George Clooney is in Toronto for the North American premiere of his latest film as a director, Suburbicon, a 1950s-set crime noir starring Matt Damon and Julianne Moore. Tom Grater caught up with Hollywood’s leading man.
The depiction of a black family’s struggles with the racial abuse they receive after moving into a prefab community in 1950s America in Suburbicon will strike a chord with many after recent events in Charlottesville, but as Clooney tells Screen, the film’s politics are inadvertently prescient.
In fact, the film had to be re-edited after Donald Trump’s election, with Josh Brolin’s now-absent profanity-laden baseball coach deemed too silly against the political backdrop. In a wide-ranging discussion, Clooney divulges why he will not be running for office, why the price of fame doesn’t bring him regrets, and the politics of getting ‘woke’.
Suburbicon is set in the 1950s but has clear comparisons to today. Was the film designed to be an allegory?
Films can never lead a conversation because it takes two years to make them, you’re always behind the story. We didn’t want the film to be a conversation about race, that wasn’t what it was designed to be. [The events in Charlottesville] have transformed the film’s meaning.
The film is quite violent and angry — why were those aspects important?
I’ve done films that tackle issues straight on. We wanted this one to be a big, entertaining film, we wanted people to go in there and watch Matt Damon get punched in the face - I think that’s funny.
The film’s $24m budget isn’t huge considering it’s a period film and you have A-list actors. Did everyone work below their usual rates?
Matt [Damon] obviously did, Julianne [Moore] did too, everybody took a hit. I got paid $50,000 to write, direct and produce for two years, and I have no back end. If the movie made $200m, I wouldn’t make a dime. I did it because I like it.
How have recent events, including Charlottesville, affected Paramount’s approach to releasing the film?
Paramount’s approach was to deal with the slapstick stuff in the first trailer. They’re doing the smart thing. Events this year have made the film more polarising – we weren’t setting out to make a polarising film. We wanted to make a dark, screwed up film about things that we continue to battle with, particularly hate and the idea of white privilege.
Is it harder to make a dark, screwed up film in what some people might think of as a dark, screwed up time?
When we started making the film, no one thought Donald Trump would be president. It’s a cloud that hangs over many Americans, even people who voted for him.
We were in the middle of shooting when the election took place and it changed a lot of what we were doing. We had these goofy scenes with Josh Brolin, a crazy baseball coach who teaches the kids what the meaning of ‘fuck’ is – it was really funny stuff, but it felt as if there wasn’t a place for that kind of silliness anymore.
Do things in the US have to get worse before they can get better?
There are some people out there who believed in voting for Trump to make things terrible and make everybody ‘woke’. I’m not a big believer in that. I think we can fix things without having to destroy everything along the way. But since we are in the middle of destroying everything, it would be good if we fixed it.
Trump already seems to be campaigning for a second term. Do you think he’ll get it?
I didn’t think he could get one, I’m done predicting. The Democrats are eating each other alive, they need a more palatable candidate.
I don’t think so. I would hope there are a lot more qualified people than me. We need someone who can clearly articulate who we are as a country, and that we’re not living our lives in fear. That’s not who we are, Americans aren’t afraid. All these Breitbart idiots who act like tough Americans, all they do is stoke fear - what a bunch of pussies.
You’ve been an A-lister for such a long time, rarely out of the limelight. Has that taken a toll?
I used to cut tobacco for a living, I sold insurance door-to-door, I worked in an all-night liquor store. I remember growing up in Kentucky and hearing some star talk about how tough their life was, and I’d be like, ‘Fuck that guy.’ The reality is that I’m aware I can’t complain, I’m lucky. Does that mean I don’t miss being able to walk in Central Park with my wife and kids? Sure. You’re in a constant fishbowl and that’s claustrophobic.
You once said you felt like you’d made a pact with the devil to give up your privacy for fame. If you could turn back time, would you still make that pact?
Probably, but I would do it in a different way. Fame is a bug light on a camping site — you go hurtling towards it thinking you want all these things, then you get there and you get your wings singed because it’s too bright. But I get to work in this world and I feel very privileged. It’s harder on my wife, and I’m very concerned about how it will be for my two children, but we’ll figure it out.
Now that you’re a family man, what do you enjoy watching at home?
There’s infinitely more good television than there is anything else. My favourite series I’ve ever seen is Narcos — every episode was like The Godfather. My wife and I also watched The Crown. In Narcos we see someone beating the shit out of somebody and killing their fucking dog, and then the next night we’re watching The Crown and when Prince Philip says to the Queen, “Maybe you should do that on your knees,” we’re like, “Ooh dear.” It’s unbelievable how quickly your sense of morals changes.
Who are the directors around you’d like to work with?
I love that guy who did Ex Machina, Alex Garland. I think he’s scarily good. And how about Get Out? I thought that movie was fucking great.