George Clooney: 'Our job is to provide six hours of escapism ... that is all'
It might be the golden age of television, but George Clooney is the first to admit it takes time to find the right script. Gemma Dunn reports
George Clooney's memory of Catch-22 harks back to his school days. And the Academy Award winner, who not only stars in, but produced and co-directed the upcoming TV adaptation of Joseph Heller's 1961 novel, remembers it well.
"It was one of the must-reads, but it was dense," he quips of the seminal title. "It's hard reading, it took a lot. But at the time, it felt like the kind of writing, the style of writing, that we hadn't seen much of.
"We've seen some since, but it's nice when you go back and read a book 40 years later and it doesn't let you down - that doesn't happen all that often."
"It's like when you see movies - my wife is considerably younger than me - and I say, 'Oh, you've gotta see this film, it's one of the greatest films I've ever seen' and we watch it and it's terrible now. What was I thinking?" says the actor who, at 58, is married to and has twins with human rights lawyer Amal (41).
The six-part anti-war satire, which will air on Channel 4, follows the ludicrous and darkly comic actions of US Air Force pilots during the Second World War, namely the incomparable Captain John Yossarian (played by Girls' Christopher Abbott), who is enraged that thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him.
Any attempt to forfeit his military assignments, however, threatens to put him in violation of Catch-22, a bureaucratic rule which states that a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, whereas a request to be removed from duty is evidence of sanity. Joining Yossarian is the obsessive Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler), the fierce Major de Coverley (Hugh Laurie) and the moustache-wielding Lieutenant (later Colonel and eventually General) Scheisskopf (Clooney).
Does he have a piqued interest?
"If I'm flicking through the channels, it's the History Channel that I end up on, just to watch old documentaries. There's also never a bad time to talk about trying to beat the system.
"I feel like we are facing a pretty absurd time in our lives, so any time we're able to laugh about it and remind ourselves that these things are temporary, it's probably a good thing to do."
But this isn't the novel's first revision. The popular classic was originally seen on the big screen in 1970, with Alan Arkin, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight and Art Garfunkel among its stellar cast.
This is simply a chance to tell it differently, Clooney recognises.
"It's a way to tackle this story that you haven't been able to do, that you couldn't do, in two hours," he says.
"We kill a lot of people, but when you kill them in the movie, you don't get to learn who Garfunkel's character is, or who Martin Sheen's character is, whereas, with a six-hour piece like this, their deaths have some resonance."
Known for his prolific Hollywood career, Clooney hasn't ventured far from the spotlight since his acting debut in 1978.
But it was his move behind the camera with biographical spy comedy Confessions of a Dangerous Mind in 2002 that's seen him go on to become an accomplished director, producer and filmmaker.
Today, he just wants to make something, "well, good".
"It's hard to find good pieces of material; I read tonnes of c***, quite honestly, and go, 'Oh my God, they're going to make this and do a show or a movie. Oh my God'. And then they do.
"We got handed six scripts for Catch-22 that were spectacular and I thought, 'Well, I'd like to see that show and I'd like to be involved in whatever way I can'. Because our main job is to supply six hours of escapism and entertainment and, hopefully, do a good job with that, that's all."
As a busy dad-of-two, he has to think carefully about his next steps too.
"If you're going to direct something that's going to take one-and-a-half years out of your life, with kids, it has to be something that you're willing to take a risk on, something that's worth doing.
"I have been lucky in my career; I've had some things that have been very fun and easy and stuff and then you kind of go, 'What's the next level?' And you want to take some chances, you want to try some interesting stuff.
"I've never really cared about what the medium was. I just wanted to do good work. Television is really allowing you to do the same kind of interesting work that I was able to do in smaller, independent films before.
"So, what really matters is the content. That's all you care about."
- Catch-22, Channel 4, Thursday, 9pm