This is how one of George Clooney's typical weeks looks. Today, the day of our interview, he is in Los Angeles. Tonight he is flying to New York so he, his father Nick Clooney and the Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel can address the United Nations Security Council on the need for urgent intervention in Darfur before the current contingent of African Union troops leaves at the end of the month.
The day after that, Clooney is flying back across the country to Las Vegas to resume shooting on Ocean's Thirteen - the third film in the lucrative, tongue-in-cheek heist-movie series directed by his good friend Steven Soderbergh.
Soon, Clooney will also be promoting another Soderbergh-directed project, The Good German, in which he plays a journalist caught up in the Cold War intrigue of post-1945 Berlin, as well as a drama called Michael Clayton, in which he takes the lead part of a lawyer whose murky past catches up with him.
And that's not all. At this point, Clooney is not just an A-list Hollywood actor. He has a burgeoning career as a director following the surprise success of Good Night, and Good Luck, his moody, poetic rendering of the power struggle between the television journalist Ed Murrow and Senator Joe McCarthy at the height of the 1950s anti-Communist witch hunts. And he's also one of the hottest producers in town, thanks to the success of Section Eight, the independent-minded company he and Soderbergh set up six years ago. The company has half a dozen titles on its slate over the next 18 months or so - and might have had more, were it not for the decision to close up shop sometime next spring so its principals can move on to other ventures.
In Clooney's case, those other ventures seem to centre ever more around international politics. Since a trip to Darfur in April, he has become the most visible public face entreating the international community to intervene before the genocide already under way turns into a calamity on the scale of Rwanda in 1994 - or worse.
Even before he became an advocate for Darfur, he was also involved in the ONE campaign - the US equivalent of the Make Poverty History movement - and travelled to last summer's G8 summer in Gleneagles alongside Bono and Bob Geldof. In the United States, he has made no bones about being an outspoken voice for liberal Hollywood, and earned himself the epithet "traitor" in conservative circles after he cast doubt on the wisdom of invading Iraq.
In short, Clooney has evolved in every imaginable direction since he first hit the big time in the mid-1990s as Doctor Doug Ross in ER and acquired the reputation of being the sexiest man alive. He used to complain about entertainment journalists being interested only in who he was dating. These days, though, the problem tends not to arise. It's not that he's lost that sex-symbol allure - the allure has, if anything, grown only stronger the longer he swears off marriage and children. It's just that there is so much more to talk about now.
Essentially, what Clooney has done is to use his celebrity, not to mention his considerable personal charm, wit and intelligence, as a weapon to further all sorts of causes bigger than himself. It has enabled him to make unconventional, overtly political films of a kind that would normally prompt the big Hollywood players to run as far away as possible. (No major studio was willing to fund Good Night, and Good Luck, even with an all-star cast working for peanuts, and a budget of just $7m (£3.7m).) And it has been the spur to his involvement in Africa and the anti-poverty movement.
Nothing, perhaps, captures his journey from the self-absorbed world of Hollywood to the international stage better than his experiences over a few short weeks last spring. In February and early March, he was immersed in two Oscar campaigns - one for his supporting role as CIA operative Bob Barnes in Syriana, the other for his direction of Good Night, and Good Luck - and was talking up his own talents for weeks at a time. "It's really a campaign," he says, "shaking a lot of hands, and meeting a lot of people. The longer you do it, the worse you feel. Here you are, patting yourself on the back for your work, and you'd rather be doing the work. Sure, it's flattering, and you're [doing] it for the good of the film, but it makes you feel a little strange."
At the same time, he was reading reports by the likes of Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times warning that Darfur, and neighbouring areas of Chad, were on the verge of a genocidal catastrophe unless the outside world intervened. Clooney was interested in a Washington rally being organised by the Save Darfur Coalition to raise awareness at the end of April, but worried that it wasn't getting enough traction.
He talked the subject over with his father, a former TV news anchor from Kentucky whose old-school adherence to the principles of journalistic integrity have been a big influence on Clooney's political thinking. The elder Clooney was in no doubt that what Darfur needed was celebrity glamour. "If you had Elizabeth Taylor there," he said, "it would have made the 6 o'clock news." To which George responded: "Why don't I be Elizabeth Taylor, you be the reporter, and let's see what attention we can raise."
