George Clooney likes to wear his heart on his sleeve. Or at least his politics on his T-shirt. Looking surprisingly relaxed in a Beverly Hills hotel suite at the end of a long day of interviews, he's wearing jeans and a black leather jacket over a T-shirt bearing the face of Yulia Tymoshenko.
Clooney says he is keen to promote awareness of the plight of the former Ukrainian prime minister turned political prisoner, who has since been released from jail during unrest in the eastern European nation. ''You know, she's certainly guilty of no crime and she may have made a bad deal with the Russians but we've all done those … I like to wear shirts that help bring attention to things that don't get attention sometimes.''
The savvy humanitarian, who has a long history as a human rights campaigner in areas as diverse as the conflict in Darfur and same-sex marriage, figured out long ago how to promote a film and his politics at the same time.
With the Oscar-winning Good Night and Good Luck he made not-so-subtle digs about the media's right to freedom of speech, while The Ides of March turned a cynical eye on political campaigning.
Politics wasn't too far from Clooney's thoughts, either, when he set out to make his latest film, The Monuments Men. Based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Hunt in History by Robert Edsel, it follows the true story of a group of art historians, curators and scholars in World War II who were commissioned by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to go behind enemy lines to locate and rescue priceless works of arts looted by the Nazis.
''This isn't just, 'oh we stole a little art','' says Clooney, who co-wrote, directed and produced the film. ''This is 6 million pieces of art around the world, many of them destroyed forever. This is Michelangelo, Picasso, Salvador Dali and Matisse, and it was a very specific and big moment in history in terms of almost destroying our culture, so we felt like it was a worthwhile story to tell.''
Clooney plays Frank Stokes, a museum head who recruits the team of experts charged with heading to the frontlines of Belgium, France and Germany in 1943 to save some of Europe's most precious treasures.
As with all of Clooney's films, when it came to casting he turned to some familiar faces and long-time friends, including Matt Damon (this is their sixth film together), Bill Murray (with whom he worked on The Fantastic Mr Fox) and John Goodman (whom Clooney knew from his early days on the TV sitcom Roseanne). ''All the parts were written for those actors because I enjoy what I do and life is too short to do it with people whose company I don't enjoy,'' the 52-year-old says bluntly.
''It's also a lot easier writing a screenplay for the actors you have in mind and we were just lucky enough to get them all.''
Lucky is one word for it, but it was also sheer determination that saw Clooney land Cate Blanchett in the small but pivotal role of art historian Claire Simone, who is based on Rose Valland, a heroine of the French resistance.
''I called her up and begged, 'I'm working on this thing and if you're going to be available at this time, I'd really love you to do it','' Clooney recalls. ''Then I flew out to Australia for one night because she was doing a play in Sydney and I went to see the play and afterwards we had dinner and then I sent her the script and she said she'd do it, so it was worth the jetlag.''
For Blanchett, who co-starred with Clooney on another World War II drama, 2006's The Good German, Clooney's lightning trip to Sydney was very welcome.
''My husband [Sydney Theatre Company artistic director Andrew Upton] said: 'What is it with you and George and World War II?','' she says, laughing. ''But it was great to work with him again, because he's an incredible raconteur and I think that's translated into the way he tells stories.
''The way he told me the story - about what he wanted to do with this film - I really think that spirit comes across in the film, that it's at once horrific and painfully hilarious and deeply human.''
The Monuments Men marks Clooney's fifth film as a director, following Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), Good Night and Good Luck (2005), Leatherheads (2008) and The Ides of March (2011), but he still confesses to being nervous on set.
"There's never a moment that you think you have it completely handled and sometimes you've got to pretend that you're a little more competent than you are, particularly when you're directing because you've got all these other people looking at you. There were times in doing this film where I thought, 'I've bitten off more than I can chew' but you just keep on trucking. In this part of my life, I've gotten very used to succeeding and I've gotten very used to failing and I've done them sort of equally well," he says, "So I'm really comfortable with taking chances and seeing where they come out.''
Damon, however, was much more impressed working for the first time with his friend in the director's chair. "It was George really who set the tone," he says. "He was so prepared and so relaxed, that it reminded me of doing Ocean's Eleven because [director] Steven Soderbergh was that way, too. And every actor in both Ocean's and in this movie was used to headlining a movie, and carrying all that responsibility, and so to suddenly find yourself in an ensemble with people who you knew and respected, working maybe two or three days a week and with a director who is completely prepared and who had great ideas, it was fantastic."
One thing Clooney could not prepare for, however, was the weather. Shot across Britain and in Berlin's 100-year-old Babelsberg Studios, filming also coincided with a vicious cold snap.
''We got there in March hoping to get a little bit of snow for the Battle of the Bulge scenes and then it snowed and snowed and became the worst spring since 1860,'' Clooney recalls, now able to smile at the situation. ''It was so bad, I remember directing a scene with Cate Blanchett and telling her to hold her breath because you could see it, so she had to do a whole scene without breathing.''
Despite leaning towards more high-minded subject matters, Clooney doesn't take himself too seriously. A renowned practical joker, he was just as eager to boast about his achievements as a tormentor on set. ''Matt Damon told me he'd gotten a trainer and chef and was going to lose weight on our film,'' Clooney confides, his brown eyes lighting up with a wicked glint. ''So I had the wardrobe girl take his pants in a quarter of an inch every week, and in a month his pants were way too tight for him but he was eating lettuce all day and couldn't understand why he wasn't losing weight!''
- Sydney Morning Herald