January 2004 By Philip Berk
Even though his film company Malpaso means misstep in Spanish, Clint Eastwood is one superstar who rarely takes a misstep.
Ask him about it and he’ll tell you, “I’ve had missteps. I try not to dwell on them, but I’ve also made some right steps. Fate has played a great hand in my life. I have to credit that, but I’ve worked hard though not any harder than the next guy.”
His last movie Million Dollar Baby earned him the best reviews of his career, winning him Academy Awards for best direction and best picture.
The film arrived quietly at the end of last year with no expectations; in fact critics were expecting something along the lines of Every Which Way But Up. But from its very first screening, it was acclaimed a masterpiece.
Like vintage wine, CLint Eastwood improves with age.
Mostly he responds, “There’s no reason why a person shouldn’t get better as they get older. You get more experience, you have more life behind you to reflect on or experiences to draw on. I guess there comes a point where maybe you lose touch but the thing that’s worked for me is always trying to do something different, not falling back on doing the same thing I did 40, 30, twenty years ago. When I started acting 51 years ago as a contract player, you learn something new every year and that’s why I keep working. There’s always something to learn on every movie and until I slip into senility I hope to continue doing it.”
Has he always had a positive outlook?
“I think back when I was a young player in the 50’s, early fifties, trying to get a job as an actor knocking on doors and have people tell you you weren’t enough of this or you weren’t enough of that or you’re too much of this or too much of that. You have to be able to forge yourself forward. That’s why I tell people who want to take up acting, you have to really want to do it. Don’t waste your time or anyone else’s time if you don’t really want it badly. Otherwise you’re just going to be disappointed. It’s a hard profession in the sense that it’s a feast or famine thing. Either you’re doing well or you’re not doing well. But of course luck plays a part in that because no matter how hard you work or how talented you are, you’ve got to be lucky.”
Negativism doesn’t breed success?
“You can’t get anywhere with a negative attitude. Not that I’m a New Age person, but you have to think positively. When so many people shook cigars in your face and told you you were a bum, there was some little voice in there saying, Well, let’s not worry about that. Just move onward and upwards until something clicks.“
Why Flags of Our Fathers at this time?
”It was a wonderful book that was a bestseller a few year’s back.
At his press conference dressed in his customary golf jacket and corduroys, he is both physically and intellectually impressive.
He may be 77, but he doesn’t look it.
For 45 years now, he’s been respected and admired for doing things his way.
Not just in his career, but in his personal life as well.
Career-wise he went from a TV western series (Rawhide) to spaghetti western classics (Sergio Leone) from achieving iconic status as Dirty Harry to playing straight-man to a chimpanzee (Every Which Way But Loose.)
As a director he was honored by the British Film Institute (Outlaw Josie Wales) twenty years before Hollywood gave him his first two Oscars (for Unforgiven.)
His private life has been equally unpredictable.
After 25 years of marriage, he left his first wife Maggie for (actress) Sondra Locke. That relationship ended abruptly when he fathered children with (airline stewardess) Jacelyn Reeves and (actress) Frances Fisher.
A messy lawsuit made headlines but ultimately was settled out of court.
His first wife had accepted $25 million in her divorce settlement even though she was not the mother of his oldest child, a daughter born to actress Roxanne Tunis, four years before their two children were conceived.
Twelve years ago he met a young TV news anchor Dina Ruiz. They were married shortly before the birth of their daughter, and they have been inseparable ever since.
In spite of all these complications, his ex wives, ex lovers (with the exception of Locke) his seven children, and one grandchild, all dote on him.
And obviously he’s someone who loves women.
What are the qualities he finds most attractive in women in general and his wife in particular? I once asked him.
“I grew up in an era when women were the driving force in films. Back in the forties, actresses (like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford) played roles that were equally as strong as men. I liked that era a lot. I have great nostalgia for it. As for my marriage, it is about the happiest time in my life right now. She is a tremendous person, and she has to embrace a lot of different elements in my life from the past, which she has done so gracefully. I am a great admirer of hers obviously.”
As one of the few actors whose wrinkles make him attractive, how does he feel about cosmetic surgery?
“It is somewhat disconcerting if you don’t recognize them. It’s hard to say, ‘Didn’t you used to be so and so?’ But I guess everybody has to do what they feel is necessary, whatever their ego demands, I guess. It’s too late for me; the horse has left the barn.”
So he chose to age gracefully on screen?
“As an actor you have two philosophies; one is that you’re afraid to let go of what you once were, or you are not afraid. I have no other choice; they don’t make enough shoe polish for my hair, and they don’t have a belt sander for my face. At some point you have to say, ‘This is who I am, and this is an opportunity to play roles I couldn’t play thirty or forty years ago.’ You have to view it as an opportunity and not worry about it. But if your ego can’t let go of your matinee idol image, you’re in trouble. Fortunately I’ve never considered myself a matinee idol. I always thought of myself as a character actor even when people viewed me as a leading man.”
How does he stay so lean and healthy?
“Lean and mean?” he jokes, but then seriously he continues.