Neither had previously travelled to sub-Saharan Africa, and the trip proved trickier than they first thought. In mid-April, Chad's president, Idriss Déby, was almost overthrown in a coup attempt that left more than 300 people dead in the capital, N'Djamena - where the Clooneys were hoping to land. The US State Department sent out travel advice urging US citizens to stay away, and several aid groups in Chad evacuated their non-essential staff. "I was ready to bail out," Clooney recalls. "Then my dad said, 'I think it's now or never.' So I thought, 'Screw it, I'm 45 and don't have kids. My dad is 72. If anybody should go, it should be us.'"
What they witnessed there was appalling. They saw bodies strewn across the ground, and wells - the lifeline of the communities there - clogged up and poisoned by human body parts. The point, though, was not that the Clooneys had seen things that had eluded other reporters, many of them a lot more experienced in covering Africa and understanding the origins of the Darfur crisis. The point - which Clooney emphasises more than any other - is that their trip generated the sort of publicity even a seasoned, widely followed commentator like Nick Kristof can only dream of.
"I'm not a journalist," Clooney says, "but I can give others the opportunity to do their job as journalists. Often, that's what they want to do, more than anything. But editors have a tough time selling space for stories like that - unless a celebrity becomes involved. This seemed like a good place to spend the celebrity credit I'd been racking up all spring campaigning for my Oscar. It was a good way to cleanse that."
Clooney was back on the Darfur beat the day after we spoke and, again, he was very clear what his role at the United Nations was. "I'm not there to create policies. When I get up in front of the Security Council, I say I'm not pretending to try to educate any of you on Africa, or on Darfur. I'm just here to ask you to do what you can." In particular, he and Wiesel wanted to urge the Security Council to replace the outgoing African Union mission, which is leaving at the end of the month, with UN peacekeepers. Without them, he argued, thousands of lives were at risk. He goes on: "Again, we're there to shine lights on them - senators and congressmen and ambassadors. We'll say, 'It's unfortunate for you guys that you are stuck at the UN right now, but this is going to be your legacy, so act on it.'"
Clooney's pragmatism not only makes perfect sense - he has no intention of being one of those celebrities who makes an idiot of himself by stepping beyond the bounds of his expertise, simply because he is an actor in the movies - but it also makes him very accessible. He can make anyone, whether it is the scabrous US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, who invited him to address the Security Council in the first place, or an ordinary newspaper interviewer, feel comfortable around him. And that's a political skill, with real-world consequences, as much as it is a manifestation of celebrity charm.
Not for him the slightly saintly aura of a Bono or a Geldof; he's very much into nuts-and-bolts practical action. He knows writers like Kristof and Samantha Power can stir the readership of The New York Times. What he can do is take Darfur, or any other issue, to a much wider audience. "I get it on Oprah, and CNN, and NBC, and Good Morning America. These are issues that must be talked about. We cannot let them slip through the cracks." His sure grasp of what he is doing makes it relatively easy for him to brush off criticism that his work on international issues is somehow self-serving. "The key to being an advocate is that you are really informed on the subject matter so you don't do it damage," he says. "Now, there are people out there who want to question anything that any celebrity does. They'll say that what I do is self-serving. What do they think, that I need to be more famous? I'm just trying to participate in the human condition."
It certainly helps that Clooney is as attuned as he is to the workings of the news media. Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, with a television newsman for a father, the battles raging in American journalism were "every part of our daily life". His formative years came in the era of Watergate and the heroics of Woodward and Bernstein, but they were also a watershed moment for US television, when the commercial prerogatives of the main networks clashed directly with the old-fashioned news ethos of public-service broadcasting.
"This was around the time the movie Network came out, and I developed a real understanding that broadcast journalism was in a battle between entertainment and news. My father was fighting that battle every day... He was turned down for jobs because he didn't want to compromise the news."
In many ways, that is the battle that both Clooneys - Nick and George - are still fighting. Every time they can draw attention to Darfur, say, and supplant tabloid tales of casual abduction or murder, the main fodder of the cable news stations, they have won a little victory. "It's a difficult battle, and eventually you are going to lose again," Clooney says. "Sooner or later, the JonBenét Ramsey story or the Natalee Holloway story is back on. These are human tragedies in their own way, too, but they can't be allowed to supersede Darfur or the battles in the Middle East."
