"Plant Your Feet and Tell the Truth": An Interview with Clint Eastwood

Interview conducted by Tony Macklin. Originally published on February 1, 2005 @ Bright Lights Film Journal.

On Million Dollar Baby and a million-dollar career.

Tony Macklin: I have to apologize — I didn't have enough faith. When I heard you were going to do Million Dollar Baby, I thought, he has to compromise to make it commercial. He can't have it end like the story.

Clint Eastwood: You're just doing the story the way you see it. I read the book (Rope Burns) about 3-1/2 years ago and paid close attention to the story "Million Dollar Baby," which someone had told me about. I really liked the story, and later on when they came back with the script Paul Haggis had written, I said, "Gee, I really like this. It's going to take a lot of nerve to do this."

But it's sort of the ultimate conflict: he falls in love with this girl, his surrogate daughter — she's the daughter he never had, and he's the father she's never had — and then he's asked to do this terrible thing. It's kind of controversial. But it's also conflict in the mind of the person who has to do it.

Actually your persona — the Clint Eastwood persona — helps it, doesn't it? The audience is saying, "He's never done this before; this is something new."

Well, I'm at the age in life where I'm not trying to do things I did years ago. And personas — I've tried to shoot down my persona so many times.

You don't even fight this time out. Morgan Freeman does the fighting for you.

That's true. (Laughs)

So your persona has evolved.

Over the years. I started out in genres of films — the western and the detectives. I was looking for different stories that go along with the natural maturing of the years. I probably would have retired years ago if I hadn't found interesting things to do. The 1980s were a transition period for me, but the 1990s were pretty good, because I brought out Unforgiven (1992), which I had for many years, a story I had sat on. Then I started playing older people with certain regrets and certain problems to overcome — In the Line of Fire (1993) and different roles.

Every once in a while a good role would come along. A Perfect World (1993) came along. I hadn't planned on being in that one. I directed it, but I also acted in it because Kevin (Costner) said it would be right. And then Bridges (The Bridges of Madison County, 1995) came along — the Studio (Warner Bros.) owned it. That was a "mature guy" role. You think there are none of them out there, and then all of a sudden one pops up. Million Dollar Baby is an example of that — of a role popping up with a character that has terrific dilemmas to overcome.

I just do what I feel I should be doing. Whether you're nominated for something or not has never been a motivating force for me. It's just playing the roles. Once you finish a film, it doesn't belong to you anymore — it belongs to the audience to interpret it the way they feel like interpreting.

And your career just keeps on going.

There's no rule on it. I always was astounded from a director's standpoint how many great directors were sort of discarded in their sixties. Billy Wilder — people like that who live until their nineties — all of a sudden couldn't get a job.

Didn't John Ford go seven years without making a film, at the end of his life?

Yeah, John Ford. You don't know whether the material doesn't coincide with what people are thinking about then, but it's always astounded me. I always felt, as you are maturing and stacking up more information in your computer, you should be able to expand and do more.

You can do more personal projects like John Huston — his last films.

Yes. John Huston is a great example, because he did a wide variety of films in his heyday, and then at the end of his career he did The Dead, which was his last film — a film he did out of his wheelchair, and he still did a good movie. So, there's no rule on it. You can be any age.

You said you "sat on" Unforgiven. Then in the early 1990s you did it.

When I did Unforgiven I thought it would be the perfect last western for me. Not for anyone else, but for me to wrap it up in. It's turned out there's never been a story come along — in my career — to equal that in that particular genre. So, it may be the last one.

Then in Mystic River, I didn't act in the picture. It was a great pleasure to shoot with all the younger players, and I thought, "Yeah, I'm happy back here," behind the camera. Then all of a sudden somebody gives me the Million Dollar Baby script, and I thought, "I can play this guy. I think I know this guy." I'm the same age this guy would be; I'm playing the same age. When you've lived so many years you understand people's family problems, and you can draw in your imagination why he had a deteriorating relationship with his daughter. Maybe it's a bad divorce, maybe in his younger days he was too involved in boxing and never spent any time with her. You've seen a lot of relationships come and go — in your family and other families. You have a lot of things to draw on. You use your imagination. And the dilemma of finally reaching a revival in his life and then having to lose it is a tragic situation. It's a tragedy that could have been written by the Greeks or Shakespeare.