“I work at it. I try to exercise every day, and if I don’t I play golf, I try to do something that’s outdoors and keeps me busy. I’ve worked at it a lot of years. If you’re going to be a performer I felt either you had to stick with the program or else get off the program.”
“I probably have a lot, but I’m not going to discuss them here. But I’ve always done everything in moderation. I never liked drinking much other than beer and wine. I love a glass of wine now and then. I never smoked except in movies. I try to eat well. My hobby is medicine. I studied a a bit of theoretical pathology at NYU for a while, so that comes in useful.”
As a film maker he is known for his economy. Only one or two takes for every scene. Is he proud of that reputation?
“I’m not sure it’s a good reputation to have in an industry of excess. I learned it from working with (director) Don Siegel. However I like working fast because it gives me the feeling I’m going somewhere, and I like the spontaneity. And I’ve been fortunate to work with actors who enjoy it too.”
Harrison Ford once said, “Perfection is not a righteous goal.” Does he agree?
“It’s a very good comment, because it’s true in a way. Sometimes if you antisepticize things, after twenty takes, you beat it to death. Pretty soon it loses its rhythm, its spontaneity. The scene might be technically great, the actors technically perfect, everything enunciated perfect, the shadow is perfect, lighting, everything. But ultimately you see the sterility of it all. I like a more spontaneous response.”
How does he see the industry? Is it changing for the better?
“There’s an awful lot of razzle dazzle out there, so much fantastic technology. Sometimes you wonder if the toys are running the factory.”
Does he ever look at his old movies?
“I never revisit any of my work. I haven’t seen any pictures that I made in the 80’s or 90’s. I ran Dirty Harry once because Dina had never seen it and all the men in the news room kept telling her how she’s got to see it if you’re married to him. So we watched it on DVD, and she said, ‘Oh I get it now.’ That’s the only film I revisited. Except I did see Play Misty for Me. They had a thirtieth anniversary a year or so ago, and I kinda had to sit through it with the audience. It was interesting seeing myself with big sideburns, a lot more hair, dark hair. I’ve got a little blonder since then. And wearing those horrible bell bottom pants.”
Since l993 he hasn’t appeared in any film he himself hasn’t directed. Is that his choice?
“It started in 1970 when the only way I could get the job as director was to be in a film. My original ambition was to phase out of acting and just direct. When the day comes and you look up on the screen and say, ‘That’s enough of that guy’ I guess it will happen. Sometimes that day gets closer all the time.”
Sergio Leone, the Italian director, used to joke that, “Clint had only two expressions, with or without the hat?” What are his memories of him?
“At that particular time, 35 years ago, we were attempting an innovative style; at least a lot of people thought it a new interpretation of the western genre. That was fun. But after four movies, I knew I had to move on to other roles. Sergio and I talked about doing other pictures, but to me they were a little repetitive. I’ve done sequels myself, but I’ve always tried at some point to do something different. Sergio was a wonderful talent, I learned a lot from him. It was a great moment, and it was a great era of my life.”
Does he still have any political ambitions?
“None at all. I never was politically ambitious. I ran for mayor of Carmel because of my interest in the community where I live. But as far as running for office, no chance. Knowing how people scrutinize your life, I’d be committing gaffe after gaffe.”
And what advice would he give to aspiring actors?
“The first actor of note I ever met was Cornel Wilde. And he said, ‘So you want to be an actor? Well, save your money.’ When I asked him what that meant, he answered, ‘If I’d saved my money, I wouldn’t have done some of the roles I had to, to make ends meet.’ I’ve always remembered that, and I’d have to pass that along. That way you can be independent, wait for things you think are suitable.
“Another piece of advice I’d give, is be open-minded and learn as much as you can. If you have ambition to do more than act, then by all means go ahead. One of the problems with acting is, an awful lot of people want to do it, so you really have to love it. If you don’t, don’t do it, because there’s too much disappointment. There will be a lot of rejection along the way. Of course, there’s a lot of luck involved. I mean, if I hadn’t been at the right place at the right time, I might never have got Rawhide.”
Does he make movies with one eye on the box-office and the other on satisfying critics who consider him a major artist?
“It’s very nice of the British Film Institute to give you an evening tribute, but the main thing I’m trying to do is tell a story. You don’t put the cart before the horse. You don’t think about how someone is going to react to a certain scene. If you did, every scene would be tailored towards an audience’s reaction, and then you’d get yourself in trouble. What you do is go straight to the story and ask yourself is it something I’d like to see even if somebody else was performing in it?
How important is it that Warner Bros. show a profit on their investment?
“They are very nice as far as supporting me as an independent producer, but I can’t worry about that. You have no control over whether they make money or not. And you can’t prejudge it, certainly not in the world we live in. Besides, once the film is done you have nothing to do with it.”
Does he have good memories of the old studio system?
“I personally long for the days when they had writers in buildings and they thought up things like Casablanca. The industry right now is not how I’d like it to be. Everybody’s on a remake kick. I don’t see any reason to make remakes. A sequel occasionally is okay.”
