"Everyone says be careful about George because he is such a prankster," says Evan Rachel Wood about George Clooney's penchant for pulling tricks on his cast members.
"I think he just does it to keep from going crazy," says Ryan Gosling, who along with Wood stars in Clooney's "The Ides of March," opening today. The trick for the superstar will be how audiences see it -- either as a thriller set in a political world or a political drama masked as a thriller. Whichever way, the film will likely add some spin to the debate over whether Americans have become too cynical or disillusioned about politics.
Last month, Clooney told an audience at the Toronto International Film Festival, "I think it's a film about moral choices and that doesn't have any political stripes."
In "Ides," Clooney, who directed, produced and co-wrote the film, plays Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris, a charming, seemingly straight-arrow presidential candidate facing a tough fight in the Ohio Democratic primary. (The title, an obvious nod to Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," is also a reference to primary day.) Morris' campaign is run by the experienced Paul Zara (Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman), with hotshot media strategist Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) his second-in-command. Wood's Molly is an attractive young intern, but is no stranger to the hard world of politics since her dad is chairman of the Democratic Party.
Because of the compromises and betrayals involved in the
plot, "Ides" has drawn comparisons to some real-life campaigns, including those of John Edwards and Howard Dean. But Clooney and Grant Heslov, his producing and writing partner, note that they were working on the script long before the Edwards scandal broke, and the Dean reference has been around even before that. "Ides" is based on the play "Farragut North" by Beau Willimon, who worked for Dean in his 2004 campaign and also co-wrote the screenplay.
As for political stripes, Heslov says he and Clooney -- who is often seen as the poster boy for those who attack political activism in Hollywood -- knew they would be "slammed" if they made the candidate a Republican who slept with an intern. "At least as a Democrat we can compromise and everybody hates us," jokes Heslov.
"Ides" was in the works when President Obama took office in 2009, and the mood of the country, Clooney and Heslov felt, was so positive that they delayed moving ahead on the project.
"After a year of his presidency went by, we sort of felt that we are back in it again," says Heslov, referring to the political climate.
"This isn't an indictment of Obama. It's really an indictment of the whole process."
In "Farragut North," Morris was only referred to, but the "Ides" filmmakers decided to open the action up. "We were interested in upping the moral ante. We thought it was important to have him," says Heslov about Morris.
Like the play though, "Ides" is focused on Gosling's Stephen, who at heart is an idealist, but is clever and knows the stakes.
Winning is important to him because it gets the right man in the White House even if in other ways he's the wrong man. "We wanted to create this dilemma for Stephen which didn't exist in the play," says Heslov, who directed "The Men Who Stare at Goats," which he and Clooney produced. "We were interested in the story of a guy who gets the (expletive) beaten out of him and regroups to decide how he's going to play it. And in this case he goes for blood."
Gosling, who is currently filming "Gangster Squad," about the Los Angeles Police Department's battle with organized crime in the 1940s and '50s, says he always thought of "Ides" as a "monster movie." On the poster for the film, Gosling's face is split with Clooney's. The actor thinks the image of the two-faced man reflects his character.
"At the beginning when things are going well, it's easy for him to believe that his intentions are altruistic," says Gosling, 30, "but when (things go bad) a lot of ugly qualities are unearthed and he becomes an ugly person."
Heslov and Clooney had compared Stephen's situation to Al Pacino's Michael Corleone in "The Godfather," in
which he starts out as someone not involved in the dirty family business but ends up in charge. "We wanted to paint a picture that had that kind of feeling," says Heslov.
That may seem dark, but "It's probably not our best moment in politics," said Clooney in Toronto, acknowledging the current political environment. The 50-year-old actor got to see election politics up close when his father, journalist and television host Nick Clooney, lost his 2004 campaign as the Democratic candidate for a congressional seat in Kentucky.
Gosling found it wasn't difficult to relate to his character because being in the spotlight, he knows that he has to be careful with what he says. "My instinct is to tell the truth, but I know what I say can be taken out of context and used for parts. You have to be very careful," he says.
For Wood, 24, all it took was a phone call from Clooney to get her to play the pivotal role of Molly, whom she describes as someone caught between religion and politics while having a good heart.
"Weirdly," says Wood, who received an Emmy nomination for her role in HBO's "Mildred Pierce," "I kind of based Molly off of George, because when he was explaining the character to me, he was kind of embodying this whole vibe. So I thought, 'OK, I'll just play you."'
Wood says shooting on the set was relaxed.
"George really let us play around as much as we wanted," says the actress, who began her career at 5. "Sometimes we just began improvising the scene and then we'd go into the real dialogue."
Wood describes the actor-director as "very laid-back and smart. He has the whole movie planned in his head beforehand; so he really knows what he wants."
On the set she fell prey to Clooney's practical jokes. While waiting for a scene to begin, she and Max Minghella, who plays a Morris aide, started singing and dancing to a Justin Bieber number, when she noticed everybody else was quiet. When she looked up she saw Clooney smiling and waving at her. He had been filming the whole thing.
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