Speaking of the Coen brothers, O Brother Where Art Thou? recently turned 20. What’s your best story from that set?
My wife came on the set with our now-22-year-old. Our boy was just six months old and he projectile vomited all over George Clooney. And that was my wife’s introduction to George, as well as my six-month-old son’s introduction to George. Let’s just say it was not the way that she wanted to meet George Clooney.
I’m sure. How’d he take it?
The way George takes anything: good-naturedly. He’s just such a great guy. I mean, have you met George?
No, I haven’t.
Yeah, he’s a wonderful man. You know, everybody says that, but it’s true.
Growing up, your parents used to make you write five-paragraph essays every week. Did you carry on that tradition for your children?
We wrote five paragraphs every week that were graded pass or fail. And if your paragraphs didn’t pass muster as a coherent argument, then you had to write it again. The exercise was meant to teach us how to write, but also how to think and talk concisely.
So no, I didn’t do that with my boys. I did something different, which is that every day, each boy read an article with me from The New York Times. Or if they didn’t want to read from The Times, they could read part of a short story or something from another news periodical, but it had to be a piece that involved either narrative progression or argument. And then we would talk about it. I felt that was a worthy substitute.
You studied classics in school. Obviously O Brother is based on The Odyssey and I know you wrote a play about Socrates a few years back, but do you have any dream classics big screen adaptations?
More than anything else I would love to make a film of my play of Socrates. If I could do one more project in my life, that one would be it.
With Michael Stuhlbarg again?
Yes. I’d love for Michael to play Socrates, but it’s a tall order because it’s not cheap to recreate ancient Athens. But my idea for it is to take an almost Barry Lyndon-type approach to it and to be meticulous about the production design and also the lighting in a way that is accurate to late Bronze Age, fifth century Athens in a way that no “sandal movie” has ever been before, so that you’re looking at characters who seldom bathe. It’s a city that has endured both plague and a decades long war with Sparta, and not a city of gleaming marble and idealism, but a city of political tumult, that’s dealt with tyranny and losing a third of its population. Where you can see the dirt under the fingernails of people.
Are there any types of roles that you haven’t played yet that you’d like to try?
Every role feels unlike every other. Yes, I’d love to play Richard III or King Lear or Vershinin or Falstaff—as funny as that sounds, ‘cause I’m a little guy. I never take for granted how privileged I am to get to keep acting. I’m not what you think of when you think “actor”, nor really should I be. I’m puzzled by the fact that it’s worked out for me, and I say that having put a lot into it. I work hard at it, but so do a lot of people and I feel most of all just blessed that I get to keep doing it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.