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Coens Foster Brotherly Love in Latest Production

Actors may impress when they pick up a foreign skill like playing an instrument or learning a language to inhabit a role. But it's more entertaining to hear about their failed attempts to do it.

For example, there's Matt Damon's notorious hardy resistance to long hours of golf training for last summer's The Legend of Bagger Vance; one shoulder injury and several less-than-authentic swings later, Damon described his educational experience thusly: "I learned that I suck and always will." 

Not His Aunt 

Then there's George Clooney, who needs to deliver some knockout singing for the latest from producer-director team Ethan and Joel Coen, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (opening Dec. 22). Clooney plays Ulysses Everett McGill, the charmer leading three escaped chain gang members who also happen to make a great vocal trio. He leads their signature song "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" alongside Coen film veteran John Turturro as the ornery Pete and The Thin Red Line's Tim Blake Nelson as sweet simpleton Delmar. 

Perhaps thinking singing was in the blood, considering his aunt is the legendary stage singer Rosemary Clooney, Clooney the younger eagerly stepped up to the mike. But he found that he had trouble getting eye contact from anyone in the recording booth when he finished singing. "I think in the back of their minds they knew I wasn't gonna cut it," he recalls. So in the end, professionals were called in. 

The Coen brothers admit they weren't floored by their star's pipes. "As George himself says, 'I'm not my aunt,'" says Joel. "But his voice isn't bad." 

It just isn't that...good. But Clooney did discover a talent. "I'm a very good lip-syncher," he says humbly. "Me, Milli Vanilli — all the big ones." 

Delta Blues 

There's plenty of lip-synching (though Nelson did get to keep his voice for one song) in O Brother, a story set in Depression-era Mississippi that highlights much of the period's blues and folk music. The title is a reference to Preston Sturges' 1942 classic Sullivan's Travels, in which a film producer sets out to explore the hobo life in order to make a social drama of the same title. Joel explains, "Ethan said at some point, '[The title's] kind of a cheap joke, but an in-joke."' Ethan adds, laughing, "What's the point of telling a cheap joke if it's obscure?" 

Another point of reference is Homer's Odyssey, which became an inspiration for the story when the writers realized the focus was about a man (Ulysses) going home. They added a Cyclops in the form of John Goodman as a one-eyed Bible salesman; three Sirens voiced offscreen by country mavens Emmy Lou Harris, Gillian Welch and Allison Krauss; and a Penelope in the form of Holly Hunter as Ulysses' estranged wife. 

It's a lot to juggle, but the Midwestern brothers known for Fargo and Barton Fink are classically laid-back, according to their actors. "There is never a disagreement," Clooney muses. "They don't really talk very much. Joel will go, 'You know, if you, uh...' and Ethan will go, 'Yeah.' That's sort of it, and you just go, what happened? It's like some sort of tribal ritual from Minnesota." 

O Brothers 

Turturro, who also starred in the Coens' Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing and The Big Lebowski, is used to the fraternal atmosphere. "They do all these crazy movies, but there's something that's really truly healthy about them," he says. "They have a relationship between brothers that's really inspiring in some ways, because you just can't imagine how you could work with your sibling that way." 

Theoretically, the 46-year-old Joel directs; Ethan, 43, produces; and the two co-write their projects. But the Coens acknowledge that they each have a hand in just about everything, and just didn't want to shake people up by taking dual credit. "The whole idea of brothers co-directing — or anybody co-directing — was probably more freakish [when we started splitting credits] than it is now," Ethan says. 

The pair isn't afraid to bring in other family members too; Joel's wife Frances McDormand (last seen as the besieged mother in Almost Famous) has been in four of their films, winning an Oscar for 1996's Fargo. And Tim Blake Nelson was just an acquaintance down the street that Joel knew and liked. The Coens had never seen Nelson's few acting appearances, and they knew he was busy directing the upcoming O., a modern-day Othello starring Julia Stiles and Mekhi Phifer. 

Still, they knew they wanted Nelson to play Delmar — but wanted to ease into the request. Considering Nelson is also a writer whose 1997 film Eye of God drew accolades on the indie film circuit, Joel sent him the script, asking only for "advice." 

"I thought, what would they want to know from me?" says the terminally self-effacing Nelson. "I don't know what to say." He didn't have to say anything but "yes," as it turned out: Not only was Nelson later offered the part, but the Coens offered to let him bring O. onto the Brother set and edit the final cut in his downtime, all on their dime. 

"For the most part I was thinking, I don't even belong here. I'm so lucky," Nelson says of his experience during filming. But the motley threesome became fast friends. "When you're chained together and it's 110 degrees and somebody's stomach is upset and you're running through cornfields and jumping up and down and chasing chickens, you get to know each other pretty well," Turturro elaborates. 

The Coens say their next picture will be a "noir murder story" set in L.A. featuring McDormand and Sopranos star James Gandolfini. Though none of the three Brother actors is attached, they say they would love to work with the Coens again. No one mentions any singing, though.