If the Hollywood powers that be ever endeavor to produce a Cary Grant biopic, George Clooney would be the perfect man for the job. Like Grant, he is possessed of an immense level of charisma with a pinch of playful mischief. It lends his best performances—Out of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven, From Dusk Till Dawn—a carefree insouciance.
The charm bleeds off-screen, too. When you chat with Clooney, he will regularly address you by name, and maybe even compliment your place of employ. But the 56-year-old has a serious side, too. For nearly a decade, he has been a UN Messenger of Peace; has served as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations; and has done more than perhaps any U.S. civilian to shed light on the genocide in Darfur. In August, it was revealed that he and his lawyer-wife, Amal, had partnered with UNICEF to help send 3,000 Syrian refugee children to school in Lebanon.
On top of acting, humanitarian work, and starting a family, Clooney has found the time to direct (and promote) his latest film. Suburbicon, which premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival, is a tale of two families in 1959 suburbia. On one side of the picket fence is Gardner (Matt Damon) and Margaret Lodge (Julianne Moore), a middle-class white couple prone to kink and murder; on the other is William (Leith M. Burke) and Daisy Myers (Karimah Washington), a middle-class black family—Suburbicon’s first—whose arrival sets off a powder keg of racism and resentment. The white townsfolk’s suspicious stares soon give way to a full-blown lynch mob, as dozens of angry, torch-bearing East Coast “liberals” form a wall of hate around the Myers’ home, completely oblivious to the real villains across the way.
The Daily Beast spoke with Clooney about the film’s resonance in the wake of Charlottesville and much, much more.
I enjoyed the film. One of my big takeaways from it was that it confronted white liberal guilt in an interesting fashion—similar in some ways to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The notion of, oh, you say you believe in equality but then don’t uphold those values when it comes to your doorstep.
I remember the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and, although not a perfect film, there’s something great about the idea of, “Yeah, I’m a liberal, but don’t marry my daughter!” And it was fun because, having grown up in Kentucky, when I see movies depicting any type of racism it always sounds like Mississippi Burning—hick accents and all. And when I was looking at the crisis of Levittown, these people sounded like they’d come from the East Coast and they were still hanging Confederate flags on houses and saying all these racist things. It’s good to remember that it wasn’t just the South that was fucked up. It played out everywhere.
You mentioned your home state of Kentucky. Did you witness any acts of racism in your formative years that really stuck with you?
Sure. Look, by the time I was aware of things we were in the midst of a very progressive time in history. I was born in ‘61, so by the time I was really aware of things it was the end of the ‘60s. At that moment, we were all very hopeful. We felt like segregation—certainly in the South—had just ended, and things were moving in the right direction. So the way you saw racism was always in much sneakier ways. If you were going to a restaurant they’d say, “Oh, no open-toed shoes” or “No shirts without collars” but they would only enforce it with black people. There was pervasive implied racism. It took me a while to realize what was going on because most of us growing up at that time, we thought, “Oh, this is all fixed. Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, they all died for a reason. And this reason is now coming to fruition.” And what we soon realized was that we weren’t even beginning to exorcise our deep-seated original sin.
In Suburbicon, it’s an interesting juggling act as a writer and filmmaker, balancing the A and B stories—the white family and the black family—and giving each ample heft while managing the disparate tones.
Tone is always the trick, you know? And I’ve sometimes failed at getting tone right. It’s a tricky thing. But this one was interesting because, when we sat down to work on it, one of the things I talked to the actors about—including Karimah, who plays Daisy Myers—was that there’s somebody out there that would be the perfect person to do the African-American version of this story. That’s not where my expertise lies, and probably where it shouldn’t lie, but I do have a fairly strong sense of white males worried about losing their place in society and blaming minorities. I grew up around that so I can speak to that, and we wanted to focus on that version of it.
And also, here’s the interesting thing about this: films never lead the charge. They’re usually reflective of a point in time. So what we were talking about when we started to do this was less about black and white, although that’s something that unfortunately always comes up, and more about the idea of how I was watching a candidate on the campaign trail [Trump] talking about building fences, scapegoating minorities, and branding Mexicans, Muslims, or anyone who didn’t look like a seventy-year-old white guy “the enemy.” When we were doing this, I thought it was unique to see [the white community] building fences around a black family’s home and scapegoating them while the entire time the white family’s doing everything wrong. I think that’s something that happened an awful lot—and can still happen. It was about white privilege and the fear of losing it, and the reason they think they’re losing it is because minorities are stealing it from them when of course it has nothing to do with that.
On the topic of Trump, it’s interesting to think of him in the context of this film because the first time Trump made headlines was in the ‘70s when he was sued by the Justice Department for discriminating against black applicants applying to live in his apartments.
