When George Clooney says, "As an actor, I'm somewhat of a hack," the most disarming thing is how freely and unself-consciously he cops to the charge. This is not a man letting us in on a secret that torments his soul, nor is this a previously deluded thespian coming to a shocking revelation. It's simply the matter of an incredibly popular guy understanding that he is phenomenally lucky, and not wanting to cloud the issue with tedious meditations on "the craft."
He elaborates: "I find myself stealing from the actors that I really like as opposed to coming up with interesting choices on my own." Without a trace of guile, he happily tells you that every other performer who stands alongside him on "ER," the highest-rated series in television, does better work than he does (they are, in fact, among those from whom he steals), and adds, "The truth is, you don't have to be a great actor on a show that's this well written."
As for an anecdote about his abilities, he mentions a play he once appeared in, which was seen by his uncle, Jose Ferrer. "I was crying and yelling and spitting and doing everything in it. Joe was sitting in the back, and afterward I went to him and said, 'What do you think?' And he said, 'I would say to you, Get the scenery out of your mouth, you don't know where it's been!' "
So, what accounts for all his success? "I hired a good publicist," he answers.
Of course, it's easy to be that self-effacing when nearly everyone else in Hollywood disagrees. Mr. Clooney, 34, the first "ER" cast member hired for the show, received an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Doug Ross, the pediatrician who is dedicated to his work when he's on the clock and equally dedicated to womanizing and partying when he's off.
As "ER" producer John Wells allows, "He's so personable and good-looking, and your first impulse is to think that he doesn't have the chops as an actor. I knew he could do the part -- I thought he was the part. But when you see him carry scenes, you see his strength as an actor, that was a revelation. He's going to be a tremendous success. That's one of the reasons we want to keep him happy."
The son of TV personality Nick Clooney and nephew of singer Rosemary Clooney (who at one time was married to Jose Ferrer), he's tirelessly agreeable and celebrated as a relentless practical joker. Divorced once, he dismisses his status as a hunk by saying, "I'm a flavor of the month, it's just been a very long month."
But underneath the easygoing exterior there's a powerful load of ambition and a better sense of the business side of show business than most actors possess, or would ever admit to having.
"When you've failed enough -- I've failed so many times, I did five pilots in one year, which is some kind of record -- you just learn how to be good at the business," he says. "I'm probably better at the business side than I am at acting. I've always understood how quickly these things go away and how, when you have some clout, you can use it."
In director Robert Rodriguez's "From Dusk Till Dawn," which opened Friday, he plays a killer on the lam who, with Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis and Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the script) in tow, unexpectedly stumbles into a strip club overrun with vampires.
What Mr. Wells refers to as keeping Mr. Clooney happy turns out to mean tinkering with "ER's" production schedule so he can appear in films. The "ER" schedule is in the process of being rigged so that he can co-star with Michelle Pfeiffer in the romantic comedy "One Fine Day." But even if the dates can't work for that, Mr. Clooney will enjoy a $3 million payday during the series' hiatus by starring in "Peacekeeper," an adventure thriller about nuclear terrorists that's slated to be DreamWorks SKG's long-awaited maiden theatrical release.
To star in "Peacekeeper," he had to abandon another $3 million paycheck for another movie, "The Green Hornet," though he promised that film's producers that he would return to the project next year if they can wait.
Mr. Tarantino says his co-star's future stardom is "pretty well a no-brainer. He has it, it's literally that simple. He has that young Steve McQueen or Robert Mitchum quality."
While "Dusk" might seem an unlikely first post-stardom film, Mr. Clooney says that once "ER" emerged as an instant hit, "I got offered a couple of leads in movies, the first million-dollar payday for me, and I thought, 'Wow, that's great,' and then read it and said, 'You know, I can't do it.' I couldn't have my first film be this big payday and end up being this cheesy thing. Because I'd ice that end of my career. I spent my life doing bad television and bit by bit worked my way up to better and better television.
"Now that things are really popping for me, it makes it that much more difficult. Because I only get a chance to squeeze in one, maybe two films a year. Which makes films a lot more important to me, they have to do better."
And Mr. Clooney is very circumspect about what he picks. "From Dusk Till Dawn" appealed to him because it was an ensemble piece; he wasn't required to carry the film. Same with "One Fine Day" -- "I'd be covering a lot of genres and because Michelle is clearly the movie star and the lead, I get to ride on her tremendous coattails. On neither this film nor Michelle's would I be the person on whose shoulders it's carried.
"On the DreamWorks project, my advantage is that although I'm the lead, the movie itself is the star, the action and the scale. These movies have a life of their own where you could put a lot of different people in them and they would still hold up."
Mr. Clooney insists that "ER" is not simply a sleek vehicle existing solely to drive him to movie stardom. "About 15 of the 22 shows we do on this series a year are as good as most feature films you see, and we do those in eight days," he says. "It's something to be proud of. This is one of the few times in my experience where I've felt, 'Hey, this isn't just not bad, it's good.' "
The series has become a habit for more than 35 million viewers weekly, thanks to its adrenalin-charged look at the breakneck-paced chaos in a Chicago emergency room. Due to its large ensemble cast performing delicately choreographed maneuvers and spouting complex medical jargon during elaborate shots, Mr. Clooney says, "The style of the show was the star of the show, initially -- the style of the show and the time slot. I'm not complaining, but it's an enormously difficult job. But we kind of revel in it now, we've gotten good at it."
Though he and the other actors may have the occasional side project, Mr. Clooney says: "No one has any interest in going anywhere because most of us have worked a long time on bad projects. Once you've done those, you really understand when it's nice."
But his ambition once again slips through when he returns to his bedeviling schedule -- with the series and all the films, he's booked for a solid year, and then some. "The good news is, I have a show to go back to," he says with a laugh, "and the bad news is, I have a show to go back to."