A friend at Warner Bros. (where Clooney has a production deal) knew of the actor's quest and smuggled him out writer/director David O. Russell's confidential ''Kings'' screenplay about four Army soldiers who attempt to steal Iraqi gold at the end of Desert Storm. Clooney was blown away by it, but saw that the lead of a cynical captain was written much older, and was in fact meant for Clint Eastwood. When he later heard that Russell was reworking the script to make the character younger, Clooney began campaigning for the role. He sent a self-effacing letter that began, ''To: David O. Russell, filmmaker. From: George Clooney, TV actor''; he arranged to show Russell an early cut of ''Out of Sight''; and he even turned up at the director's New York City apartment to make a personal plea.
Even so, Russell decided on Nicolas Cage. But then Cage signed to do Martin Scorsese's ''Bringing Out the Dead.'' Finding himself leadless, Russell overcame his doubts about Clooney's matinee-idol image. ''I hadn't pictured a romantic lead in this part, but when you meet George you get the sense that he's more grizzled,'' says Russell. ''And he's also very thoughtful -- he really responded to the material.'' So Clooney was in.
Jonze had it much easier than the ''ER'' heartthrob, even though he had little acting experience. The director of such music videos as the Beastie Boys' ''Sabotage'' and Weezer's ''Buddy Holly'' and the upcoming feature film ''Being John Malkovich,'' Jonze was an old friend of Russell's. ''I wrote this character [the dirt-stupid redneck Private Vig] with him in mind,'' says the director, who gave Jonze a secret trial run. ''All last summer when Spike was shooting 'Malkovich' we would speak on the phone in Southern accents because I wanted to see if he could do it -- because it would really ruin our friendship if he tried and it didn't work out.'' Once Jonze passed the hick test, Russell fought to get him approved by a reluctant Warner Bros., and the acting amateur took his place with those used to having their names above the title. ''I like the chaos that a nonactor brings to the set,'' says Russell. ''He has a level of realism because he hasn't been through it before, and he really shakes things up.''
And Wahlberg? ''It was the first time I was offered a good movie role without having to beg for it,'' Wahlberg says of his goodhearted but dim sergeant (think Dirk Diggler with a gun instead of a ''special thing''). Thanks to ''Boogie Nights,'' he is now thought of as an actor first and Marky Mark second, although he wonders if Russell cast him for an entirely different reason. ''David probably had me in mind because he dislikes me and figured, 'Who better to beat the s--- out of while he's tied down than Mark Wahlberg?''' he jokes. "He probably took a poll, and asked all guys, especially guys with girlfriends. And all of my ex-girlfriends."