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We listen back to an interview with George Clooney, now a Kennedy Center Honoree

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, sitting in for Terry Gross. Our next guest is George Clooney, who was one of the recipients last Sunday at this year's Kennedy Center Honors. He's been nominated for Oscars not only for his acting but for producing, directing and screenwriting. So far, he's won two - as one of the producers of the 2013 film "Argo" and as Best Supporting Actor for his role in 2005 "Syriana." His other films include "Gravity," "The Descendants," the "Ocean's Eleven" franchise, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", and "Out Of Sight." On television, he became a star thanks to the NBC series "ER."

George Clooney isn't the first famous member of his family. His aunt is the late singer Rosemary Clooney. And his father is Nick Clooney, a highly regarded TV news anchor and journalist who has worked in Cincinnati, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Partly to honor his father and his profession, George Clooney in 2005 directed, co-wrote and co-starred in one of his career best movies, "Good Night, And Good Luck." That's when Terry interviewed him. The film is about how CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow challenged Senator Joe McCarthy's tactic of smearing people by accusing them of being communists or associating with them. His anti-communist crusade led to investigations, blacklists and a climate of fear.

At the time, Murrow was hosting the pioneering CBS News magazine See It Now. Murrow and his crew decided to do a program about Lieutenant Milo Radulovich, a U.S. Air Force reservist, who was kicked out for being a security risk without being told what the charges were. He had refused to denounce his father and sister, who were accused of being communists. In this scene from the movie "Good Night, And Good Luck," two Air Force colonels are pressuring Murrow's producer, Fred Friendly, to cancel the broadcast. Friendly is played by George Clooney.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK")

GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Fred) We are going with the story that says that the U.S. Air Force tried Milo Radulovich without one shred of evidence and found him guilty of being a security risk without his constitutional right...

GLENN MORSHOWER: (As Colonel Anderson) And you, who also have not seen the evidence, are claiming he's not a security risk. Wouldn't you guess that the people who have seen the contents of that envelope might...

CLOONEY: (As Fred) Who?

MORSHOWER: (As Colonel Anderson) ...Have a better idea of what makes someone a danger to his country?

CLOONEY: (As Fred) Who? Who are these people, sir?

MORSHOWER: (As Colonel Anderson) Or do you think it should just be you that decides?

CLOONEY: (As Fred) Who are the people? Are they elected? Are they appointed? Do they have an axe to grind? Is it you, sir?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: George Clooney, welcome to FRESH AIR. What did Edward R. Murrow mean to you when you were growing up?

CLOONEY: My father was an anchorman and still writes for the newspaper in Kentucky. And broadcast journalism was a big part of our lives growing up. I spent most of my life as a small child on the floor of WKRC newsroom watching my father put news shows together. He was the news director. He wrote the news. And Murrow and Cronkite were heroes of his because of the two, probably, great moments in broadcast journalism, which was Cronkite coming back from Vietnam and saying it doesn't work and Murrow taking on McCarthy, because they changed policy overnight. And for that alone, he was a hero of my father's and therefore a hero of mine.

GROSS: Now, in the movie, you don't have an actor playing McCarthy. The only time we see McCarthy is through his actual videotapes, through his television appearances...

CLOONEY: Right.

GROSS: ...Such as, you know, the hearings and the videotape that was made for the Edward R. Murrow See It Now broadcast.

CLOONEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Why did you choose to have him play himself instead of having an actor portray him?

CLOONEY: Well, in the film, in the actual story - and we researched everything. I had to treat this like a journalist. I talked to my father about this. And he said, look; if you get anything wrong, you'll be marginalized now. So we did it the old-fashioned way, which is, every scene, we double sourced either through books or through the real people - Joe and Shirley Wershba or Milo Radulovich or Don Hewitt - so that we were very careful with the facts. Then we decided to do exactly what Murrow did in his show, which is use McCarthy in his own words so that, again, you couldn't have someone say, oh, we were making him look too much like a buffoon or too arch. We thought, best to let him hang himself.

GROSS: Now, as an actor and director, talk a little bit about how Murrow looks on TV compared to how McCarthy looks on TV.

CLOONEY: Well, that's sort of the beauty of it. It's - in a way, the other one of those versions would be Kennedy-Nixon debates, you know...

