With his latest film Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood has produced another career landmark and a new screen icon for our times. Will Lawrence meets a giant of American culture to discuss his remarkable work on both sides of the camera and why Walt Kowalski may be his final acting role.
Most Hollywood celebrities walk around with a clattering entourage. Clint Eastwood does not. He does, however, walk around accompanied by the clattering of applause, today at least. It echoes down the corridors of the Los Angeles hotel, emanating from a photo call he is holding for the assembled press. They thunder their appreciation the moment he walks in. As he talks, they respond with either dignified silence or volleys of laughter. In fact, they laugh a lot; either Eastwood is on fine form, or the press corps has been struck by a serious bout of sycophancy. As it transpires, both are true. A short while later, his large-scale press duties done and the clapping all finished, Eastwood settles into a throne-like hotel chair. He is clearly in good cheer, his tanned, grizzled face breaking into a warm, friendly smile. His olive-green eyes are bright, lit with a cool intelligence, and when he talks in his quiet, gravelly tone, he is both witty and articulate. As the assembled press have just discovered, it is difficult to resist his charm. He is 78 but seems 10 years younger. His hair may be silver, his skin akin to parchment, and the lines etching his face might resemble topographical markings on an old map, but the man looks good - brimming with vitality and emanating a cool, self-assured composure. Others his age may be bearing hip replacements, but Eastwood remains irreplaceably hip. He is a giant of American culture, one of its true living legends; hence it is fitting that his latest cinematic adventure sees him in front of the camera once more (he also directs) after a four-year absence (his last performance coming in Oscar-botherer Million Dollar Baby). And it is perhaps even more fitting that the part he plays in his latest film hints at one of his most iconic on-screen characters.
The film is Gran Torino, Eastwood's character is Walt Kowalski, a retired motor-industry worker whose racial prejudices come to the fore when a Hmong family moves in next door. When he spits the words "Get off my lawn", he projects an image of a retired Dirty Harry, conjuring out an old man's rendition of "Go ahead. Make my day". "I guess both those guys are kind of crazy," begins Eastwood. "Certainly Walt is an equal opportunity insulter, a unique character I thought I knew well. Growing up, I knew a lot of people like that. It seems in that era nobody was scared to say what they thought. This is a guy who is a Korean War veteran, whose wife just passed away at the beginning of the story. He's estranged from his two adult sons who he thinks have counted him out. His family doesn't care too much about him. They are grown up and don't want to hang out with an old guy. He has worked at the Ford Motor Company for 50 years and his neighbourhood, which used to be all automobile people, has been taken over by immigrants. And he doesn't like the changes that he sees.
"The story sort of ties in with kind of the landscape right now - the end of an era. Walt is an obsolete person. He's a little bit like Frankie Dunn from Million Dollar Baby and Sergeant Highway from Heartbreak Ridge, those kind of guys who are out of sync with society and the modern world. He doesn't know how to relate to anybody." The film certainly feels entirely rooted in the filmmaker's oeuvre: a number of his most recent directorial offerings, in particular, explore the idea of justice and morality being determined by individuals rather than the authorities. Just consider Changeling or Mystic River. "I don't necessarily look for dark themes; they just seem to appear. But they usually are stories on the dark side, like the two war pictures, Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, and Changeling. I just don't want to copy the current trends or do movies for teenagers. I want people to get more out of movies.
"With Gran Torino, for example, the film is infused with redemption. Finally, despite my character's initial reactions, the Hmong family befriends him in his time of need, because he has no relationship with his own family. He learns a certain amount of tolerance along the way. Everything changes when he turns around and starts helping them out, trying to save the young kid, Thao, from the gang life, and teaching him ambition, ethics, morals."
The film has proved a box office success in the US - taking almost $135 million (Dh496m) - and rightly so. It's a brash, muscular melodrama, tied together by the lead player's simple, rugged performance. For all the critical and commercial acclaim, Eastwood, however, remains delightfully nonchalant. "When it came out, it got nice reviews, but that doesn't always necessarily mean a thing. But then, when the public started liking it, I said, 'Fine. I'll take the success'. I thought older people might see it and see a similarity to their own family relations. But young kids liked Walt because he is so obstinate. I think everybody would like to be him for 10 minutes. It becomes an interesting character that way; it is definitely a character that triggers something in people."
The same could be said of many of Eastwood's characters. His most memorable on-screen character, even after all these years, must be as The Man With No Name, the taciturn gunslinger who strode the arid landscape of Sergio Leone's three famous spaghetti westerns, For A Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, although if the truth be told, he wasn't the first choice to play the part. According to reports, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Ty Hardin and Richard Harrison all declined before Eastwood accepted. "Maybe my greatest contribution to cinema was not doing Fistful Of Dollars, and recommending Clint for the part," Harrison once said.
Eastwood, of course, already had form in the world of the western. Born in San Francisco in 1930, he went on to take a string of low-paid jobs, working in foundries, gas stations, even felling trees, before eventually turning his hand to acting during his twenties. After a clutch of roles in B-movies such as Revenge Of The Creature, Tarantula and Francis In The Navy, his big break came in 1958 when he secured the role of Rowdy Yates in the TV series Rawhide, a character Eastwood once described as "the idiot of the plains", and he became a household name in the US during the show's seven-year run.
