George Clooney sure knows how to work a room.
In the ballroom of the swanky Langham Hotel in Pasadena, California – where over 100 members of the media are gathered for the annual Television Critics Association press conferences – Clooney jokes and talks with ease.
The last time he was at a similar press conference was over two decades ago, as part of the cast member of the hit medical drama ER.
He was asked to reminisce about his first time at the TCA. “All of you were here. And you,” he points to the journalist who posed the question, “I remember you. You look exactly the same. I want you to know that.”
The room howls with laughter.
Clooney is back at the TCA because he is back on TV after finding fame as a leading man on the silver screen since he quit ER in 1999. He doesn’t only return to TV as an actor but he also serves as a director and executive producer.
The project is Catch-22, a six-part series based on the 1961 novel by Joseph Heller. The novel is considered one of the most influential books of the last century and, in 1970, was turned into a movie directed by Mike Nichols.
The story revolves around John Yossarian, an American bombardier serving in World War II. He is not exactly thrilled about killing people and neither is he thrilled being a target every time he goes out on a mission.
Understandably, he’s trying to find a way out of his assignments. But the military, headed by Colonel Cathcart, keeps increasing the mission he must fulfil before he goes off duty. And if he avoids any of his assignments, then he’ll be in violation of Catch-22.
What’s Catch-22 you ask?
In this series, it’s a “bureaucratic rule which specifies that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers which are real and immediate is the process of a rational mind; a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but a request to be removed from duty is evidence of sanity and therefore makes him ineligible to be relieved from duty”, reads the synopsis.
Initially, Clooney was supposed to star as Cathcart but decided to relinquish the role to Friday Night Lights actor Kyle Chandler and took up a smaller role of Lieutenant Scheisskopf to dedicate his time in directing two episodes.
Clooney was familiar with the original source as he had read the book, a required reading when he was in high school. But when he was sent the script for three episodes to see if his production company, Smokehouse Pictures, was interested in adapting it to a series, Clooney passed at first.
“No, I didn’t want to do Catch-22. It seems ridiculous (to adapt it since) it’s a beloved novel,” says the 57-year-old.
More so considering the 1970 film wasn’t well-received; Nichols’ version was considered to be a confusing mess.
But after Clooney and his long-time producing partner and collaborator, Grant Heslov read the script, they were hooked. “I think (the writers) David (Michod) and Luke (Davies) did an amazing job with unspooling these characters and interpreting them in a way that we didn’t think was really possible,” Clooney offers.
Those familiar with the book would know that the author wrote it from several characters’ perspectives, and the timeline moves back and forth, oftentimes causing confusion for the readers.
Clooney says the timeline in the TV show, however, is linear compared to the book.
“We really hope that we’ve retained the kaleidoscope madness of the novel,” writer Davies explains, adding that he wanted the story to unfold in chronology so that the characters could have emotional journeys.
“The show really flows through Yossarian’s perspective. … There’s barely a single scene in the entire six hours in which the character is either not in it or very close by implicitly.”
This meant the casting for the lead role was crucial to the series since the actor is going to carry the weight of the whole show on his shoulders. “It requires the audience to be able to like and trust a character who does some pretty despicable things along the way. We knew we had to cast somebody that you could root for even when he did really rotten things,” Clooney says.
After looking through many actors and sending out offers to some, they settled on Christopher Abbot. The dashing actor, with his dark hair and doe eyes, has been working in Hollywood for the past decade but is best known for his supporting role in the HBO series Girls. In fact, that’s where Clooney first spotted Abbot and was impressed by his chops.
The series was shot in Sardinia, Italy in over five months.
To ensure the authenticity of the scenes involving the bomber planes, Clooney and his co-directors – Heslov and Ellen Kuras (each directed two episodes) – secured two original Mitchell B-25 planes and flew them to Sardinia for the shoot.
The planes, which could only fly five hours at a time, had to make seven stops before reaching its destination. “It was pretty wild. When the planes showed up at Sardinia, we were all standing out on the tarmac cheering,” Clooney remembers.
Sitting in the nose cone of the plane gave Abbot the sense of vulnerability Yossarian felt as a bombardier. “It was interesting to research what a bombardier did in World War II, what it felt like to be in the nose cone,” Abbot, 33, says.
“It’s claustrophobic, it gets really hot in there so it adds heat to the whole situation. It’s a very vulnerable place to be on the plane. If something terrible happened to a bombardier, the only way out was through a narrow tunnel.
“It was eye-opening to feel how dangerous it was, and I understood the fear, the pure fear Yossarian had in the story,” Abbot adds.
The role of Lieutenant Scheisskopf isn’t the first time Clooney plays a military man. He had done so in movies such as Three Kings (1999), The Good German (2006) and The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009).
For Clooney, whose father also served in the army, putting on a uniform helps inform him of the character he is playing. “I’ve done dozens of shows and films where I’ve worn a military uniform. And when you put it on, there’s of course a sense of pride but also a great sense of responsibility along the way.”
So, clothes makes the actor, then? “I will say that as an actor, with the exception of the Batsuit, any time you put on a costume it does help you get into character considerably.
“I was sad there weren’t nipples (on the military uniform),” Clooney jokes, referring to the infamous Batsuit – complete with Bat nipples – he wore when he played the Dark Knight in Batman & Robin in 1997.
The room howls with laughter again.
Catch-22 premieres on June 4 at 9.15pm on HBO (Astro Ch 411).