There are three things that are guaranteed when Oscar winner George Clooney is at a press conference to promote one of his movies: First (and most obvious), he will talk abut the movie. Second, he will show his sarcastic sense of humor by telling jokes. Third, he won’t talk about his love life, even though it seems like at every George Clooney press conference, a journalist will attempt (and fail) to get Clooney to talk about dating, if he wants to get married again, or if he wants to become a father. But one thing that Clooney is not reluctant to discuss with the media is his passion for political issues.
It’s a well-known fact that Clooney is outspoken with his political views (he’s a liberal Democrat) and his support of humanitarian causes. So it seems inevitable that Clooney would eventually direct a movie that is set in the world of politics: “The Ides of March,” which is based on Beau Willimon’s play “Farragut North.” Clooney is also a producer and co-writer of “The Ides of March,” a political thriller about loyalty, betrayal, corruption and what people will do to get more power and hide secrets.
In the all-star cast of “The Ides of March,” Clooney plays Mike Morris, a governor who is campaigning for his political party’s nomination for the next U.S. presidential election. Ryan Gosling is Stephen Meyers, who is Morris’ ambitious press secretary. Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Paul Zara, Morris’ ruthless campaign manager. Paul Giamatti plays Tom Duffy, the conniving campaign manager of one of Morris’ political rivals. Oscar winner Marisa Tomei is Ida Horowicz, a New York Times reporter. Evan Rachel Wood is Molly Stearns, an intern in Morris’ campaign. Jeffrey Wright is Senator Thompson, a potential powerful ally to Morris. Max Minghella is Ben Harpen, a staffer in the Morris campaign.
“The Ides of March” had its Canadian premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, where a press conference was held for the movie before the premiere. At the press conference were Clooney, Gosling, Hoffman, Giamatti, Wood, Tomei, Wright, Minghella and “The Ides of March” producer/co-writer Grant Heslov. (Unfortunately, no one asked Minghella any questions.) But Clooney was inevitably asked a question about his love life, and his annoyed reaction made headlines around the world. Not every journalist at the “The Ides of March” press conference was there to ask Clooney personal questions, so he and his co-stars had plenty to say when people asked them about the movie.
Mr. Clooney, do your political leanings affect movies you do as an actor, writer or producer?
Clooney: Not particularly. I didn’t really think of this as a political film. I thought of it as a film about moral choices. I don’t think it necessarily has any political stripe. I just thought it was a fun moral tale. And once you put it in politics, it sort of amps up all the problems. I thought that was fun.
George, how would you describe yourself as a director?
Clooney: Pretty much — and I don’t want to blow anybody’s mind — the same guy as George Clooney the actor: basically the same height, same hair. Pretty much the same. I’m not quite sure what you want me to say about it except that I’m lucky enough to work with a great bunch of actors who elevate the project. That’s the secret of directing, I think, is working with really good people. How’s that for a political answer, huh? Paul?
Giamatti: I like that. It was very good.
Clooney: Jeffrey? Yeah, you in?
Wright: I concur.
Clooney: I concur? [He laughs.]
George, we know what you expect of yourself as an actor. What did you expect from the other actors in “The Ides of March”? And how did you get this impressive cast of actors?
Clooney: Well, I had a few pictures of them in compromising positions, and I got them to say yes. Actually some of them together, but we’ll let you guys figure that out.
Hoffman: That was after I got the job!
Clooney: Wait a minute.
Clooney: Listen, when you get these guys, they liked the script, they wanted to do the part, and you get out of the way, mostly. I forgot the question. I was so confused by the photo.
Wood: It really is a serious film!
“The Ides of March” takes a very cynical view of politics. Do you think the movie will affect people’s views of the 2012 U.S. presidential election?
Clooney: You’ve got to remember that films don’t lead the way. People think that films are trying to lead society. In general, it takes about two years, at the very least, to get a film made. Mostly, we’re reflecting the moods and thoughts that are going on in our country or around the world.