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

CLOONEY: ...Where the simple truth was, McCarthy was pretty good at a 30-second soundbite where he could yell and scare people and talk about death and bombs and things like that. But he wasn't handsome. And he certainly wasn't proficient at the new art of television, and Murrow was the best, so that when he demanded equal time, which was 28 minutes and 28 seconds, to do his rebuttal, he holds up for about a minute. And then he's also pretty drunk. He slurs and drags on. And it's one of - if you see the whole half an hour of rebuttal...

GROSS: He's drunk.

CLOONEY: Oh, yeah, very drunk. When you see the rebuttal, it's embarrassing. I mean, it's the most unprofessional thing you've ever seen. So it was an interesting - the moment that that happened was when they first knew they had him. They were - because the simple truth is, and the funniest thing is, Murrow going after McCarthy is not what hurt McCarthy. McCarthy turning around and accusing Murrow of being a traitor is what hurt McCarthy because everyone knew that Murrow was the guy at the top of those buildings during the London Blitz. We knew he was a hero. And so the minute you saw those methods, when he turns around and calls Murrow the cleverest of the jackal pack of communists, everybody knew that wasn't true.

GROSS: What did you have to do with the rest of the film to make it consistent with the real video that you had of McCarthy?

CLOONEY: Well, the interesting thing was we weren't trying to "Forrest Gump" it. We weren't trying to make it look as if both of those things were happening. We weren't trying to match film stock or anything so that it looks like they were standing right next to each other. We had an advantage, which was we were going to shoot it in black and white because we were going to use the original stock footage. But all of the original stock footage is either projected on a projector or on a wall or on a TV screen so that the match didn't have to be perfect. We were able - in a way, it was a cheat. We were able to use it that way.

GROSS: When you were growing up, your father was on TV. He had his own show. He was a news anchor. Was your - did your father seem like a different person on camera and off?

CLOONEY: No. No, no. Not really. My father's - I think one of his great qualities is that integrity has been sort of the thing that has always lasted and has lasted into his - well into his 70s. He's been the same guy. It's an interesting thing. It's more difficult being the child of someone with that kind of integrity than - I'm now thrilled. But, you know, when you're a kid and you're in a state that's still dealing with its own problems with bigotry - we'd be out at dinner. And you'd hear someone say, you know, well, that's about those people, knowing that they were talking about Blacks, you know? And my sister and I knew that my dad was going to make a scene and walk out. So we would eat as fast as we could. We'd start to eat quick because my father was going to make a scene. And I remember as a kid always wishing that maybe there was just one time he just pretended not to hear it.

GROSS: What would he do when he made a scene?

CLOONEY: Oh, he'd get up and say, you know, you're an idiot. And how could you say something like that? And, you know, are you from the 1500s? And, you know, he would make a big scene. And I at times wished that he hadn't. Now, I couldn't be more proud that he did. And he taught me those same lessons, which are that every time you let that go, every time you don't hear that or you purposefully ignore it just to make things easier for yourself, you are doing a disservice. And so that's why you have to fight those fights.

GROSS: Your mother was a state beauty pageant winner.

CLOONEY: She was Miss Lexington and she was in the Miss Kentucky - first runner-up in the Miss Kentucky pageant.

GROSS: OK. One of the things you've been admired for in your career is your looks - just one of the many things. What did she teach you about the relative value of being attractive?

CLOONEY: I suppose the only thing she ever taught was by example, which was that she, you know, she went to work every day and worked very hard. And you never felt as if she was using her looks to gain an upper hand on anything. And I don't know - you know, it's a tricky question to answer, as you know, because it's assuming that you're saying that you're good-looking, which I don't like to say or do. On the other hand, you look like a jerk when you go, you know, I was the ugly kid...

GROSS: Right.

CLOONEY: ...In school. So actually, it's sort of a - it's a hard answer to answer...

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CLOONEY: ...Without sounding sort of like a jerk.

GROSS: You grew up on a - well, your grandparents had a tobacco farm.

CLOONEY: Sure.

GROSS: So were you near that?

CLOONEY: I worked it for years. That's how you made your money in the summer when you were a kid. You know, you start by topping it, and then you're chopping it and cutting it and housing it and stripping it later. And you could make, you know, 3 1/2 bucks an hour so you could make some pretty decent money. But, you know, you don't think of those consequences of tobacco at that point. I had nine great aunts and uncles, all brothers and sisters - six of them died of lung cancer, emphysema. Both my grandparents died of it. I'm not a smoker. I don't - you know, I was concerned with how romantic we made smoking look in the film. And so I put that commercial in just to show how some of the lies that were perpetrated back then about how smoking was actually good for you.

