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George Clooney: 'The pandemic has shown us there are no borders'

The actor-director says this year has driven home the need to stay connected with our fellow humans — a message also at the core of his new sci-fi thriller

Of the seven films he has directed, George Clooney’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller The Midnight Sky is certainly his most ambitious in terms of technical logistics. It also delivers a heartfelt message.

Clooney plays Augustine, who might be the last man on Earth, an ageing scientist with terminal cancer who is manning an observatory in the Arctic Circle. Things change when a mute seven-year-old girl, Iris (Caoilinn Springall), appears. He rescues her, and they trek together through a radioactive ice storm to a station from which they hope to contact other human beings evacuated into orbit.

It is Clooney’s third foray into the sci-fi genre, having appeared in Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, a disappointing 2002 remake of Tarkovsky’s 1972 masterpiece, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), an Oscar-winning hit. Yet despite its big-budget price tag ($100m) and scope, Clooney perceives The Midnight Sky as an intimate epic. “I loved the idea of a small story of redemption and regret placed within a larger existential canvas,” he says.

The actor, who boasts eight Oscar nominations and two wins — Best Supporting Actor for 2005’s Syriana and as co-producer of the 2012 Best Picture winner Argo — is picky about his choices: “It’s not all that often that you get to read a good piece of material.”

Talking from his home in Hollywood, where the family has spent most of the lockdown months, he explains: “Netflix sent it to me to act in, and I thought it was a great part. But I had an interesting take on the story, so I called up Scott Stuber [head of Netflix’s film division] and said, ‘I know how to do this one as a director. We need to take out a lot of the dialogue, because it should be sort of a melancholy meditation.’”

Clooney, 59, was inspired by a childhood memory of watching the 1962 movie Gigot, in which Jackie Gleason plays a poor, abused janitor, who is also mute and is transformed when he begins taking care of a little girl and her mother.

Diane Gardner and Jackie Gleason in ‘Gigot’, one of George Clooney’s inspirations behind ‘The Midnight Sky’ © Shutterstock

“In ER, I played a paediatrician who was sometimes a womaniser and a drunk, but he always took care of kids,” he says. “And once you have that, you can do almost anything — you can be angry and flawed — because they’ll always say, ‘But he still likes kids!’"

Clooney was also drawn to the fact that, despite the post-apocalyptic nature of the story of The Midnight Sky, there was room for optimism. “I really loved what it said about redemption. If you’re going to do something that’s pretty dark and doesn’t give you a big hole in your chest, at least there’s a feeling that we might get out intact.”

The Midnight Sky is scripted by Mark L Smith, and based on the novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton. “I hadn’t read the book,” Clooney explains, “but I thought the script was a beautiful story about what we are capable of doing to one another if we don’t pay attention, if we don’t listen to science, if we don’t worry about division and hatred.

“It reminded me of a modern-day telling of On the Beach [Stanley Kramer’s 1959 nuclear disaster movie, with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner], although that was more nihilistic and grimmer than The Midnight Sky, which has hope and redemption.”

Clooney as Augustine and Caoilinn Springall as Iris in ‘The Midnight Sky’

The scale initially was intimidating: “The project involved more than 300 people, because we were basically shooting two different movies: one in the Arctic Circle, and another on Earth. I knew it was going to be a miserable shoot, but you don’t mind that if it’s a project that really excites you.”

Dwelling on the movie’s message, he says: “Regret is a really dangerous thing — it can eat you alive. We all regret dumb things we’ve done, but real regret has to do with feeling, ‘All these years have just run out, and I didn’t accomplish the things I wanted to.’

“My character is seeking redemption before it’s too late. He wants to make everything right for the things he didn’t do. That search for redemption is deep in all of us, for whatever our ills are, and our movie is about a pretty major one.”

This is a beautiful story about what we are capable of doing to one another if we don’t pay attention, if we don’t listen to science

The film wrapped just as the pandemic hit the world, making its core human message all the more urgent. “As the crisis took over, it became clearer that what was most important in the story was the ability to communicate with one another and the need to be with the people we love.

“Moments like this, a year like this, drive the reality that we need to be connected, to make sure that we make use of every day in the best possible way.

“I was raised to believe that we are all in this together, and we’re going to get out of this together. This pandemic has shown us more than anything that there are no borders; the virus doesn’t care about country or class.”

Clooney with cast and crew on the filming of ‘The Midnight Sky’ © Philippe Antonello/Netflix

The crisis has had a profound impact on Clooney’s personal agenda. “Lately, my focus has been on so many other things. I’ve got twins, Ella and Alexander, and my wife Amal and I have a foundation: there’s an awful lot of work to do in the world besides just acting and directing.

“I’m coming from a comfortable place in life right now. I’ve been very lucky, and I have the opportunity to spend more time focusing on issues that matter to me, and I hope matter to the world.”

The importance of looking out for others was something instilled in Clooney during his upbringing in Kentucky, where his father was a radio presenter and television anchorman, and his mother was a councillor. “From the time I was very young, every Christmas morning we would go to some stranger’s house, people who were having a bad time. We would bring the whole family presents. I had to mow lawns and rake leaves to buy presents for kids I had never met before. That’s an element we will instil in our children, that we’re responsible for one another, and not just the immediate family.”

Asked whether he has changed as a performer since becoming a father in 2017, he says: “A good script’s a good script. I don’t have to be a heroin addict to play a heroin addict, and I don’t have to be a father to play a father, which I did before [in 2011 in The Descendants].”

But Clooney does enjoy telling one anecdote about being a working father. “I had to do some harrowing scenes where I fall in the water. We did it in a giant tub out in the soundstage in London, and my kids came to visit that day. I had to come out in this awful moment, and I’ve lost my thing that keeps me alive, and my daughter’s going, ‘Papa, I want to come swimming with you!’ So now when I tell my kids that I have to go to work, they think I go swimming.”

‘The Midnight Sky’ is in cinemas now and on Netflix from December 23

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