George Clooney wasn’t supposed to say yes. A reporter interviews a movie star at a restaurant or a hotel lobby or an office, with his publicist lurking in the corner, ready to cut off any vaguely interesting questions. But to come over to my house for dinner? That’s a trap no sucker has ever shoved a famous foot into.
Partly because there are so many unknowns—you’re stuck alone chatting up the family while the reporter cooks, you accidentally let slip a cruel joke about a wedding photo, you somehow use the bathroom wrong—and partly because who the hell wants to spend Saturday night stuck at some dork’s house eating undercooked lamb? Would Gwyneth Paltrow come over? Johnny Depp? But George Clooney said yes, of course, why not, sounds fun.
Clooney was the only star who could have said yes, because no other star wears his celebrity so easily. Nominated for another Oscar for Michael Clayton, Clooney has managed to become this era’s leading man without ever conveying the sense that he takes the role seriously. “He’s a throwback to what movie stars used to be,” says Grant Heslov, who has been friends with Clooney since they met in an acting class in 1983 and is now his partner at their new film and TV production company, Smoke House. “You see him and you think, Wouldn’t that be a great life? He seems like a man’s man. He seems like you could meet him at a bar and have a chat with him and it would be easy. And all of that is true.” Sid Ganis, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, says no one works an Oscars event or the red carpet like him. “Clooney is a kind of exception to the rule of celebrity aloofness. Gregory Peck was that way. Totally open. Unabashed. You’ve got to be not afraid,” he says. No other stars are as unfreaked out by their own celebrity, since, like most politicians, they want it either too much or too little. And it’s that ability to be constantly not afraid that makes women love him. “As they say in England, he is up for it,” says Michael Clayton co-star Tilda Swinton. “That means up for pretty much any fun you can think of. He has a way of daring you—which, for those of us who cannot resist a bit of a laugh, can be irresistible.”
Still, this was going to be uncomfortable, this reversal of the natural guest-host order. Three years ago, Clooney invited me to his huge Los Angeles house to interview him, and he was exactly the host you’d expect: relaxed, honest, easy. Four years ago, when I left a message with his publicist to set up a time to talk to him, he simply called my voice mail and left his home number. In the summer, at his six-house compound in Lake Como, Italy, he throws nightly Algonquin-style dinners featuring such guests as Al Gore, Walter Cronkite and Quincy Jones. “He’s an excellent host,” says Tony Gilroy, director of Michael Clayton. “He’s really smart about figuring out what people need and want. Are they hot? Happy? Cold? Thirsty? He has that ability to bend himself to the space he’s in and instantly adjust to the group he’s with.” So I wondered, Can George Clooney possibly be a guest? Or is that just against the natural order of things? And what would I even cook? All his assistant would say was, “He’ll eat whatever is cooking.”
It’s 6:45 on Saturday night when the doorbell rings, a little late. Clooney hit traffic, his assistant called to say, on his way back from visiting his girlfriend in Las Vegas. He’s wearing faded jeans, black laced boots and a zip-up sweater, and he looks less like a movie star than a normal, un-Botoxed 46-year-old unmarried guy coming over for dinner, but he also looks like he’s excited to be here because wherever he is, George Clooney’s also there. He hasn’t brought any wine, and I worry that this guesting thing is just not going to work out. I offer him a glass of red, and he suggests that we sit on the couch, and soon we’re talking about real estate, and it’s fine, and next thing I know, he’s getting a tour of the house. A tour of the house? The man owns a mansion in L.A. and a 15-bedroom villa in Italy! Why don’t I just show the Oscar-winning actor the tape of me in my high school production of Bye Bye Birdie? But he’s nailing this guest role: “I love old houses like this.” “You kept the original stuff.” “It’s nice to have a guest room.” “I love the arches on the shower.” I’m convinced that this is just a normal Clooney Saturday, that he spends his nights Charles Kuralting around L.A., knocking on doors, eating whatever’s cooking and chatting about politics. Within 15 minutes he made me feel comfortable in my own house. Which isn’t so easy when a giant celebrity is over for dinner.
It’s becoming clear to me already that somehow this guy, even in my house, really is a movie star. Maybe the only one we have now. There are plenty of huge box-office draws (Will Smith, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Johnny Depp) and even more famous celebrities (Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez, Lindsay Lohan), but no one besides Clooney is so gracefully both. After an actor achieves media saturation, there’s actually an inverse relation between fame and box-office receipts: people aren’t going to pay for what they can get for free. “There are so many media outlets and this enormous suck on information about you, it’s hard to maintain any kind of aura of specialness and mystery about the work itself, which is trying to be other people,” says director Tony Gilroy. “It was a lot easier to be Bill Holden than it is to be George Clooney.” Or as Clooney says, “Clark Gable wouldn’t have been Clark Gable if there was Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight.”