Yup. And think about it this way: he got up and did that Boy Scouts speech, a nice political speech in front of twelve-year-olds, and in it he did a ten-minute riff on William Levitt and talked about what a great guy William Levitt was, how he was one of the richest men in the world and a brilliant man. He was probably a friend of his dad’s because they were both real estate guys on the East Coast at the time. William Levitt, who created Levittown, was taken to court because he wouldn’t put blacks in Levittown. And rather than integrate, he quit! So it just makes so much sense for Trump to say that this guy’s outlook is great. Yeah, it was great if you were a white, straight man. Otherwise, not so much.
You mentioned the hanging of the Confederate flag on the black family’s windowsill during the film’s big riot sequence, with the white mob crowded around their home, some holding torches. On the heels of Charlottesville, it must have surprised even you how prescient those scenes were.
Here’s the thing, Marlow: I do have a bit of a view into this. I grew up in Kentucky around the Confederate flag, and although Kentucky was technically neutral during the Civil War, it’s very much a part of the South. I remember these guys would come into town and we’d do these Civil War reenactments, and you could choose whichever side you wanted. They’d bring you uniforms and guns with blanks in it, and you could play either a Rebel or Union soldier, and we’d do battle all around town. We all wanted to be Rebels because it was fun—everybody wants to be a “rebel”—and we never thought twice about the Confederate flag; it never even dawned on me that that was a symbol of hate. And also, I was pretty young and wasn’t paying enough attention.
But as you get older you see that this was only a symbol of hate, and you remember that the Confederate flag was designed to be marched into battle against the United States of America in favor of racism, and they lost. It’s important to remember all these things. It’s literally a symbol of hate that was designed as a symbol of hate. So OK, you can wear it on a T-shirt or a hat because that’s freedom of speech and you can do whatever you want. I don’t give a shit. Those are the rules we’ve made as the United States, and I believe in them. But to have the Confederate flag on a statehouse paid for by African-American taxpayers? No fuckin’ way! That would be like going to the Holocaust Museum and saying that they have to pay for a Nazi flag hanging over it. It’s just ridiculous. I grew up in the South, and I know there are an awful lot of people who feel the same way which is, hey man, this is not the hill that we want to die on.
Do you feel that President Trump is emboldening these white nationalists to step out of the shadows of the internet and into the light? And what do you feel is fueling these people? Because many of the (mostly) men who marched in Charlottesville were quite young.
Well, think about it this way: if I was President of the United States and David Duke is praising me and the white nationalists were talking about how I was on their side, the first thing I would do is I would come out and say, “Fuck these guys. Anyone who believes this is not in my camp, I don’t believe it, and I completely reject it.” Don’t play coy and claim that you don’t remember who David Duke is when you were actually running for president 25 years earlier and said that the reason you got out was because David Duke was in the party. That’s just a lie! So what you’re doing is winking at everybody and saying, “It’s OK, come on over, because that’s my base.” Well, that shouldn’t be your base! It’s the simplest thing in the world in politics: “Nazis bad.” It really doesn’t get any easier than that.
Those associations between Trump and the “alt-right” seemed to be exacerbated by the fact that a person like Steve Bannon was acting as Trump’s consigliere.
Steve Bannon is a pussy. Steve Bannon is a little wannabe writer who would do anything in the world to have had a script made in Hollywood. He wrote one of the worst scripts I’ve ever read—and I’ve read it. His fake Shakespeare-rap script about the L.A. riots. Oh, you’ve gotta read it! It’s just fuckin’ terrible. But here’s the truth: if Steve Bannon had Hollywood say, “Oh, this is really great, and a really good script,” and had they made his movie, he’d still be in Hollywood writing his fuckin’ movies and kissing my ass to be in one of his fuckin’ films! That’s who he is. That’s the reality. It’s almost like someone in Hollywood should’ve given him a script—or approved one of his scripts—just to keep him out of the right wing.
You explored the world of journalism in Good Night, and Good Luck., and your father was an anchorman. Why do you think Trump has targeted and tried to discredit the news media?
There’s a great documentary that came out a few years ago called Nixon by Nixon. It’s sort of the last of the Nixon tapes. It reminds us that not one fucking thing about this is new. We think it’s all unprecedented but it’s not unprecedented. It’s a little louder because there’s more outlets to see it, but it’s not unprecedented. You hear Nixon on the tapes talking about [Walter] Cronkite and [Eric] Sevareid and how they’re going to sic the IRS on ‘em and scare the shit out of ‘em. And you see Daniel Schorr, this wonderful reporter who had been doggedly chasing Nixon, in front of Congress testifying about how this administration has set about to delegitimize our news, because if you can delegitimize the news, you can do anything. It’s the exact same thing.
