The last time George Clooney disguised his celebrated matinee-idol good looks – back in 2005, when he gained 16 kilograms to play a CIA operative in Syriana – he took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Fifteen years later, and again almost unrecognisable behind a full mountain-man beard, Clooney is back in line for gongs once more, as the star and director of Netflix' Oscar contender, The Midnight Sky.
In his seventh directorial outing, the 59-year-old plays ailing scientist Augustine Lofthouse, who must juggle a posting to the Arctic with the sudden and unexpected responsibility for a young child.
Complicating matters further, he's also trying to keep a spaceship from returning to Earth where a mysterious global catastrophe awaits.
On set at London's Shepperton Studios earlier this year, and with all his scenes for the film in the can, Clooney is whisker-free once more – much to his human rights lawyer wife, Amal Amaluddin's pleasure (even if it did give him that sexy Santa look).
"My wife is really happy that I've stopped shooting," he tells The BINGE Guide, with a hearty laugh. "But we didn't fake it … that beard was all real."
Renowned for his sense of humour and self-deprecation, he adds, "I looked like [Succession star] Brian Cox."
When we speak, he's getting ready to direct a complicated scene in which his leading lady, Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) must commandeer the spaceship.
As Mission Specialist Sully, she leads the crew, comprising fellow astronauts played by David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Kyle Chandler and Demian Bichir.
And in the role of a young Augustine Lofthouse, Clooney cast Ethan Peck, who also played a young Spock in 2019's Star Trek: Discovery.
"He's the grandson of Gregory," notes the man in charge. "I was really good friends with Gregory Peck, I just adored him. I don't think the technology is quite up and ready for the de-ageing stuff yet and I felt it would be more interesting to hire somebody that looked enough like I did when I was 33 years old. Ethan and I have the same eyebrows, so that helps," he quips, adding," he's a better looking kid, which also helps."
Rounding out the cast, in an essential role, is the little girl Lofthouse takes under his wing – played by seven-year-old New Yorker Caoilinn Springall.
Astonishingly, she is making her acting debut, with an incredibly mature performance in which she draws out Lofthouse's humanity and puts paid to his plan to die quietly alone in a remote research station.
Clooney is quick to reassure fans, "it's not a nihilistic film in a weird way because there's some real hope. And me playing a grumpy old guy, who gets stuck with the kid, was perfect for me."
The Midnight Sky is largely faithful to the 2016 novel on which it's based – Good Morning, Midnight, written by Lily Brooks-Dalton – though when it came to Sully's character, it was a case of life imitating art.
"A week before we went into principal photography, Felicity called up and said, 'I'm pregnant.' And I said, 'Congratulations!' and then said, ' … … Holy sh*t!'"
He laughs: "Once she got to set she was already showing, and we thought, 'OK, we could do what they did with Robert De Niro in The Irishman,' but no one was comfortable with that idea, including Felicity. And then all of a sudden, [executive producer] Grant [Heslov] and I realised, 'Well, of course, Sully can be pregnant!' It made absolute sense."
He continues: "that decision changed the temperature of the film and the story in a way that makes the ending so profound. It reminded me of [Frances McDormand in] Fargo in the sense that you have a pregnant woman doing all the things she has to do and all the while she just gets on with it. It's not only really empowering, but for Felicity, it took the burden out of trying to hide the pregnancy."
It's obvious that the father of three-year-old twins was thrilled to incorporate his star's pregnancy, despite some initial qualms.
"There's a really beautiful scene with Felicity when she has an ultrasound," he recalls, a moment which brought back his own memories, and shock, of hearing his unborn children for the first time.
"The first time I heard the ultrasound, you hear the heartbeat and it sounds like a monster. And I wanted all the information, we wanted to know the sex, we didn't want a surprise. And the doctor said, 'It's a baby girl,' and I was like, 'A little girl! I can do that.' And then he goes, 'And a boy,'" he laughs. "And I was like, 'Wait a minute. I wasn't in on that game, nobody told me about that!'"
Now married for six years, Clooney and his family live between their villa on Italy's Lake Como, a New York apartment, a home in Los Angeles, and an English mansion on the River Thames, about an hour's drive from The Midnight Sky set.
The Clooneys will spend Christmas in LA, where the superstar cooked a lavish Thanksgiving dinner for his loved ones.