A pensive meditation on life, love and predestination, the futuristic drama (opening today) marks his third collaboration with director Steven Soderbergh, who previously cast the actor in Out of Sight and Ocean's Eleven, and with whom Clooney recently formed his own production company, Section Eight, which has specialized in financing such offbeat projects as Christopher Nolan's Insomnia, Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, Clooney's own upcoming directorial debut, the Chuck Barris biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (opening later this year), and the commercially questionable Solaris.
A reimagining of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's critically admired 1972 sci-fi saga (in turn adapted from a novel by Stanislaw Lem), the film is admittedly closer in tone and pace to 2001: A Space Odyssey than an Aliens or a Minority Report. Palpably lacking any of the violent special effects and action-packed trappings we've come to expect from our Hollywood outer-space movies, the new film was nonetheless initially threatened with an R rating from the MPAA, based solely on a couple of casual Clooney butt shots. (Soderbergh appealed the ruling and got a PG-13 without having to make any cuts.)
The 41-year-old actor has been grinning and bearing it with regard to the extra attention. "If you ask me, a lot of the hoopla was sort of orchestrated by the studio," Clooney observes with a smile during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "We're in a funny place with this film, because it's a movie for adults, and the dilemma for the studio is how to market it. I guess it's understandable, because this isn't an easy film to sell, but I think they're spinning their wheels and trying to find anything that can generate some ink about the movie. When the whole ratings thing happened, they just took the ball and ran with it."
Solaris is no more a calculated financial risk for its studio (20th Century Fox) than it is a gutsy creative gamble for partners Clooney and Soderbergh. Weighing the options was "a no-brainer," as Clooney puts it. "The idea behind our company is that we want to push all those boundaries, and our attitude is sometimes we'll succeed, and other times we'll fail. We're just trying to raise the bar, and if we blow it, well, at least we blew it while we had the chance."
After a pause, Clooney continues. "Look, I don't really need the cash anymore. If Steven and I are willing to forego our normal salaries in order to make a movie like Solaris for considerably less than it would ordinarily cost a studio to make, then if it doesn't appeal to the masses or only has a modestly successful box office run, that's worth it to me. There's a place for good, solid entertainments like Ocean's Eleven, and if a movie like that helps put us in a position to afford trying something like Solaris, or defending other filmmakers like Todd Haynes or Christopher Nolan, then why not go out on that limb?"
Despite his personal and professional history with Soderbergh, Clooney still had to campaign for the role, which was originally offered to Daniel Day-Lewis. Still grieving his wife's recent suicide, Dr. Chris Kelvin is a psychologist assigned to investigate the mysterious goings-on among a small group of scientists on a remote space station. "The character took me to some emotional places that seemed dangerous somehow," the actor explained. "I really felt like I was sticking my neck out. It was like taking a deep breath and just going for it. For me, it's all about working with the best directors you can, people you can really trust, so that you're willing to try anything."
Clooney hadn't seen the Tarkovsky version prior to filming Soderbergh's, and he says he deliberately avoided checking it out until after they'd finished. "It was a completely different film, but it was interesting," he recalls. "I mean, it's slow, but I like slow. I like watching behavior, watching actors. I even liked the long DVD version of Magnolia, you know what I mean?"
And what about criticisms that Soderbergh's Solaris is none too brisk itself? Clooney laughs and replies, "I guess it helps that our version is only about half as long as the Russian version, huh? It can't be that slow if it's only 90 minutes, right? It's definitely designed that way. The script was only 70 pages, so we realized all along it was going to have these moments of extended silence, standing still for a few minutes and just watching things develop slowly and naturally, instead of shooting and editing everything very quickly to keep the attention of the MTV generation."
Since making a name for himself on the TV series ER back in the mid-90s, Clooney has played rugged leading men in such hit films as Three Kings and The Perfect Storm, and he scored with critics for playing against type as an escaped chain-gang hayseed in Joel and Ethan Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou? The actor recently reunited with the filmmaking brothers on Intolerable Cruelty (due out next year), co-starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. "It's kind of like The War of the Roses, Coen brothers-style," he quips, "and it makes O Brother look like Franz Kafka."
There may be a proverbial price to be paid for his success, but Clooney isn't prone to the usual whining about living in the celebrity spotlight or the occasional invasions of his privacy. He simply shrugs it off with another of his trademark grins. "Hey, I cut tobacco for a while to make a living, and that was a hell of a lot worse on every possible level," Clooney admits.
"I'm in far too good a place in my life and career right now to ever complain about any of that stuff. I keep thinking about somebody coming in from a long day in the tobacco field and turning on the TV and seeing me talking about how tough it is, this fairly privileged life I lead. Yeah, like it's really tough driving my nice car or living in my nice home in the Hollywood Hills. Who are we kidding? I used to sell insurance door-to-door, you know?"