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Nearly 20 years ago Grant Heslov met fellow struggling actor George Clooney at an audition.

Clooney was too poor to purchase a set of head shots, so Heslov lent him the money.

It was the beginning of a long friendship. Heslov has since produced Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Leatherheads” and now makes his feature directing debut in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” opening Friday.

Of his pal he said: “It’s a testament to George as an actor that he’s willing to put himself out there with risky performances. Look at ‘O Brother ...’ where he was willing to be flat-out silly and ridiculous.

“In ‘Goats” he plays it much straighter, at least on the surface. Underneath, though, you can see all this craziness spilling out. That’s a pretty ballsy performance.”

Heslov said he had to know when to go for a laugh and when to back off.

“That was the trick — knowing how far we could push it. My mantra was that everything had to be played very straight. The subject matter is already so far out there that if you push it to go for laughs, it will all fall apart.”

“It helped that so much of the movie is based on real people and events. Jon Ronson, who wrote the book, was the model for Ewan McGregor’s character. George’s character, and Kevin Spacey’s, are composites of several real-life people. But Jeff Bridges plays a military man who really existed.”

Currently Heslov and Clooney are in Italy filming “The American,” about a hit man hiding out in that country.

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