You probably don’t know this, but George Clooney and Viola Davis are good friends. They’re not an obvious pair: Clooney, 50, comes from a showbiz family and costarred in countless failed pilots before hitting it big as a leading man in television and movies, while Davis, 46, grew up in poverty in Rhode Island before making a name for herself as a stage actress and stalwart supporting player on screen. But they’ve become close after appearing together in three movies, all directed or exec-produced by Steven Soderbergh: 1998’s crime caper Out of Sight (in which they never actually shared a scene), 2002’s pensive sci-fi drama Solaris, and 2005’s political study Syriana. And one of these stars has slept in the other one’s house. You’ll have to read on to hear the details.
Soon Clooney and Davis could have something else in common: lead-acting Oscar wins. At this halfway point of the awards season, they are the respective Best Actor and Best Actress front-runners — Clooney, a past Supporting Actor winner for Syriana, anchors the family drama The Descendants with his droll and touching performance as Hawaii dad Matt King, and Davis, previously nominated in the Supporting Actress race for Doubt, provides the emotional center of the smash literary adaptation The Help with her moving turn as forthright maid Aibileen Clark. Relaxing together before the onslaught of awards shows, Clooney and Davis talk about their evolving friendship, the politics of campaigning for an Oscar, and why they just might find themselves skydiving together soon.
EW You’re both in successful films right now, but it’s kind of funny that you first met on Solaris, which is one of the biggest flops of this millennium.
George Clooney I remember we went to the premiere at the Cinerama Dome on Sunset and it was packed. And it was really not a movie made for feeling good. Brad [Pitt] was there, and when it was over, he leaned over and said, ”Oh, man, that’s a rough one!”
Viola Davis It wasn’t made for the masses, but I was proud of it. I was proud of what we did with it, making sense out of something that was not mainstream. I don’t think it was a complete failure. So many people come up to me now who really loved it.
EW What kind of relationship have you two had in the decade since?
Clooney We did Syriana together.
Davis And I begged him to let me stay at his villa in Lake Como for my honeymoon.
Clooney I had just bought the place. And she was getting married, which I tried to talk her out of. [Laughs] But that didn’t work out, so she had her honeymoon at my place.
EW Were you there too, George?
Clooney I wasn’t there. That was her request!
Clooney We were the only ones in the villa. It’s a 22-room villa!
EW Did you make a pizza in his pizza oven?
Davis I didn’t make the pizza. His staff made the pizza.
EW You both have gotten such acclaim for your performances in The Help and The Descendants. What would you say these roles allowed you to do on screen that you hadn’t before?
Davis It was my first lead role.
Davis First lead role ever in a movie. So it was my first time to really create a character from beginning to end. I’ve always just shown up and, whatever my lines are, I just do it, like almost robotic in a way. But this is the first time I felt a huge responsibility — to the African-American community, to the people who read the book. A lot was on our shoulders.
Clooney For me as an actor, I’m trying to figure out what I’m ill at ease with and try to go there. I’ve played a lot of characters that had their act together, or thought they did. [In The Descendants], this is a guy who’s never won an argument. It’s a coming-of-age film for a 50-year-old man. And I liked it. I was nervous. And when you’re nervous, that’s a good thing.
EW What was it like to see your performances edited together for the first time?
Davis Maybe George has a different experience, but I’m always horrified watching myself. When you watch yourself, for me, it’s about vanity. When you’re acting, it’s about the work. I gained 25 pounds, and I’m not small to begin with. Things like that I was just more aware of. But ultimately I have to say, with The Help, one of the things I’m really happy about is that it’s moving people. As much as critics are chirping away — ”Why is Hollywood still portraying that same image of black maids?” — in the midst of all that is a very human story that you don’t see a lot of. It’s a mixed-race cast and 99 percent women.
Clooney I watch things differently in the last few years since I’ve been directing. I’m able to remove myself a little more and say, ”I understand why he used this take instead of a take I thought would be better.” Even things where people go, ”You really nailed it,” you go back and watch it and say, ”Wow, I could’ve done so many different things.”
EW So what could each of you have done better in these movies?
Davis Like we’re going to tell you that!
