Halfway through shooting The Midnight Sky, Felicity Jones made a life-changing discovery: she was pregnant with her first child. Assuming it would be an obstacle to filming, she nervously approached her director, George Clooney, to deliver the news.
“I was scared I’d lose my job,” says the British star, whose films include Star Wars prequel Rogue One and The Theory of Everything. “It happens far more than it ever should.”
After ensuring the actor was happy to stay on and complete the film, Clooney and producer Grant Heslov decided they would remove all traces of her baby bump using nifty camerawork and CGI. Job done. That was until Clooney reviewed the footage and, a few days later, had an abrupt change of mind.
“They came to my trailer and said it would work so much better if my character was actually pregnant,” she says. “We made minor changes and carried on in that course. It made absolute sense for the story.”
Jones plays Sully in the Netflix film, one of five astronauts returning home after two years in deep space during which time, unbeknown to the crew, a global disaster has rendered Earth uninhabitable. It’s Clooney – also starring – whose scientist, Augustine Lofthouse, must find a way of warning them to steer clear. In turn, the addition of Jones’s pregnancy gives the film, with its depiction of a ruined ecosystem, what otherwise might be lacking: a glimmer of hope.
There was, of course, another turn of events nobody could have predicted; in the final weeks of shooting, the first cases of Covid-19 outside China began to be reported. Suddenly, the post-apocalyptic setting of the film seemed recognisable, even though Lily Brooks-Dalton’s source material, the 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight, had been published years before.
Clooney, relieved to have narrowly avoided any delays the virus would have caused, sent the film over to editor Stephen Mirrione in February. After watching it back in isolation, he realised that the themes of loneliness had taken on a new life. Clooney has previously described the film as “unfortunately very timely”. David Oyelowo, who plays the father of Sully's unborn child, says that the film's main question – what gives life meaning and value – is “interesting at any time” but “feels more relevant with what we’re going through at the moment”.
The result makes for an eerie watch. What makes The Midnight Sky even more unnerving is Clooney's decision to keep the catastrophe at its heart a mystery – there's no big explanation or reveal; this could simply be our very own Earth in decades to come. The Ocean's Eleven star shares his hopes that the world will return to some form of normality in 2021. “Mankind right now is experiencing a real problem because of this pandemic,” he says. “We’re missing being in contact with people. The only thing I can say about that is there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we are going to get through it.”
How has the Hollywood star been spending his time in lockdown? “I’ve been doing laundry, mopping floors, washing dishes and changing diapers,” he says to The Independent and other press, flashing that Clooney grin. “Not my diapers; I have children.” The actor, 59, has three-year-old twins with Amal Clooney, the international human rights lawyer he married in 2014.
Netflix is hoping The Midnight Sky will be another Christmas hit following the success of December releases Bird Box (2018) and last year’s Michael Bay actioner 6 Underground, starring Ryan Reynolds. Clooney is the latest in a long line of directors to release their film on the streaming service (see also: Alfonso Cuarón, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher) and, in the long-running debate about whether films should be seen in cinemas or at home, he’s team Netflix.
“We have hundreds more jobs,” he says. “When I started acting in 1982, there were 64 television shows and about 40 of them needed actors, so getting a job was a lot harder. But there’s a lot of work now and Netflix is a big part of it. They’ll do films that I used to do with smaller independent studios; the movies that I’m interested in making – Good Night and Good Luck, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Michael Clayton. I don’t do tentpole films, so it’s exciting to have a place in Netflix that I can go to.”
It must be said the film has several scenes that would land more effectively on a cinema screen. Still, early reviews have predicted nominations in several technical categories at the 2021 Oscars, which would be a pleasant coup for Clooney given that he considers The Midnight Sky – his 46th film as actor, and seventh as director – his most difficult to date.
Does he find it hard to direct fellow actors? “I have to try to deal with it gently because it’s a wall you don’t want to cross,” he says. “I’m doing something that really shouldn’t be done. I’ve had a couple of actors do it to me, and it’s a terrible thing.”
Fortunately, he was able to walk away from The Midnight Sky without any criticism. Quite the opposite. Jones’s co-star Kyle Chandler, the Friday Night Lights Emmy Award winner, also worked with Clooney on the 2019 Hulu adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which aired on Channel 4 in the UK. He describes working with him as a joy. Oyelowo notes: “I imagine George directs how he would like to be directed. He pre-empts the difficult things because he’s thinking about how he’d handle them as an actor. It also helps when you have a director who’s been in Gravity and Solaris when playing an astronaut.” Meanwhile, Jones is a particular fan of his organisational skills: “He kept good time, so we finished at a sociable hour, which is not to be underestimated.”
Clooney – acting in his first film since 2016’s Money Monster – shares screen time with just one actor: the seven-year-old Caoilinn Springall. The newcomer plays Iris, a young mute girl whom the miserable Augustine unexpectedly finds himself stranded with. In a way, The Midnight Sky brings things full circle for Clooney, who caught his big break in the mid-1990s playing paediatrician Doug Ross in the long-running medical drama ER. I wonder what knowledge working with child stars has gifted him over the past 25 years.
“For a while, it taught me not to have kids, but I’ve blown that,” he quips. “When I was on ER, I played a womaniser, and I was a drunk – but he loved kids. At the end [of each episode], I’d be like, ‘Hey, nobody touches that kid!’ so I could get away with doing lots of dastardly things. In The Midnight Sky, I didn’t have to crack a smile. I didn’t have to make people feel like things were going to be OK. I could be grumpy and angry because I had this child to take care of, which is a redeeming quality in cinematic storytelling. It helps make the performance easier.”
Shooting on location also assisted with the authenticity of his performance. One scene filmed in a blisteringly cold Iceland in mid-October sees Augustine hike through a blizzard to reach another communications station. As the snowfall intensifies, he stops to gain his bearings – and within seconds, his face becomes impossible to see as it becomes completely coated in snowflakes and ice. It's just one of several near-death experiences his character has in the film; it turns out Clooney has himself had a few brushes with it over the years.
“I’ve had a couple,” he says. “I had one time in South Sudan where we got pulled over and had guns stuck to our heads – they wanted to rob our truck. I also had an accident in Italy a couple of years ago where I hit a guy at 70mph and thought that was it. But I got lucky there. I flipped through the air and ended up landing on my knees. I could have landed on any other part of my body and been dead.” Clooney adds that his wife no longer permits him to ride motorcycles.
“You learn how fragile life is,” Clooney says – and it's this discovery that seems to permeate The Midnight Sky. Maybe it's this lesson that not only drew him to the project but helped with his swift and professional decision to weave Jones’s pregnancy into the fabric of the story. Jones smiles, thankful for the result. After all, being pregnant on set had some big perks. “I did get to sit down a lot,” she recalls. “People would also bring me a lot of chocolate cake. I've never been so well looked after in my entire life. I thoroughly recommend it.”
The Midnight Sky is available to stream on Netflix from 23 December
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