Growing up in Kentucky in the 1960s, George Clooney learned early on how vital it is to get immersed in political and social activism – and to stand firm in one’s principles.
“I grew up in a generation where all the people that mattered to us were being murdered, from Martin Luther King to Bobby and Jack Kennedy to Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, and all these things that counted were going on, with women’s rights, civil rights, the anti-Vietnam [war protests],” Clooney tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story where he is named one of the magazine’s People of the Year.
“You had to be involved. My mother and father were involved, and we were [taught] it is your civic duty… I remember my father saying, ‘Don’t come back and look me in the eye unless you stand up to [bullies and racists].’ I’m glad to have been raised that way.”
With that foundation, the Oscar winner has long been one of Hollywood’s most philanthropic and outspoken humanitarians, using his voice, wealth and powerful platform to do good — in public and behind the scenes.
In 2020 alone Clooney, 59, has donated $500,000 to the Equal Justice Initiative in the wake of George Floyd’s death, $1 million for COVID-19 responses in Italy, London and Los Angeles and significant aid to Lebanese charities after the deadly explosion in Beirut in August. Most days he and his wife Amal, 42, an esteemed human rights attorney, work on the Clooney Foundation for Justice, which advocates accountability for human rights abuses around the world.
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While he allows that “2020 has sort of exhausted everyone” and has openly expressed contempt for the current administration, Clooney believes the future of the country is truly promising.
“I’m always optimistic about this country. We fail a great deal, but I’ve been to so many countries that are really failed states, and they look to this country for leadership. We come up short a lot—race being our great original sin and clearly the one we’ve been the worst at—but we are in the constant process of trying to find a more perfect union… You can’t give up,” he says. “I believe in the American spirit.”
Ultimately, the star, who is dad to twins Alexander and Ella, feels the same responsibility any other parent might. “I’m in the same situation as most fathers of 3-year-olds: I don’t want my children when they’re 15 years old to turn around and say, “There was a time when they were putting kids in cages?… And what did you do about that?”, he says. “And if the answer is ‘nothing,’ then I would be ashamed.”
In Amal, Clooney, who directs and stars in the Netflix sci-fi epic The Midnight Sky, out Dec. 23, has found a like-minded partner – and for that he is deeply grateful.
“I feel very lucky in so many ways to have met her,” he says. “We haven’t ever had an argument. You know, everybody’s been slammed together because of the coronavirus and a lot of friends’ relationships have been tested. For us, it’s been really easy.”
The Clooneys’ activism and commitment to philanthropy and humanitarian causes is just one thing that connects the couple, who married in Italy in 2014.
“She succeeds in so many different ways and stands up for what she believes in,” he says. “We didn’t fall in love because of our work, but it ended up being something unusual we [share]… We are really lucky and we know it.”
Clooney, who says he looks forward to “a return to civility” in 2021, remains determined to do his part. “I feel like I’ve been given a bit of a break,” he says, “so I should be spending my time trying to give others a break.”
When Alexander and Ella grow up, he hopes they’ll “pick the same kind of fights,” he says. “I hope that will be my wife’s and my legacy to our children. It just means standing up for things you believe in, standing up for equality. Who could be against equality?”
George Clooney, Regina King, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Selena Gomez are PEOPLE's People of the Year! Look for all the covers on newsstands this week and read all four revealing interviews in the new issue.
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