Alexander Payne's 'The Descendants' shows actor in a new light

Clooney comes of age as land and loves collide

by George Hadley-Garcia

Special To The Japan Times

Of all the descriptors actor George Clooney gets pegged with, “father” is not usually among them. Academy Award-winner? Sure. Activist? Yes. Sexiest Man Alive? You bet. It was his turn as a dad in “The Descendants” last year, however, that earned him a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination.

At 51-years-old, does this mean the action-hero, sex-symbol roles are behind Clooney and the “father” offers are going to start rolling in? “No, no. You can’t think that way,” he tells The Japan Times. “You’re either an actor or you’re some delusional glamourpuss. I don’t mind being a glamourpuss now and then, it’s fun, but deluded isn’t something I’d ever like to be.”

Clooney pauses for a moment and adds, “Grandfather roles. When that happens, that will shock me, I’ll be stunned for … a few days? Months? Maybe a year? But whether I play someone with a daughter who’s a sexually-active teenager or with kids who are toddlers … it can be kind of incidental to the plot. It’s certainly incidental to my way of thinking. I look for interesting stuff (projects). A father can be very interesting, a single guy can be very interesting.”

Clooney’s character in “The Descendants,” attorney Matt King, may appear to be a normal (if a bit weak at times) father of two girls (who definitely aren’t weak), but he’s thrown into a very interesting and complex situation. Matt’s wife goes into a coma after a boating accident and the doctors say she has very little time left to live. Matt gathers the family for support and finds out from his eldest daughter that his wife had been having an affair.

All this happens while Matt is faced with a decision on what to do with a large piece of land he owns on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Matt and his family are the descendants of Hawaiian royalty, and a sale of that land means millions for him and his extended family.

“The Descendants” was directed and cowritten by Alexander Payne, who also directed and wrote the film “Sideways” in 2004. Both movies earned Payne an Oscar for adapted screenplay.

“Alex has fingers in lots of pies,” Clooney says when asked why Payne doesn’t do more work in cinema — in which he’s obviously successful. “He doesn’t only direct, he’s big time into producing and does lots of television work. He writes, he does music, he’s acted. It takes something pretty special for him to commit to directing. As any of us who’ve done it knows, directing is a 24-hour-a-day job, unlike acting or producing.”

“When I read the script,” which was adapted by Payne and two others from a 2009 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, “I realized the possibilities immediately. I saw that it could veer off into high melodrama or my character could permanently devolve into a selfish, insensitive shmuck. But Alex is such a micro-manager and an artist, none of that could happen with him in charge.”

It could also be said that while Clooney believes Payne wouldn’t allow the character to devolve, the audience has full faith in Clooney not giving anything short of his best. He isn’t an actor who obsesses over a character’s background or creates a fictional back story, and he doesn’t adhere to any particular method of acting.

“I look for truth in the writing,” he says. “If it’s there, in the plot and the characters, that makes the actor’s job so much easier. You have your blueprint.”

The actor admits that telling the truth off the screen has sometimes gotten him in hot water. As the driving force behind the 2005 black-and-white film “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which tackled McCarthy-era political witch hunts, Clooney was vilified in certain rightwing media outlets in the United States.

“Well, there’s their double standard right there,” he points out. “It’s okay for conservative actors to be political and become politicians — qualified or not — but let a liberal actor even make a film that tries to tell the truth, and the other side starts screaming ‘foul.’ “

Among the things Clooney found in researching Hawaii for “The Descendants” was that, “Any nation with a big enough population and enough economic resources tends, or tended, toward colonialism — and the U.S. was no exception. We basically stole Hawaii from the Hawaiian people and from its ruler, Queen Lili’uokalani.

“Then it became a U.S. possession. For a long time. I learned that one reason it took so long for Hawaii to become a state wasn’t, as I’d thought, that it was geographically removed from the continental U.S. —because so was Alaska. It was because Hawaii was the only state that had a non-Christian majority population. It was religious prejudice that delayed their statehood.”

Clooney mentions an aspect of “The Descendants” that he likes and hopes audiences will also appreciate — perhaps Hawaiian audiences in particular.

“Most of the time, anything set in Hawaii, regardless of which island, will be picture-postcard perfect. The Hawaii in our film is a Hawaii where real people live, and it’s not all pretty. It’s a real place, with real problems.”

Clooney gets a lot of screen time with Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, who are both great as his daughters in the film. However, the cast of supporting characters: a jilted wife played by Judy Greer, the dopey boyfriend played by Nick Krause, and the ensemble of relatives (led by Beau Bridges) are all strong as well.

“Matt is the central character, but I like that it’s not all about him,” Clooney says.

In the past, the star has been reported as saying that he is often relieved when a movie he appears in isn’t a George Clooney vehicle. During his ascent to stardom while appearing on the television show “ER,” the actor stated that having grown up around fame (his aunt was singer and actress Rosemary Clooney) he knew his own celebrity could be temporary, and in a few years he might find himself behind the register in a supermarket.

He chuckles when reminded of this: “When you’re newer in the business, before you have a big backlog of experience behind you, you come up with funny or cheesy quotes. Also, you’re self-conscious about not wanting to seem too different from nonactors … from the public. You don’t necessarily want to admit you’re rich.

“Nowadays, with the Internet, everyone knows what any star earns for any given picture, so it’s no use pretending. I mean, being truthful, I didn’t know how much longer my fame would last. I did, of course, know I was pretty much financially set for life.

“But yeah, I did say it. We can blame a lot of things on youth — our own — until we start missing it and enshrining it in our memories. Fortunately I haven’t reached that stage yet!”

As for “The Descendants,” Clooney concludes that one thing it shows is the true value of land.

“There’s more and more people in the world and less available land. And yet, when the everyday and not-so-everyday problems of Matt King and others threaten to engulf them, there’s always the land. It’s a refuge, a last and hopefully lasting refuge and asset. Our problems are temporary. Land, and certainly nature, are forever.

“I think the contrast and juxtaposition of Matt’s problems and the land of Kauai is one of the things I remember most from watching that film. I hope people enjoy it, and I hope it makes them think.”

“The Descendants” (Japan title: “Family Tree”) opens in cinemas nationwide on May 18. Read Kaori Shoji’s review on today’s Re:Film page.