If this film reflects the cynicism we’ve seen in recent times, that’s probably good. It’s not a bad thing to hold a mirror up at some of the things we’re doing. It’s not a bad thing to look at how we elect our officials in times like that. But that wasn’t what the film was designed to do.
Honestly, the idea was for us that there wasn’t a person you ever met who hasn’t been faced the idea of moral questions. Everyone has had that idea of, “Well, if I take this job which is better, I might be screwing over my boss who I like.”
Everyone makes moral choices that better themselves and hurt someone else along the way — and whether or not the means justify the ends. And that, to me, is universal. That could have literally been in Wall Street. Actually, it’s probably in Wall Street. It could have been anywhere, so that was our point. That’s what we’re trying to do.
It seems like more politicians these days embrace a niche audience. In the past, it used to be more about politicians wanting to reach to as wide of an audience as possible. George, why do you think this “niche” trend is going on in politics right now?
Clooney: I think everything is cyclical, and I think we’re in a period of time right now that is probably not our best moment in politics, in the political cycle. If you look at things that [Thomas] Jefferson and [John] Adams did to one another, there’s an awful lot. The 1800 election was pretty evil and pretty rotten. So things change. It’s pretty cyclical. So I’m hopeful.
We know that George Clooney is very involved in political causes. Is anyone else on the panel a “political animal”?
Wright: I guess having been born and raised in Washington, D.C., we’re all animals — and some political. You kind of absorb politics when you grow up there. And it continues to be a focus of mine, probably more than what is healthy for me.
What’s fantastic about being a part of a film like this is or other films I’ve done that have that kind of relevance is that you get to express some of that through the work. So even though I agree with George that this isn’t necessarily what needs to be pinned down as a political film, I view it more as a gangster film. But it’s a film about human behavior. It could be anywhere, but I did get to express some of my political, animalistic side through this.
Hoffman: I think for any citizen, to be informed … what Jeffrey was saying, the older I get and my desire to know more, and to be a part of it, and to feel like you’re taking part in it, it grows and grows. So a job like this is the best of both worlds. It’s a great kind of dramatic, character-driven, but with the underlying political element that allows you to kind of … Basically, at work, we talked a lot about it. We’d talk about a lot of things, but eventually politics would eventually come up. We’d talk about that, and it was good.
Ryan, how was it working with George Clooney?
Gosling: It was really fun to work with George. Right, guys?
Clooney: Keep going. Go on. [He starts tossing money bills at Gosling.]
Gosling: OK. It was more than fun. It was life-altering. Watching him work was like watching a unicorn being born every day. [Clooney laughs.]
It’s a thrill to work with a director who is as clear as George is and knows exactly what he wants. Sometimes it felt like someone trying to explain a song that was in their head. He knew this film inside and out.
I was surprised by his level of enthusiasm, just for filmmaking in general. All he wanted to do was talk about the film and break it down. He would talk you through the scenes and he would even hum what he thought the music might be like. He would talk you through the movie in real time. He was very clear, and he would give you this incredible direction and it was so focused.
You’d be ready to do the scene, and then he’d walk away, and then you’d realize that he was spraying an Evian bottle on your crotch. [Clooney takes back the money bills in mock anger.] And then he’d make you do your scene with Phil Hoffman or Paul Giamatti with wet pants. So that’s kind of what it was like.
Clooney: [He laughs.] That’s pretty much what it was like.
Wood: That’s pretty accurate.
Clooney: That’s pretty accurate, yeah.
George, what did you think of Ryan Gosling’s performance in “The Ides of March”?
Gosling: You don’t have to answer that.
Clooney: I’ll start. Listen, I think he knocks it out of the park. This is a very, very difficult role. You have to be the center of a hurricane, and you have to carry everyone and everybody’s point of view on your shoulders. It’s a very difficult thing to do. It requires intelligence in an actor, which doesn’t always happen for some reason. [He laughs.]
Working with Ryan was just a delight. And working with these actors — I’m quite serious — as you all know, makes it very easy. They’re so wonderful. And Ryan just gives a tremendous performance in this film. And I’m honored that he and everyone else did it.
