Boys in the Boat
Credit: Amazon MGM Studios

The Boys in the Boat Interview: George Clooney & Joel Edgerton Talk True Story

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with The Boys in the Boat director George Clooney and star Joel Edgerton about the biographical sports movie. The duo discussed the true story and the experience of working with a director who also acts. The film is set to debut in theaters on Monday, December 25.

“The Boys in the Boat is a sports drama based on the #1 New York Times bestselling non-fiction novel written by Daniel James Brown,” reads the film‘s synopsis. “The film, directed by George Clooney, is about the 1936 University of Washington rowing team that competed for gold at the Summer Olympics in Berlin. This inspirational true story follows a group of underdogs at the height of the Great Depression as they are thrust into the spotlight and take on elite rivals from around the world.”

Tyler Treese: George, one of my favorite aspects was the use of the sportscaster during the races. There was a real artistry to broadcasting during that time. And it doesn’t just set up like the stakes of the race. It really gives a view into the world and politics and everything that was going on at the time. Can you just speak to using that as a narrative device?

George Clooney: Well, first of all, you have to have somebody who can speak in the time in a way without sounding like, “Whatever!” You have to have it not feel like a caricature. Interestingly, the character of Royal Brougham, who’s the broadcaster who does most of the stuff, writes this sort of poetic stuff and is a legend in Seattle. They have buildings named after it and stuff. So, it was always a choice. It’s hard to set up a narrative on what these guys are doing and where they are without somebody telling you.

The best person to tell you is a sportscaster. They’re the ones when you watch the wide world of sports, and you’re watching skiing. You don’t know much about skiing, and they’re telling you, “Well, when he gets to that slalom, if he gets there by that period of time, he is going to win.” You need somebody to tell you where we are in the race, somehow, and where we are in life — because he does that, too. He talks about four kids coming from a poor place. So it was always a plan to use the narrator in it. It just felt like a perfect way to keep the story moving.

Tyler Treese: Joel, Al Ulbrickson is a legendary figure for your performance. Did you try to look back at videos or talk to any family or people who knew him? What was your prep like?

Joel Edgerton: The only things you can really access are bits of information and a few stats and some beautiful photographs, in which he’s dressed very well.

George Clooney: He’s dressed well. [Laughs].

Joel Edgerton: Which we tried to replicate. Jenny did an amazing job, actually. But no, it was really just about reading the book and reading about qualities of his and starting to build from that, plus the screenplay of trying to service the movie in the best way possible.

The beauty of not being, with all respect, encumbered by him being an iconic worldwide iconic figure … that it could really be me plus the qualities that I could bring that I knew of him … I didn’t have any roadmap because, sadly, there’s no real footage of moving or audio footage of him.

George, what blew me away after I saw the movie was doing research into the real history. There are so many moments where you would figure it was dramatized, but everything actually happened. When you were actually looking into the history, were you blown away when you saw the adversity that the humans and the team all overcame?

George Clooney: Well, it was kind of crazy because, if you were watching this film or you’re reading this script and you see, “Oh, the cow coach gives them the money and they didn’t have the money,” and, “Oh, the kid got so sick he lost 15 pounds before the big race.” Or,” They put them on the outside lane and they didn’t hear the gun go off.” All of it happened.

If you’d read that script and it was a made-up story, you’d go, “You can’t put all these in it — it’s just not realistic.” So that’s what was fun about it. It’s also a responsibility, because you have to try to make it cinematic and not feel goofy along the way. But the truth is, we had really wonderful actors to carry me through that.

Joel, when you’re working with a director that has an acting background, is there something special about that? How does that work?

Joel Edgerton: [Laughs]. Yeah, you just don’t listen! Yeah, no. I mean, look, I was there on the first week just watching George walk around going, “Shouldn’t you be in front of the camera?” [Laughs]. And then, that gave me this really cool evidence, which I sort of thought about beforehand. What makes a person spend time crafting something when they could easily just jump from set to set, picking up bags of cash as an actor? It means that he really cared about this — particularly because he wasn’t going to be in front of the camera, too. That the passion was there to just tell this story.

The worst case scenario to be directed by an actor is that an actor-director comes up to you every moment and goes, “Let me just show you how I would do it,” which can happen. It didn’t happen, thankfully, in this, but if it did, it probably wouldn’t have been a bad thing anyway.

George Clooney: All I would say is, I’ve been directed by actors before, too, and I always find there’s a bit of a shorthand. I can look at him and know what he’s doing and he can look at me and know what I need. As opposed to, some directors will come over to you and they’ll talk to us like we’re idiots. They’ll go, “I think that the reason you’re delivering pizza is because your parents were alcoholics. [Laughs]. That’s why you become a pizza delivery guy.”

For me, I’m like, “I just need you to ring the doorbell and say ‘pizza.’ I say to him, ‘Pizza,’ and he goes, ‘Got it.'” You know? It’s a huge blessing, actually, to have actors who — he directs. So when I say to him, “Okay, so I need us to get to there and then and walk out the door.” He goes, “Where do you want me to be?” And I go, “I need you to get over there.” He goes, “Done.” And that helps.

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