Which director would you like to work with that you haven’t before?? “Alexander Payne. He’s four for four in my book. He seems to have such a great handle on a sensibility that makes me laugh. He’d be my first choice.”

How do actors balance commerce vs. art?? “I can greenlight a picture, so if you’re in my position, you try to do a film that will make a little money and is entertaining. That way, you’re allowed to do other films that you want to build your legacy with. If you don’t take a lot of money from the scripts you love, you can do that. You gamble on yourself.”

Up next: “Right now, I’m filming ‘The Good German,’ which is directed by Steven Soderbergh. And then in February, I’m supposed to start ‘Michael Clayton,’ which will be the directing debut of Tony Gilroy, who wrote the ‘Bourne’ films and ‘Dolores Claiborne.’ “

At 44 and still pretty hunky, it’s hard to imagine George Clooney fears for his future. He’s co-starred in his share of blockbusters (“The Perfect Storm,” “Ocean’s Eleven,” among others) and was a featured thesp on the top TV drama at the time (“ER”).

Yet he insists he does, vowing he won’t be auditioning for a “Matlock” remake at 60.

His recent forays into screenwriting and directing are to some degree a product of this concern. And so, for that matter, is his role in Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana.”

The pic is at once a complicated look at America’s role in the Mideast and a meditation on the relationship between fathers and sons. Clooney plays Robert Barnes, a rumpled CIA operative thrown to the wolves by Washington’s heartless bureaucracy; he gained about 30 pounds for the role and grew a shaggy salt-and-pepper beard.

“I ate everything that wasn’t nailed down,” he says. “Some of my friends didn’t even know it was me.”

Such things don’t get Clooney down, though.

“I see myself as a character actor,” he says. “I don’t feel self-conscious that way.”

But it was more than just pulling a De Niro that attracted the actor to this role.

“I thought it was a smart script,” Clooney says. “I think it’s important to make issue films, not to preach to people but to raise debate. It seems there’s a huge lack of debate about issues in this country right now.”

Clooney, of course, knows plenty about issue films. He directed and, with Grant Heslov, co-wrote “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which explores newsman Edward R. Murrow’s confrontation with fearmongering Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy back in 1954.

“Saying the word ‘evildoers’ doesn’t get you very far,” insists Clooney. “It’s a very complicated world out there. I imagine ‘Syriana’ will have a few people upset. But upset is good. And upset is important. It’s important to open up doors and have discussions about things.”

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