Clooney says once he learned to understand the exact impression he was trying to convey, he got better at conveying it. (This is true about Clooney off-screen as well, I can attest; you watch him gauge his effect as he goes.) Other actors are different, he says, but that’s how he does it. “Look, Daniel [Day-Lewis], who’s one of our greatest of all time, he is fully submersive, and I can watch him do anything. But I could watch Spencer Tracy do anything just as easily, and Spencer Tracy’s the guy who looks at his mark. Stares at his mark. Looks down at it—literally, like, puts his forehead down—looks at it for 30 seconds as if making sure he’s got his feet exactly on the mark while he’s talking, and then he looks up and talks to you. Never rehearses. And you can’t take your eyes off of him, because everything he did was true. So there’s a lot of ways to get there.”
Clooney has been nominated for eight Academy Awards and won once for his acting, in 2005’s Syriana. “If I get hit by a bus today, they’d say ‘Oscar winner,’ ” he says. But some of his favorite roles, including in The Midnight Sky, are the ones in which he has tried to do as little as possible. “I remember doing The American, and it was like that,” he says. “The American was a version where it was all about: ‘How still can you possibly be?’ ”
That ability, Clooney says, to just be still—to do less, in all senses—is something that comes with age. “I’ll give you an example of how this works,” he says, “and I’ll use my aunt Rosemary”—the great Rosemary Clooney, of “This Ole House” and White Christmas—“who was a wonderful singer. And I would say to her, ‘Why are you a better singer now at 65 than you were when you were at 25, when you could hit higher notes, when you could hold them longer?’ And she goes, ‘Because I don’t have to prove I can sing anymore. And because of it, I serve the material. If the material’s good, I can sing, you know, Why shouldn’t I…? and it’s at a different pace.’ ”
And now George Clooney begins to sing, in a voice that is as nostalgic and comforting as a warm fire.
“It’s [sings languidly] Why shouldn’t I take a chance…? instead of [sings showily] Why shouldn’t I take a chance…? She doesn’t have to prove she can sing, so she can serve the material. And I feel like over the last, you know, 10 or 15 years or so, I got to the point where I was like, ‘I can’t sit around and try to prove to people what I can do as an actor.’ I’m much more comfortable in my own skin. When you struggled for 12 or so years as an actor, when you get in, all you want to do is prove you can act and all the stuff you can do and show off all your tricks. And then as you ease into it, you kind of go, ‘Well, I don’t feel like I have to prove anything anymore.’ ”
These days, that feeling of having nothing to prove has led Clooney to act less and less. “I can remember, I did, like, seven television series before ER. A dozen pilots. I’d done hundreds of episodes of television. So if, let’s say, you’re doing a season of ER, which is 22 episodes, and let’s say a movie’s two hours long and our episodes are an hour, that’s basically like doing 11 movies a year, right? In terms of acting, in terms of all of the choices you’re making as an actor, all those things. So you’re getting to the point of saturation, of like, ‘Well, I’ve played it like this, I’ve played it like that, I’ve done this, I’ve done that, I’ve tried this, I’ve tried that.’ So as time goes on, you’re starting to look around, going, ‘Well, how else am I gonna be involved in this business that I really love?’ I love this business. And I also don’t want to be 60 and worry about what some casting director or some young producer or studio executive thinks about me anymore. I wanted to be involved.”