L ast week, George Clooney's charm offensive came to a grinding halt during the press conference for his new movie, Michael Clayton, during the Venice Film Festival. A journalist asked him to defend his decision to participate in the advertising campaign for Nespresso – on behalf of company Nestlé – when his film was dealing with corruption in multinational corporations.
"I'm not going to apologise to you for trying to make a living every once in a while," he snapped back. "I find that an irritating question." After morphing from matinée idol to man of conscience, with films like Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck, Hollywood's favourite Oscar-winning liberal was in no mood to be marked out as a hypocrite.
The following day, Clooney is still rankled by the coffee comment. "I'm doing the best I can to bring attention to things," he says, those espresso-coloured eyes of his clouding over. "Every single corporation in the world has been picketed, and I'm not sure what the specific agenda was on that one. Those are those moments where you want to go: 'What are you doing to help the world?'"
In his case, a fair bit, for Clooney has a long list of good deeds he can cite – everything from promoting the eco-friendly electric Tango car to campaigning for the Sudanese government to stop violence in the Darfur.
Unafraid of public spats – such as his row with director David O'Russell, after they clashed on the set of Three Kings – colleagues testify that what you see is what you get with Clooney. "I would say, of all the actors and movie stars I've dealt with over the years, George has the least amount of filter between the way he presents public and private," says Michael Clayton's writer-director Tony Gilroy.
"That's why it's so easy for him. He doesn't have to waste energy, putting on a front. The guy: that's him. He doesn't have a front. He doesn't act. He's very honest. He's not trying to hide anything in his life. He's pretty wide open."
But you can't help but feel that Clooney's public persona has been craftily stage-managed. Like the luxury brands that he advertises – he recently joined Omega watches – he comes on as classy, desirable and, for most of us, just tantalisingly out of reach. Avoiding high-profile romances – bar an on-off affair with the model Lisa Snowden, that reputedly came to an end two years ago – he's very smart when it comes to keeping his private life just that. The most we ever get to see are murky paparazzo shots of Clooney in his Lake Como villa.
Dressed today in a navy polo shirt, black jumper and single-breasted suit – one gets the impression that his whole wardrobe is just a mix'*'match of muted colours – at 46, he's still handsome enough to pull off the romantic lead – even though 1996's One Fine Day, with Michelle Pfieffer, was the last time he truly took a crack at the genre. But Clooney has no wish to cultivate his heartthrob status any further.
"I'm always afraid of being 80 years old and going, 'what was your legacy of films?'" he says. "You want to try to do some decent films along the way."
While his work over the last decade has largely been highly commendable, Clooney is keen for us to know that he must make sacrifices for his art when he's making movies like the oil drama Syriana, and Michael Clayton; films the studios are reluctant to fund. "With a lot of films you don't make any money off them, but you do them because you want to make the films," he adds. Hence the need to advertise coffee and watches, one assumes.
Still, it feels churlish to chide the Kentucky-born Clooney, who is downright normal compared to some A-list stars – perhaps because, as he puts it, "I grew up around famous people." His father, Nick Clooney, was a TV newscaster in Cincinnati, while his Aunt Rosemary was a well-known singer and actress.
"I saw how little it has to do with you," he continues. "It's all about luck. The problem with famous people in general is that they actually think they're geniuses. You get famous and you think, 'Yes, of course I should be famous and I've earned it all'. You haven't, you got lucky. I got lucky, I was in a TV show that got a Thursday night time-slot at 10pm and it was a massive hit, and as a result I get to do movies I want to do."
Being surrounded by celebrity from such a young age has evidently informed his fledgling work as a director. 2002's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind dealt with the Gong Show host Chuck Barris, who claimed he was a CIA operative. More recently, Good Night, and Good Luck, which saw Clooney nominated for both Best Director and Best Screenplay at the Oscars, dealt with the CBS anchorman Edward R Murrow and his legendary confrontations with Senator Joseph McCarthy. Yet Clooney is still at ease in the limelight.
"I'm at that point, in my life and my career, where very few thing rattle me. I'm not sick of being 'on'. So it doesn't bother me. There are times, but not often." Nevertheless, it got more intense during last year's Oscar race, when Clooney was not only pressing the flesh for his own film but also Syriana, for which he eventually took Best Supporting Actor, for his role as a world-weary CIA agent.
"It was an interesting time," he notes. "I was going through the Oscar campaign... they're actually campaigns where you kiss babies and stuff. You go to all these different events which you have to stand up. And you can convince yourself that you're doing it for the film, but in a way you start to feel unclean about yourself."
All of this was taking place just as he was filming Michael Clayton, in which he plays an eponymous "fixer" for a New York law firm who does the true dirty work for the organisation. Divorced and facing mounting gambling debts, Clayton is a shambling wreck who comes to terms with what he's become as the film unfolds.
All beat up with bags under the eyes, Clooney's seasoned performance underlines the fact that he's no longer the Cary Grant of contemporary Hollywood (if he ever was). Rather, he's edging closer to an actor like Dustin Hoffman, at least in terms of choices. Interestingly, he's keen to claim this is not a political film.
"This one wasn't designed to say, 'let's talk about corporate corruption'. It was a more a genre film." He checks himself for a minute. "Still, I'd hate to see a world where you didn't have those films."
Clooney spent a decade toiling away in forgettable television shows and B-movies like Return of the Killer Tomatoes before he became Dr Doug Ross on ER. With the respect of his peers well and truly gained, he is now in a luxurious position.
"The more secure you are in your career and things, you find you don't have to be constantly about work," he says. "You can focus on other issues." For the moment, he's lending his support to the Democrat presidential candidate Barack Obama.
"I'd love him to be president, quite honestly," he says. "I think he stands for a lot of things and I think he can win. I'll pull for any Democrat right now that's in there."
Of course, it would be no surprise if Clooney himself ran for office one day. "If you look at the polls now, I think 70 per cent of our country is disenchanted with our country," he says. "We're at that place now and our country is starting to turn. You saw it at the mid-term elections, and you see it now." Spoken like a true politician, you might think.
And let's face it: there's something almost fitting about Clooney following his Batman and Robin co-star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
' Michael Clayton' goes on general release on 28 SeptemberReuse content