Such are the preoccupations that informed Good Night, and Good Luck - one of the rare Hollywood films that really gets inside the skin of the journalistic profession and dramatises its genuine dilemmas (does CBS marshal its resources against a powerful senator, or just broadcast fluff interviews with Liberace?). Those same preoccupations have been especially present in Clooney's mind ever since September 11, when the US media essentially rolled over for the Bush administration and didn't stop rolling over until the disastrously incompetent handling of last year's Hurricane Katrina - by which time the Bush White House had fought two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and incited the anger of most of the rest of the planet.
"In the year and a half or two years leading up to the war in Iraq, both in print and in broadcast journalism, the media took a pass on its responsibilities," Clooney says. "I don't think there's anybody that would deny it - The New York Times certainly hasn't. And if The New York Times and The Washington Post and USA Today are reneging on their responsibility, then believe me it's going to go down to the local news level as well.
"This has really been a poor time in journalism. We already had a Congress on the same side as the White House. We needed a Fourth Estate more than ever, to say, 'Let's at least ask questions before we do these things.' The media's failings reflect on the rest of us, too. It took, what, three months after September 11 before reality shows became big again? There's a responsibility to be upheld. If we know this is a society that will slow down to look at wrecks on the road, then it's irresponsible to put them there."
Clooney manages to be charming and easy-going, but underneath he remains guided by an abiding seriousness - especially when it comes to understanding and fulfilling his responsibilities. When he thinks of himself as a political film-maker, or as a political advocate, he also thinks of himself as being part of a long tradition in Hollywood. Warren Beatty is, of course, his most immediate precursor when it comes to smart, seductive leading men who also produce, direct and become directly involved in politics. But he is far from the only one.
"Celebrities who espouse causes - that's not new. In the past we've pushed war bonds, and run telethons. We've been able to bring awareness." Likewise, political films have defined certain moments in American history -whether it be in marshalling support for the Second World War, or crystallising opposition to the conflict in Vietnam. "We're not first responders for the most part: it takes a year and a half to get a film out there. But, every once in a while, we do find ourselves having to be the voice. We were the voice of Aids. We were one of the many voices of the civil rights movement."
For reasons of luck as well as personal passion, Clooney has been involved in some of the most compelling political films of recent years. Part of the success of films like Three Kings, which was set during the first Gulf War but came to have a prescient resonance by the time of the second, or Syriana, which is attached to no particular time but explores the very timely connections between Big Oil, politics and strife in the Middle East, is due to the fact that they are not ripped from the headlines, movie-of-the-week style. Rather, they take an oblique look at the issues of the moment - either by approaching them in a non-linear fashion or by being set in the past.
Clooney is also a big believer in bringing nuance to characters and political positions, because films need to be about well-written characters and scripts, not easy points-scoring. "The more strident you are, the less able to you are to appeal to people on the fence. A lot of my friends are very opinionated, and I tend to agree with them, but I wouldn't want to make a movie with them." For all his pride in wearing the liberal Hollywood badge, Clooney is also remarkably good at building bridges to the unlikeliest of political allies and giving credit to his ideological adversaries when he feels they deserve it. He's more than happy to credit the Bush administration for describing the killing in Darfur as genocide - something the United Nations has not yet done. Likewise, he has a lot of time for right-wing Christian charities who are active in the fight against poverty, corruption and Aids in Africa.
"The wider dialogue has to happen along the way," he says. "For the most part, our differences on social issues have been carved out by people like [key presidential adviser] Karl Rove. They have very little do with our society on a day-to-day basis; they are used as tools to get people re-elected, people who have done a pretty poor job." Last year, Clooney made a suprising joint appearance on ABC's news magazine programme Nightline with Pat Robertson, the right-wing evangelical leader, to talk about the crisis in Africa. "It was an unusual coupling," he says, "but we found a way to find common cause and agree."
That kind of consensus-building is rare in the partisan atmosphere of contemporary America, but Clooney also believes it is a profoundly American value. "I have my beliefs but I also believe that the idea of enforcing any of those beliefs on anyone in a political world is very dangerous," Clooney says. "It's the reason we left King George and started the American Revolution. We insisted everyone can pick their own religion. Myself, I'm still working on mine."Reuse content