By Christine Kearney
TORONTO (Reuters) - Calling acting just his "day job," George Clooney is winning over movie critics and audiences in Toronto with a nuanced performance as a father forced to rethink his life after his wife suffers a debilitating accident.
Clooney plays the key role in "The Descendants," a new feature from Alexander Payne, who directed the Oscar-winning "Sideways," and he brings a similar blend of humor and heartbreak to this new movie set against a Hawaiian backdrop.
The film is one of the big attractions at the Toronto International Film Festival, with Clooney hitting the red carpet on Saturday with typical self-deprecating remarks and charm, joking with a large audience that playing a family man was, of course, a natural fit for the famous bachelor.
"He did seem like a very good family man, it seemed perfect for me," he told a laughing audience at the premiere, who threw questions at him about how he could possibly be so in tune with his parenting side for the role when, in real life, he's unmarried and has no children.
In "The Descendants," Clooney plays a successful real estate lawyer coping with tragedy and reconnecting with his two daughters while facing his past, his shortcomings as a father and a different future. The film was adapted by Payne and two other screenwriters from Kaui Hart Hemmings' 2007 novel of the same title.
Coming straight off favorable reviews for his directing and acting in the political drama "The Ides of March," which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and has pleased audiences in Toronto, the actor has drawn praise for his turn in "The Descendants," with critics calling his performance perfectly underplayed, and noting Payne's ability to subtly but quickly change tones.
The Hollywood Reporter said, "Never has (Payne's) knack for mixing moods and modulating subtle emotions been more evident," while Clooney noted that "there's a sense that he's able to turn things from funny to sad really quickly, and he's just a master of it."
DO OSCARS AWAIT?
Clooney told reporters the role was more of a challenge than usual.
"This is one that you are in a very uncomfortable zone, with very comfortable people, but it is a tricky place to play. Obviously it is a much more difficult part," he said, adding that playing a father wasn't that much of a stretch. "You don't have to shoot heroin to play a heroin addict."
As Payne did in his hit film "Sideways," for which he won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, he's again exploring the ways flawed ordinary people cope with life. He said he began working on the script several years ago and wanted no one but Clooney to play the central part.
"George has the right look and the right height, and even though we did not work together on 'Sideways,' he really is one of the few contemporary stars that I really did want to work with. I suspected that we would hit it off," Payne said. "He was completely right for the part."
Asked about whether he was ready for any award nominations, Clooney said, "I have won an award once" -- for his supporting role in "Syriana" -- "so when I die, they say Oscar winner. It's a great, nice sort of thing to have on the tombstone, but after that, to me, I really like it when people appreciate the work," he said.
The 50-year-old actor said that for him, the world of movies was not about competition.
"I don't really have this dying need to collect things. There is a point in time when you start in this and you do get competitive. You can get caught up in it, trying to compete with people, and you realize, this is silly, we are comparing artists," he said.
"The Descendants" and "The Ides of March," Clooney's fourth feature as a director, will both be released in theaters this fall, but the actor said he is not concerned about them competing against one another.
Nor is he unclear about whether he prefers acting or directing.
"My day job is acting, and that is how I make my living, and directing is something I really want to do and really enjoy doing."
(additional reporting by Bob Mezan and Sharon Reich, editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Sheri Linden)