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George Clooney on His 1936 Olympics Movie ‘The Boys in the Boat’: ‘They Beat Hitler!’

The star directs a ‘Chariots of Fire’-like heart-warmer about the ultimate underdog sports heroes


spinner image Director George Clooney on the set of his film, "The Boys in the Boat."

George Clooney, 62, directed The Boys in the Boat (in theaters Dec. 25), the movie adaptation of Daniel James Brown’s No. 1 New York Times bestseller about the University of Washington rowing team that made it to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where (spoiler!) they beat the favored German team for the gold medal. Clooney and Joel Edgerton, 49, who plays UW rowing coach Al Ulbrickson, tell AARP about what the story means to them.

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Your movie is in the spirit of Rocky — but is the story about more than just a rousing victory against all odds.

George Clooney: It’s about class. It was in 1936, right dead center in the middle of the Depression, when a lot of the divisions in class became much more stark.

And the UW rowing team were poor kids, sons of loggers, farmers, shipyard workers and manual laborers. The leader, Joe Rantz (played by Callum Turner), was abandoned by his father in childhood, living on the edge, right?

Clooney: Yes. So the idea of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was harder when you didn’t have bootstraps, you know? What we loved about it is this completely factual, beautiful underdog story. They rowed because they were hungry, and literally the way they could eat was by competing. And they just happened to be the Beatles [of rowing], and they just didn’t know it.

Joel Edgerton: I couldn’t actually believe I had never heard the story before — although some of the greatest sports stories do go a little bit dormant, or buried forever. I loved the idea of playing this coach, who to me was an archetype, one of those guys that looks like he really wants to be anywhere else but coaching the team. That sort of tough-love dad coach, so stoic.

Also, after a really tough couple of years of COVID, I would love to be able to share with my kids a story where people realize that they’re better as a unit. I think our core value as human beings is that we want to be good to each other, empathize with each other. I want to be involved in a story like this at this time.

spinner image Bruce Herbelin-Earle, Callum Turner and Wil Coban in "The Boys in the Boat."
(Left to right) Bruce Herbelin-Earle stars as Shorty Hunt, Callum Turner as Joe Rantz and Wil Coban as Jim McMillan in "The Boys in the Boat."
Laurie Sparham/MGM

The UW crew’s Husky Clipper boat went from last place to first, winning by six-tenths of a second, while Hitler watched and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl filmed the crowd shouting “Deutschland! Deutschland!” It was the first televised Olympics. Was Hitler disappointed to see Americans beat his master race crew?

Clooney: They did beat Hitler. Look, sports films are kind of like romantic comedies. We kind of know how it ends. I mean, in The Natural I guess we didn’t know, but it wasn’t real. In general, we know how it’s going to end. The point is, are we going to enjoy that journey? Are we going to be inspired by that? I thought the book did all of those things. And so our job was just to not screw it up.

spinner image Joel Edgerton in "The Boys in the Boat."
Joel Edgerton stars as Coach Al Ulbrickson in "The Boys in the Boat."
Laurie Sparham/MGM

Did you climb into one of those skinny crew boats and try it out on the water yourself?

Edgerton: I did, yeah, absolutely.

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With George Clooney as your coxswain?

Clooney: Yeah, I’m one of the great Kentucky rowers from the Ohio River Valley! No, I didn’t get near. I’m not stupid, man. I don’t want to look like the idiot falling in and everybody laughing at me. We shot The Perfect Storm in Boston on a boat during a hurricane and the water was just crazy, and I was the only one who hadn’t barfed. I got sick as a dog and jumped off the boat into the ocean rather than have everyone see me throw up.

Edgerton: Callum and the boys had a bet on, not if, but when I would fall in. But nobody made any money. I love when you find out everybody’s betting against you — you find that out, you’re not falling!

spinner image Chris Diamantopoulos, James Wolk and Joel Edgerton in "The Boys in the Boat."
(Left to right) Chris Diamantopoulos, James Wolk and Joel Edgerton in "The Boys in the Boat."
Laurie Sparham/MGM

In The Boys in the Boat, the rowers meet Jesse Owens, the Black sharecropper’s son (and enslaved man’s grandson) who won four gold medals in 1936 — was his victory like theirs?

Clooney: Jesse Owens is the great story of the ’36 Olympics. There’s no comparison. Hitler’s theory was there was a supreme race, tall and blond — and it couldn’t have been a better time and a better place to show how wrong Hitler was. But there weren’t that many Americans that switched on to who Hitler was, and certainly no one would have considered that he would become the monster, the worst of all time. He was considered an annoying autocrat. So we had to be careful how we played it.

The Seattle kids were also looked down on by the East Coast schools where crew was an ancient tradition, right? And also by UW’s fierce rival University of California-Berkeley team, who won the two previous Olympics?  

Clooney: Washington state was literally lumberjacks working for $1 a day and suffering and working really hard. We had all that in the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma and all, but man, Washington was just such a brutal place to be. There wasn’t the long-standing infrastructure that the East Coast cities had.

spinner image Luke Slattery, Jack Mulhern, Wil Coban, Tom Varey, Callum Turner, Sam Strike and Thomas Elms in "The Boys in the Boat."
Laurie Sparham/MGM

In the movie, the American Olympic Committee tells the UW team if they don’t come up with cash fast to pay for the trip to Berlin, they’ll stay home and a team from back East would go to the Olympics instead. So in less than a week, locals donated $5,000 ($110,000 in modern dollars). True or invented?

Clooney: They really did have to get the town to give money. It was a poor town, and Washington was sort of new on the scene compared to cities east of the Mississippi. People didn’t know that much about the sport. So the idea that they all were invested in it, that’s what made it such a beautiful story.

How did the locals react when Seattle’s most famous sportswriter, Royal Brougham, whose articles helped the team get to Berlin, announced their victory, shouting, “An underdog team for an underdog nation”?

Clooney: Think of all those times you’ve seen a downtrodden country in the Olympics or something, and they have one team that rises to the occasion, like in Cool Runnings, and all of a sudden, it just changes everything.

Edgerton: Any country starts to become one big supporting unit, like for the Australian women’s soccer team lately, the Matildas. They got so close [to winning the World Cup]. And it was the biggest thing that had happened in Australia for a long time, they got the highest ratings on television. The whole country got together. I can’t imagine what those boys would have felt — the support of an entire nation behind them.

spinner image George Clooney on the set of "The Boys in the Boat."
Director George Clooney (right)
Laurie Sparham/MGM

For the film, you recreated 1936 Seattle in the UK, but have you seen the old University of Washington boathouse used by the 1936 team? It’s still there.

Clooney: We were there two nights ago. When you go into the boathouse, the Husky Clipper is hanging up on the roof. And I mean, you feel like it’s still recent news. It’s great pride.

Is there a lasting lesson in the triumph of those 1936 kids?

Clooney: It’s about how we have to find ways to get along. How we have to figure out ways to make each other better — because if we don’t do this all together, then we’re not going to succeed. You know? These are the themes we still deal with and talk about, and I would imagine we’ll be talking about them in another 100 years.

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