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George Clooney Reveals The Note He Got From Joel Coen That Totally Got Him Through His First O Brother, Where Art Thou? Scene

Sometimes, one simple line of direction from a filmmaker to an actor can completely shape a performance, changing something from abysmal to entertaining. One peek into the mindset of a storyteller can officially get actor and director on the same page, and serve as the final puzzle piece that snaps into place, freeing an actor to finally let their flag fly. This happened for George Clooney, a proven talent and an Oscar winner, when he was preparing to play one third of the brothers at the heart of Joel and Ethan Coen’s broad comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? Yes, Clooney bombed his signing audition for the movie, but he figured the rest of the story out. So, what was it that Joel said to get Clooney on the right path?

George Clooney sat down with frequent co-star Matt Damon for a fascinating back-and-forth conversation published in Interview Magazine. The old friends cover a wide range of topics, and really, the entire talk is worth your time. But when the duo got around to discussing notes that directors can (and don’t) give to actors, Clooney remembered:

The very first job I did with the Coen brothers was O Brother, Where Art Thou? I was nervous, man. It was the Coen brothers and they were already gods. And I had this great part, this idiot named Everett. On the first day, the first scene was the one where John Goodman hits me in the head with a branch and knocks corn out of my mouth. I did the scene in one take, and I played Everett like an idiot because he’s an idiot. Joel [Coen] came over and went, ‘Just remember you’re the smartest guy in the room in every room you walk into.’ That’s kind of the last thing he said to me for the whole movie. And I was like, ‘Oh fuck, of course. You’re right.’ It was freeing.

The difference there is that Joel and Ethan Coen created the character of Everett (even though O Brother is based on Greek mythology), so they knew all of the shades that they wanted to see in the performance. George Clooney was making a comparison to the minimal notes that he gave to Ben Affleck when directing him in the recent Amazon Prime Video movie, The Tender Bar. Affleck plays a warm-hearted and protective bar keep who takes it on himself to encourage his shy and different nephew. 

Of course, Coen was right, but credit also goes to George Clooney for figuring out exactly what that piece of performance advice meant, and how to bring it to the screen. Because Everett, in Clooney’s hands, does become one of the “smartest” dumb guys Hollywood has ever seen. He has a misplaced sense of superiority that gives him confidence to prevail in every unusual circumstance. The Coen brothers find comedy in that, and it’s exactly why O Brother, Where Art Thou? ranks as one of our all-time favorite Clooney movies.

Joel Coen has a totally different movie in theaters at the moment, The Tragedy of Macbeth with Denzel Washington and his wife, Frances McDormand. Here’s hoping he and his brother reteam with George Clooney for another comedy some time soon, because their rapport is to die for. 

Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. He's frequently found on Twitter at @Sean_OConnell. ReelBlend cohost. A movie junkie who's Infatuated with comic-book films. Helped get the Snyder Cut released, then wrote a book about it.