Should this acting thing not work out, George Clooney has a backup career as a pedicurist. ''His vocation in life has been missed -- at the spa!'' says Catherine Zeta-Jones, after the actor delicately finishes painting her toes in a suite in New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
''I wasn't so bad. It was my first try,'' notes Clooney, who's here with Zeta-Jones to pose for EW's fourth annual Photo Issue. ''If I had won the Oscar, she'd be painting my nails!''
True, Clooney's mantel holds one measly Golden Globe (for 2000's O Brother, Where Art Thou?), but he and Zeta-Jones, who picked up an Academy Award earlier this year for Chicago, are dastardly equals in Intolerable Cruelty. In the decidedly unorthodox romance, which opens Oct. 10, Clooney is Miles Massey, a slick divorce attorney who cheats Zeta-Jones' divorcee Marylin Rexroth out of millions. Marylin then decides to woo Miles and take him for all he's worth, but before long -- of course -- the scoundrels fall for each other. Despite its being categorized as a comedy, Cruelty is no One Fine Day, warn the stars. ''It's not a straight-up romantic comedy,'' says Clooney. ''It's out there.'' Indeed, one of the film's most darkly funny moments is a shocking death scene.
Since their on-screen courtship is less than smooth, we decided to set the couple up on the perfect New York City date:
drinks and dancing at one of the world's poshest hotels. Moving from the powder room to a secluded corner, Zeta-Jones is warming up for the afternoon tango session with a glass of red wine. ''Cheers!'' she says. ''I'm sure it's cocktail hour somewhere in the world.''
While Cruelty teams filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen with megaproducer Brian Grazer for the first time, it reunites them with their O Brother star Clooney and The Man Who Wasn't There's Billy Bob Thornton, who appears as one of Zeta-Jones' hubbies. So the actress was a bit of a newcomer. ''I was a little dubious,'' she remembers. ''It was like, Oh, the new girl coming into the family.'' Fortunately, she felt instant chemistry with Clooney. ''The first scene I shot was a scene in a restaurant, where George says to me, 'Are you a carnivore?' And I say, 'Oh, you have no idea, Mr. Massey.' That was the line where it just went, Click!'' (Viewers may notice a special glow in the actress' face throughout the film, partly due to a different kind of chemistry: ''I found out I was pregnant three days before we wrapped,'' says Zeta-Jones, who delivered daughter Carys in April. ''Every time I've been pregnant I've always felt more sexy.'')
Clooney, however, remembers that first day of shooting together a bit differently. ''I f -- -ed up the first line,'' says the actor, whose dialogue includes several tongue-twisting literary quotations. ''I got up and stood outside for a second and said, 'Okay, I've got to go back in there and I don't want to screw it up.' And thank God, she totally f -- -ed it up! Once she started screwing up, I was like, 'Oh, okay, good.' You really want the other actor to f -- - up. Then you feel better.''
Speaking of feeling good, back at the shoot Zeta-Jones is relishing her fab Manhattan rendezvous. ''Coming to New York, and being at the Waldorf-Astoria with a dark, tall, handsome man in a white evening jacket and me in a red dress?'' she says. ''This is a dream, isn't it?''