December 2011

I Spy

George Clooney turns long-lens photography into a force for good, aiming satellites at human-rights violations in Sudan
by JOHN HORN / portraits by RUVEN AFANADOR / styling by HAYLEY ATKIN / produced by HANNAH HARTE

  • Dolce & Gabbana wool turtleneck: $875, 310-888-8701, dolcegabbana.com.
  • In 2006: Clooney on his trip to a Darfur refugee camp...
  • ...after his U.N. Security Council address...
  • ...greeting the locals with dad Nick...
  • Comforting displaced elders with Prendergast in 2010.
  • Celebrating southern Sudan’s inaugural voting day with Prendergast, Jimmy Carter and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan last January.

Inspiration knows no geographical limits. At the finish of a long day in the middle of nowhere, it was time to forget the world’s troubles and unwind underneath Africa’s vast evening sky. But George Clooney, after visiting a new school in genocide-ravaged South Sudan, wasn’t quite ready to let everything go.

He and human-rights activist John Prendergast walked out of their mud huts and lay down in the sand. Millions of stars jammed the heavens, and as Clooney gazed at the distant constellations, he said, pointing skyward, “There’s a satellite up there that’s looking at my house right now. You can Google Earth me, but you can’t watch these [warlords]. Why not?”

“Well, because it’s spying,” Prendergast replied.

“It’s not spying on me,” Clooney continued. “It’s spying if it’s a country. It’s spying if it’s the United Nations, maybe. But what if I’m a paparazzo with a lens 400 miles up? How is that spying? I’m just a tourist taking pictures and putting it on the Web. I don’t understand where that’s wrong.”

Prendergast paused for a moment and then guessed at what Clooney was proposing. “You know, you might be able to get away with that.”

In the weeks after he returned to the United States in late 2010, Clooney did just that, meeting with execs at Google and the satellite company DigitalGlobe, which gave millions in free imagery. Backed by data from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and field reports from Prendergast’s Enough Project in Sudan, that late-night chat between Clooney and Prendergast became in months the Satellite Sentinel Project, which deploys commercial satellite technology to track actual and potential human-rights violations in nearly real time.

And Clooney wanted more than to form the initiative—he was determined to bankroll its $2 million annual budget, even if it meant exploiting his celebrity. The mission is supported by Clooney’s Not on Our Watch—cofounded with A-list pals Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle and Jerry Weintraub—and Enough.

Clooney recently rubbed shoulders at a conference of independent brokers and investors in Hong Kong. Rather than plow the $550,000 appearance fee into upkeep at his Lake Como villa, the actor had the check sent to SSP. “I’m doing another one in Australia in December for another good speaking fee. I go there, and we talk about whatever they want. They talk about movies...I don’t care. But the money goes directly [to SSP], so to me that’s a good way of playing.”

And Clooney’s eye in the sky is yielding results. In August, SSP data showed evidence of mass graves, and in mid October, it determined Sudan’s Central Reserve Police had committed war crimes near a U.N. compound. Clooney is now the ultimate celebrity photographer, except his lenses are focused not on red carpets but on distant atrocities.

Stars like to think they’re making a difference. But sometimes the very attention they bring to an issue can be as much a PR asset as a Who do they think they are? liability. On the same day 50-year-old Clooney—who this season directed, produced, co-wrote and stars in The Ides of March and anchors the cast of The Descendants—was discussing his humanitarian work, Hilary Swank was apologizing (and donating her reported six-figure fee to charity) for attending the 35th birthday celebration of infamous Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

“The one thing I learned from Bono early on,” Clooney says of U2’s frontman, “was you have to pick [a cause] you specifically want to work on, and you have to really engage. You have to be more knowledgeable than most reporters would be on it, so that when they try to make you sound stupid because you’re just an actor...you go, ‘Well, I can name all the rebel leaders, and I have [their numbers] on my phone.’ Which is funny to see those guys having phones in the middle of nowhere. You have to first and foremost be able to put yourself in a position where you understand, because when you first get in, you always make mistakes—everyone does. The mistakes of trying to help often-times cause great amounts of pain. Advocacy is a really important thing, but advocacy can also be very dangerous.”

