On the eve of his 80th birthday and the release of his film Invictus, Clint Eastwood talks about politics, monogamy and the woman who finally made him grow up.
As hard as it is to imagine today, Clint Eastwood was once a little boy. And a pretty unexceptional one at that. 'I always joke that back then my teachers were like, “Mrs Eastwood, your son, he is just slow”,’ Eastwood tells me.
The actor, writer and film-maker will be 80 in May, yet the man sitting in this Los Angeles hotel room could easily pass for a young-looking 65.
His crinkly skin is slightly leathery in texture − courtesy of a life spent on film locations and golf courses − but his blue eyes are bright and, at a still-lean six-feet-four, he remains an imposing presence.
This is the fourth time I’ve met him and he talks as quietly and succinctly as ever, delivering short pithy lines with his clipped, gravely tones. He’s no great shakes as an anecdotalist and can be a little taciturn at times. But slow? Never.
Eastwood doesn’t smoke ('only in movies’), has never done drugs ('they just weren’t my thing’), and attributes his rude health to a twice-daily meditation routine and a diet that scrimps on red meat.
He was recently named one of the world’s most stylish men by the American edition of GQ, yet today Eastwood’s cool is seriously compromised by a slightly fuddy-duddy windcheater.
'I guess I’m still a blue-collar guy,’ he laughs. Joking aside, Eastwood is justifiably proud of his working-class upbringing ('I have worked ever since I was 13’) and an underdog story easily as compelling as any from his films.
He was born in 1930 in San Francisco, California, but spent much of his childhood on the move. 'When I was born, the economy wasn’t in a great state, it was the Depression and my father had to be quick to try and find work,’ he says.
'Everyone was looking for work at that time. He sold stocks and bonds, and was always moving from one company to another, looking for new opportunities, to better himself, and to give us a better chance.’
Eastwood remembers a time that his father moved his young family 450 miles across California, from Sacramento to Pacific Palisades, so that he could take a job pumping petrol at a gas station.
'Saying that, though, I don’t really remember things being particularly tough as a child. We didn’t go hungry – we were fed and played with whatever was around. I’m sure my father did have lots of worries, but my sister and I didn’t really know about them.’
His father’s work ethic, however, still made a strong impression on his son. Even today, Eastwood is one of the most prolific directors of his generation, making no fewer than 14 films since 1992’s Unforgiven and much of his success can be traced to an innate understanding of working-class values (consider 1982’s Honkytonk Man, for example), forged while working alongside his father in steel mills and lumber yards in his early twenties.
Clinton Eastwood snr died in 1970; at the time his son was a leading man, but no more. One of Eastwood’s great regrets is that his father didn’t live long enough to see him blossom into the film-maker he has become (his mother lived until she was 97, and while she was alive Eastwood spoke to her every day).
What did his father think of his son becoming an actor? 'He thought it was a stupid idea,’ he says. 'But he was of a different generation, a different era. He never fantasised. But I have always been that kind of a guy. I am a good listener. I think that came from my schooling.
'When I was growing up I wasn’t an extrovert. If anything I was an introverted kid, and a very average pupil at school. I was very quiet. My dad, though, he was the opposite; he was very outgoing. People really loved him. He was spectacular, in fact, and he would have been a great actor. That would have been something to see; he would have enjoyed every minute of it.’
Following his father’s wishes, he graduated from high school and had intended to study music at the University of Seattle, until he was drafted into the Army at the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. He never saw action, but he did nearly lose his life.
It was the summer of that year and Eastwood’s parents were living in Seattle. He had met a girl when on a visit home and decided to see her again, hitching a ride with a naval plane going north. On the return journey, however, things began to go wrong.
'It was a naval torpedo bomber – there were no seats – and I had to squeeze into the radar compartment on the plane,’ Eastwood says.
'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 himself towards the shore.
'I don’t recall how long it took to get out, but as I’ve said, it was an ordeal I never want to repeat,’ he recalls in the most matter-of-fact way possible. 'I collapsed on the beach.’
All this for a girl. Have women always been his weakness? 'Maybe that’s true,’ he shrugs. 'I think I became hooked on girls at a fairly early age. 'Certainly that’s where the interest in music comes from.’
Eastwood is an accomplished musician and a fine pianist, directing 1988’s Bird, a biopic of jazz legend Charlie Parker, and also scored several of his own films.
When he was young he realised that 'if you were at a party and could sit down at the piano and play a few numbers, girls seemed to like that.’ He laughs. 'So I’d listen to the records out at the time and learn to play along. It’s funny, but even then, as a mediocre student, I knew that I would do OK – there was something out there waiting for me.’
Not that this was immediately apparent. After his discharge from the Army, Eastwood drifted around working in the aforementioned mills, digging ditches and cleaning swimming pools.
In 1953 he married his first wife, journalist Maggie Johnson, and soon after met director Arthur Lubin, who liked Eastwood’s demeanour. A few small television parts followed and in 1958 he finally got his big break, on the cowboy serial Rawhide, which ran until 1966.
'It was like an apprenticeship for me,’ he says. 'I learnt the nuts and bolts of film-making and, more importantly, really learnt what I wanted to do.’
In 1963 he started work on his first film, Sergio Leone’s Italian/Spanish/German production A Fistful of Dollars, for which he was paid $15,000 and received an additional credit as 'Western Consultant’.
'I’ve always trusted my instincts, and with the spaghetti westerns, I just thought it would be good to go to Spain and see how films were made in other countries,’ he says. 'I wanted to learn. I guess that you could call me a late starter, and I think that’s why there was such a sense of urgency for me.’
He was already in his mid-thirties, and when he finally decided that he’d like to try his hand at directing, with DJ-stalker movie Play Misty for Me, he was already 40 years old.
