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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment

March 14, 2008

Set against the backdrop of America in 1925, the romantic comedy Leatherheads follows the exploits of Dodge Connolly (George Clooney), a charming and savvy football captain who sees the writing on the wall--with the advent of professional football on the horizon and his own sports career waning, he sets out to take his team from a ragtag group of part-timers to national stars who can fill stadiums. And though he thinks a professional league, with all of its rules and regulations and big business, will mark the end of the sport as he knows it, he takes one last shot at glory and recruits Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), a golden-boy war hero returning home from World War I.

Handsome, smart, and a terror on the football field, Carter seems too good to be true, and reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) suspects that America's favorite son is hiding something. Sharp and plucky, Lexie is determined to uncover the truth behind him, even as she becomes the object of affection in a growing rivalry between Dodge and Carter.

When it comes to Hollywood's A-List actors, George Clooney has consistently demonstrated some of the best PR skills in the business. Always seeming to be armed with a joke or a funny story, he has gained a reputation as one of the good guys of Tinseltown. His well-documented pranks and his propensity to crank out solid work without taking himself too seriously has garnered the adoration of both fans and the media. As he takes his seat to address the press, he jests that his glass is loaded with booze: "If I'm spending time with you, there's alcohol involved. I'll say that right off the bat."

In this interview, Clooney talks about working on Leatherheads and juggling his responsibility as both director and lead star. As a bonus, there is also a bit at the end where he comments on the recent "Jimmy Kimmel is F*cking Ben Affleck" video and the possibility of a reunion with ER.

The Interview

MEDIA: Men getting hit in the crotch with a football: always funny.

GEORGE: Always funny! Never not funny!

Given this movie's period feel, what filmmakers did you look to for inspiration?

I stole from Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges in a big way. I'm trying to think of who all I stole from. Wait... [pauses] "Homage." I homaged the sh*t out of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges. [laughs] And early George Stevens. There's a film called The More the Merrier that we were trying to rip off a lot.

The style of Leatherheads is also reminiscent of the Coen brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy in some ways. Did you happen to talk to them while making this movie?

No, but I certainly watched Hudsucker Proxy. First of all, because I've homaged the hell out of those guys over the years. And certainly there were things about this film that I was using more along the lines of other films they've done. But Hudsucker, I love. [laughs] I know people love to sort of smash that film, but I really love that movie. So yeah, you have to be careful that it doesn't leak into an impersonation of any kind. You know, there was a trick to this, which is when you're doing a period film, in particular like a football film, an action film, we're used to, now, handheld cameras and steady-cams and everything--you can really increase the excitement level of football. But if you were to do that in a period piece, or 1925 in particular, you would immediately sell out the period. Immediately, you would feel like, "This is contemporary. Why is this handheld?" You have to shoot it in a way we're sort of used to seeing that world, which is straighter. So we realized that everything was going to be on a crane arm, or everything was going to be on dolly track, and everything was going to be moving slower. And it's less dynamic. So you had to find ways to move the camera towards the action, always. It was a really tricky balance. And the actors had to find a way to perform like that, too, because if we're going to keep things in a two-shot, you gotta keep it moving and you gotta keep it dynamic.

Like the scene with the cow?

Like the scene with the cow! That cow almost killed us, that thing. I'm telling you, man, it took us four different times to get that cow to stand still and look. "Look over here." [moos] It's like working with Krasinski, really. It's very similar.

There are a handful of moments about the freedom of the press, the commercialization of sports, the corruption of financiers...

[laughs] Well, you gotta throw some stuff in!

Directors frequently insert their personal views into their films. So how personal was this movie for you?

There's things about it. I mean, I thought of this more as like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which was that someone is desperately holding on to something that has now long since sailed, you know? It's inevitable that it's going to go away, it's gone away, and you're just holding on to sort of this great memory because you're not willing to grow up, probably. That was sort of the world I kept looking at--you know, that in order to save it, you're going to have to basically destroy it in his mind, which is to make it commercial, and then make it have rules. So you can nail me on that about not wanting to grow up. You got me there. [laughs] But [the other] things are just bits, you know? I do look back at things that were less commercial at times and think they were pretty fun. I love films like Slap Shot for those reasons--that there are no rules to it. There are people getting hit in the face and punched in the nose all the time. It makes me laugh, and I think it's really ripe for comedy. It's easier to do that than to try to do a modern day football comedy.

So the whole thing about Renee playing a reporter and calling the integrity of the press into question...?

Well, I had already done a film about that. [laughs] You know, this one was more about the idea that I wanted to give John Krasinski's character a secret. In the original draft of the film, John's character and Lexie were boyfriend and girlfriend in college and they came out together. So what happened was she wasn't active. She had nothing to do, and there was nothing to get. And I was now too old to be stealing the college girl. [laughs] So it felt as if that needed to be changed and she needed to have something to do. You know, there weren't women sportswriters in 1925. They're fighting to do it now, even. So we felt like that was a great, ballsy thing to be. But it wasn't a comment on the press on that one. I was just having fun.

How did you like shooting in North and South Carolina?