The work grows even more complicated, Clooney adds, when you move past advocacy toward diplomacy, as he has done with the atrocities in Darfur, addressing the United Nations Security Council in 2006: “I’m here to represent the voices of people who cannot speak for themselves,” he matter-of-factly said of the people displaced, terrorized and killed by the region’s civil war. “My job is to come here today and beg you on behalf of the millions of people who will die...This genocide will be on your watch. How you deal with it will be your legacy—your Rwanda, your Cambodia, your Auschwitz.”

“The one thing I learned from Bono early on,” Clooney says of U2’s frontman, “was you have to pick [a cause] you specifically want to work on, and you have to really engage.”

On Darfur, Clooney can speak freely, and because he’s the most prominent star of his generation, people pay attention. He first traveled to the east African region with his father some six years ago. Nick Clooney had been seeking a celebrity to help bring the region’s brutality to public notice. As an L.A. broadcaster in the 1980s, the elder Clooney was forever having his hard-news stories preempted by trifling showbiz bulletins. “So,” the younger Clooney told his father, “I said, ‘Let’s go there. You be the reporter, and I’ll be Liz Taylor, and that way we don’t get bumped.’ ”

Before long, the actor was enmeshed in Sudanese politics and collaborating with Prendergast—and people who had never heard about the Sudan were calling their legislators and opening their wallets. For an actor whose ascendance to the A-list was accelerated by 1997’s nuclear thriller The Peacemaker, it was a fitting full-circle turn. “He wants to be sure that whatever he invests his time in is really going to make a difference,” Prendergast says of Clooney. “And to do that, you really have to do the work, to get to the bottom of the issue and then figure out what you can do—the new thing that can shake it up.”

Navigating global politics can be nearly as perilous as growing older in the movie business, where even people in their late thirties are considered on the downward angle of viability. Clooney has navigated those transitional years with aplomb, both sensing the wagers worth making (starring in the dark art film The American, joining with first-time filmmaker Tony Gilroy for Michael Clayton, scoring an Oscar with unproven director Stephen Gaghan in Syriana) and avoiding bad bets (recently taking himself out of consideration for a remake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., saying he’s too old for the part). While there have been a few washouts, including directing and starring in 2008’s attempted screwball comedy Leatherheads, Clooney’s misfires have been few and far between.

As Gov. Mike Morris in the political thriller Ides of March, Clooney and longtime collaborator Grant Heslov purposefully twisted assumptions about the actor. The unashamedly left-wing presidential candidate stakes out positions—eliminating internal-combustion engines, supporting gay marriage, abolishing the death penalty—partially informed by Clooney’s father, who once ran for Congress in Kentucky. While at first glance he appears to be a nearly flawless progressive, his Morris is as imperfect and compromised as any other politician.

If moviegoers nevertheless swoon for Clooney as a candidate, they should know his campaigning is onscreen only, despite frequent suggestions that he run for California governor. “I’m not getting in politics,” he says. “I have no interest—because of the compromises you have to make.” Don’t look for Clooney to turn his film projects into political agitprop, either. “I’m not a big believer,” partner Heslov says, “in finding a cause and making a movie about it.”

Clooney has been directed by some of the most distinguished filmmakers going—Steven Soderbergh, Jason Reitman, Joel and Ethan Coen, Alexander Payne and Alfonso Cuarón (maker of next year’s space-set thriller Gravity, in which Clooney plays opposite Sandra Bullock). Rather than simply take direction all these years, he’s constantly taking notes, trying to grow behind the camera as well as in front of it. A student of the world, he’s also a student of Hollywood. “I’m less and less interested in seeing myself onscreen, honestly,” Clooney says. “I feel like I’ve done a lot of stuff [as an actor]. I really haven’t done that as a director. Directing is infinitely more creative, and writing is more fun.”

But as Clooney continues to aim his film camera on soundstages, his wider lens will keep orbiting the skies over eastern Africa—inspecting, waiting, keeping watch.

JOHN HORN is a Los Angeles Times staff writer. His wife has an unhealthy, but not yet unlawful, crush on George Clooney.


MAKEUP: Francesca Tolot / Cloutier Remix
HAIR: Carola Gonzalez / Magnet Agency
MANICURE: Lisa Jachno / Aim Artists