined by co-writer Grant Heslov and by actors Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright and Max Minghella, about 80 percent of the questions were directed at Clooney — and a good portion of the ones that weren't aimed his way were variations on the query, "How great was it to work with George?"
Ryan Gosling, who has the film's central role as a young, rising campaign strategist, had the best (and most clearly insincere) answer: "It was like watching a unicorn being born!"
While a good many questions were political in nature, Clooney kept things light and insisted that his film does not have a political agenda. (His character espouses many liberal ideas that one would expect Clooney to share, but is also revealed to hardly be a paragon of integrity.)
"I don’t think that this was really a political film," Clooney said. "I think this is a film about moral choice … I thought it was a fun moral tale, and if you put it in politics that amps up all the fun.
"If it's reflecting some of the cynicism we feel today about politics, that's probably good," he added. "We should be looking at things. But it wasn't designed to do that.
"Everybody makes moral choices that better themselves and hurt others along the way. That's universal, not just to politics. This could have been set on Wall Street. Actually, it would have been easier to do it on Wall Street."
As for the politician he plays, Clooney declined to specify any particular role models.
"There's just so many ways to get in trouble with this answer," he said. "There were enough examples that we just picked little pieces of whatever we wanted."
Jeffrey Wright, who was raised in Washington, D.C., agreed with Clooney's description of the film as more moral than political: at its heart, he said, he thinks of it as "more of a gangster film."
When a Canadian reporter asked Gosling, who was born and raised in Ontario, if a similar film could be made about Canadian politics, the actor frowned. "I think it'd be more … " He stopped. "No. The Canadian version would be too nice."
Paul Giamatti, who plays a glowering rival campaign strategist, took umbrage at this. "It wouldn’t, actually," he insisted. "It'd probably be as dirty as America. You people are filthy up here. I think it's time to blow the lid off Canadian politics!"
Of course, the Q&A wasn't all about politics. Because it was Clooney, some questioners appeared a little starstruck: one woman's "question" was "Tell me: George Clooney, film director."
"Tell you what?" asked Clooney. "I don't want to blow anybody's mind, but pretty much the same guy as George Clooney the actor. Same height. Same hair."
He paused. "I don't know what you want me to say about it."
Through the actors, we learned about director Clooney's practical jokes — having an intense conversation about the film with Gosling while surreptitiously spraying his leading man's crotch from a water bottle — and about his method of empowering actors.
"He would tell me, 'You have the most power in this scene,'" remembered Marisa Tomei, who plays a New York Times reporter. "I'd think, I have the most power in the scene?"
Clooney grinned. "I told everybody that," he said.
For Clooney, "Ides" is only the first of his two-part Toronto domination plan: the TIFF premiere of "The Descendants," the film that wowed Telluride, is coming up this weekend.
(Photos by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)