Clint Eastwood: The elder statesman

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No figure in American film has had quite the third act of Clint Eastwood. With such movies as "Mystic River," "Letters From Iwo Jima" and "Gran Torino," he has consolidated a reputation as one of the finest directors working today. The Hollywood Reporter's Matthew Belloni and Stephen Galloway spoke with him just before he was honored at tonight's Museum of the Moving Image gala and asked about his new film, "Invictus."

The Hollywood Reporter: How did you first hear about the project?

Clint Eastwood: Morgan Freeman called me and told me he had a good script that he wanted me to read. So I read it and find out it's about Nelson Mandela, whom I've always been curious about. I called Morgan back and said, "Yes, I'd love to do this," and if it wasn't set up anywhere I would set it up at Warner Bros. I was just entranced. (South Africa was) on the verge of civil war; with the slightest bit if encouragement, (Mandela) could have pulled the trigger. It took a very creative person to come to grips with this. And it shows how creative even a politician could be.

THR: Did you meet him?

Eastwood: He came down to Cape Town for a day or two. We went over and met with him. It was a pleasant meeting, but he's 92 now, so he didn't want to stay around too long. I wasn't prying for any particular information, because I had all the knowledge I needed, so I tried to have mercy on him. He's a terribly charismatic person. He has that ability, when he walks in a room, to grab everybody's attention.

THR: How long was the shoot?

Eastwood: It took us about seven weeks.

THR: And the budget?

Eastwood: Probably $55 million, including the (government) rebate; about $60 million, excluding it.

THR: Did you find any racial tension in South Africa?

Eastwood: Not particularly -- certainly nothing on the outward side.

THR: When you're shooting, do you miss home?

Eastwood: Yes, I do. But once you leave for a location -- in fact, I just got back from England and France -- you set your mind for a certain time away and the only time you miss home is if you go for more time than you had planned.

THR: Does your wife go with you?

Eastwood: Most of the time. In South Africa she was there the whole time.

THR: Is that good or bad? (Laughter.)

Eastwood: It was good, because she home-schooled our daughter for that period of time. (My wife) was working with an orphanage and trying to help them with construction and different things. Then she discovered a band that was performing in Cape Town called Overtone, so we ended up utilizing the band in the soundtrack.

THR: What was the toughest challenge about the shoot itself?

Eastwood: To get the rugby accurate in the final game between the New Zealand All Blacks and the Springboks. We had Chester Williams, who was on the 1995 team, as our coach, and Francois Pienaar, who Matt Damon was portraying, came out a few times. But they actually had to play rugby: You can't fake rugby. And it's a really rough sport.

THR: Did anybody get hurt?

Eastwood: A few times. One of our key players ended up with a hamstring pulled and there was a lot of head-cracking.

THR: How do you approach working with an actor like Damon?

Eastwood: We just talked a little bit about it. We got him a dialogue coach -- and that's very important: South Africans are very critical of actors who don't have the accents down.

THR: Did you rehearse with him at all?

Eastwood: We didn't rehearse too much, but we rehearsed some of the plays in the game. As far as rehearsing him as a performer, no, we just jumped right in.

THR: If there ever are conflicts that arise with an actor, what generally causes them?

Eastwood: There isn't any conflict. But if there ever is with any actor, it's insecurity. The most important thing for me, functioning on a film, is to make sure everybody is very relaxed -- and that is my responsibility, but also of the whole crew. And I don't just cast a movie for the actors; I cast a movie for the crew as well.

THR: How did Morgan Freeman's automobile accident affect the shoot?

Eastwood: Well, he had a few aches and pains, but probably Mr. Mandela has a few, too. But we didn't delay the shoot: We started the preparation toward the end of last year and filmed in March and April and came back in May.

THR: He told us a funny story that he would imitate your very distinctive walk and you would put your hand up in the air and imitate his damaged hand!

Eastwood: (Laughs.) I did the Dr. Strangelove thing. When somebody imitates you, you've got to rib them back. He loves to have a good laugh along the way.

THR: You said earlier that you'd set "Invictus" up at Warners. Has your relationship changed there? When you did "Million Dollar Baby," you didn't have that automatic support.

Eastwood: We did eventually. They were just somewhat hesitant at the beginning because they didn't see the film as I saw it, which was a father-daughter love story -- they saw it more as a girl-boxing picture. But my relationship hasn't changed; I still give them first pick.

THR: Have they had any discussions with you about what will happen when studio chiefs Barry Meyer and Alan Horn leave?

Eastwood: No, we've never had that discussion. In terms of leaving, I'll probably leave before they do! (Laughs.)

THR: Have you given much thought to plans for the next few years? You're doing "Hereafter," but after that?

Eastwood: Everything is contingent upon the material. "Hereafter" came about as I was doing postproduction on "Invictus." I've already done over half that picture, but I'm taking a hiatus now until Matt (Damon) is available and then we'll come back to it in January.

THR: How much of it have you done?

Eastwood: We shot for three weeks in England and for a little over a week in France. Now I've got an American sequence that features him. It's three stories all converging together. We'll go back to England to do the final sequence.

THR: Do you have anything lined up after that?

Eastwood: No, I don't. Please don't offer me anything!

THR: It's very interesting, this third act of your career. It's a sort of reaffirmation of a humanism that is in decline. Do you see it that way?

Eastwood: The humanism you mention declining, it's a sad situation and maybe I'm attracted to that, unconsciously or subconsciously, because there's a place for it in the world and the Mandela situation fit right into that. "Gran Torino" was certainly about racial tensions and how you're never too old to learn. Various projects like this are statements I guess I'm interested in at this point in my life, and maybe I wasn't that interested in them (before). Starting back with "The Outlaw Josey Wales" or "Unforgiven," I started delving into areas that were out of just the standard entertainment fare and tried to present some sort of statement along the way. I know Jack Warner used to say, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." But I don't believe that.

THR: Do you in any way regret the message of some of your earlier films?

Eastwood: No. You only do in life what you do with the philosophies you have at that time. That was one phase of life and now I'm in another phase. People changing is the natural progression of things; when people stop changing or stop thinking and start becoming mired in one sort of philosophy, they can get bogged down and that's the decline of life.

THR: You said during the run-up to "Gran Torino," that it might be your last film as an actor. Is that still your thinking?

Eastwood: Probably. But I've said that before -- I said it after "Million Dollar Baby" as well. This was always the plan; back when I did "Play Misty for Me" almost 40 years ago, was the idea that some day when I didn't want to act any more or wasn't in demand, I'd be able to direct films.

THR: Do you still like acting?

Eastwood: Yes, I like it. I think it's great fun, and I suppose if the occasion came around with some really good story I can make a statement on of some value, I'll do it -- if I'm not going to go out and do a car chase.

THR: Do you have any plans for your 80th birthday?

Eastwood: Once you get in the 70s, several things happen. One is, you stop celebrating birthdays. I've forbidden my wife -- I said, "Please, no birthday things! I don't need to pretend to open a gift and say, 'This is just what I wanted!' " I said, "Don't get me anything. We'll just have a glass of wine." Seventy-nine is not so bad. I might savor it for a while.
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