During a panel Industry attended at this year’s Television Critics Association Press Tour, George Clooney, in support of his latest project, Catch 22 Hulu’s six part miniseries adaptation of Joseph Heller’s iconic satirical novel was in a reflective mood.

Reminded that it had been 25 years since he had been at the first press event to promote his star making turn as Dr. Doug Ross on the NBC series, ER (he went on to appear in 109 episodes over five years), Clooney seemed to grasp both the length of the professional journey since, yet how close he still was to those days of uncertainty and experimentation. “ER was a nutty moment in my career, but also in the lives of a bunch of actors,” he said. “There were six of us who suddenly were thrust into the stratosphere [first season costars included Anthony Edwards, Sherry String field, Noah Wyle, Julianna Margulies, and Eriq La Salle]; it was life changing for all of us.”

Frequently, ER scripts made reference to the mind numbing task circularity of care (repeat patients being seen again and again) and the almost lunatic bureaucracy required to organize it. These characteristics, though seen through the prism of the military, are also abundant in Catch 22, a 1961 published work that Clooney described at the panel as “required reading when I was in high school.”

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Set during World War II and mostly focused on events in and around the “Great Big Siege of Bologna,” Heller’s novel combines humor, horror, observations on institutional futility, and ultimately hope, and was named by TIME magazine as one of the top 100 English language modern novels since 1923.

Clooney executive produces, directs, and stars in the series. His character is named Scheisskopf (literally “shithead” in German), described in a Hulu press release as “a training commander at cadet school in California. Ambitious, humorless, inept, angry, sadistic and above all else obsessed with parades and winning parade tournaments.”

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Hearing that one critic at the panel had wondered how best to apply the book’s behavioral and emotional extremes, the 57 year old two time Oscar winner offered some insights.

“You have to take a swing and hope you hit the ball,” Clooney said. “There’s no way you can do this half assed, right? You’ve got to go for it. If you read the characters, if you read the script… you can’t subtly yell at people…you can’t subtly kill people.”

As for the original book material, he noted that, “This is considered one of the great American novels. And I loved the style of writing, which was different than the kind of writing we had read [in high school]. But I was pretty young, and so I just liked the characters,” adding that he’d just reread the work. “It was fun and exciting to go back and understand why this book stands the test of time.”

Clooney, who directs two episodes of the series (which premieres on May 17th), explained that he wound up enjoying the experience of working on a TV production after so many years, and was intrigued with the way this one was written.

Hulu 'Catch-22' TV Show Panel, TCA Winter Press Tour, Los Angeles, USA - 11 Feb 2019

“When you do a movie, as you know, you don’t have enough time to really get to know the characters,” he said. “As a television show, you get to spend time with them, like the book does.”

He continued: “I don’t care about the medium. I really don’t. I just care about the quality of the work and the things that we’re able to do. And television’s doing some really amazing things. We have a Watergate piece that we’re working on right now [an eight part Netflix series]. We just want to work, you know?”

From the moment he read the screenplay (writing credits are David Michôd and Luke Davies, along with source material from Heller’s original work), Clooney was intrigued with bringing a new version to the screen, casting Christopher Abbott (HBO’s Girls) as the protagonist, Captain John Yossarian, and Kyle Chandler (NBCUniversal’s Friday Night Lights) as Colonel Cathcart.

“We thought, ‘We’re going to get to explore one of the great characters in literature,’” said Clooney. “The interesting thing is that it requires an audience to be able to like and trust a person who does some pretty despicable things along the way… We knew we had to cast somebody you could root for even when he did really rotten things.”

Asked about the book’s emphasis on the futility of organized conflict, Clooney paused.
“It’s just insane, it’s always insane, and it’s incredibly complex. And all of us spent our days and nights thinking and worrying about those situations. I think this story is just reflecting on the insanity of it… We will always, as a group, wonder about the insanity of war, but there was a clarity in World War II that has been lacking in some of the other exchanges we’ve had over the years. And so, harkening back, when it was a simpler time, it’s easier for us to understand,” adding, however, that it wasn’t difficult to also plug into the material’s satirical vibe.

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“It’s a pretty gruesome business, war is, and there’s a morbid comedy to it as well… Army people are the first who like these stories, because you’re also making fun of the higher ups. It’s more about the bureaucratization of military and war.”

Clooney further explained that Heller wrote the book chiefly in response to the war in Korea, not World War II, and believes its content is still relevant.

“It was then taken up by the Vietnam generation…became an anti war book. But that wasn’t what it was designed to do,” he said. “It was really to make fun of all of the red tape and the bureaucracy of war and the ridiculousness of it. And I think that still plays.”

After the panel, Clooney talked to journalists about his early request to have more women working on set, including adding executive producer Ellen Kuras to direct two episodes (Grant Heslov directed the remaining two).

“Originally, Grant and I were directing it ourselves and we looked around and thought, ‘Well, this took place in 1944, it’s all men… We should actually do everything we can to involve women.’ So we called up Ellen and she said she’d love to come on board. We felt like we wanted to get more of a woman’s perspective on everything. Our editors are women. We wanted there to be a feeling that it isn’t just from some 57 year old guy’s perspective.”

“Ellen is just a good director,” Clooney added. “It has nothing to do with gender, but it also feels important that we’re all participating in this and are all part of a solution, not part of the issue.”