Last weekend George Clooney washed away the holiday box office competition with ”The Perfect Storm,” which soaked up $64 million in just five days. Though critical response was lukewarm (EW gave the movie a C+), Clooney thinks audiences recognized that the disaster at sea drama was a cut above the usual summertime dreck. ”This at least seems to be a lot more like ‘Apollo 13’ than ‘Die Hard,”’ says the 39 year old actor. ”Not to knock those kinds of bubblegum movies, but they’re not what I think I would be good at. I’m the kind of actor who benefits from a good script.”
And suffers miserably with a bad one. Clooney says the embarrassing failure of 1997’s ”Batman & Robin” pushed him to pursue challenging roles in ”Storm” and last year’s ”Three Kings.” ”Films get screwed up in a million ways, so you should at least start with a good script,” he says. ”And with ‘Batman & Robin,’ I tried to con myself into thinking, ‘Well, it might be good.’ Then I saw it. After that I thought, ‘I have the money. So I’m only going to do films that I would go see – period.”’
Clooney hopes to capitalize on his ”Storm” success with two new projects that stray far from the bubblegum realm. The first is this fall’s Depression-era Southern-fried musical comedy ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Based loosely on Homer’s ”Odyssey,” the latest film from brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (”Fargo”) follows the trials of a Kentucky jailbird (Clooney) as he goes on the lam.
Though Clooney’s song and dance talents were tested (”really, really wild and so funny” is how he describes his vocal duet with costar Charles Durning), what really threw him was mastering a thick rural accent. ”I sent my Uncle Jack, who lives in Danville, Ky., a tape recorder and had him read all of my lines into it,” says Clooney, who grew up in Lexington, Ky., but never developed a country twang. ”I do Uncle Jack through the whole thing.”
Next up is a remake of the Rat Pack heist comedy ”Ocean’s Eleven.” Clooney will play thief Danny Ocean (the role played by Frank Sinatra in the 1960 original) who convinces 10 of his friends to go on a Las Vegas casino-robbing spree. Though Sinatra’s ”Ocean’s Eleven” – a lightweight caper which also starred Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. – hardly qualifies as a classic, Clooney says director Steven Soderbergh (”Erin Brockovich”) has a fresh take on the material that will lose the first film’s campy flavor without sacrificing its sense of humor.
In fact, Clooney used that assurance to woo costars Brad Pitt, Luke and Owen Wilson, and Don Cheadle to join the project, but it took a full dose of his trademark charm to convince Julia Roberts to accept the role of Beatrice Ocean, a part originally played by Angie Dickinson. ”Steven was doing ‘Erin Brockovich’ with her at the time, so I sent the script to her with a 20 dollar bill,” Clooney says. ”Inside I wrote, ‘I heard you’re getting 20 a picture.’ Then she said she’d do it.” Talk about chutzpah: Even her character in ”Pretty Woman” had a higher price tag.