I'm absolutely sure that at the end — even though it's left open — he bought that diner, and that's him. He's paid homage to her.

You know something. That's the way it should be.

And leaving it a little indistinct is great. Then you have other options.

Yeah. You can diffuse it down so you're not sure. Somebody else may say, "Maybe he was tormented the rest of his life. Maybe he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge." That's up to the beholder. It's kind of like in Mystic River, everybody asks, "What's the reason for Kevin Bacon going like that? (Points his finger like a pistol.)

The book does suggest Sean (Kevin Bacon) is going to get Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn).

But I go away from the book. I don't want to get as exacting as that. I like it when the audience can play around wih it.

Just like in the beginning of Million Dollar Baby, the audience will say, "What happened with his daughter that she won't even answer his letters?" We don't know, but it was something within the family that didn't work out well. It's up to the audience to figure out.

In your career, what gets your juices going?

I still like work. I'm involved — if a story's challenging. I didn't know what I was going to do next before Mystic River. And all of a sudden I read a critique in USATODAY about the book. It's almost like I knew it was great before I read the book. I called my office and said, "Go out and get this." It was just coming out that day, and three days later we owned it. I read it almost in one sitting.

This one (Million Dollar Baby ) had a two-fer in it, because I liked the idea of directing, but I also liked the role. With Mystic River there was no doubt I was going to sit in the background. Only directing was the way I was heading until this came along. I enjoyed very much playing in this one, but I just don't go out looking for a role. If a good one comes along, that's fine. Most of the roles I've had over the years — especially in Hollywood — are dictated by fans.

People say, "How about bringing back Dirty Harry?" I say, "Are you going to have him driving along the highway in a trailer with an AARP sign on one side, and an 'I'm Spending the Kids' Inheritance' on the other?" Then what happens? He has to come out of retirement with a big 44? That's the kind of thing people do throw out once in a while. Not too much anymore, because I've pretty well shot that down.

I hate to tell you, but a lot of your fans would love that!

There's certain times you have to leave certain things. There was a certain time I was doing films for Sergio Leone, and there was a certain time I had to go off and do something different. As much as I enjoyed Sergio — and it was a great time in my life — it was time to do something else. So I came back here, and did some other things.

And Don Siegel found you, or you found him.

Yes. I did Dirty Harry (1971) and those things, and then it's time to quit. Then you revisit the genre later on with your own thoughts, your own imprints — The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Unforgiven. See, you never let the genre go, you just try to approach it differently, at different times in your life. The same with detective stories — you try different things. Sometimes you try detectives who are really smart, or you get tormented detectives like in Tightrope (1984).

But people try to typecast you.

Yeah, people are submitting you a lot of stuff, but you're still trying to do things that are different, that are interesting to you, and that you think will be interesting to the audience. And then some people think you're crazy. Every advisor I had said, "Don't do the orangutun movie. Don't do Every Which Way but Loose. You can't do this. This is not you." I said, "Nothing's me. I'm just plain." I said, "There's something hip about a guy who tells his troubles to an orangutun, loses the girl, goes on and loses the fight. There was something kind of strangely hip about it at that time. And those films with the orangutun were successful from an audience point of view. For me, it was reaching out to a younger generation — a generation of kids who couldn't go to R-rated detective dramas. So it offered a way of keeping and expanding the audience. There's a time to move on. I don't know what that time is — a little bird in the back of your head tells you.

I love the theme of the Fall and Redemption in some of your films. In Play Misty for Me (1971), Evelyn falls, and Dave is redeemed. The assassin falls in In the Line of Fire (1993), and Frank Horrigan is redeemed. And now in Million Dollar Baby, she falls, and Frankie Dunn is redeemed.

I don't know to what degree he's redeemed.

But he's humanized, isn't he?

He's finally come to the conclusion that he's granting her last request.

But doing something for someone else, isn't that a kind of. . .

