Meet Citizen Clooney.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, as well as Oprah, and Bono, who can shine a global camera on significant social issues simply by showing up and enlisting their clout to spread good in the world.
Make no mistake, Clooney, whose woodsy, tropical backyard features a mini-replica of the Hollywood sign on a hillside, is first and foremost a movie star. He grew up watching classic films on TV like "Red River" and "It's a Wonderful Life." When he moved to Hollywood in the 1980s, he lived with his aunt, torch singer and actress Rosemary Clooney, while he crammed in acting classes. Clooney often sounds like a cross between a film professor and an all-knowing oracle. A lot of this natural wisdom comes from his upbringing in a small town in Kentucky where his father, Nick, was a celebrated local broadcast journalist who loved to embellish tales.
"One of my favorite films is 'Big Fish,' which I think is a masterpiece," says Clooney, attracted by the 2003 fantasy drama's emphasis on the oral storytelling tradition. "I grew up in a family of storytellers, but Google has destroyed us, because you can fact-check everything," he laments with a grin, lounging in his outdoor patio on a recent winter night. "We'd always like the stories to be a little better than they were."
Clooney has told a number of important stories by juggling various roles as an Oscar-winning producer ("Argo") and supporting actor ("Syriana"), director ("Good Night, and Good Luck") and screenwriter ("The Ides of March"). Eventually, his journalistic thirst for narrative took him to the Western Sudan, where he appeared in a documentary about the genocide in Darfur, which he witnessed firsthand. It was a dangerous trip. "We got stopped in the middle of nowhere, where we shouldn't have been," Clooney recalls. "A little 10-year-old kid came over with a Kalashnikov assault rifle to my head, basically wanted to get us out of the truck." Despite the traumatic experience, Clooney has returned many times to the region.
Though he claims to have no personal political aspirations, Clooney knows he can make some noise and people will listen: "I like the ability to shine light and make it loud," he says. "But boy, the idea of administrating and legislating. What a nightmare."
Clooney's powers of persuasion are so well known in showbiz that Jeffrey Katzenberg tapped him in early 2012 to spearhead a three-year, $350 million fundraising drive for the Motion Picture Television Fund. Clooney had joined the MPTF board the previous year, and volunteered to beat the drum for the campaign to shore up the MPTF's finances at a rocky time for the org.
"The worse our situation (became), the more interested he got," Katzenberg said of Clooney at the time. The MPTF campaign has surpassed $300 million in pledges as of last month.
Clooney also made headlines when he hosted a fundraiser at his home for Obama's second-term presidential bid that netted $15 million from 150 major donors as well as tens of thousands of smaller contributors, many motivated by the chance to be flown to California to be part of "Obama, Clooney and you," as the president's campaign pitched it. The guest list included J.J. Abrams, Nina Jacobson and Bryan Lourd (and the two lucky winners).
After the event, Clooney joined the president, along with Tobey Maguire and Don Cheadle, for an impromptu game of pick-up basketball. "I wasn't there," says Grant Heslov, Clooney's longtime friend and producing partner at Smokehouse Pictures. "I don't think he considers me a good enough basketball player. He called my brother (Mike Heslov) instead. I was hurt, and I'll never forgive him."
Tailor-made ChallengeIn a way, Clooney's latest movie, "The Monuments Men," seems like a tailor-made challenge for his talents as a congregator-in-chief. The film, which he directed, co-wrote and stars in, tells a little-known story about a platoon tasked with rescuing thousands of valuable artworks stolen by Hitler in the final days of WWII. Clooney says he envisioned the story in the tradition of 1961's "The Guns of Navarone" (with Clooney, naturally, in the role of ringleader). He wrangled the cast of Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Jean Dujardin, convincing them all to take salary cuts.
"If you pay everybody a full boatload, it's a $150 million film," says Clooney, who managed to stay under his $70 million budget. "You just can't do it. Everybody worked for super cheap, like crazy cheap." He says the "Ocean's Eleven" movies operated under a similar business model, although the actors in the Steven Soderbergh franchise earned roughly a quarter of their normal salary. For "Monuments Men," they were paid a 10th or a 15th of their going rate, but with a meaningful backend if the movie makes money, Clooney adds.
The cast agreed, in part, because Clooney was so devoted to wooing them. He flew to Australia to meet with Blanchett and offered her a role as an art historian. He was familiar with Dujardin from the 2011 awards-season circuit, where Clooney, nommed for his role in "The Descendants," narrowly lost the leading actor Oscar to the French actor from "The Artist."
"The first time I saw him was at Telluride," Clooney recalls. "He's standing next to Harvey Weinstein, and I put my arm around him and said, 'If you learn to speak English, you'll win the Oscar.' I should have kept my mouth shut.'â"