Ryan, why did you want to do “The Ides of March”?
Gosling: I wanted to work with George. I mean, if George asks you to do his movie, you just do the movie. And all of these actors are my favorite actors. It was just a no-brainer for me.
Ryan, being a Canadian, do you follow Canadian politics? And do you think “The Ides of March” could apply to Canadian politics?
Gosling: No. The Canadian version would be too nice.
Giamatti: It wouldn’t be, actually. It’s probably just as dirty up here as it is anywhere else.
Gosling: Easy, easy!
Giamatti: You people are filthy corrupt up here, aren’t you?
Gosling: Wait a second!
Giamatti: I think it’s time to blow the lid off of Canadian politics. What do you think?
Ryan, would you consider bringing your charisma to the political landscape in Canada?
Clooney: [He says jokingly] Oh, I think that’s a very good idea!
Gosling: I’m so confused. What’s the question?
Clooney: Would you consider getting into politics in Canada?
Marisa and Evan, what was it like making “The Ides of March”? There were lots of pictures in the media of your male co-stars hanging out when they weren’t working on “The Ides of March.”
Tomei: It was great fun, but I wasn’t going out with you guys.
Clooney: Don’t tell everybody we all went out.
Wood: What do you mean you all went out? I had an amazing time. I grew up with older brothers, and all my friends are guys, so I felt really comfortable with all these amazing people. And they’re all so funny and they’re just the best guys in the world. Look at them! I feel like the luckiest woman ever, quite honestly. George is slipping me money under the table, by the way.
Clooney: That’s not money.
Wood: [She laughs.] Hand check! This is exactly what it’s like, non-stop. This is a pretty good example. It was amazing. It was wonderful.
Tomei: And my character was one of the guys, so I could use that energy as well in the scenes too. And I was intimidated too, to kind of hold that space. [George Clooney] would say to me, “You have the most power in the scene.” “I have the most power in this scene? Really?”
Clooney: I told everybody that, by the way. [He laughs.]
Wood: I think that’s one of the cool things about the women in this film. That’s one of the reasons why I loved my character so much: She’s not intimidated by any of these men. She’s been raised in this world and around them. And so she’s the one who’s really throwing them all off their game. So it was fun to kind of go toe-to-toe with those guys.
George, what did you think of filming “The Ides of March” in Michigan?
Clooney: We loved it there. First of all, Ann Arbor is an amazing city. We got there on St. Patrick’s Day, and everyone was drinking green beer, and everyone was screwed up. And I was like, “Oh, this town was made for me.”
We loved shooting on the campus there. We loved shooting in Detroit and in Ann Arbor. When you go to Detroit, you see a town that’s just resilient, that’s just fighting to win again. There’s an energy to cities like that. I remember New York going through that in the early ‘80s, the mid-‘80s.
And just watching a city fight to get back on its feet, and watching the inner strength of a city like that, is just tremendous. We loved shooting there. We could have done without some of the weather, but that’s nothing I can really speak to.
How did you come up with the ending for “The Ides of March”? Did it evolve over several drafts of the screenplay, or did you have the same ending in the initial draft?
Heslov: We actually wrote the ending first, and sort of worked backwards. We gave it away to ourselves very early, and then we wrote to that.
Have you ever had any Machiavellian maneuvers put on you as Hollywood actors, like what happens to some of the characters in “The Ides of March”?
Wright: No. Hollywood is very much like Canada: very clean.
Clooney: On the surface. No, never!
George, which is harder: directing or dating in the spotlight?
Clooney: Well, it’s funny. I knew someone would do it. I’m a little disappointed it’s you. I mean, everyone here is a little ashamed of you right now. What’s your name?
Reporter: Paul Chi.
Clooney: Everybody remember that name. The hard-hitting interview by Paul. Listen, I think it’s tremendous that you asked the question. Go back and tell your editor you asked the question, OK? Good for you.