It was really fun, actually. The scout was easy because we were looking for a place that would have something of a change of season, but not quite be "Minnesota change of seasons," to shoot in February...We needed some scenes with trees. We knew that, digitally, we could change colors from green to orange and red if there were some leaves on the trees, but we also knew that the area would be great for old stadiums, which were important to us, and also a bit of a change of seasons. We ended up getting caught in some pretty cold weather, which was unfortunate. But I'm telling you, we loved both the Carolinas. You know, I grew up in Kentucky, which we think of as the South. The Carolinas think of us as the Yankees somehow, but I still think of us as the South. [laughs] And I always appreciate...It's a very different way of life down there. People have a very easygoing nature with you there. You know, we had to use hundreds and hundreds of extras. [pauses] "Background artists." Sorry. So it was important that we sort of had an understanding. Because they're not just people in the background. We actually used them. We used their faces. We had long talks together in big groups of people, and it was easy to do. They were really open and friendly and fun, and I couldn't tell you what a great time I had.

How did you feel about all the rolling around in the mud? And did nature provide that mess, or did you have to manufacture it?

I guess, ultimately, nature provided the mud, but we shipped it all in, into that football field. That's the same field that we do the opening sequence where John runs a touchdown, and we came back a month later and we shipped in tons and tons of mud. We had to do mud testing to find the right mud that would stick to you. And it was all sort of funny the first day, because it was 70 degrees. And we all just jumped in the mud, and you have to wallow around and you get up and you start shooting. But first of all, that stuff adds another 20 to 30 pounds. And you're running, and you're like, "Jesus..." You know, all of a sudden you're running in mud. But the next day, it was 20 degrees, and we were covered in the mud. And then it was just mudsicles--you know, we looked like fudgesicles out there. Then it was miserable. [laughs] And it was about three or four days of truly miserable shooting. It took us a week to do that whole sequence. It's really complicated because [of] a lot of that CGI around it--you know, we couldn't have 50,000 people there. So it was always about being able to shoot it, and the pieces that you could use in this sort of a section. So it was trickier than anything I had done before. But the mud was terrible. As you can imagine.

You've had small roles in your previous directorial efforts Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck, but this was the first time you've been at the helm for a film in which you were the lead. How did that double duty work out for you?

It's tricky, because there is an enormous amount of narcissism that comes into play. [laughs] You know, you're breaking the trust between two actors, in particular when you're in the lead. If you and I are doing a scene together and we're talking, I'm not supposed to be judging you as an actor. Now, a lot of actors do, and then they'll tell you what to do. [laughs] But in general, you're not supposed to break that trust. The director is. So you have to go to each of the actors before you start and say, "Listen, this is going to be awkward." And you just get it out in the open and lay it out early and say, "It's going to be strange all the way around." As an actor, it's easy because I know specifically, precisely what I need in the scene. So I've cut out one step, which is the director having to explain it. But it's embarrassing when you're sitting across from Renee and she's doing a tremendous job in the scene, and you can feel the camera is in too close too soon. And then you just go, "Okay, cut. You're in too soon. Let's try it again." And it's a weird, awkward thing. But you just acknowledge it right off the bat and get it over with.

Would you want to direct another film in which you were the lead?

No. The truth is, I did it because this was a part that for a long, long, long time, I wanted to play, and I thought I was the right guy to play it. And I also thought, "I'm 46. If I don't do it now, I'm done. This is it. This is my last shot at it." And [Steven] Soderbergh was going to direct it in 1998 when we were going to do it. And I was very excited about that prospect, and then things kind of moved on. And the script wasn't in shape. We were in sort of pre-production. We had an outline. We had two or three scenes that we loved and characters we loved, but we didn't have a plot. So right after Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana, everything that was coming to me was "issues films"...And I had a great fear of being the "issues director," because the issues change, and I have a much bigger interest in being a director. So I thought, "Well, I want to do something that's completely away from this." And I like screwing with different genres, and this is a world I knew a little bit of--the kind of style of film I knew...So I was sort of stuck in this world where I was going to direct it and I was going to play the lead. What I hadn't really paid attention to was I was also going to play football, you know? And it hurt. [laughs] The first day I got hit by some 21-year-old...Knocked me on my ass, and I was like, "Okay, I'm in trouble, because I've got four more months of this." [laughs] But I wouldn't, by design, do a film that I would play the lead in ever again. It was really one of those things where it's like all of it came together very quickly. It was a dumb move in some ways, because it was like a little bit too much to take on.

So...Why no cameo from you in the recent "Jimmy Kimmel is F*cking Ben Affleck" video?

[laughs] You know, they asked me to. I was working. I would have liked to have been in that because I do love Jimmy Kimmel. [jokes] And I have been with Ben Affleck. And I will say, on the record, he is a bobcat in the sack.

There have been rumors about bringing the original characters back to ER for the final season. Is that something you'd be interested in?

All this stuff came up on the internet, and I got calls yesterday, and they were like, "I hear you're going back to ER!" I'm like, "I never heard of that."

Would you do it if asked?

I don't know. It would depend on who asked me. You know, [executive producer] John Wells is a good friend. I have a funny feeling it's not really fair to the other actors on the show, necessarily. But who knows? It's not something I'm against. I saw them yesterday. My office is 50 feet from the ER stage, so they're still family there. It's not like I've gone away.

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Interview with Renee Zellweger on Leatherheads
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