Clooney Yeah, exactly! But Viola just said something really true, which is that, forgetting people of color, women in general — this is an industry that in the ’30s, the major stars were women. And there’s this strange thing that’s happened over the last 25 or 30 years where there’s this decision being made that women aren’t able to carry the box office. Now, Bridesmaids has proved that to be bulls—, and The Help has proven it to be bulls—. But it’s much harder to get a film with a woman lead made. When a man hits 40 is when roles just begin to happen. And for women it doesn’t happen. I find that to be a very concerning issue.
EW Speaking of which, I was looking up how many African-American nominees there have been in each acting category in history, and Best Actress has the fewest. Why do you think that is?
Davis It has eight, I believe. And only one black actress in history has been back [at the Oscars] more than once, and that’s Whoopi Goldberg. But that’s only because there aren’t a lot of roles out there that are going to bring you back. Say if you have two great roles for an African-American actress in a year — one actress can cover it. So if there’s five really good black actresses out there, and that one actress gets it all, then the other four can sit for the next three years.
EW You both have been through the Oscar-campaign process before. What would people be most surprised to learn about how it works?
Clooney You use the word campaign. I’ve actually done it [for Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck] where it was like a campaign, like kissing babies. You can justify it by saying, ”I’m helping the movie,” but you cross a line where it starts to feel like you’re only helping yourself. And it starts to feel unclean. So I haven’t done that version of it since then. I didn’t do it for Up in the Air or Michael Clayton. So the word campaigning isn’t part of it anymore.
Davis People feel like you’re self-generating all of this publicity. If people are saying, ”Who’s going to win Best Actress? Is it going to be Meryl or Viola?” then somehow it’s like we’re the driving force behind that article. Like we’re chirping in your ear. They don’t know how putrid it is, even for us. Because the worst parts of yourself can come out if people plant it in your head that you have to win.
EW Okay, so at the risk of bringing out the ugly, what do you each make of your competition? With Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep in the picture, you’ll both be up against good friends.
Clooney Brad is my pal, and we’re a long way from that discussion anyway. But I’d like living in a world where Brad Pitt has an Academy Award. I watched Moneyball and I couldn’t do what Brad does. I watched The Artist and that guy [Jean Dujardin] is fantastic. I know people like to pit people against people, but I just don’t feel that way about performances. I could feel that way as a director at times, about interpreting scripts or interpreting story.
Davis Can you wrap your mind around someone throwing you into the ring with Meryl Streep? You are in a fight with a 500-pound gorilla. I mean, you just throw up your hands. I just don’t understand the competition thing. How can you compare two actors’ performances? How do you say one is better than the other?
Clooney I know how you do it. [To Davis] Do you want to know? I’m telling you right now: You have to play Margaret Thatcher and she has to play the maid.
Davis There you go. Now, you’re going to have some problems with Meryl Streep putting on blackface for Aibileen, but…
EW You’re both at the top of your game these days. But what’s the most brazen thing you did to climb the Hollywood ladder when you were struggling?
Clooney I was with this really crappy agency when I first moved to L.A. I literally went up for two roles in a year. And I was dating a girl who worked at the agency. So I created this character, Josh Reynolds, who was an agent at Artists First. And I would call casting directors and pitch myself, and when they would call back and ask for Josh Reynolds, the girl I was dating would call me and say, ”All right, you got a call from this person.” And I would call back as the agent. I got myself a bunch of auditions.
Davis That’s really brave! I have never done anything crazying. I’m just too wimpy.
EW What’s your feeling on Ricky Gervais hosting the Globes again? Are you prepared to be made fun of?
Clooney I have been made fun of my whole life! He makes me laugh. I think people will be a little more prepared this time.
Davis The one thing you have to have in this profession is a sense of humor. You’re being made fun of at the Golden Globe Awards and you’re going to go home and complain? I know people who aren’t eating tonight.
EW You’ve been in three movies together, but what’s a movie that you two can now do as coleads?
Clooney We should come up with something.
Davis Maybe a remake of The Defiant Ones, but with me as Sidney Poitier.
EW And while we’re here, let’s make a pact. If you both win the Oscar, what’s something that you’ve never done that you will do together to celebrate?
Davis I would jump out of a plane with this man.
Clooney That’s it! And I will wear a parachute.