"The idea of working with a character who squandered a great opportunity and is already almost past redemption is very rich material," says...

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“The idea of working with a character who squandered a great opportunity and is already almost past redemption is very rich material,” says Tony Gilroy, writer/director of the new George Clooney thriller “Michael Clayton.” “It’s not hard to have empathy for that character.”

Clooney, who plays a fixer for a big New York City law firm, indeed makes the somber Clayton a sympathetic figure despite an aura of moral compromise. A middle-age attorney who proved unremarkable in court, the reluctant Clayton is now a different kind of asset to his boss (Sydney Pollack), quietly taking care of client problems before they get out of hand.

Gilroy, one of the writers on “The Bourne Identity” and its two sequels (and making his directorial debut with “Michael Clayton”), says such below-the-radar go-betweens exist in every field, including show business.

“Kicking mistresses out of apartments, killing stories with journalists, getting somebody’s wife out of a shoplifting charge, I don’t think anybody knows what that takes out of someone like Clayton,” Gilroy says. “Least of all the people who pay them to do it.”

Gilroy says the film, which finds Clayton unsuccessfully trying to rein in a rogue colleague (Tom Wilkinson) attempting to go public with damning information about a corporate client, was born of two inspirations.

“I wrote a movie called ‘The Devil’s Advocate,’ ” Gilroy says of the 1997 Keanu Reeves movie. “I was struck how all these huge New York City law firms I visited had a large, wood-paneled room, but no one ever used it. The real action was in a vast, backstage area where strategies are devised.”

At the same time, Gilroy was considering the possibilities of writing a film about a man whose failures and somewhat disreputable function make him all-too self-aware.

“I’d been trying to develop that character for a while,” says Gilroy. “There’s nothing sadder than being too late” in one’s career and life, like Clayton. “You go back to ‘The Verdict’ or “Save the Tiger’ or ‘The Entertainer’ — the idea of someone who had a chance to do something and blew it, is very appealing material for writers and actors.”

One of the strongest elements of “Michael Clayton” is its remarkable cast, composed of diverse and unique talents including Clooney, Pollack, and two Brits playing Americans, Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton. The latter portrays a corporate executive trying to stop Wilkinson’s crusade by any means.

“By and large,” Gilroy says, “most directors are really mystified by what actors do. You can have completely different styles in the same film. Tom Wilkinson does not like to spend a lot of time talking. He wants to know what the script is, he wants his questions answered, and then you stand back and turn the camera on. Tilda, by contrast, is like a Halloween actor. She needed her pearls, she needed her outfits. I introduced her to some women who were general counsels for big firms. They took her shopping. She assembles characters from the outside in.”

What about Pollack, a highly successful filmmaker who co-produced “Clayton?”

“The hardest thing about Sydney was getting him to agree to do the part,” says Gilroy. “It’s a very short list of people who could play George Clooney’s boss. I really needed someone who dominates scenes.”

Clooney’s performance, one of his best, places his character among the most interesting in the anti-hero tradition.

“George is such a quietly ambitious actor,” says Gilroy. “Look at the roles he’s choosing and the things he’s doing along the way. He was the grand prize in this whole thing. There was no way of making this movie without him working for free. He becomes this security blanket, the ultimate protection who makes sure nobody messes with the movie. “

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com