George Clooney has a message for anyone criticizing the Oscars for a lack of diversity: You’re looking in the wrong place. “It’s less about the Academy and more about the industry,” said the 56-year-old actor-director during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I think we need to get more interesting young minority filmmakers getting their films out. It was great to see ‘Moonlight’ do what it did. I’m happy to see that. We need more of those.”
As another awards season takes flight, there are fewer buzzy fall titles with people of color and women directors, which has already raised fears of another #OscarsSoWhite sequel. Clooney, however, thinks that the film industry needs to change its ways if Oscar voters want diverse options. He offered a recent example of a project he was offered a few weeks ago. “It’s like an action film, but similar to ‘The Dirty Dozen,’” he said. “I was reading it, and I was thinking, I’m not the right guy to do this part, but why aren’t you getting Idris Elba to play this? He’s a leading man. There’s no reason why this character can’t be black.”
Elba, whose last star vehicle was the poorly received sci-fi-western “The Dark Tower,” has a history of being under-appreciated in the film industry. In 2016, his lack of a supporting actor nomination for “Beasts of No Nation” was often cited as an example of one major performance overlooked by the Academy when it all the acting nominees were white. Most recently, rumors that Elba had been in talks to play James Bond were put to bed by Sony, which re-upped Daniel Craig’s contract.
“Clearly, the star system isn’t what it used to be, where you put a name out there and everybody comes to see the movie,” Clooney said. “So why isn’t Idris asked to play this guy? Why isn’t Idris in line for the next Bond? Where is the studio’s imagination?”
Despite his progressive philanthropic causes, most of Clooney’s work hasn’t led the charge for diversity. “Suburbicon” is his first big project to deal with racism. The movie, which Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov spruced up from an old Coen brothers project, stars Matt Damon as a blue-collar man in an exaggerated ’50s suburban setting enmeshed in a crime gone wrong — but the movie’s central motif is the neighborhood impact of a black family who moves onto the same block.
The family is heckled around the clock by Confederate flag-bearing white people, images that have particular resonance in the wake of the Charlottesville riots. Clooney started working on the movie during the 2016 election, but said he wasn’t surprised that more recent events echoes its themes.
“Of course, Charlottesville happens, because every few years Charlottesville happens again,” he said. “We keep forgetting that we haven’t excised that original sin completely. When I was growing up in Kentucky, the civil-rights movement had its big wave and segregation was exorcised from this country. We really felt like we were on this trajectory toward it all being finished. It wasn’t something you thought would be around. It’s a surprise that it’s still a part of our world.”
As a filmmaker, Clooney said it took years for him to tackle race because he had yet to find the right project. “A lot of people ask me why I haven’t done any movies about Darfur or South Sudan,” he said, recalling his advocacy in the region. “Well, I haven’t found the script that’s right to do it. My personal life and where I go — philanthropic things — have always been toward whatever is inclusive, not exclusive. That’s always been an important part of my life. It’s just hard to find those films.”
But Clooney added that he would rather see more minority filmmakers work their way into the industry, echoing the rise of Mexican filmmakers in Hollywood over a decade ago — the so-called “Three Amigos” of Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, and Guillermo del Toro, whose “The Shape of Water” just won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival.
“All these great Mexican filmmakers showed up, it was like, fuck, this is great filmmaking,” Clooney said. “That’s what I’d like to see… some really interesting young filmmakers out there. You want to feel something fresh and new constantly. You want people pushing the limits. There’s a way to make things much cheaper now so there are a lot of different voices out there.”
He also acknowledged the need for stronger female-centric projects. “I feel as if our industry has lost sight of what we could do well,” he said. “In the ‘30s, seven of the top 10 movie stars were women. Now, it’s really hard for women. There are a few — the Jennifer Lawrences of the world — but mostly, they’re having a tough time and we’re going, ‘Well, why? What’s happened?’ And women aren’t the minority, by the way.”
He placed the blame at studio executives’ feet. “The thing is, when a business is run by a certain group of people who can’t see putting a 45-year-old woman as a romantic lead, well, that’s a problem,” he said. “You need to be able to say, she’s still sexy.”
Needless to say, he’s not hopeful about the prospects of a diverse Oscar season in the wake of the “Moonlight” win. “I have a sense that now that’s happened, they’ll be like, well, we did it, and move on.”
“Suburbicon” opens October 27.