'Zoom is hard': What it's like being George Clooney during Covid

The former 'World's Sexiest Man' talks to Margaret Gardiner about his new film, 'The Midnight Sky', his Foundation for Justice, and how his young kids like to hide things in his beard

10 January 2021 - 00:00 By Margaret Gardiner
George Clooney and Amal Clooney attend the American Film Institute's tribute to George Clooney in 2018 in Hollywood, California.
George Clooney and Amal Clooney attend the American Film Institute's tribute to George Clooney in 2018 in Hollywood, California.
Image: Rich Fury/Getty Images

George Clooney embodies a je ne sais quoi appeal that is simply apparent. Yes, his Labrador eyes with long eyelashes and his undeniable talent are part of it, but it's more than that. It's the Clooney mystique. Clooney got behind the camera as a director when he played heart-throb doctor Douglas Ross in the medical-themed drama series ER.

As an actor he just needed to turn up and smile, but since finishing his run in 2009 on the show that made him famous, he's leveraged his fame to showcase stories that have political relevance and that he felt had a history that could educate audiences.

They include Syriana, Michael Clayton, Good Night and Good Luck and now The Midnight Sky on Netflix, based on the novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton. Clooney directed and co-stars in the sci-fi film with Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo.

EVERYMAN

So what's the real George Clooney like? After having relationships with a string of beautiful women who ran the gamut from opportunist to actress and everything in between, he married a lawyer with legal clout and a brain.

In some ways the focus on him pivoted to her despite the fact that he, a Hollywood leading man, was on her arm. He likes that. He once introduced me to his wife, Amal Clooney, on the red carpet with obvious pride. She has a quick intelligence and a disarming demeanour.

WATCH | The trailer for 'The Midnight Sky'

Unlike most stars, after Clooney became a father he would whip out his phone and show photos of his babies to the press, like any proud dad. He has that Everyman way about him. He strives to make a difference yet is happy to admit to his own foibles and weaknesses.

He is also the ultimate prankster — he once hired a tailor to gradually take in Matt Damon's clothing while the latter was a guest at his home on Lake Cuomo, so that Damon thought he was gaining weight and reduced his helpings at nightly suppers, only to have the joke revealed to him when he left.

BIG BEARD

A conversation with Clooney involves self-deprecating stories, inquiries into your life and a vast depth of knowledge about the disenfranchised and how you could help if you were so inclined. A few years ago he gave $14m to 14 of his friends, with the caveat that if one friend refused acceptance no-one would get the gift.

When I asked him why he did it, he debated with himself, wiggling his head as he considered the question.

"I had a lot of friends who were struggling with mortgages and putting their kids through college. I'd just met Amal, we weren't dating. I was making out my will and started looking at who I was going to leave my money to. I realised I was waiting until I was an old man buying dentures. I thought, 'They need it now, so why don't I get it over with now? Why not share it while I'm alive?'

"And then Amal and I started dating, and right afterwards Gravity came out and they didn't pay us for working on Gravity because they were afraid that it was going to be a big flop. Instead, they paid us in percentages when the film was released, so I made the money back almost immediately. So karma kind of came back and took care of it."

Amal and George Clooney at the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry in 2018.
Amal and George Clooney at the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry in 2018.
Image: Gareth Fuller/Pool via Reuters

Clooney has character — that old-fashioned, devalued word. On the Shepperton set last February, he revealed that three days before flying to Iceland to direct and star in The Midnight Sky he was rushed to the emergency room with pancreatitis. "I was on morphine for two days, but had to fly out on the third."

Being Clooney, he downplays the seriousness of what could have been a catastrophe — the entire cast and crew needing to be paid while the director and star recovered. Instead, he went into 80km/h winds atop a glacier, where the frigid temps plunged below 4°C.

Not at full physical strength yet, he admits that darkness coming at 3pm helped. "I was able to wrap and then sleep. I used my own 'weakness' to get the portrayal right of an ailing scientist riddled with cancer, fighting overwhelming conditions to prevent astronauts from returning to a mysterious global catastrophe on Earth."

He acknowledges that it was a different part for him — a really tough, depressing role. "In the film I'm dying, I'm the last man on Earth and I'm very sick, on top of which I have a little girl I have to take care of."

Even before Clooney got sick he'd lost 12kg for the role. "It was cruel, we were in Italy and everyone else was eating pounds of pasta — and I had a bowl of lentil soup." He grins. "I should have gotten a medal."

The toll of recovery in extreme conditions had a big impact on him. "It just was much harder to get better in this place while directing myself with a seven-year-old girl who had never acted before."

WATCH | Margaret Gardiner in conversation with George Clooney

To make things even more difficult, three weeks into filming his leading lady, Felicity Jones, confirmed her pregnancy. A decision had to be made about whether to shoot around the looming reality or to incorporate the pregnancy in the story. He chose the latter, rewriting the script to accommodate a pregnant astronaut.

Clooney turns the conversation to a lighter moment in filming: "I grew a huge beard for the character — which my son loved because he'd hide things in it and I wouldn't know until I'd get to the set and my crew would say 'There's a popsicle in your beard'."

He smiles at the thought that a prankster's mind is already discernible in his kid.

"My wife and daughter were really happy when it came off, because it's hard to find a face under that mess."