'People didn’t really do that at the time, go from actor to director,’ he continues. 'There were precedents, Stan Laurel for one, but it was not something that was very common.’
And yet he proved wonderfully adept, his time spent in television at a mature age taught him how to make films quickly and efficiently. He is proud of the fact that even now, after 30-plus films in the director’s chair, he has never gone over budget or over schedule.
But for all his popularity he didn’t earn Academy recognition until he was 62, when his revisionist horse opera Unforgiven galloped off into the sunset with the statues for Best Picture and Best Director. 'I knew that the time was right for me to make Unforgiven,’ he says, 'although I didn’t think it’d make any money.’ The film took $150million.
Eastwood is less proud of the way he has conducted his personal life. As the five mothers of his seven children will attest, he’s often found monogamy difficult. He remains friends with four of them, although not with Sandra Locke, his long-term lover and author of the tell-all book The Good, the Bad and the Very Ugly.
In 1996 he married his current wife, Dina Ruiz, a former television anchorwoman, 35 years his junior; the couple’s daughter, Morgan Eastwood, was born in the December of the same year. And Eastwood is now, finally, 'living in my state of monogamy quite happily’.
'Dina is everything I ever wanted and never found anywhere else,’ he smiles. 'It took me until I was 65 to find her. Like they said at school, I’m a little slow – it takes me longer to do things. But, because I have had children at an older age, I’ve had time to learn patience that I didn’t have earlier in my life when I was more ambitious.’
And yet he is still driven today. When we meet, his latest film, Invictus – the 67th he’s made; his 31st as director – is about be released.
The film’s posters feature a muscular Matt Damon, bedecked in the green and gold jersey of the South African rugby team, while the movie itself is brimming with on-field action, including a bone-crunching 12-minute sequence at the story’s conclusion that re-enacts the Springboks’ unlikely 1995 World Cup Final victory over Jonah Lomu’s all-conquering All Blacks.
But the director insists that he has not made a sports movie. 'This project wasn’t approached because of rugby, just like Million Dollar Baby wasn’t approached because of female boxing,’ Eastwood says.
'It’s the story of the use of the game – that’s what attracted me to the project, and to rugby. For me, the story is about the use of a game for reconciliation in a country that was on the verge of civil war when Nelson Mandela took office.
'If he had proceeded with a more military attitude, he would have probably had sympathy there because they had been under apartheid for so long. But Mandela, being a very special person, saw it a different way and he was looking for other ways to reconcile the country and bring it together.’
Adapted from the book Playing the Enemy by journalist John Carlin, Invictus charts Mandela’s bid to unite his people behind the Springboks’ tilt at rugby glory during the 1995 World Cup – the first major sporting event to be held in the post-apartheid country.
And while this might sound like a sensible plan, it was plagued with problems, not least by the fact that the vast majority of black South Africans regarded the national rugby team’s green and gold jerseys as symbols of white supremacy.
Eastwood casts old friend Morgan Freeman as Mandela, with Damon as South African rugby legend François Pienaar. To his credit, he does not gloss over the fact that for all his political and humanitarian excellence, Mandela had his faults.
Like Eastwood, he’s a hero with a particular flaw: 'He wasn’t successful in his marriage, in his relationship with his daughter, and other children that he had,’ says Eastwood, who met Mandela on the Invictus set. 'And I think he has a lot of regret about that sort of thing, but he gave himself to his country.’
As with his 2008 film Gran Torino, which he starred in and directed, his latest offering deals with race. 'That is coincidence,’ he says. 'All the story material comes to you coincidentally.
'It was like when I did Flags Of Our Fathers and turning straight round and doing Letters from Iwo Jima from another point of view. Mandela had been in prison for years and comes out and there’s the most unusual thing, almost biblical, where he turns the other cheek.’
When shooting his two Second World War films, Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood came under attack from Spike Lee, who claimed that the director overlooked African-American soldiers who fought in the Pacific theatre: 'If he wishes I could assemble African-American men who fought at Iwo Jima and I’d like him to tell these guys that what they did was insignificant.’
Eastwood responded by accusing Lee of historical ignorance and suggesting that Lee should 'shut his face’.
Thanks to hard-guy films like the Dirty Harry series, many perceive Eastwood as a huntin’, shootin’ conservative in the Charlton Heston mould. Eastwood, however, considers himself a 'social libertarian. Leave everybody alone. Quit trying to force everything down everybody’s throat.’
And he is a true animal lover, claiming that the last thing to move him to tears was the death of his daughter’s white cockatoo. His family currently includes 'chickens and birds and a rabbit; the rabbit follows me everywhere.’
For all its persistence, the rabbit will have to cope by itself for a month or two; its owner is already gearing up for his next movie, Hereafter, in which he re-teams with Damon (whom Eastwood praises as 'one of the better young actors’). The film, currently shrouded in secrecy, is a taut thriller which will shoot both in Britain and the United States.
'It is a contemporary piece. It’s three different stories with people who have gone through some sort of stressful time and it’s about how they sort of converge together. Much like a lot of French movies have been in the past, where the stories kind of converge together, and destiny drives each person towards the other.
'I keep finding interesting stories, or they come to me, so I’ll keep making movies.’
But what about his acting? He starred in, as well as directed, Gran Torino, but is he now done?
'I don’t know. I never know what’s the last one, but I’m at the age where they don’t write a lot of great roles for people and I’m happy at the back of the camera. I don’t have to wear a tie, nobody is coming in saying, “this won’t match”, and so, there are a lot of advantages.’
He laughs, fiddling with the buttons on his windcheater. Not that he’s ruled out the possibility of being a leading man again: 'I’m like Jaws 2. Just when you think it’s safe to go back in the water…’
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