To the other actors on the panel, when you watch George direct, does it make you want to become a director or not?
Tomei: Those are the only two choices?
Wood: I thought it was pretty inspiring. I don’t know. That’s just me. I love the fact that George uses his status and everything like that. And he’s learned to tell the stories that he wants to tell. This film was fueled by passion, honestly, by everyone that worked on it.
It’s amazing the way he assembles a cast and the way he handles a set. It’s not just about making a good film; it’s about having a great experience making it. And that was inspiring, just so you know.
Clooney: You also have to remember that on this stage, there are a lot of very accomplished directors already. And those that haven’t directed in this group probably would do a wonderful job. They’re all very intelligent and also seem to have an interest in that. I get to learn from them as well.
What do you think of the Oscar buzz for “The Ides of March”? Are you excited about it or are you sick of it?
Hoffman: [He says jokingly] I am so sick of the Oscar buzz! I’m so sick of it. I’m not going to get nominated. Back off! It’s like a weight on your back. Enough! Everyone out!
Giamatti: It’s a big pain in the ass.
Hoffman: [He says in a whiny voice, still joking] “Hey, you might win an award.” Ugh!
George, are there any particular American politicians on whom you modeled the Mike Morris character?
Clooney: [He laughs.] There are just so many ways to get in trouble with that answer. No, there really weren’t. Some of the speeches that I used were some of the things and ideas my dad used to write about in the late ‘70s in the newspaper.
And the idea of [Mike Morris] having of these issues that he has seems to pop up almost every week in politics, so it seemed sort of familiar to us in a lot of ways. People thought it was about the John Edwards thing, but this was written before the John Edwards thing broke. We didn’t really model it after anybody. There were enough examples that we could just pick little pieces, all we wanted.
Marisa, did you contact any real-life New York Times journalists for research for your role in “The Ides of March”?
Tomei: No. There wasn’t anyone specifically that this character was based on. The guys gave me some documentaries to watch about some journalists on the campaign buses. But there’s no correlating job at the [New York] Times.
At the level of the position she had, she wouldn’t be on the road with these fellows. So it was kind of a conflagration of a few people, I guess. Or no one. He had a few people in mind, I guess, but there was no one really specific. It wasn’t modeled on anybody.
Can you talk about the great scene of Philip Seymour Hoffman in the car, where we don’t see what happens in the car, but we see the aftermath? How did that scene evolve? Did you have a lot of discussion about the scene before it was filmed?
Hoffman: We didn’t have any discussion. George was sick that day.
Clooney: Yeah, I was sick.
Hoffman: I just said, “I’m just going to go in the car …
Clooney: “I’ll shoot this way …”
Hoffman: “Maybe put the cigarette on the thing. We might shoot the ash going down. See how long.
Clooney: “Cool with that? OK, go. Action!”
Hoffman: Because we knew what it was. George and I had actually talked about it before, like weeks before, about the moment. So you kind of get the logistics of it, and then you have to view it with something — and hopefully, it’s the right thing.
Clooney: Also, those are the kinds of scenes where anything you could shoot would never be as good as anybody else’s imagination. Seeing the scene, we left you long enough to imagine what just happened and to come up with your own story. When you read books, a lot of times it’s so much better than when you see them fleshed out. It’s sometimes better to leave it up to people’s imagination.
Giamatti: What were you guys doing in the car? Were you guys just shooting the shit while the camera was there?
Clooney: Yeah. Smoking.
Giamatti: Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Hoffman: I was just wonder how long the cigarette was going to last. I remember thinking that.
Ryan, how did George help you with your performance in “The Ides of March”?
Clooney: I’ve run out of cash. [He laughs.]
Gosling: Well, it’s kind of personal, the relationship between the director and the actor, but … George was possessed by this film, you know? He was just possessed by it. So it was nice for a change to just be able to be directed. And so that was it: I just trusted him, and I just allowed him to take me into this world.
Clooney: The answer is that I actually didn’t have to help him. It all worked out.
For more info: “The Ides of March” website
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