The success of films such as Ocean’s Eleven, Up in the Air, and The Descendants has made George Clooney one of the most celebrated movie stars in the world, but the former ER doc has garnered increasing attention as a vocal champion of marriage equality. Most recently, he took part in a star-studded reading of Dustin Lance Black’s play 8, which is adapted from transcripts of California’s historic Proposition 8 trial. To be seen next in the sci-fi thriller Gravity, the 50-year-old Oscar winner reveals why he hasn’t played a gay role and why he’ll never squelch a gay rumor.
By Brandon Voss
The Advocate: How did you get involved with the staged reading of 8?
George Clooney: Rob Reiner, who’s directing, called and asked me to do it. I figured I couldn’t screw up a staged reading too bad. I felt that it was important to again bring focus to an issue that, in the very near future, we’ll look back on and laugh at the fact that it was ever an issue. It’s the right thing to do.
You’re playing pro-equality attorney David Boies opposite Martin Sheen as his adversary-turned-ally Theodore B. Olson. What about Boies appealed to you?
I looked through the parts, and I just liked Boies and thought that was the part I could best serve. I haven’t spoken to Mr. Boies, but I’ve read the transcripts of the trial, and, of course, I’m very familiar with him and how special it was that he and Olsen got together on this issue.
When did you decide to get involved in the fight for marriage equality?
It’s always been this albatross that stood out to me as the final leg of the civil rights movement. It really came to a head during the 2004 elections, when it was used as a wedge issue, and it was a very effective tool to keep the Republicans in office and to avoid talking about other issues. Well before Prop. 8, I’ve made the point that every time we’ve stood against equality, we’ve been on the wrong side of history. It’s the same kind of argument they made when they didn’t want blacks to serve in the military, or when they didn’t want blacks to marry whites. One day the marriage equality fight will look as archaic as George Wallace standing on the University of Alabama steps keeping James Hood from attending college because he was black. People will be embarrassed to have been on the wrong side. So it’s encouraging to know that this too will seem like such a silly argument to our next generation. There are even a lot of young conservatives today for whom marriage equality isn’t an issue. It always takes government an extra generation to catch up to the people.
How can we speed up that process?
I play a presidential candidate in The Ides of March, and I have a scene where I talk about marriage rights and how this will all be over soon. Because there’s always the argument about choice: When you say someone chose to be gay, when “I was born this way” becomes “I decided to be this way,” you can say that it not a civil rights issue. But I believe that portion of the argument is so rapidly changing, especially with young people. Once that’s absorbed, when people realize that you don’t just wake up and decide to be gay, I believe that the next step will follow very naturally. We’ve had a very successful past few years. People get frustrated with the Obama administration, but “don’t ask, don’t tell” is gone, and a lot of states are changing their policies on marriage equality. I’m very optimistic that equality will soon be the law of the land.
Not all celebrities are as willing to make public political statements as you are. Why don’t more celebrities show your level of support? Are they afraid of alienating fans on the other side of the political fence?
I just think there are a lot of celebrities who don’t feel that they have a voice. A lot of actors come from a place of fear, and that’s just a general statement about actors. You’re terrified the casting director won’t like you, you’re terrified the producer won’t like you, you’re terrified the director won’t like you, and on and on. That doesn’t change just because you get a series or a movie and become popular, so it takes a while for actors to get their confidence up. You also have to remember that it’s very easy to immediately disenfranchise an actor with an opinion, because other than Ronald Reagan, actors aren’t allowed to have opinions. The simple truth is that everyone has an opinion, everyone has the right to voice it, and they should if they want to.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are among those who have gone so far as to vow not to get married until all Americans can marry.
Brad has also joked that he’s not getting married until I can legally marry my partner. He’s been funny about it, because he knows that the best and most effective way to end marriage inequality is to point out the ridiculousness of it. Gay marriage doesn’t affect anyone else or change the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. It’s not about singling out one group and giving them special rights; it’s about giving everybody the same rights.
Is it safe to say that you and Brad have a bromance against which all other bromances must be measured?
[Laughs] I do think we’ve set the bar very high. People think Brad and I hang out all the time, but the truth is that we see each other very rarely, maybe a couple times a year. I’ve had great fun spending time with my friend again over the awards season. Not only do I enjoy him as a person and respect his talent, but I also love what he does in the world. I can’t speak highly enough about how hard he works at making the world better. I’m very proud to call him my friend.
What was your first exposure to gay people?
When I was about 13 or 14, my dad was performing at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre in Harrison, Ohio. He was rehearsing Fiddler on the Roof, and I got to meet everyone in the chorus. Growing up in a small town in Kentucky, it was the first time I understood that there was this whole other culture and society, and I found it very interesting. I’m so lucky to have been raised the way I have, because my parents believed that everyone had the right to their own feelings, opinions, and existence; as long as they weren’t harming others, you had to defend those rights. Although the Catholic Church didn’t teach us those things, that’s how I was raised.
Were gay rights in particular addressed while you were growing up?