Yes, it is, but is it redemption at the end, or is it like the priest said, "Forget God and Heaven and Hell. If you do this you'll be lost so deep within that you'll never be able to recover"?

But why would the priest suddenly be able to speak the truth for Frankie?

Frankie's definitely had his doubts about his religion, but he's there with his religion because of his Irish Catholic background. He stays with it, even though he's kind of testing the priest all the time.

And having fun upsetting him.

Oh, yeah. He's trying to pin him down to the point where he gets the priest upset, and the priest doesn't want any part of him. Frankie's gone to church every day. The priest says, "Stay out of the church; don't come to church."

Boxing is also his church. How much did the boxing attract you?

I grew up looking at boxing movies, and I liked them a lot as a kid. Body and Soul and The Set-Up — which was a wonderful little picture. It was one of Robert Wise's first films — a B movie, but it was great. I remember walking down the Via Veneto with Robert Ryan; we were both over there working. We met in Italy and hung out — had a couple of beers together. And people were yelling out the windows at him, "Hey, The Set-Up!" It's amazing how in Italy this film was so popular, but very few people knew about it in this country, because it just fades into the B movie genre.

Fat City?

Yeah, I liked that. But The Set-Up I really liked. There was something about it; it was a small, humble little film. Yeah, Fat City was good, too. And Raging Bull, I liked that one.


I loved the first one. I haven't seen them all, so I can't speak about the whole group. I always admired Stallone's tenacity to go ahead and get that made.

And now there's female boxing.

I must say that the first time I ever heard about women boxing I thought, "This is an odd sport for a woman to do." Much like Frankie Dunn in the picture — he's kind of prejudiced towards it.

I was doing a film years ago in Las Vegas called The Gauntlet (1977), and I was with a friend of mine I've known for many years — he's deceased now — named Al Silvani, who was a fight trainer. He had trained Rocky Graziano and Floyd Patterson. I gathered a lot of my thoughts for this part from knowing him for so many years. In fact, when this part came up I said, "If only Al was alive. This is the perfect picture for him to work on as an advisor." A girl I knew who was a cocktail waitress came on the set, and she said, "You know I'm boxing now." I said, "You are? Why do you have to do that?" She said, "Well, I just love it." So I called Al and asked if he would go down to the arena and try to help her out, train her a little bit, see if she's got anything. So, he did. He came back and said, "She's doing good."

So you have a history with female boxing! Hilary Swank said she might fight again. Do you believe that?

I think she loved the training process. I've never seen anybody with that kind of enthusiasm and work ethic. She's like that as a person.

She said the trainer screamed at her a lot.

That was Hector Roca in New York. He was a yeller. I don't know how she handled that one, but she handled it. Grant Roberts did the weight training — he's 300 lbs. — he was very gentle with her until she got really strong. But then Hector worked with her, then she came out here, and I had her work with Don Familton, who also plays the ring announcer in the picture.

I had great faith in Hilary. I think she's a terrific actress. Boys Don't Cry — that was a wonderful performance, and in smaller roles like Insomnia. She has a great presence on the screen. There's a realness to her. And I knew that's what it would take to make this picture work.

The other night on TV David Fincher said, "I made a film with Morgan Freeman (Seven), and he does a scene and I don't think he's doing anything. Then when I see it on film, there's a lot going on." Is that true?

Yes. Absolutely. Morgan is one of those guys who's so good, so consistent for so long, he's taken for granted. And it comes so effortlessly, off the top of his head. But it is honest. The old James Cagney thing: "Plant your feet, and tell the truth." I've worked with Morgan twice, and I'm always very pleased about having him. He's the lowest maintenance actor I've ever had. He's ready to go on rehearsal. On Unforgiven I had both Morgan and Gene Hackman, and with both of them you could shoot rehearsal. Sometimes it's fun to have them come out for the first time. It doesn't always work, but you try it. That's a great thing about film.

Did you use any of the rehearsal footage in Million Dollar Baby?


You mentioned James Cagney.

