George Clooney is one movie star so natural in his work that even in “Michael Clayton,” his take on the law firm fixer is so completely unaffected, you don’t doubt his sincerity as the end credits roll.
Clooney’s Clayton is a “miracle worker” called in to save the day when various legal catastrophes strike, such as the mess that ensues when one of the firm’s top litigators (Tom Wilkinson) suffers a mental breakdown. But by the patina of weariness that glazes Clayton’s eyes during pressure-cooker moments of plunging self-esteem — questioning his position in a class-action lawsuit, scrambling to pay back a debt in a business deal gone bad — we can see that this is a guy for whom hubris is not a problem.
“You wouldn’t think the concept of selling out and of squandering your talent are too accessible for him,” says writer-director Tony Gilroy of Clooney’s connection to his onscreen character, “but they are. He can see how things could have gone off the rails. He’s a very empathetic person, very aware of all the people around him. I don’t think it was difficult for him to take the first step towards that role.”
Clooney partly credits his work in “Clayton” with an understanding of “the grand tradition” of actors that have squandered and then saved themselves onscreen, such as Laurence Olivier in “The Entertainer,” Jack Lemon in “Save the Tiger” and Paul Newman in “The Verdict.”
“Most bad people in film aren’t standing around twirling their mustaches,” posits Clooney of evil’s ambiguity. “Rather, it starts with a few bad acts and which you can justify with a million different reasons, and then bit by bit you can end up doing really bad things.”
Gilroy also draws a link between Clooney’s “Clayton” role and the forlorn psychologist he played in “Solaris,” a film rife with themes of “soul sickness” and of “things being too late,” of broken and lost opportunity.
“George didn’t demand too much,” says Gilroy of their directorial relationship. There was no rehearsal prior to the shoot, a creative method that Clooney favors when helming his own film projects.
“People say that it’s lazy, but it’s just not true,” Clooney asserts. “It’s just not necessary. We didn’t rehearse ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’ or ‘Good Night, and Good Luck.’ With ‘Michael Clayton,’ so much of the character was in Tony’s script. It’s such a layered script. That’s what attracted me to the film. Scripts like this one just don’t come around too often.”
Favorite film: “I recently saw ‘Across the Universe,’ and I know that people like to bag on that film, but there’s so many brilliant things in that film. And ‘No Country for Old Men.’ I was just really impressed with that film. I love Javier Bardem.”
Young actor you admire: “Ryan Gosling. He’s really interesting to watch. Rachel McAdams is another one. She’s a smart actor.”