There were so many fights going on with women’s rights, anti-Vietnam protests, the drug counterculture, but gay rights wasn’t an issue in my circle, certainly not growing up in Kentucky. Not that there wasn't an antigay movement, but it just wasn’t on my radar. I grew up in the most time-changing era of the 20th century, the ’60s and early ’70s, when even the most conservative old cats were wearing leisure suits and scarves. Everybody was a little more open to a freer society, there was a sexual revolution, and there wasn’t a great appetite to chase down people who seemed different. That all changed after Watergate, of course, and it certainly closed up once Reagan was in office, but there was a good solid moment in time there where everyone was just sort of letting things happen.
A controversial 2010 Newsweek article about gay actors asked the question, “If an actor of the stature of George Clooney came out of the closet tomorrow, would we still accept him as a heterosexual leading man?” What’s the answer?
It’s a good question, and I remember reading that. I don’t know. It’s obviously not the same as if it were the ’50s and ’60s with Rock Hudson. Look at Neil Patrick Harris. He’s a big star on a hit show, and no one’s telling him he can’t play a straight womanizer. I use Neil as an example because I’ve spent time with him and I like him a lot. People like Neil and Ellen DeGeneres have opened the door to making it easier for everyone, and now each person just has to figure out his or her own path. Maybe it’s as simple as a gay actor going to work and getting the job done.
The gay rumor has followed you for years.
I think it’s funny, but the last thing you’ll ever see me do is jump up and down, saying, “These are lies!” That would be unfair and unkind to my good friends in the gay community. I’m not going to let anyone make it seem like being gay is a bad thing. My private life is private, and I’m very happy in it. Who does it hurt if someone thinks I’m gay? I’ll be long dead and there will still be people who say I was gay. I don’t give a shit.
You’re right, because some people are still trying to make the case that Cary Grant was gay.
Oh, I know. I met Cary once, I read his daughter’s book, and I’ve gotten the sense that he would’ve laughed at that and not cared what people thought. He was a confident enough man to feel perfectly fine in his own sexuality and in his own life. Compared to other stars, he seemed much more together in a way. You know, you live your life well, you treat people well, and you hope that other people won’t make stories up about you, but they will anyway. It is what it is.
You voiced Sparky, a gay dog, in a 1997 episode of South Park. You also half-jokingly said in a 2006 interview with Barbara Walters that you played your Batman as gay in Batman & Robin. Other than that, you haven’t played a proper gay role. Are gay parts not offered to you? Do Hollywood decision makers have trouble seeing you as a gay character?
When you’re in the position to green-light a picture, you become the decision maker, so there’s no conspiracy of power brokers. I’m in my office right now with a stack of scripts in front of me; if I pick one, it’ll be made. For me, the issue is finding a good script. I’m not looking at a character as much as I’m looking at whether or not the movie works. When you first start out as an actor, you’re just looking for a good part. As time goes on, if you’re being held responsible for the movies themselves, you’re looking for a good script all around. Right now my job is to find good screenplays, and it’s a lot harder than it sounds.
Many of your peers have taken on gay roles, particularly in high-profile biopics. Which gay personality would you like to tackle on film?
If you named somebody, I could tell you if I thought he had an interesting story.
Yeah, I’d play the center square. The title of the movie would be I’ll Take Paul Lynde to Block. Listen, there are a bunch of interesting stories out there, but I just haven’t found a screenplay with a gay subject that felt right for me as something that I could direct or act in. I’m certainly not avoiding it. Whether it’s about being gay or it just happens to have a gay character, if it’s a great screenplay, let’s go do it.
Last year it was reported that you had been offered a leading role in the remake of The Set, a 1970 gay-themed Australian film. Is there any validity to that?
Whatever you just said, that’s the first time I’ve heard of it. Literally, that happens every day, where someone says I’m involved with something that I’m not doing.
An Italian gay reporter famously stripped down to his underwear, declared his love for you, and asked you for a kiss during the 2009 Venice Film Festival. How often does that sort of thing happen when the camera aren’t rolling?
Never. In fact, that guy only did that because the cameras were rolling. Everything Paddy Chayefsky wrote about in Network came true — about the news reporter becoming the star. It was so funny, because as handlers tried to shoo that guy out, he just kept yelling, “I’m gay, George! I’m gay!” I was like, “OK. Got it. And? What now?” People like that just want attention and want to make a name for themselves. As you know, gays have been the butt of easy jokes for quite some time now, and it would be nice if that weren’t the case.
As someone twice-named People’s Sexiest Man Alive, which man do you find sexy?
Not that I don’t think Bradley Cooper is a perfectly sexy guy, but I’m still shocked that Ryan Gosling didn’t get Sexiest Man Alive last year. I thought he worked hard and ran a very solid campaign, so I feel that he was ripped off.
And if your flattering remarks at the Golden Globes were any indication, Shame’s Michael Fassbender has also caught your eye.
[Laughs] Well, c’mon. Every guy who saw that movie was like, “Jesus Christ,” at the exact same time.
The Advocate, April 2012; extended online version.