Growing up, my favorite actor was an opposite of me — James Cagney. I loved Henry Fonda. I like people in different roles. Grapes of Wrath — I was very impressed with that when I saw it as a kid. I was reading all those books. Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath, and all those wonderful books and good movies. Burgess Meredith's performance in Of Mice and Men still stands up today. I remember my dad taking me to see Sergeant York, with Gary Cooper. That was Howard Hawks.

So you got caught on genre real early. Hawks as a genre director.

Oh, yeah. I used to go to all the B movies, too. Randolph Scott.

Joel McCrea?

I liked Joel McCrea very much, because I loved Sullivan's Travels, the Preston Sturges film. Those are the kind of films I grew up on. But in those days everybody was seeing all kinds of different varieties of films, because there was no television.

Did Jimmy Cagney give you the idea of a singing career? You're not a bad singer. On Rawhide, for instance, there were a lot of times that you sang and sang well.

Most people remember Frankie Laine, though. (Laughs) I liked music. I played as a kid. My dad was an amateur singer.

Did he perform in public?

He had a group during the Depression that played at functions and parties. As an avocation. He loved it, and I loved it, too.

Well, it was Lee Marvin that killed your singing career.

(Laughs) He was a classic.

You knew a lot of classics.

I get a kick out of my wife, who is quite a few years younger. She'll say, "Did you know Elvis Presley?" I'll say, "Sure." "James Dean?" "Yeah." "Bobby Darin?" "Yeah." She'll look at some old picture of me and say, "What a babe!" (Laughs) We were all hanging around at the same time, in the 1950s. We were all here in town, and all struggling in various things. I was doing Rawhide. There was a camaraderie among the younger group.

Your son Kyle picked up the family love of music, didn't he?

Yeah, he did. Years ago I took him to a club called Dante's. They used to have jazz there all the time. I took him to the big bands, and sometimes he would get distracted. But one night I took him, and Bunny Brunel was playing bass, and Kyle fell in love with the bass. He was playing guitar at home and studying that.

How old was he then?

He was probably around twelve. He took the bass up, and then he moved to the upright bass, as well as the amplified bass guitar. Then five strings, six strings. He plays it all. He had to go back and learn the whole deal. That was his way. I'm glad to see him do it. Anybody doing what they want to do — just do it well. I don't care if it's sweeping up, just do it well.

You like a fast-paced set, don't you?

I think what happens is everybody says, "Well, he's doing it fast." I'm not doing it fast. I'm just trying to move, that's all. Just moving ahead. Some scenes go together extremely quickly, and others don't. You have to measure that out. That's the director's responsibility.

Can we talk a little about production designer Henry Bumstead?

We have our crack geriatrics team — I include myself in that. Henry is 89 years old; if he works for me in the next film (Flags of Our Fathers is in the planning stage), he'll be 90! But I would go to no one else first. I initially worked with him in 1972 (Joe Kidd), and he was so effortless and such a charming guy. And then I couldn't get him back for many years; he was always working with George Roy Hill, who was very active in the 1970s and 1980s. Then George Roy Hill retired, and, of course, Hitchcock was long gone, so I got Bumstead back and we did Unforgiven. He's done every picture with me since, except for The Bridges of Madison County; there was a production designer, Jeannine Claudia Oppewall, already on the picture, when I came on. She was wonderful, too.

Henry is always saying I take the B.S. out of filmmaking, when it's people like him that make you able to take the B.S. out, because he works effortlessly, and he's got so much knowledge.

In Million Dollar Baby, Morgan Freeman is reading a Mystic book.

It's just a comic book. It has nothing to do with Mystic River.

It has a resonance. Also, on the side of the bus is an ad for The Apprentice. She's his apprentice, right? Who makes those kind of decisions? Is it Bumstead?

Yes, the art director. Or it could be Jack Taylor, who is Bumstead's right-hand man, and who's an art director himself who does terrific work. Bummy might have made that decision. Or Dick Hunter, who does set decorating.

Does anything bother you about the state of movies today?

The one thing I have a little bit of a problem with is I don't quite understand this obsession about doing remakes and making television series into feature films. I would rather see them encourage writers with new ideas in all different genres like they used to in the heyday of movies.

You mentioned your wife. How is family life?

