What keeps Clint Eastwood going? At 78, surely only knee supports and Red Bull. But while the days of him shooting at a fleeing suspect with a .44 Magnum might be long gone, after more than half a century in the film industry, the once laconic, cigar-chomping gunslinger and former mayor of the Californian town of Carmel remains one of Holly-wood’s most industrious and versatile directors. So what happened to the lone gunman? ‘The lone gunman has just evolved into something else,’ Eastwood informs us. ‘I’ve enjoyed telling different stories. There are some stories you can’t portray as an actor going through life, but you can if you can direct films and tell stories about other people.’
As an actor, Eastwood has long been underrated. Director Sergio Leone, who gave him his break in A Fistful Of Dollars, reportedly once said: ‘I like Clint Eastwood, he has two expressions – one with the hat, and one without it.’ But it was this style that made him such an icon, and the perfect foil for the dirty realism of Leone’s now revered Spaghetti Westerns. A self-confessed workaholic, Eastwood admits that some of the movies he did were ill-advised. ‘You work and do it because it’s there,’ he says. But one of the peculiarities of his career remains that no matter how iconic his status as an actor, it is as a director that he has arguably had his greatest success, winning Academy recognition for a string of films.
And so we arrive at his latest shot at Oscar glory, Changeling. Set in 1928 Prohibition-era Los Angeles, it tells the true story of Christine Collins (played by Angelina Jolie), a woman whose nine-year-old son is abducted, only for the police to return the wrong child and convince her to take him in. When she rejects the boy (a runaway who came to Hollywood to meet his favourite actor), the police and papers paint her as a monster. ‘I guess she was so desperate to have her son back that she said she would do it,’ Eastwood explains. ‘She realised it wasn’t her son, as she knew all along. Then they threw her in a psychiatric ward and did all kinds of crazy things to her.’
Given his own reputation for playing hardmen, it is one of the ironies of Eastwood’s directorial career that he should cast strong roles for women (Million Dollar Baby; Breezy; Play Misty For Me). ‘It happened,’ he says, ‘and I think it shows the perseverance of a woman in that particular time in history when women didn’t have that many rights or they weren’t given the confidence to really go out and defend themselves.’
In many ways this is classic filmmaking territory for Eastwood. The line linking Dirty Harry’s Callaghan and Christine Collins may not exactly be a straight one, but the ability of one individual to change things fascinates the director and former politician. ‘I think it is important,’ he reasons. ‘I think people need to have faith in that. A lot of people are pessimistic and say they can’t change anything. But I think in a major case like this one, you have to be able to stand up. You have to stand up for yourself and speak out.’
That aside, there is little to link the different eras of Eastwood’s career, other than that he seems to enjoy destroying certain images of himself. In Play Misty For Me, his directorial debut in 1971, he tore into his macho image by playing a DJ tortured by a female stalker; 1992’s Unforgiven put the final nail in the coffin of the myth of the Western. It isn’t something self-conscious, he says, but at a time in his career when he is being showered with lifetime achievement awards, it causes him to reflect. ‘Your taste changes a little bit,’ he muses. ‘Maybe you go for broader stories or maybe you go for stories that have more production or less production. The most important thing is that the stories are different from what I’ve done in the past.’
At 78, Eastwood remains unspeakably fit and more active than ever. As well as composing the music for his own films (he used to play piano in bars), he also returns to acting in another directorial vehicle, Gran Torino, playing a disgruntled Korean veteran who attempts to reform his rebellious young Hmong neighbour.
The role is rumoured to be his last acting role, but retire-ment still isn’t on the cards. Why should he? By the sound of it, he is only just getting started. ‘I think a senior status in life is a lot of fun if you take advantage of it,’ he reveals. ‘If you give up and say, OK, I’m going to go count the roses or something like that, then that’s great. But if you really enjoy the knowledge you have of life and the things you’ve seen, you can then try to incorporate them in stories and bring that to the world.’
Eastwood though the ages
Clint was a jobbing actor with a string of often uncredited roles in B-movie pulp horror flicks like Tarantula and Revenge Of The Creature, until in 1959 he landed the role of Rowdy Yates on TV’s Rawhide.
Sergio Leone picked Eastwood to star in iconic revisionist Western A Fistful Of Dollars, spawning two sequels and the Spaghetti Western genre. His character was the cigar-chomping Man With No Name.
Eastwood stepped behind the camera to direct and star in a string of hits, including The Outlaw Josey Wales and cult supernatural Western High Plains Drifter. He also landed one of his most iconic roles as a maverick cop in Don Siegal’s Dirty Harry.
Notable movies here included Firefox, Heartbreak Ridge and Pale Rider. Eastwood also became mayor of Carmel, a small artistic community in California, in 1986. He ran at the last minute and won 72.5 per cent of the vote – the role paid US$200 a month.
Eastwood’s first Oscar success saw Unforgiven winning him Best Director, Best Picture and receiving a Best Actor nomination. More mature roles followed with In The Line Of Fire and The Bridges Of Madison County. In 1996, at 67, he became a father for the seventh time, with wife Dina Ruiz.
More nominations for his directorial skills and an Oscar win for his work on Million Dollar Baby – his most successful decade ever, and it’s not over yet.
In cinemas from January 8