Old age doesn’t mean slowing down, 79-year-old Clint Eastwood tells Tony Earnshaw as Invictus opens in the UK.
Several living legends will celebrate significant birthdays this year. Among those turning 80 are Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery and Gene Hackman, who cut his cake on January 30.
Hard to believe? Maybe so. For Eastwood, in London to plug his Nelson Mandela picture Invictus, old age becomes a joke as he first refers to himself as 49 and then, a minute or so later, as 38.
There is something of a valedictory feel to the press conference attended by journalists from all over Europe. Those of us who respect – even revere – Eastwood know he hasn’t got that many movies left in him even if, like Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, he’s still making them at the age of 101.
One thing’s for sure: Eastwood has grown as a director as he’s got older. Films like Million Dollar Baby are as good as anything Hollywood has made in its lifetime. Invictus doesn’t carry the same weight though the subject matter is laden with over-deference and wide-eyed wonder.
He’s been making movies since 1955 when he made an uncredited appearance in Revenge of the Creature as a lab assistant with a mouse in his pocket. Nudging 80, why does he feel the need to keep working – even if the movies are still as challenging as ever?
“I had planned on not working at this particular time of life,” says Eastwood in a voice that’s part growl, part whisper.
“Nobody does when you reach my age: 49. I’m enjoying work now more than I ever have, or just as much. I can take on more challenges than I have in the past because I know more. Of course also, at this age, you can forget more! I try to avoid that.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work in a profession that I’ve really liked and so I figure I’ll just continue until somebody hits me over the head [and says] ‘Get out’.”
After cutting his teeth as a director on later episodes of his TV series Rawhide in the ‘60s Eastwood branched out into directing movies in 1970 with Play Misty for Me. In the 40 years since he has laboured on 31 pictures as director. He has starred in most. Several he has also produced.
In many ways that makes him unique in Hollywood. It also gives him clout. Morgan Freeman had long nurtured a dream to turn Nelson Mandela’s life story into a film with himself in the lead. When plans for Mandela’s memoir Long Walk to Freedom fell through, John Carlin’s book Invictus was optioned instead.
The book tells the story of Mandela’s obsession with the 1995 Rugby World Cup and his desire to use sport to unite a South Africa on the brink of civil war. Freeman took it to Eastwood and, lo, the film got made.
“I didn’t approach it as a picture about rugby,” says Eastwood. “Mr. Freeman called me up and said ‘I’ve got a script’. He didn’t tell me it was about Nelson Mandela. So I read the script and I liked it very much.
“I just thought that this is something politicians around the world today could learn a lot from: having a certain creativity and bringing people together instead of just talking about it and not doing it. [Mandela] seemed to be a really unique person.”
Eastwood met Mandela during the shooting of Invictus in South Africa. He was impressed: by the man, certainly, but also by the vibe that surrounds him even now, in his nineties.
“I never got a chance to talk with him very much but just being around him you get a feeling,” he recalls.
“He’s an extremely charismatic man and has that million dollar smile when he walks in the room. Everybody else wants to smile with him. I thought he was equally as impressive as he was on film.”
For six decades Eastwood has been equally impressive on film. Last year, aged 78, he toplined Gran Torino as a grizzled old Korean War veteran taking up arms one more time. He’s since hinted that he’ll never act again. But we’ve heard that before.
“I said that back when we did Million Dollar Baby [in 2004]. I figured maybe this would be good – to quit on top unlike a prize fighter who fights one too many fights. Then Gran Torino came along. It seemed like an interesting part. It was a man my age and I figured I wasn’t stretching things that much. So I decided I’d go ahead and have another shot.
“I’m still saying that. I might do ten roles. If ten great roles came up – and I don’t know how many great roles there are for a guy who’s 38 – then you just don’t know. I’m not saying it won’t happen again but the odds get less if you set yourself a goal that fits your age group. You just never say never.”
Perhaps inevitably attention turns to arguably Eastwood’s most iconic role: San Francisco detective “Dirty” Harry Callahan. He first took on the character in 1970 and played him four more times, finally hanging up his .44 magnum in 1988 after The Dead Pool.
With Invictus Eastwood is asked if he has swapped retribution for forgiveness. Age may have mellowed him, but has he gone soft? Those brown eyes squeeze into a trademark squint and there is a momentary glimpse of Harry’s mean glare. Then he smiles.
“Dirty Harry never would be forgiving like that. That’s what makes Nelson Mandela a superior person.”