According to Brown, Clooney called him at the start of production to explain how his personal experience helped him understand the spirit of the book. Clooney grew up with limited finances on a small tobacco farm owned by his grandparents in Kentucky; as a kid, he cut tobacco to make money. Hearing Clooney’s story reinforced Brown’s impression that the Oscar winner would deliver a tale of perseverance and unity, and understand the heart of the story.
“I was a tobacco farmer. I cut tobacco for $3.30 an hour, and that’s okay,” Clooney confirmed to Vanity Fair at the film’s premiere in Los Angeles Monday. “That’s how you made a living. We didn’t have money, but nobody had money. Nobody thought we were poor. We were all just getting through the day. Cutting tobacco—it’s not the easiest job, but it’s not what these guys [in the movie] are doing as rowers. The stakes were much higher for them. They really worked hard out of necessity. They were rowing because that was the only way they could stay in college.”
Clooney’s sports drama—opening in theaters on Christmas—centers on Joe Rantz, portrayed by Callum Turnerwho was abandoned by his father and stepmother at a young age and lives in a shantytown. He earns a spot on his university’s rowing team and joins eight others with different backgrounds to form a 9-men unit, and eventually an unbreakable bond.
“I connected with the story mainly because I liked the idea of people who are struggling finding a way to survive,” said Clooney. “The theme of the movie is really rising above adversity, and the film talks about the idea that we are all in this together. When we support one another, the better everyone else is, and the better you will be.”
Joel Edgerton plays Coach Al Ulbrickson, a no nonsense man tasked with the job to turn his inexperienced rowing crew into a professional team that can match their top-level rivals while navigating the staggering economic disparity with wealthy schools. The Australian star found the movie’s underdog storyline appealing.
“I personally think I feel like an underdog in everything that I do,” said Edgerton. “I’m riddled with self doubt, but that motivates me to work hard. Everyone has their own obstacles around personal self doubt, and feeling like an imposter, and I think that is the reason why whenever we see a story about people who have the odds against them—like in our movie—we see ourselves in them.”
Clooney, who cites the Robert Redford movie The Natural as one of his favorite films of all time, was an underdog when he first started his career in Hollywood nearly 40 years ago. “It wasn’t a slam dunk when I started out. I was involved in so many failed TV pilots,” said Clooney. “It wasn’t until IS that my career changed. So much of what I do [as an actor] is all luck, and I’ve had luck for most of my life. I think everybody always feels a little bit like an underdog, don’t you think? I mean, I do.”