BIANCULLI: George Clooney speaking with Terry Gross in 2005 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY MAK'S "JUST LIKING YOU")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2005 interview with George Clooney, who last Sunday was a recipient at this year's Kennedy Center Honors.

GROSS: One of the many things I really like about your film is the performance by Dianne Reeves, the singer in it. And the music director for your film is Allen Sviridoff, who had been the music director for your aunt Rosemary Clooney...

CLOONEY: Right.

GROSS: ...Who I'm an enormous fan of. I love her recordings. What did her music mean to you when you were growing up? It was not your generation.

CLOONEY: No, but I was one of those weird kids, you know. I was listening to...

GROSS: It wasn't my generation either.

CLOONEY: No, that's right. Well, I was listening to Led Zeppelin, and I was listening to Nat Cole. You know, I had a very varied growing up because I was on the road with, you know, with them a lot, or I was always exposed to...

GROSS: Were you on the road with Rosemary Clooney?

CLOONEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, no, I mean, with Led Zeppelin? Wait. Who were you on tour with?

CLOONEY: Oh, yeah, exactly.

GROSS: Sorry.

CLOONEY: With Led Zeppelin. No, I was on the road - when I was 20, I was Rosemary's driver, you know?

GROSS: Oh, you were - oh, right. I see. Yeah, yeah.

CLOONEY: So I spent - I was around that kind of music a lot.

GROSS: Yeah.

CLOONEY: So I got to appreciate Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer.

GROSS: I see. Yeah.

CLOONEY: I had a real appreciation of those guys - Sinatra and, you know, Nat King Cole especially, and Rosemary. And Rosemary was having - excuse me - she was having her comeback at that point. And her comeback was something rather spectacular because she became the singer's singer. Singers adored her and would show up. So there was a great pride in being around her. So I was really exposed to that kind of music. The fun part for me was in putting this band together. Peter Martin, the pianist, is Dianne's - works with Dianne, but the rest of the guys all played on Rosemary's albums, you know.

And it was fun because I got to pick the music, and we - I got to sit down with Allen and go, let's talk about music that we really loved and how to play it and how to do it. And so it was about simplifying things because now everybody likes to show off. I remember asking Rosemary why she's a better singer at 70 than she was at 21 because she couldn't hold the notes the way she could, she couldn't hit the notes the way - and she said, because I don't have to prove I can sing anymore. And I thought that was a good acting lesson, you know, was not having to show off anymore.

GROSS: I know exactly what she was talking about, too, because her voice was basically shot in the last couple of recordings she made. But her phrasing was so beautiful and the emotion was so beautifully conveyed in it. When...

CLOONEY: When you see her taking songs that are normally sort of up-tempo, like "Don't Fence Me In" or - and bringing it down to like a quarter of the speed and singing, you know, "Straighten Up and Fly Right," it's amazing.

GROSS: You stayed with your aunt when you first got to Hollywood, and it sounds like she threw you out after a while.

CLOONEY: Pretty much, yeah. I understand that. I would have thrown me out too.

GROSS: How come?

CLOONEY: Well, I think at some point, you don't need a 22-year-old kid hanging around in your house anymore. I'm sure I was a pain. You know, at some point, I'm sure, you know, the idea of offering your nephew to come out and live with you is a nice gesture...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CLOONEY: ...But I think it comes back to haunt you after about a year, you know?

GROSS: Yeah. Did you think you were talented when you started working? Did you think you actually had something?

CLOONEY: I didn't really know whether I had any talent or not. I knew that I was, for the first time in my life, engaged. And I hadn't been. I was sort of the - I was one of those guys who was pretty good at almost anything I tried right away. You know, anything I wanted to do, I could pick it up pretty quickly - sports, almost any sport - but never great at anything. And I found myself quickly bored by things. So I didn't really pursue anything. And I'd lost sort of - I was 20 years old, 21 years old, and didn't really have any great objectives. I wasn't going to be a great newsman. I'd studied journalism. I'd done a few news pieces. But I wasn't bright enough or curious enough to do news, especially on the level that my father was doing it. And I was certainly going to be compared to my father.

