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Q & A

A toast to comedic rapport

Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney sense the spirit of classic screwball films in their new effort.

October 07, 2003|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

Meeting George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel to discuss "Intolerable Cruelty," their romantically razor-sharp Coen brothers comedy, carries an air of strange appropriateness. This is, after all, the kind of swanky love shack where Clooney's divorce attorney character, Miles, might send an investigator to capture evidence for use in a nasty breakup battle, the kind that is part and parcel for Zeta-Jones' scheming divorcee Marylin.

Today, though, it's a laugh-filled working honeymoon for these almost unworldly gorgeous co-stars, as Clooney, 42, and Zeta-Jones, 34, banter about their on-screen screwball comedy union (the Universal Pictures film opens Friday) and the off-screen perks and pleasures of mega-stardom.

Question: Were comedies of the '30s and '40s on your mind during shooting?

Clooney: If you watch older films, [this has] more a Howard Hawks kind of feel than Preston Sturges. Hawks really relied on stars and put them in awkward positions. Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn -- it required that sort of element. And I think we understood that.

Zeta-Jones: I'm going to sound really silly, but I think the coupling of me and George is reminiscent of those movies, in the banter, the talk, the chemistry. It just seemed to happen with us. We certainly didn't go and rehearse it. And I miss that in movies now, to be honest with you, that je ne sais quoi that happens on screen.

Question: This film definitely has a movie star aesthetic to it, but you're also sending up that image.

Clooney: We were certainly making fun of vanities that are often attributed to anyone who is in the position we're in. Also, we've been trained as actors or personalities to sort of apologize for being famous. You sort of pretend that it's this other part of you. And this [movie], rather than hiding it, puts a big klieg light on it and says, "All right, this is it. Let's make fun of it." I mean, you can't get in trouble if you're going after yourself a little bit.

Zeta-Jones: People know so much about movie stars now. They know who you're sleeping with, who you're having breakfast with....

Clooney: Which are two different people....

Zeta-Jones: [Laughs.] ....and it takes the mystique away when you're doing an acting gig and people go, "She's married to Michael Douglas and has two kids."

Question: George, in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" the Coen brothers gave you a hair obsession. Now it's your choppers. What's up with that?

Clooney: I didn't even get it the first time. They go, "You're getting your teeth whitened." I'm like, "OK." And then the next time they go, "Check your teeth." And I'm going, "Uh oh." And then you hear them back there. [Clooney imitates the Coens' donkey-braying laughter.] I was surprised they didn't put a little star [on my teeth], like "Ting!"

Question: Your repartee is done at a very quick clip. When did you decide to do it that way?

Clooney: The very first day we started shooting.

Zeta-Jones: It was the first day we actually met, really.

Clooney: Pretty much. You don't really rehearse with Ethan and Joel [Coen]. We're doing the scene at the restaurant and we finished and thought, "Well, that went very well."

Zeta-Jones: We were milking the looks, and the words.

Clooney: And Joel goes, "Great! Great! Now, three times faster." We were like, "Really?" He said, "Really. It's going to be a 2 1/2-hour film if you don't.' So from that point on we realized they were going to try to embrace that same sort of style.

Zeta-Jones: The whole thing about acting -- listening and reacting -- was completely out the window! Just speak really fast.

Clooney: It's two people driving toward the finish line without anything getting in the way. So when they stop, like at the elevator when I kiss her, it gives it a little more weight.

Question: The physical dynamic in that scene is fascinating. George, you're working every muscle in your face and body, and you, Catherine, are this still, mysterious creature of desire.

Zeta-Jones: Well, I just looked at George and went, "I'm not doing anything! [Laughs.] He can earn his bread and butter, baby!"

Clooney: I was aware that in order to make it work my guy had to really drive it, because he couldn't be cool about it. So Joel, Ethan and I decided he would be the grandson of Everett McGill, the guy I played in "O Brother." He's flummoxed all the time, constantly trying to repair things, then falls apart every time. I'm all over the place, and she's just sitting there.

Zeta-Jones: I was just working off you. I'd never really done a comedy. I worked on a film with John Cleese years ago, and he told me about the comedy triangle. He said, "You have a scene, you have an actor, that's two. You just be the point of the triangle and everything else will work fine."

Clooney: So basically, he said, "You be my straight man." [Laughs.] That's called setting yourself up!

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