So when Robert Mueller comes in and says, “Hey, guess what? You did fuckin’ obstruct,” and people report on it, Trump can say, well, Robert Mueller has all these liberal Democrat lawyers and the newspeople who are reporting it are all fake, when of course all you’ve really done is take the Russian fake news—which is a real problem—and applied it to help serve yourself. Well, congratulations. I also really feel like the institutions are taking hold. I don’t know how you feel about this, but I think a good number of our institutions abdicated their duty in the run-up to the election. I feel they didn’t ask enough tough questions. If you turned on many of the news programs on television, there would be an empty podium with a message saying, “Donald Trump will speak soon.” That’s crazy.
That’s the interesting thing about Trump’s attacks on CNN. CNN is the network—more than any other network—that perhaps helped the most in getting Trump elected. They had about eight Trump surrogates in regular rotation, and aired his rallies start-to-finish.
Certainly they were the network that enjoyed putting him on the air. But on the other hand, watch how good Jake Tapper has been, and watch how good The New York Times, Washington Post, and even The Wall Street Journal have now taken their jobs, and watch how the other arms—the legislative branch, the judicial branch—they’re taking hold, and I’m optimistic. I feel that, well, with the exception of the one thing the president can do by himself, which is push a button, the checks and balances are starting to take hold. And I’m excited by that.
You held a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton during the campaign, and she’s on her book tour right now. Do you feel like history will look kindly on Hillary Clinton? This election seemed, in many ways, like a referendum on women.
I think it was. Here’s what I see from Hillary. Hillary, for years and years and years, has been the presumptive nominee, and quite honestly, she was incredibly qualified for the job. But being qualified for the job does not necessarily mean you’re the right person to be president. Here’s what I mean. She was more qualified than even her husband was when he was elected president, but she’s not as good at communicating things. That’s simply true. When she got up and gave a speech, it didn’t soar. Now, that doesn’t mean that she wouldn’t have done a great job as president, and I supported her because by the time we did the fundraiser the primary was over at that point and it was time to get on with picking someone to move forward, and she was the right person to side with.
It was frustrating because I never saw her elevate her game. I never saw it. And I had a lot of liberal friends who were like, “She’s not good at this.” And I see that, and I understand it. I also think, though, that if it was a guy it wouldn’t have been so polarizing. I think the fact that she’s a woman made it a much harder uphill battle. They’ve had the “Arkansas Project” where for twenty-five years the Clintons have been accused of murdering Vince Foster and accused of tons of stuff, so I thought it was a raw deal. I think that she wasn’t particularly good at articulating the things that she wanted to do, and unfortunately we live at a time right now where articulating what you want to do is more potent in the electorate than the other way around, obviously, when Trump only said he was going to “Make America Great Again.” Don’t you think the next Democrat who runs should just run with a blue hat that says, “Make America Great Again?”
That would be an interesting ninja move. Let’s go back to Suburbicon for a moment. I wanted to discuss the power of satire. When you talk about 2017 and the age of Trump, satire has really risen to the fore as a mode of communicating people’s anger and frustration—and brings with it a sense of cathartic release.
Satire was really important in the age of Bush Jr. That was a big deal. Between Jon Stewart and David Letterman, we had people out there who were really funny. And remember, Jon Stewart was the most trusted man in news for a period of time because of it. We needed his voice then, and I miss his voice now. But Colbert has found his feet and been great, as has Jimmy Kimmel and Samantha Bee. Television right now is very interesting, and fun to hear. Satire is potent. When they start to make fun of you is when you’re really in trouble. That’s some deep shit.
Trump has been stoking this culture war between “coastal elites” and Middle America—the irony of course being that Trump himself is a “coastal elite.”
Here’s the thing: I grew up in Kentucky. I sold insurance door-to-door. I sold ladies’ shoes. I worked at an all-night liquor store. I would buy suits that were too big and too long and cut the bottom of the pants off to make ties so I’d have a tie to go on job interviews. I grew up understanding what it was like to not have health insurance for eight years. So this idea that I’m somehow the “Hollywood elite” and this guy who takes a shit in a gold toilet is somehow the man of the people is laughable.
People in Hollywood, for the most part, are people from the Midwest who moved to Hollywood to have a career. So this idea of “coastal elites” living in a bubble is ridiculous. Who lives in a bigger bubble? He lives in a gold tower and has twelve people in his company. He doesn’t run a corporation of hundreds of thousands of people he employs and takes care of. He ran a company of twelve people! When you direct a film you have seven different unions all wanting different things, you have to find consensus with all of them, and you have to get them moving in the same direction. He’s never had to do any of that kind of stuff. I just look at it and I laugh when I see him say “Hollywood elite.” Hollywood elite? I don’t have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, Donald Trump has a star on Hollywood Boulevard! Fuck you!