The first full-length feature from 50-year-old US director Alexander Payne since he won an Oscar for Sideways seven years ago, The Descendants is highly anticipated, even by Hollywood’s standards. The heartwarming/heartbreaking tale of Matt King, a lawyer whose unfaithful wife is in a coma from which she will never wake, has been tipped as an Oscar-winning role for its star, 50-year-old George Clooney. The movie has already picked up a 2012 Golden Globe for best drama, with Clooney nabbing the best actor award.
With the recent news that the seven most successful movies in the US last year were sequels (yawn), we think a film as insightfully humane as The Descendants deserves extra-special attention. We caught up with Clooney and Payne to delve inside the movie.
When did the two of you first meet?
Alexander Payne: It was in 2003.
George Clooney: For Sideways.
TO: You arrived on your motorcycle…
GC: We had a long, long, long lunch and talked. Then we left and you said, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing.’ Then I left and said, ‘I have no idea what he’s doing.’ And then he gracefully passed. And I built a doll and stuck a few pins in it. That worked for six or seven years. Then I got a call from Bryan Lourd saying that Alexander wanted to talk, almost two years ago. I was in Toronto doing two films there and we met at a nice Italian restaurant, had a great night, and he said ‘I’m gonna send over a script, let me know what you think’. I kind of said I’d do it before I even read it, because I wanted to work with Alexander so much.
The author of The Descendants novel, Kaui Hart Hemmings, said she always imagined George as Matt King. Alexander, was that in your mind as you were writing?
TO: Yes, it was. Right when I decided to adapt the book, I called Kaui to ask a bunch of questions, including, ‘Is there any actor you’ve seen in your mind’s eye that could play Matt?’ She said ‘George Clooney’ right off the bat. I said, ‘Great, let’s get him.’
George, what attracted you to the role? Did shooting in the tropical Island paradise of Hawaii have anything to do with it?
GC: Tough job! ‘Work with Alexander. The bad news is you have to shoot in Hawaii!’ The funniest thing was that Alexander said he was going to send me a script, and there was always this fear that I was going to be in the first really bad Alexander Payne film, because I hadn’t read the script! Instead it was the opposite. I thought it was…
TO: The only good one!
GC: [Laughs] I thought it was the best screenplay I’d read in a long, long time. There’s not much that happens in the film, in a weird way. When you look for trailers for this film, it’s very hard to explain it, because it unfolds so slowly, so beautifully. It takes its time. It’s hard to describe the screenplay. You start reading it and you’re involved from the minute you start. By the end, you’re really taken by it.
Descriptions of your roles are often prefaced with, ‘In a departure from his usual heartthrob roles…’, but it’s rare that you actually play a heartthrob. You’ve played quite a few men in mid-life crisis…
GC: It’s the funniest thing. I get people saying, ‘He’s surprisingly not bad in this film…’ When are you gonna stop being so surprised? I think there’s a certain assumption of things, due to earlier choices in my career that weren’t particularly great. I’ll always have those skeletons that people hark back to all the time. Some will say, ‘He only plays himself.’
TO: Have you ever been bad in a film?
GC: Yeah I’ve been bad in films. I was bad in Batman & Robin. It wasn’t a good film, but I was bad in it. I wasn’t particularly good in The Peacemaker. I missed, I didn’t understand certain things. I hadn’t done many films. I didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. I was playing at being the bad-ass. Those guys don’t do that: they just are the bad-asses. I made mistakes like that.
TO: But that was a long time ago. Nobody throws Every Which Way But Loose at Clint Eastwood any more…
GC: I love that film! I saw it the other day. With the Harold and Maude actress…
TO: Ruth Gordon. She’s in that? I’ll stop making fun of it.
Whether acting or directing, do you still have the nervousness and fear you presumably had when you were younger?
TO: I guess I’ve always been fairly confident about it, but, of course, not without nervousness. Every day driving to set, your car passes all those trucks and all those burly men with beards and walkie talkies and thick, muscled calves. [Laughs]
GC: I wonder where you’re going with this?
TO: You’re thinking, ‘Will I make the day? Will I know where to put the camera? Will the actors do it? Will I get all the coverage I need? Will it be good enough?’ I start each day with panic. But I’ve learned to control it. And the amount of fun I have helps to control it. It’s not so much that I’m in control of things, but the idea of joyously serving something larger than myself takes over, which is the film. That’s a big part of why all of us work in film or why people belong to religions or corporations. People like to serve something larger than themselves. We’ve chosen cinema.
GC: It’s an interesting art form because it’s one of the few – I suppose architecture is another – that requires hundreds of people’s involvement and millions of dollars. But I still view it as an art form because it is subject to opinions.
How do you go about imagining the characters you write or play? Do you speak to people who have had similar experiences?
TO: You just sort of make it up!
GC: I wish I could say I got there 10 days beforehand. I wish I could say I hung out with all these descendants. But the truth is the screenplay did everything I needed. I did some research, I met with the people. I did some of that stuff. People work many different ways. I’m that actor that says ‘Today we go to work and this is what we’re gonna do,’ and I leave that at the soundstage or the location when I’m done. And I go about the rest of my life. I have an on and off switch.
The film deals with grieving. Do you remember when you first became aware of the idea of death?
GC: I was raised Catholic in Kentucky: [in Catholicism] death is a very interesting thing, because death is an open casket. It’s a very real thing. I actually think it’s sort of barbaric, but I understand the theory of it, which is that you have to see them dead. You have to let that sit with you. I also think being with my Uncle George, who I was close to, and holding his hand – he had lung cancer – when he died was a very specific thing that changed me fundamentally from the minute it happened. I was on a show I didn’t like. I was in a relationship that didn’t work and I was holding his hand and he just kept saying, ‘What a waste, what a waste…’. And I also remember thinking at that moment, ‘I’m not gonna be 68 or 70 years old and be lying somewhere and saying, “What a waste”. At the very least it’s gonna be foot on the gas pedal all the way. As fast and as hard as I can.’ So, if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, you go, ‘Well, you jammed a lot in 50 years’. And that to me was immediate.
TO: Was this your dad’s brother?
GC: Actually my dad’s uncle. So my great-uncle.
TO: Are you named after him?
Finally, how would you describe each other?
GC: About the same age…
TO: About four months younger…
GC: I’d just say that, forgetting what he represents to the film community, which is substantial, I find Alexander to be a very good friend. Not just in the film community but in life. I’ve enjoyed that as much as I’ve enjoyed making the film.
TO: I’d heard for years what a delight George was to work with. That was confirmed. I feel the same way about our growing friendship. We have very different lives. He’s spread out all over the globe, he’s in constant motion, but when we do intersect it’s always meaningful and delightful. He’s also irritatingly accomplished at everything he does. Making a film, acting, his humanitarian work, the way in which he’s a friend, how he manages his career, his athletic ability. Here’s a compliment: I think he’s one of the most successful human beings who has ever lived.
GC: That’s a compliment!
TO: I think it’s true.
GC: He’s just saying that because he came to a softball game and I hit four home runs.
The Descendants is in UAE cinemas now.