George Clooney met the Coen brothers in the early days of his movie career, when they approached him with the idea for 2000’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Since then, Clooney has risen to one of the biggest stars in the world, while still finding time for regular collaborations with Joel and Ethan: 2003’s “Intolerable Cruelty,” 2008’s “Burn After Reading” and the upcoming “Hail, Caesar,” where he plays a 1950s big-screen star kidnapped by a secret cult. As part of this week’s cover story, Clooney talked to Variety about what it’s like to work with the Coens and their next project together.
You and the Coen brothers have worked together a lot.
Well, let’s face it. If you’ve been involved in any part of filmmaking in the last 35 years, they hold a very special place for people in the industry. It’s their ability to mix drama, their imagination, the way they write. I remember when we were doing “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” you don’t improvise with them, because it’s sort of like trying to improvise Shakespeare. There’s a specific pattern to the way they write and their rhythm to it. They are great writers. They are incredibly imaginative directors, and on top of everything else, they are the most fun to work with. Any time they call, I just say—“Tell me where to be and I’ll be there.”
How did they approach you for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
It was a huge moment in my life. These guys were already legends. I was shooting “Three Kings.” We were having a tough time on it. Out comes these two really sweet guys who have this great track record of making wonderful films. They said, “We got a script. Are you interested?” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “You don’t want to read it first?” I said, “I’m going to do it — whatever it is.” That’s a true story. Who would have guessed it would be as good a part as Everett?
What are they like on set?
They are funny. They are goofy. They laugh behind the monitors so loud, that you think the sound guy could hear them. They are very easy to work with. They sort of edit before they shoot, which is why their films have such a point of view. I think I’ve done maybe three or four takes at the most. They don’t do any rehearsals.
Do they always get along?
They don’t ever disagree. They kind of look at each other and say, “Yeah, yeah.” The fun part is always saying out loud, “Oh Joel, that’s a much better idea than Ethan’s.” They work as one. They really are a team.
“Hail, Caesar!” has been in the works for 15 years.
They told me the idea. The whole pitch line was I play a dumb movie star that gets kidnapped, this Gary Cooper kind of Western star. His line is, “This is bad for movie stars everywhere.” That was 1999 or 2000 when they said it. Every time anybody asked me what I was doing next, I said, “I’m doing ‘Hail, Caesar!” And they kept saying, “We haven’t written it.” And I said, “I know you will.” So I got a call a couple years ago, they go, “Ok f–er. We finally wrote it.”
You’re also directing “Suburbicon,” starring Matt Damon, from a screenplay they wrote around the time of “Blood Simple.”
It’s an interesting story. It takes place in the suburbs in 1947. It’s kind of a thriller. It’s kind of a comedy. It’s a very dark comedy from a young man’s point of view about all the things that are going wrong in his house.
Why did you decide to finally make it?
When I was doing “O Brother,” they sent it to me and asked if I was interested. It just never got legs. All the other movies came and got going. This one was commissioned, so it sat around. For the last year, I’ve been looking for something to direct. I called Bryan Lourd, my agent. I said, “How many movies have I looked at?” He said, “About 85 in the last year.” A lot of them are being made. But I just thought, it’s not in my wheelhouse or it’s not my taste. Then I remembered “Suburbicon.” I had an old script on my shelf. I called up the boys and said, “You’re not doing anything with it, are you?” They were like, “No.” So I said, “I’d like to take a crack at it.”