His strategy for being a movie star is pretty simple, if counterintuitive: he makes fun of himself. It’s the by-product of every successful person’s strategy, which is to figure out what the other person is thinking. “Before they could kill me on Batman & Robin, I said, ‘It’s a bad film, and I’m the worst thing in it.’ You try to defend an indefensible position, you’ll look like a schmuck. The guys I dig don’t do that. Look at Winston Churchill. He said, ‘These are our shortcomings. Now let’s get past it,’” Clooney says. He thinks that’s all Cruise needs to do. “I talked to him the other day, and he’s a good egg. There’s nothing self-serving about what he’s saying. He has to turn it into a way to make fun of himself.”
Clooney also preempts situations that might earn him ridicule later. So he has either turned down every gift bag he’s been offered or has put them up on eBay for charity. “I’ve been smart about that. Rich famous people getting free s___ looks bad. You look greedy. And I don’t need a cell phone with sparkles on it,” he says. He sends handwritten apology letters to the directors whose scenes he ripped off in the movies he directed—Mike Nichols, Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack. He drives an electric car and a Lexus hybrid but won’t be a spokesman for the environment because he flies a private jet. He feels passionately about Barack Obama but refuses his pleas to campaign for him—other than an introduction in late February in Cincinnati, Ohio—because he doesn’t want it to backfire into a Hollywood-vs.-the-heartland attack. And he downplays and occasionally jokes about his problems, which include a bad back and some short-term memory loss he sustained when working on Syriana, quiet. “I know what pisses people off about fame,” Clooney says. “It’s when famous people whine about it.”
It may look as if he is an effortless movie star, but he has actually given the job a lot of thought. He’s not manipulative, but he is calculating, following the rules he learned from his family. When his aunt Rosemary Clooney went from being on the cover of this magazine to seeing her fame burst because musical tastes changed, she battled depression and took pills for much of her life. He knows random luck will eventually take fame away, just as random luck made him a star. If NBC had put ER on Fridays instead of Thursdays, I might have had Jonathan Silverman over for dinner. And while Clooney didn’t get famous until his 30s, when ER hit, he had kind of always been famous because of his dad, a popular news anchor in Cincinnati. “From the moment I was born, I was watched by other people. I was taught to use the right fork. I was groomed for that in a weird way,” Clooney says. “You give enough. You play completely. You don’t say, I don’t talk about my personal life. People say they won’t talk about their personal life. And then they do. And even when the tabloids say really crappy things and it pisses you off and you know it’s not true, you have to at least publicly have a sense of humor about it.”
He’s just as calculating about his career choices. “He was offered a stupendous amount of money to continue to do Roseanne,” the sitcom he was on for 11 episodes, says his dad Nick Clooney. “I was thinking he could build a little nest egg and maybe acting would pay off after all. He said, ‘No, I’ll be in a cul-de-sac. I’ll be that guy, and that’s all I’ll be.’” He pitched sitcom pilots and dramas and eventually won an Oscar nomination for co-writing the original screenplay for Good Night, and Good Luck. He makes sure to not get stuck in one character or type of film. He has a Joel and Ethan Coen movie coming out in which he plays an idiot (as he did in their O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and he’s working on a movie about the founder of est and a comedy about the 1979 Tehran hostages who escaped. The next movie he directs and co-stars in is Leatherheads, a screwball comedy about pro football in the 1920s that comes out April 4. “After Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck I was offered the Richard Clarke book and every issues movie,” Clooney says. “I didn’t want to be the issues guy because if the issues change, you’re done. The Facts of Life is a good example. If you’re a young heartthrob—which I never caught on as—those fans not only abandon you, but they’re embarrassed to have liked you. It’s the same thing with issues movies. I want to just be a director.”
He is good at slipping into many different worlds, even the one in my kitchen, where he is pouring in the egg mixture while I add the hot spaghetti for the carbonara. He reaches over and stirs the bacon, grabs a string bean from the pot and eats it. He is mad guesting, Olympic-level guesting. He’s been over for two hours, and it occurs to me that the smooth bastard must have turned off his cell phone before he got here. When I leave the table to check on the lamb, he puts extra bacon on my pasta. He’s doing impressions—Pat O’Brien confusedly reporting outside Clooney’s Como villa, expecting Pitt and Jolie’s wedding (Clooney had bought $1,500 worth of flowers and 15 tabletops as a prank on gossip reporters); James Carville denigrating John Kerry’s campaigning skills; Daniel Day-Lewis doing John Huston in There Will Be Blood.
We’re deep into a second bottle of Barolo when Clooney cuts into his rack of lamb, and, oh, there would be blood. This is why a star wouldn’t take this invite, wouldn’t be here, staring at a red-raw-inedible piece of meat. He says it’s fine. I grab it, put it in the oven but forget to turn on the heat, so when I take it back out, it’s just as raw. Fine again, he says. I put it back one more time. He takes more pasta and salad. Rattled, I drop the salt. “Throw it over your left shoulder,” he says. “That’s just bad mojo. You know it, and I know it.” He may not believe in religion, but luck, Clooney has learned from his family, cannot be messed with.