I enjoy it. I give all the credit to my wife. Dina's such a calming influence in my life. She sort of brought everybody together. She's terrific. Bringing together the mothers, my mother and everybody. She's the light of me life. (Irish Brogue)

Is she a critic? Does she tell you what she likes and doesn't like about your work?

Yes. She's very honest, very outspoken. She's a writer herself, a journalist, and she's clever.

She's a keeper.

So far. And if she says something "stinks," I'll just say, "That's your opinion." (Laughs)

After you left the Armed Services as a young man, how did you get into acting?

My parents had moved up to Seattle, so I was thinking of going to Seattle University, which had a good music program. A friend of mine said why didn't I come here? So I came down and went to L.A. College, and I still didn't know what I would do. I took a Business Administration major, which was helpful. Then I started taking acting in the evenings, at various little acting groups. One thing led to another, and I was out on the street. I got a contract at Universal and was a contract player for 1-1/2 years. Then they dumped me. I tried to come over here (Warner Bros.) but they wouldn't have me. I tried to go to Fox and Paramount; I went to all the Studios. Finally, I decided to do television in the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. I got Rawhide. I had a steady job.

How good an actor was Eric Fleming?

He was more experienced than I was.

Did you have chemistry with him? It looks like you did.

Yeah, we got along great. We were coming from different backgrounds; he had been in New York. Everybody got along fairly well on that series. Sheb Wooley was a great friend of mine. We used to go out and sing at the Palomino Club or do something crazy. That was after a couple of beers.

Did being mayor of Carmel crimp your lifestyle?

I was married before for many years; then I was single for many, many years. I was single when I was mayor of Carmel (1986-1988), but I was so busy doing stuff that I never had time to go out. And you didn't dare take a date out, because as a politician you had to go out with a group of people, and you can't remember everybody's name, so if you had a date you'd have to introduce them. I said, "I can't do that. I got to be on my own." I enjoyed it for two years, but not beyond. At about a year and a half I said, "I might go back and make some more movies."

I loved the documentary which you narrated, Don't Pave Main Street (1994).

Yeah. That was fun to make for Carmel's Heritage. And a few things like that. I made two movies while I was mayor. I did Bird (1988) and Heartbreak Ridge (1986).

I want to ask you about one more movie. It's daring like Million Dollar Baby. Was The Beguiled (1970) Don Siegel's favorite movie?

He liked it a lot. He enjoyed making it, because it was a challenge. The Studio asked me if I would do it, so I took it to him. I was working with Don at that time on Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970). I said, "Do you really want to try something bizarre? There's this book called Beguiled." There was a screenplay on it, but I read the book first. He read the screenplay, and then went back and read the book. In fact, we went back and put the book's ending on the screenplay, because the screenplay made it a happy ending. And it was one of those pictures you couldn't have a happy ending. But anyway, it wasn't a hit, but we enjoyed making it.

It's a very good film.

It's a good swing at bat.

You're an actor, and you have to cast your films. Does that help you?

I do casting with Phyllis Huffman. We sit in a room, and she'll have video tapes — either tapes of previous pictures they have done or tapes that she has made. That way I don't have to go in there, because if I had to go in there and meet them all, I'd say, "Hey, come on, you're perfect," and pretty soon I'd be hiring everybody. So, in order to stay objective, I'll look at the tapes first. Then if I'm really close on an actor, I'll say, "Come on in."

In the case of somebody like Lucia Rijker, in Million Dollar Baby, who is a professional fighter and not an actress, I'll have her come in. There's no film on her, just her boxing film. So I'll have her come in to meet her. Going back to Play Misty for Me (1971), I knew Jessica Walter was the person for that role before I had her come in. I had seen a scene she had done from The Group years earlier, just one scene, and I could tell. So she came in and shook hands with me, and I said, "Well, do you want this part?" She said, "Sure." I said, "OK." End of conversation. "Go to wardrobe."

You're pretty free these days.

Absolutely. A friend of mine, a man in his seventies, says, "You know the great thing about being in your seventies? What can they do to you?" I thought, yeah, there's something to be said for that. What have you got to lose? "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

That's a wonderful lyric.

© 2000-2023 Tony Macklin