And then I found acting. And I thought, well, this is something that at the very least I'm not going to be bored by. And I know that there is no moment that you go, wow, I've finally done it. You know, you're never going to be satisfied by it because it's a constant growing process. So I thought, well, that's interesting to me. And I found it to be interesting. And I got into an acting class pretty quickly. And I started working with working actors.

GROSS: My guest is George Clooney. He became famous for his role on "ER" as Dr. Douglas Ross. Here's a scene from the 1994 pilot. He's in the ER examining an infant. He suspects the baby has been abused by his mother, who's also in the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, crying).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Look. He's still crying. Why aren't you giving him something?

CLOONEY: (As Doug Ross) I can't give him anything until I know the extent of his injuries. We do the X-ray so we know that has a skull fracture.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) A skull fracture. The baby sitter, I never trusted her.

CLOONEY: (As Doug Ross) Ma'am, your child has multiple contusions that are at least 12 hours old. He has a skull fracture. He also has several old healed fractures. This is a battered child.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm not even going to respond to that. You think I'd harm my child?

CLOONEY: (As Doug Ross) Happens all the time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Look. If you're not going to treat him, I'm taking him home.

CLOONEY: (As Doug Ross) No, you're not. Do you have anything to say?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He's my date. Look. I can assure you, whoever you are...

CLOONEY: (As Doug Ross) Ross. Dr. Ross.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Well, Dr. Ross, let me tell you, your concerns are unfounded. OK?

CLOONEY: (As Doug Ross) How did he burn his legs?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What?

CLOONEY: (As Doug Ross) These marks right here on his legs. Those. Those are healed burn scars. How did that happen?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He - I don't know anything about burns on the legs. I'm beginning to think you're making this up is what I'm thinking.

CLOONEY: (As Doug Ross) Ma'am, you may want to call an attorney.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I am an attorney.

CLOONEY: (As Doug Ross) Well, then I'm sure you'll know how the Department of Child Services will handle this.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) How dare you speak to me this way.

CLOONEY: (As Doug Ross) How dare you treat your child like this. He's a little kid. I try to be understanding in my job. But, lady, this just stinks.

GROSS: Well, "ER" - when you got "ER," that certainly must have changed your life a lot.

CLOONEY: Sure.

GROSS: I mean, suddenly, you were a star. And people become so close to you when you're on TV every week.

CLOONEY: Yeah.

GROSS: It's - there's this kind of bonding that I think people go through.

CLOONEY: Well, it's an unusual experience because it's not like being a movie star. You haven't paid 10 bucks, and you're 30 feet high, and you've made it a date. You've been in their homes every Thursday. So, you know, the truth is I'm a product of a great amount of luck. I create some of that luck because, you know, I did 13 pilots. And I did eight television series before that. But the simple truth is, had I done that exact same show and that exact same role and we were on Friday night instead of Thursday night at 10, I don't have a film career. And I'm not sitting here with you.

GROSS: You knew something about fame. You know, your father was on TV. Rosemary Clooney, your aunt, was incredibly famous. But what surprised you most when it happened to you? What were you unprepared for?

CLOONEY: Well, it's a funny thing. There isn't a real fame school that you can go to and learn, you know? I had - probably, if there was anybody, there's - I haven't met many people better prepared for it because I had the great vision of watching, especially with Rosemary, how big you can get and how quickly it can be taken away. And it's not like Rosemary became less of a singer in that period of time, which showed me that it has very little to do with you. And that was an important thing to learn, an important thing to understand, which I did.

So when I wasn't famous a lot, I kept thinking, well, there's always this opportunity. And when I got famous, I understood that it wasn't just because I was a brilliant actor or deserving of it, that, in fact, there were other elements involved. And you still have that. I still have the idea that that goes away at some point, as it does sooner or later. And when it does, that's why you direct and you write and you try to have other coals in the fire. But the things that you aren't prepared for are the trade-offs. No one wants to hear you complain about them, so you don't complain about them. But I would say that the significant loss of privacy is interesting.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

CLOONEY: That was fun.

BIANCULLI: George Clooney speaking with Terry Gross. She interviewed him in 2005, when "Good Night, And Good Luck" was in theaters. Last Sunday, he was a recipient at this year's Kennedy Center Honors. The ceremony will be televised December 28 on CBS. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews two new movies based on popular children's stories, "Matilda" and "Pinocchio." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON QUARTET'S "YOU'RE A MEAN ONE MR. GRINCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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