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George Clooney: Fight for culture in ‘Monuments Men’ continues today

(l r) Bill Murray Dimitri Leonidas George Clooney Bob Balaban ColumbiPictures' THE MONUMENTS MEN.

(l to r) Bill Murray, Dimitri Leonidas, George Clooney and Bob Balaban in Columbia Pictures' THE MONUMENTS MEN.

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Updated: February 5, 2014 9:13PM

LOS ANGELES — George Clooney calls it “an emotional striptease act.”

The fully clothed two-time Sexiest Man Alive is the one with the $20 bills that he’s stuffing into Matt Damon’s hands.

Why? Damon is lavishing Clooney with love.

“How do I explain George Clooney?” he asks. “It’s like God said, ‘Maybe this time I’ll give one of them everything. Start with I’ll make him handsome. And as he gets older, he will look even better.’ ”

At age 52, Clooney looks pleasantly embarrassed. But he still gets out another 20 and another until he flashes a wallet that’s bare.

“I’m out,” he says.

Responds Damon, “Emotional striptease is over.”

The collaboration continues in “Monuments Men” (opening Friday), where Clooney directs and stars with Damon in the true story of middle-aged men in World War II who put on uniforms to save great works of art that were stolen by the Nazis.

Though a period piece, it’s quite timely. “You can murder people’s families, but if you take away their culture that’s when the entire society breaks down,” Clooney says.

“I’ve spent a lot of time going through villages in the Sudan. It wasn’t enough that their children were killed. They destroyed things from the generations of the village. That’s what made the village belong to the villagers.

“That was as important as the rapings and murders.”

Iraq was another lesson in this area.

“We didn’t protect the art during the war in Iraq,” he says, “and it has affected the community in a very deep way. What we’ve learned is the people weren’t just fighting for their lives, but were fighting for their culture.”

And the fight over the World War II art goes on. “There is a lot of this stolen art from World War II that’s still found in people’s homes or museums,” Clooney says. “It’s a long process and not a particularly easy one to return stolen art.

“There is a generation of people in Russia who believe that they lost 25 million people in World War II, and they kept the art with the idea that ‘to the victor goes the spoils.’ And they are keeping it.”

He says that his cast, including Bill Murray, John Goodman and Cate Blanchett, had an amazing time despite the serious subject matter. In fact, the film has several comedic moments. “ “We thought we would make this like ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ [1970]. We wanted to talk about a very serious subject, but also have it be entertaining,” he says.

He’s always looking for projects that aren’t such an easy sell.

“To make ‘Good Night, and Good Luck, I had to mortgage my house,” Clooney says. “I try to make films where everyone doesn’t go, ‘OK, that’s an easy one.’

“I want to make stories where if I didn’t go after them, they wouldn’t get made. Because the others will get made anyways.”

Directing himself was tricky. For his own scenes as the commander of the Monuments Men, he did a bit of talking … to himself.

“I’ll go, “George, you were very good in that scene.’ Or I’ll say, ‘George Clooney, let’s try that again,’ ” he says, adding, “Yes, I like to talk to myself in the third person these days.”

Clooney didn’t have time for all his trademark pranks on the set — just a few of them.

“I read somewhere that Matt was trying to lose weight,” says Clooney, who mentions that Damon did a week or two of work at a time and then briefly would return home to New York to be with his family.

“Each time Matt would come back to the set, his pants on set were tighter. He told me it was weird because he was going to the gym every single day,” says Clooney. “The guy was eating grapes — and his pants didn’t fit.”

Yes, Clooney was having the wardrobe people take the pants in. “An eighth of an inch with each trip,” he says with glee.

It’s Clooney’s relaxed attitude towards stardom that’s an even better shocker. He admits that it has been a long, slow climb to the life he leads now.

“When you start out as an actor, you’re just trying to get a job,” he says. “I wasn’t really motivated to be the sixth banana on ‘The Facts of Life,’ but I was thrilled to get the job at the same time.”

Not so thrilling is celebrity, but he has found a way to spin the attention in his favor, helping campaigns to combat mass atrocities and conflict in Darfur.

“One of the perks of celebrity is that you can shine a light on it,” he says. “Actors get an awful lot of attention. It’s nice to do something good with it.”

He is the first one to admit that he doesn’t need more fame.

“When you’re young, you chase things. You’re hoping to be successful. Then you achieve some success and you want that spotlight much less. I try to shift that spotlight to the stories that should be covered.”.

He grins.

“Of course, you have to be careful. You can’t go to North Korea and sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ Well, you can … but you have to be careful.”

Big Picture News Inc.

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