And that's the thing about Clooney: he liberally laces evidence of his contentment throughout his conversations in friendly asides like: "The twins have my eyebrows."

He endears himself to his fans in a world in which stars have become so precious that they won't volunteer any personal insights or information.

BROKE BACHELOR

The movie was fully completed when the Covid shutdown happened, but it was unedited, which required Clooney to take a crash course in LED ILM screens, CGI and revisualisations while he worked on its completion at his former bachelor pad in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles. The house was, over the period, also home to his wife and twins.

Ostensibly a sci-fi film, the movie also references the isolation we're enduring all over the world because of the coronavirus.

"I miss my parents. I'd like to see 'em, quite honestly," he says, echoing what many feel. "But this is the place that we are in at the moment. We're a couple months away maybe from some light at the end of the tunnel — the vaccine. We just have to stay the course."

He had just cooked Thanksgiving dinner for the four of them. The family were also in Los Angeles over Christmas.

"I was a bachelor for a long time," he says. "In fact, I was a broke bachelor for a long time and I did all the same things I'm doing now. I did my own laundry, I washed dishes, mopped and painted. I painted the entire interior and exterior of my house. Suddenly, it was just the four of us here and so I'm back to doing all of that. I wood-stained the furniture outside and fixed the walls. I did all the things that I haven't done in a while, which is a good reminder that you can still do it all.

"In some ways, the good news is I always felt like I could survive under any conditions. If you dropped us on an island, I'd build a house and get us through it. I've had to back those words up a few times here at the house," he says. "It's hard, man. Zoom is hard."

He casually mentions that when he was young he'd shovel snow and mow lawns to earn money to buy gifts for people less fortunate than himself.

JUSTICE INDEX

I ask him how he'll cultivate the same traits in his children. He looks into the distance as he talks, like it's something he's been thinking about for a long time, or like he's staring down a long stretch of time.

"You have to teach your children — I think that comes down to parenting, don't you? I would hope that I'd be able to instil in our children the value of a job and the importance of making your own way and making your own position in life.

"I think that's an element that we'll instil in our children as well, which is that we're responsible for one another, and not just inside our own family — the importance of looking out for others."

Those lessons - which are clearly instilled in him — are the attraction of the man. He tells elaborate stories in which he features as the butt of the joke. But talk to him about a crisis in the world and the smile fades and without preaching he becomes engaged, talking with confidence about the finer details of the problem so you know he's not a dilettante.

This is something he and Amal are working hard at — using their fame to try to address injustices in the world through the Clooney Foundation for Justice.

He elaborates: "We have a justice index that monitors trials all over the world. We're monitoring 40 right now. Governments are using courtrooms as a way to legitimise doing some pretty terrible things and so we try to monitor these courtrooms. There's a lot of things in this world that you'd want to do."

Monitoring humanity is one of the things that attracted him to The Midnight Sky. "I thought it was a beautiful story about what we're capable of doing to one another if we're not careful, if we don't pay attention. If we don't listen to science, and we don't worry about division and hatred, and all those things.

"You know, if you play it out over 40 years, we're probably capable of destroying ourselves. It's a pretty fragile thing, mankind."

THE RIGHT PARTNER

There's a moment in the film that he borrowed from his own life — an everyday scene of a family interacting.

"There's nothing more fun than sitting with my kids in the morning, all of us singing in Italian while we make breakfast for them. I added a slice of that, of the happy moments we have, to the film because those moments are very precious to me and I think that they're beautiful."

Clooney is happy. He's doing good work on the screen and in the world and he has the family he didn't always know he wanted but that he very clearly needs. I ask him if he thinks he chose the correct partner and he gives me that famous lopsided grin, his eyes crinkling so all I can see are his lashes.

"Since Covid, it's been just the two of us for dinner each night, and we never run out of things to talk about."

In the end, that is everything.

FUN FACTS ABOUT THE ACTOR

  • George Timothy Clooney was born May 6, 1961 in Lexington, Kentucky. His father, Nick Clooney, was a news anchor-man and TV-show host. Hollywood actress and singer Rosemary Clooney is his aunt. And he's a distant relative of Abraham Lincoln.
Clooney with his father Nick, centre, and activist Tom Andrews at a protest outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington DC in 2012.
Clooney with his father Nick, centre, and activist Tom Andrews at a protest outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington DC in 2012.
Image: Alex Wong/Getty Images
  • Clooney auditioned five times for the role of JD in the 1991 film Thelma & Louise but lost out to Brad Pitt.
  • He swore off marriage after his first one - to Talia Balsam — failed. Michelle Pfeiffer and Nicole Kidman each bet him $10,000 that he'd be a father before he turned 40. They lost.
  • In 1997, Clooney was voted "Sexiest Man Alive" by People Magazine.
  • Clooney is the first actor to be nominated for an Academy Award in six different categories (Best Supporting Actor, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor).
  • Clooney had a pet pig named Max the Star for 18 years, a gift from girlfriend at the time Kelly Preston. Max is often credited with saving Clooney's life by waking him up before the 1994 Northridge, California, earthquake. Max appeared in interviews with Clooney, shared his bed, and also got to fly in John Travolta's private jet.
  • The actor is a well-known activist and humanitarian who has spoken out on the conflict in Darfur, helped raise funds for Haiti following an earthquake, and was named a UN Messenger of Peace in 2008. — Source: factinate.com