"I wanted to be a director even then; I liked the fact that I maybe could control my own destiny, so to speak. When I started directing in 1970, not a lot of actors were doing it. It seems at that time that it was a harder jump. I knew that with Play Misty For Me I had to prove myself, to show the studio that I could make a decent film out of it. It worked out pretty good." It worked out very well indeed, and he followed his directorial debut with the allegorical western High Plains Drifter (1973). Indeed, he has proved a major benefactor to the western, which many regard as America's only true art form - The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) still stands as arguably his finest directorial effort - as well as the war movie (and America has made a few of those over the years).
His two excellent movies released prior to Changeling, Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, reminded the world of the intense suffering unloaded via the war with Japan in the Pacific. Eastwood has not served in a combat zone, although he was enrolled in the US Army, and it very nearly cost him his life. In 1950, at the age of 20, he hitched a ride in the radar compartment of a torpedo bomber heading to California. It wasn't designed to house humans and once crammed inside, thousands of feet up, the door below him sprung open, leaving him exposed. He reached for the intercom; it didn't work.
"I nearly fell out," he grimaces. "I was a mile up holding on for dear life." After wedging the door shut, Eastwood clung on. But the plane climbed higher, forcing him to reach for the oxygen. It didn't work. He passed out, coming to an hour or so later only to discover the pilot, out of fuel, about to crash-land into the sea. Eastwood was thrown free and fought a fierce current to drag his battered body towards the shore. "I don't recall how it long it took to get out, but as I've said, it was an ordeal I never want to repeat. I collapsed on the beach. After I came round, I began searching the beach for the pilot; every rock uncovered by the sea seemed to look like his body. After a while I felt certain he'd drowned. It was a contradictory feeling. I felt terribly depressed at this idea; yet strangely elated because it wasn't me."
This startling episode, just one of the many life-threatening escapades embroidered on the tapestry of his life, is typical of Eastwood. He survived on his own strength, and by his own instincts. And yet, despite the obvious trauma inflicted by such an astounding journey, he still searched for his comrade. Loyalty is important to him and he remains an advocate of a code that adheres to the principles of kinship, feelings nurtured by his father and by his own blue-collar existence. Any suggestion that he has not applied them to his personal life fails to fathom the complexities of the man.
Eastwood would not deny his fondness for women, and if chastity has not proven one of his strongest suits, he will point to the fact that he is friendly with all five mothers of his children. His current wife, Dina, he married in 1996 and, by his own admission, Eastwood is settled. "Dina is everything I ever wanted and never found anywhere else," he smiles, "and because I have had children at an older age [he has seven, the youngest, Morgan, is 12] I've had time to learn patience that I didn't have earlier in my life when I was more ambitious. Now I try to do less."
Which, by anyone else's standards, is a lot. Eastwood remains prolific - he has never gone over budget or over schedule on any film he's helmed, a truly staggering feat - a legacy of his early days spent at the mercy of quick-shooting TV producers. He filmed his two recent World War Two movies back-to-back (the second of which was shot in Japanese) and began work on Gran Torino while scoring Changeling (an accomplished musician, Eastwood has scored no fewer than four of his own films).
"Everybody thinks that doing two back-to-back films is a big deal, but they did it all the time in the old days," he points out. "John Ford would make two or three films a year, like Howard Hawks or any of those guys. Of course, they were contractees a lot of the time. They'd go from one to the other. And while they were shooting one they'd come back and look in on the editing of the other and say, 'Change this and change that'. Then they'd walk back and shoot what they were shooting."
In many ways, Eastwood is continuing their legacy - both Ford and Hawks were, like him, synonymous with the western - and he seems their natural heir. But how does he feel about his position in a society that regards him as such an icon? "It's very nice, thank you," he chuckles. "I'd rather be called that than something less flattering. But the main thing is to do each project the way you want, and if they find an audience, that's terrific. And if they don't, there's nothing you can do anyway, so don't let it concern you that much. An awful lot of good movies have done badly and an awful lot of bad movies have done very well. There are no real rhymes or reasons for it. Sometimes the stars don't always align right. But if you've done the best you can, you feel pretty good about it."
Indeed, boasting a career that stretches back across six decades, Eastwood insists that he has no regrets. "I don't believe in regrets." Of course he doesn't. "Lots of things you would do differently if you'd do it again, but you don't do it again, so you don't think about it. But that goes for life in general. You're only dealing with the knowledge you have at that time. At 20 years old, you don't have the knowledge you have at 50. But no, I have no regrets. There are a few films that I probably wouldn't have done now, because maybe they didn't say enough, but I'm just thinking differently now."
His current thinking has led him towards a political drama, which will be his next film as a director. "It's the rather unique story of the way Nelson Mandela could think of using the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and its broken-down national team, the Springboks, one year after he became president of South Africa, to unite a nation - the way he went about spreading pride in the country, and the way it helped him solve the problems."
Morgan Freeman will play Mandela, the pair having worked together before, on Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. "I just have to make sure I am casting well. That's the secret. And once it's cast well, it should take care of itself. It'll have a lot of scope. It's too early to know if it's going to be any good, but I'll just do the best I can. "As I've got older I've reached out for different stories, things that were appealing to me. Maybe they were appealing to me as a young man, but then the pressure was on to be a young man. I started out in movies with a lot of action, but now I've got to this stage of my life and have mostly retreated back behind the camera. I just feel that I should address issues that are close to me rather than fantasy characters."
And what about the rumours that Gran Torino might be his last film as an actor? "I'll probably be glad only to act once in a while," he smiles. "That's enough and then move on. And if it doesn't happen again, it won't break my heart because I'll be very happy to stay behind the camera." Given the press's euphoric reaction earlier in the day, it seems that the world is only too happy to have him, whether he's in front of the camera or behind.
Gran Torino opens in cinemas on March 12.