LOS ANGELES — Asked what it's like to be buddies with "The Monuments Men" star and director George Clooney, actor Matt Damon smiles and explains it can be a little annoying.
"It's like God said, 'Maybe this time I'll give one of them everything. I'll make him handsome. As he gets older, I'll make him look even better,' " says Damon, who calls Clooney "obscenely talented" as a director as Clooney hands him $20 bills.
The payoff is done merely for a laugh.
Clooney has already shown he's got just as much talent behind the camera as in front of it with "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Leatherheads" and "The Ides of March." The Oscar-winning actor's latest project highlights Clooney's continuing goal to find stories that others would never attempt.
"We're always interested in stories that are unique and no slam dunks for the studio to make. It will require us to sort of pick it up and carry it in. It's hard to make films like this. It took us a long time to get 'Argo' (on which he was one of the producers) made. With 'Good Night, Good Luck,' I mortgaged my house to make it," Clooney says. "We are just trying not to do films where everyone would walk in and say, 'Yeah, that's an easy one.'
"Sometimes they are successful and sometimes they aren't. But, they are the films we want to make."
Military movies have a good track record. But, as per Clooney's mandate, "The Monuments Men" is about more than opposing forces shooting at each other. The film, based on the true story of the greatest treasure hunt in history, looks at a group of seven over-the-hill, out-of-shape museum directors, artists, architects, curators and art historians sent to the front lines during WWII to rescue the masterpieces stolen by the Nazis.
Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Cate Blanchett also star.
Clooney knows saving art doesn't sound that exciting, but this is more than a film about art lovers.
"What we have to remind people is what we're talking about isn't just these paintings on the wall that some people can look at and some can't. But it's also about culture. It's about the fabric of a culture. It's mankind's way of recording history," Clooney says.
Blanchett, who plays a woman who holds the key to the secret location of thousands of priceless pieces of stolen art, saw Clooney's passion for this story when he pitched her the idea. She sees "The Monuments Men" as a reflection of Clooney's love of acting and directing accented by the humanitarian work he's done.
Being behind the camera for "The Monuments Men" was a thrill for Clooney. Of all the parts of filmmaking that he's done, directing is a primary love.
It's been three years since Clooney directed "The Ides of March," a delay caused by the amount of time it takes for him to find, prepare, shoot and edit a film. In the dozen years since he directed "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," Clooney worked in front of the camera as a way of perfecting his directing skills.
"All you are trying do is learn from the people you work with and I've worked with some very talented directors," Clooney says. "You look at what they are doing and steal it. You keep slugging away at it. I don't know if I'm improving as a director but it's evolving in different directions."
His heart may be behind the camera, but in a world full of actors Clooney is one of the few who can be called a movie star. That status didn't come overnight. It was built on a career full of guest starring and starring roles on TV shows like "Hotel," "Murder, She Wrote" and "Baby Talk." It wasn't until he played the charming Dr. Ross on "ER" 20 years ago that his star status became clear.
It was a lot of work to get to where he is today and Clooney has no regrets.
"When you start out as an actor, you're just trying to get a job. I wasn't really motivated to be the sixth banana on 'The Facts of Life.' But, I was thrilled to have the job," he says. "Things just change as time goes on."
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.