Clint Eastwood – Mystic River

Septuagenarian superstar Clint Eastwood may be about to hang up his acting boots. But with the potential for Oscars on the horizon, he may yet change his mind. Tony Earnshaw met him.

He was, unforgettably, Dirty Harry in five films. These days 73-year-old Clint Eastwood resembles Creaky Harry although, judging by his workload – practically a film a year since 1964 – he’s never eased up.

The instant, boyish smile eradicates the lines and creases of seven decades to reveal, if just for a moment, the face of the actor from Rawhide, the massively popular television series that made Eastwood a global star in the early Sixties.

Forty years on it’s difficult to relate the iconic figure of cinema’s Clint Eastwood with the grey-haired, soft-spoken gent sitting before me. The gravelly growl that memorably characterised Inspector Harry Callahan is noticeably absent. And, given that we’re indoors, there’s no trademark squint. What remains instead is something far more tangible: effortless majesty. Someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger, with all his power-hungry posturing, would do well to follow Eastwood’s lead. Here’s a man who doesn’t need to try; he just is, and that is relates to something icons like Gary Cooper (an Eastwood favourite) had in spades: plain, old-fashioned charisma.

Eastwood, with 50-plus films under his belt, is in London to promote his latest picture Mystic River, a compelling meditation on lost innocence and the consequences it throws up many years later. The film, starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon, has already been tipped as an Oscar contender with Eastwood, directing but not acting, among the favourites for best director.

Famed for his minimalist style and pragmatic, no-nonsense approach to filmmaking, Eastwood fulfils every preconception as a man of few words with his laconic explanation for choosing to make the film, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane. He read a synopsis, liked it, read the book, liked it, saw a succession of strong characters and “figured I had to do it”. Some pundits have already judged it companion piece to Unforgiven, Eastwood’s 1992 revisionist western that picked up four Academy Awards, including two for the man himself. Eastwood doesn’t seem to see it that way.

“I didn’t purposely try to find a companion piece to that, but I guess without thinking about it too deeply I am interested in the results of violence and the effects of it on the perpetrator as well as the victim. It was just a great story with a lot of layers to it, every role was really good.

“From the very beginning the story was an Americanised Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean tragedy. It has a little bit of that. And I’m sure the name Annabeth, [the character played by Laura Linney], came from Lady Macbeth, so there is that moral ambiguity there.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the stealing of innocence. It’s the most heinous crime. Anything to do with crimes against children [should be] a capital crime. It’s very strong in my mind. That’s what attracted me to this story – how fate takes this journey.”

As for Oscars, Eastwood is blunt: “I would prefer not to even think on that level. I’d like to see the picture go out and have a nice life. If that includes anything else, that’s fine. The picture was made to hopefully be provocative; that’s as far as I can take it.”

Violence, both overt and enigmatic, has been Eastwood’s stock in trade since his big screen breakthrough in Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy, beginning with A Fistful of Dollars in 1964 and ending with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in 1966.

It was honed and polished in a succession of mainstream movies – Coogan’s Bluff, Hang ‘em High, Joe Kidd, High Plains Drifter, and the Harry Callahan series. By 40, Eastwood personified the laconic loner with a gun. Richard Burton, his co-star in Where Eagles Dare – Eastwood’s last picture as second string to another actor – labelled it “dynamic lethargy”. Eastwood laughs.

“Whatever Richard said is absolutely fine by me! That was his impression at the time [in 1968]. Richard Burton was always fascinated by American acting styles – Robert Mitchum in particular – and all those people who could do an understated kind of thing. That’s his opinion. I’m not very objective about myself, to tell the truth. I’m just hanging out. Whatever I do is strictly on the spur of the moment and on the instinct of the moment.”

While Mystic River, with its multi-layered story, ensemble cast and considered, serious message, is already a critical success, Eastwood has endured his share of failures – both honourable and otherwise. As a director he has split himself between mainstream tosh (Pale Rider, The Rookie, True Crime) and risky personal projects (Bird, White Hunter, Black Heart, The Bridges of Madison County). In amongst them was the occasional hit, like The Outlaw Josey Wales. In truth he was always more comfortable in the director’s chair – a trait he discovered whilst labouring on Rawhide between 1959 and 1965.

“I’ve always felt that every actor should direct at some point in their life and every director should act,” he says pointedly. “It makes everybody understand what the process is. You hear about actors being late” – a possible reference to Kevin Costner’s tardiness on A Perfect World in 1993 – “but you never find that with an actor who’s directed because he understands all the problems a production is going through.

“As I’m maturing I’m more interested in directing. I’ve always been more interested since 1970 [when he made his debut with Play ‘Misty’ for Me] but I stayed with both acting and directing in order to get the films done. I’m gonna let younger fellas do the acting now. I’ll just watch them.”

And, considering he’s played the political card by serving for two years as Mayor of Carmel, on California’s Big Sur in the mid 1980s he, unlike newly elected Governor Schwarzenegger, has no plans for further public service. So why do actors want to be politicians?

“Most politicians want to be actors! It’s a logical tool for politicians. Being a charismatic performer, like Arnold is, is definitely a great advantage. Ronald Reagan was a good example. They called him ‘The Great Communicator’.

“It’s gonna be interesting now that [Schwarzenegger] has got what he wants. More power to him. I wish him good luck. He’s gonna need it, but he may just be brilliant. Now the nightmare begins…”

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