NEW YORK — George CLOONEY had been working since 5 a.m. and was due back on the set of Joel and Ethan Coen's "Burn After Reading" at 8 the next morning. It was approaching midnight and the Upper East Side restaurant was all but empty, as was the fantastic bottle of Italian Barolo he'd shared over dinner.
But Clooney wasn't done yet.
He was eager to talk about Sen. Barack Obama, whose presidential campaign he supports and with whom he talks regularly. He was impressed by new French President Nicolas Sarkozy's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner. He was worried that not enough is being done for the refugees of Darfur, Sudan -- even though he's helped raise more than $10 million for relief, Clooney fears as many as 2 million more may die.
But nothing that Clooney said over the course of a two-hour dinner resonated like the story he told about his aunt, singer Rosemary Clooney.
"She said she was a better singer when she got older," Clooney says, picking at some berries for dessert. "And I said, 'Why are you a better singer now? You can't hold the notes like you used to. And you can't hit the notes like you used to.' And she said, 'I don't have to prove I can sing anymore.'
"And there is that as an actor too. Where you say, 'I don't have to prove I can act anymore.' Or at least I don't feel the need to prove it. Which is incredibly liberating."
That liberation hasn't made Clooney go soft. Rather, he's working harder than ever, all in different directions. After the critical success of "Syriana" (for which he won the best supporting actor Oscar) and his "Good Night, and Good Luck" (nominated for six Academy Awards, including best director for Clooney and best picture), Clooney might very well have steered clear of danger and could easily do nothing more taxing than, well, "Ocean's 13" ad infinitum.
In the next few months, though, Clooney not only will star for a rookie director -- playing a troubled law firm "fixer" in writer-director Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton," which opens Friday -- but also will direct himself as a 1920s football player opposite Renée Zellweger in the long-gestating romantic comedy "Leatherheads."
Although "Michael Clayton" and "Leatherheads" are miles apart in plot, they share one thing: Had it not been for Clooney's participation, both would probably be stuck in development hell. And Clooney is well aware that with that kind of clout comes much greater accountability.
"What you learn after a while is that if you're the person who can greenlight a film, you can no longer read a film as an actor for a part. Because you're going to be responsible for the movie being made," says Clooney, wearing a suit and a neatly trimmed beard. "They don't anymore say, 'He was good or bad in the part, but the movie sucks.' They'll go, 'That George Clooney movie. . .' So now I become held responsible for the movies that get made. I always make jokes about 'Batman & Robin,' but this is true: If I'm going to get held responsible for the movies that get made, then I'm going to focus on better scripts."
That thinking may not completely explain a creatively ambitious but critical and commercial disappointment such as last year's "The Good German." But Gilroy's "Michael Clayton" script does illustrate how a strong screenplay can capture Clooney's imagination. Best known for his writing on Matt Damon's three "Bourne" movies, Gilroy drafted this movie about eight years back. And there it sat -- until Clooney finally decided to take a gamble on it.
Drawn to 'Michael Clayton'
The film's titular character is a problem-solving lawyer at the fictional New York law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. While his white-shoe legal partners are able to fool themselves into believing they don't do any real dirty work, Clayton carries no such delusions. His personal life isn't much better: He owes $75,000 over a failed restaurant, is a divorced dad and has a gambling problem. "I'm not a miracle worker," he says. "I'm a janitor."
In the midst of a $3-billion class-action lawsuit over a toxic agrochemical, one of Kenner's top litigators (Tom Wilkinson) suffers a breakdown, in part because he's convinced the firm's client (whose general counsel is played by Tilda Swinton) has covered up its guilt. Sent by the firm's managing partner (Sydney Pollack) to repair the damage, Clayton has a chance for some small moral victory.
"First of all, all actors like these roles," the 46-year-old Clooney says of Clayton. "I am not comparing me to these, but it's 'The Verdict' or 'Unforgiven' -- it's the character who has such flaws that if you made the movie of their life 10 years earlier, they'd be the bad guy. Now they are seeking some form of redemption. They are not going to win it all. They're going to get a taste. . . . And you like these guys who can somehow eke their way into purgatory -- just one foot in. And there's a funny thing that happens as you get older: You're allowed to play them more."