One person Clooney will mess with—the thing he keeps coming back to the more we drink—is what a massive loser Bill O’Reilly is. It’s an irrational feud because every time O’Reilly gets to be as important as Clooney, O’Reilly comes out way ahead. But Clooney can’t help himself. He keeps talking about O’Reilly, and the little traps he’s set for him and how thrilled he is when he falls into them. It’s as if Clooney loves O’Reilly because he gives him permission to be an irrational 8-year-old. Maybe that’s why anyone loves O’Reilly. But he is also the anti-Clooney, donning a public persona, one that’s humorless and incapable of self-effacement. It’s as if someone created for Clooney his own Elmer Fudd.
One of the things O’Reilly has taken issue with is Clooney’s involvement in the crisis in Darfur, saying it’s reverse racism from someone who didn’t care about the Arabs being killed by Saddam Hussein. Clooney got interested in Darfur in 2005 after the campaign for Oscar votes for Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck made him feel dirty. “You’re campaigning for yourself. To compete for art,” he says. His dad was also dejected and angry after losing an election for Congress, and Clooney had been reading about the lack of attention being given to Darfur, so the two went on a trip to Africa to shoot footage. Clooney wasn’t able to get into Darfur until late January, when the U.N. said it would give him an official title. “I have a U.N. passport. It says ‘Messenger of Peace’ on it. It’s very cool,” he says.
The Darfur organization he helped found, Not on Our Watch, has given away more than $9 million. But now, just three weeks back from having a 14-year-old border guard shove a machine gun at his chest, after recovering from malaria, after helicoptering out of N’Djamena, Chad, in a sandstorm three days before the rebels sacked it, he wonders if his critics are right, if this scheme to use celebrity to bring attention to the world’s plights isn’t, if not vanity, at least striving after wind. “I’ve been very depressed since I got back. I’m terrified that it isn’t in any way helping. That bringing attention can cause more damage. You dig a well or build a health-care facility and they’re a target for somebody,” he says. “A lot more people know about Darfur, but absolutely nothing is different. Absolutely nothing.”
He feels his advocacy is not even accomplishing as much as his family did during the embarrassing Christmas day trips his dad would arrange every year, when they would show up with gifts for a family who wrote to his dad’s TV station, asking for help. Now he wonders if it is better to give money and get out of the way, as he does when he gets off Highway 101 at Laurel Canyon Blvd., where there’s always a person begging for money. “You think, This is a $20 light. So you hope to catch the light. And then you feel guilty for hoping to catch the light,” he says. “People say, They’ll buy booze. Fair enough. They need it.” Clooney, having helped knock off two bottles of red and two bottles of dessert wine—all after drinking heavily in Vegas the night before—is not one to deny someone else alcohol.
It’s past midnight; we’re both pretty buzzed. He’s telling me how he wakes up every morning at 5:30 to the hoots of a giant owl and how he climbs into his hot tub so he can hoot back, mesmerized by nature, like Tony Soprano and his ducks, when this alarm starts shrieking. Clooney, not a man of inaction, especially in a moment of crisis like this, stands on my dining-room table, unscrews a panel in the ceiling and, finding nothing, makes me go outside and carry a huge ladder with him up two flights to my garage upstairs—where he climbs into an area I’ve never dared go, crawling along the beams with a screwdriver between his teeth. Finding nothing, he climbs down, knocks the dirt off his jeans, blows the dust out of his nose, rinses his hands and returns to the table. The shriek starts again, and Clooney thinks for a few seconds, ducks down and yanks the carbon monoxide detector out of the outlet. “Either it needs a battery,” he says, “or we have six seconds to live.”
At 1:30 he gets up to leave. He tells me that the next time I have interviewees over for dinner, I should trick them by passing his house off as mine, maybe with some hired servants, smoking a pipe, pretending journalism is something I do as a lark, separate from my silver-mining interests.
As he leaves, I feel as if I failed. In seven hours, I wasn’t able to find a part of Clooney different from the one everyone already knows. As he retreats in his movie-star car to his movie-star lair with his giant-owl sidekick, I feel pretty sure he never separates the public from the private. It explains, at least, why he sucked as Batman.
Then two nights later I get a chance to run the experiment again. My wife and I figure we’ll check out the sushi place Clooney said he’s been going to for 15 years. When we walk in, there’s only one occupied table, and of course it’s Clooney, his girlfriend, his assistant and a friend he met the first day he moved to Los Angeles. He’s unprepared for me, out in the open, vulnerable. But he yanks over a table, puts it next to his, tells us what to order, hands us food from his plate, shows us photos of him and the other guy at the table with Keith Richards, reads the cheesy lines he’s just been faxed for his Oscar presenting, fights for the check and generally hosts the crap out of us. Clooney is a movie star not because he’s overwhelmingly electric or handsome or fascinating. After two very fun nights, I can tell you that he really isn’t any of those things. George Clooney is a movie star because he’s happiest when he controls how everyone around him feels. Because that’s what movies do.
* By Joel Stein (TIME) With reporting by Amy Lennard Goehner