A candid admission coming from the ultimate Hollywood maverick.
His laconic answers could make anybody’s day
Meryl Streep chose to do the Bridges of Madison County because she had heard about his economy as a film maker
“I know I’ve gained this reputation for doing one or two takes, which sometimes is the case and sometimes isn’t, but I’m not sure it’s a good reputation to have in an industry of excess. It’s not always looked upon with great admiration. However I like working fast because it gives me the feeling I’m going somewhere, and I like the spontaneity. And I’ve been fortunate to work with actors who enjoy that, and Meryl Streep happened to enjoy that. She loved the spontaneity. A lot of the time, actors and actresses are accused of being technical, but that’s because they’re burned out by the time they get to Print. I like mistakes, I like real-life feeling. Dialogue doesn’t always have to be perfect. People stutter and stammer. They fight for words. If you can get that on screen, then there’s a certain real life feeling. Really good performers, like Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, are not afraid to do that because they have confidence in themselves. Towards the end, Meryl asked if we could shoot the rehearsals.”
He’s known as a man’s director. What was it like working with a method actor like Meryl?
Well, she’s the best. She’s as good as it gets. There are some wonderful actresses in this world, but I don’t know any that are better than she. And when you have somebody as strong as her you have a very powerful situation. Without saying much, you can read a lot in her face. In the original script, there was a scene where she opened the gifts, things that were willed to her, and she read his letter. You were supposed to hear his voice, but she did it so splendidly, so simply, I removed it. Even the movements with her hands, her gestures, were so perfect, why contaminate them with dialogue.”
Actors have complained that he doesn’t give much direction. Is that how he works?
“It depends on the actor. If he’s totally off base on the interpretation, you try to guide him, but in the case of Meryl — because we were shooting in continuity — we started out as in real life, barely knowing each other and just sort of building a relationship. As the director, I did tell her a couple of times, ‘Just because I don’t come in and say wonderful, fabulous and use a lot of flamboyancy, doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s good. If it’s no good, I won’t print it.’
“We talked a little about where we were going with it before we started, but then it just started to unravel. There’s nothing worse than a director who, because he’s self-conscious or insecure, gives a lot of instruction. That’s very unnerving to actors. I’ve been on that side of the fence so I know. I don’t care for it myself, so I don’t perpetrate it on others. I try to maintain a comfortable atmosphere. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But when things are going wrong you jump in and talk about it. ‘Let’s try something different.’”
Has he ever had any trouble with actors?
“I’ve never had an actor really give me a hard time. Maybe one on one occasion, but they always want to be there. The only thing I can credit myself with is I set a nice atmosphere for them to do their very best . That’s my job and if I don’t do that then I’ve failed.”
Does he ever storyboard?
“No, I’m spontaneous. No storyboards. I’ve only done it once, and that was for a sequence when we had to work with special effects.”
How did he get involved in the project?
“Warner Bros. had purchased the book for Steven’s company. They had put it out to (director) Sydney Pollack and asked me if I’d be interested in acting in it. I read the book and I liked it. One thing led to another, and I ended up acting and directing.”
Wasn’t Coppola once offered Unforgiven?
“He may have been, but I had bought the property in ‘81 and saved it for many years because I just wanted to stockpile.”
Does he enjoy both acting and directing or does he sometimes feel he might be shortchanging himself by doing both?
“No, I don’t. As director, I’m interested in the overall picture. I’m not interested in what I’m doing as an actor. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. It’s very important for the director to pay attention to the detail and to the overall project.”
Any fear that his fans won’t accept him in a sensitive role?
“For me, it’s just another role. I had no trepidation. I kind of looked forward to doing it. As for my so called ‘macho’ image, I never wanted any particular image. I never coveted it. I’ve never wanted to wield guns and chase down criminals on the streets of San Francisco. I’m just an actor. I play each role for what it is.
“I’ve played similar (sensitive) roles in Beguiled, Bronco Billy and Honky Tonk Man. Some of them worked out, some of them didn’t. This one seems to be working out, so I accept it, but I won’t get too analytical about it,”
Is there any significance that his two year old daughter is named Francesca, Streep’s name in the movie?
“It’s just a coincidence. The name came before I was involved in the picture.”
Is being a father in mid-life especially rewarding?
“Being a father is fun anytime, but when you’re a little older, a little more mature, you have a little more time to spend because you’re not so career driven, so there are advantages, but there are disadvantages too.”
What does he think of laws (such as in Italy) that prohibit women from having children late in life?
“I don’t think anybody should be prevented from doing what he or she wants. If a woman is able to have a child late in life, more power to her.”
As a libertarian, how does he respond to Senator Dole’s criticism of Hollywood’s preoccupation with sex and violence?
“Senator Dole is welcome to his opinion, and maybe he’s genuinely concerned, but there are a lot more important problems in the country that need to be addressed first. I don’t know what makes him an expert on the subject. Maybe it’s political posturing. He takes a good point and then makes political hay out of it. Some of it,I think, is because President Clinton has become the darling of the Hollywood community so he has to take an adversarial position.”