A glimpse of the inner Clint

Once, while travelling with me in the obligatory limo to a lecture at the Edinburgh Festival, Clint Eastwood rolled down the back window to talk to a Scottish girl who had recognised him at the traffic lights. ”Go on, Clint,” she said, ”Make my day.” ”Come on in,” he replied, ”and I’ll try.” She was totally charmed that so famous a figure should bother to talk to her and he was obviously pleased that someone in the street should feel themselves free to be familiar with him.

To say Eastwood is laid back would be to mistake him. As a film-maker he has the reputation of being one of the best in America, and of knowing exactly what he wants and how to get it. He works fast and efficiently, inducing affection rather than fear in his actors, and using the art of gentle persuasion to perfection. Everyone likes Clint, and respects him, too. He is in every sense a superstar, but seems to regard himself as an ordinary mortal who has struck very lucky and is determined to justify it. He is proud of all the honours that have been heaped upon him, such as the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for his western Unforgiven, and was particularly pleased to be made a Fellow of the British Film Institute a few years ago because he felt it meant he wasn’t just a hunk of macho manhood to people all over the world.

It is difficult now to remember that it took him years to be recognised and that, when he was, it was on television rather than the big screen. He was the star of the Rawhide series and it was only after watching them that Sergio Leone, the Italian director, chose him to star in his famous spaghetti westerns.

Eastwood developed his film-making abilities by helping out with scripts, trailers and production chores on Rawhide, and by watching first Leone at work and then his great friend, Don Siegel, on the Dirty Harry films. The result, eventually, was his first film as director and star, Play Misty for Me, and a series of his own westerns, which were among the best of the genre since the great days of Hawks and Ford.

Now 65, Clint is entitled to call himself a pensioner now — a grizzled icon whose face looks as if it’s seen a thousand shoot-outs and somehow survived. That’s part and parcel of his appeal, but he’s still a very handsome man, capable of turning any woman’s eye. On the other side of the coin, he says that he is no longer going to do anything ridiculous, like kissing young women on the screen. The truest measure of his success is that, though unjustly criticised by some for making violent movies, he has also starred in, or made, some of the most lyrical and anti-violent of films. His latest, The Bridges of Madison County, in which he stars with Meryl Streep, is the gentlest, most romantic movie of the year so far.

DM: If it had been suggested 10 years ago that you’d do a film like The Bridges of Madison County, people wouldn’t have thought it was your image at all. Did you mind playing a character so different to the ones you’ve played before?

CE: Some of my past roles might lead a person to believe I wouldn’t want to be in this kind of film — [coyly] being a man of action and all that sort of thing — but I felt I’ve been something of a character like this. In my early days of filming I used to travel around alone, go out in my pick-up truck and scout locations by myself — though I didn’t run into any longing housewives, unfortunately.

There seems to be a great deal more sex in the book than in the film. The film seems to be about love more than sex. Did you change it in that direction?

I liked the nucleus of the book, in that it was a simple love story of two outsiders adrift in mid-America, but I thought it should be a romance. The advantage of a middle-aged love story — and you know I’m rapidly approaching middle age — is that you can tell a story with friendship preceding romance as opposed to the youth-driven thing where it’s sort of physical attraction, then romance, then friendship later.

What was it like working with Meryl Streep? I noticed you were very unselfish and gave her an awful lot more than you gave yourself.

Well, that comes from telling the story through her eyes. That’s just the way I saw the balance in the film.

Do you prefer directing to acting now? You once said acting was the masochistic part of yourself.

Did I say that? Well, I guess it is. There is something about getting up and exposing yourself. A musician has the advantage of holding the trumpet or the saxophone and channelling into it; we just have to stand there and deliver whatever there is. I think being behind the camera certainly is a safer feeling.

How does acting in a picture that you’re directing affect the practicalities of directing? Does it impinge on your acting?

It’s not too bad. I always listen to what the director says. It takes a little doing. I started directing in 1970 because the only way I could get a film made was to be in it. And the only way I could get the director’s job was to do it. And I did it for a very slim price. Then I kept swearing I’d only do one or the other. But you sort of develop a habit of switching your mind backwards and forwards. And you have to trust the people working with you. Once you’re lined up and you’ve got things the way you want then you have to shut that all out of your mind and concentrate on the character.

You had a long time when it looked as if you weren’t going to make it. What would have have done if you’d failed to break through?

I don’t know what I’d have done. As a kid I was kind of at loose ends. I’m not an organised-religion-type person, but when I start thinking what happened to me, where I was lucky enough to end up, you know, it’s all sort of fate-driven. I always tell people if you want to be an actor you should really want it more than anything on the planet because it’s really hard going. It’s not that it’s hard to do. But it’s so hard to get going.

Can you remember the first role you played when you thought, ah, now, maybe there’s something I can do with this after all?

Yeah, in Rawhide. When I got that, it was the first regular job I’d had. To suddenly be going to go to work every week — at least for the first 13 episodes before somebody pulled the plug — that was a moment when I thought, maybe you could actually make a living doing this.

Did you learn the business of direction from the Rawhide episodes and Don Siegel?

The Rawhides were a big part of it because we did them week in, week out. It was like filling a column rather than writing a book. Sometimes we had some pretty good scripts, sometimes we had some really bad ones, but the column still had to be filled, so you learned how to make something out of nothing. Don Siegel was a great influence on my life later. He was another guy who made a lot out of a little. If you look at Invasion of the Bodysnatchers now, they’ve made a lot of imitations and none of them has ever come up to his.

What do you think about the state of the western now? I know that Unforgiven was very successful, but a few others after that certainly haven’t been, such as Wyatt Earp. Do you think it’s going to continue?

It’s one of those genres that everyone likes to revisit every now and again, including me. I always thought Unforgiven was sort of a perfect last western: the nature of the story, the guy seeking redemption, getting it, then maybe not. But I’d do another if I could find the right one.

Do you think films are becoming too violent?

Perhaps. For every violent film where the violence seems to fit the situation there seem to be dozens which capitalise on violence; where the violence is what drives the film into a commercial status. When I approached Gene Hackman about doing Unforgiven he said: ”No, I don’t want to do any violent pictures.” I called him and said I thought we could make a really interesting statement about gun play, about the romance of the gun play: that it ain’t romantic.Then he bought into it afterwards.

What is it that keeps you motivated?

Interest in films. I like films. What keeps you motivated is when you finally get a story, and you try to bring it to life. Don Siegel used to say it’s amazing a film ever gets made, much less that any of them are any good, there are so many problems. But when you do finish, if you’re lucky the public looks at it and says, ”Oh, I’m enjoying this”. If they don’t, then you go back to the drawing board. There’s always that challenge. If you don’t have that you should give up and not bore the audience hanging round for the pay check.

Is there a great dream you still want to accomplish?

I’m a day-to-day-type person. I have thoughts, but no specifics. Projects just pop up, and you have to ask yourself how can you do something you haven’t really tackled before. Unforgiven’s a good example. There was something about the searching for redemption — the haunted soul part of it — which appealed to me.

What are you planning to do next?

I’m going to take the rest of this year off and maybe address something early next year. I’ve got several scripts I’m analysing. One is pretty good, the other is a book I haven’t yet conquered.

What about the golfing film we’ve heard about?

That’s the one I haven’t yet conquered. But you know, there’s something about a golfing film, you need to scout the locations a lot. You have to go out and spend a lot of time there in order to create the magic. Maybe after another 150 more games … — The Guardian

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