There is a moment not far into Clint Eastwood’s most recent movie, “Gran Torino,” where the audience sits up straighter. It’s the first of many times in the movie when Eastwood reaches for a gun. Already gripped by Eastwood’s brilliant portrayal of bitter Korean War vet Walt Kowalski, and layered subconsciously on top of all his other satisfyingly violent roles, the viewer needs this action to come to pass.
Walt uses weapons as tools: to defend his property, to defend those who can’t defend themselves, and finally, inputting the weapon down, to redeem his haunting past.
With each new scene, Eastwood reveals both stubborn strength in a sick old man and the pain he carries from holding onto values that don’t work in a new millennium, values entrenched both in bigotry and a sense of ancient honor.
“What the hell is this?” he sneers down the barrel of his gun at a group of Hmong immigrants scuffling on his property. “Get off my lawn.” When gang members tell him to go back into his house, he replies, “Yeah, I blow a hole in your face and I go back in the house and I sleep like a baby, you can count on that.”
Soon, however, the gun is being replaced with other tools, as Eastwood’s character teaches a neighboring Hmong boy home repairs. And at the end of the film, after a violent attack in his neighborhood,Walt’s seething frustration finds itself a purpose, and he finds a peace. All eyes are on Walt, and really, on the Eastwood legend, to save the day. “You know I’m the right man for the job,” he says to his young neighbor, and we know he is too.
At the end of the movie, a stillness absorbs the theatre. Slowly, reverentially, the crowd disperses, picking their way through the semi-darkness, hearts and minds still sorting through the complex feelings that the film produces.
Shortly after it opened, Carmel Magazine spoke with Clint Eastwood about producing, directing, and starring in “Gran Torino.” Eastwood received a National Board of Review award for Best Actor for the film.
Carmel Magazine: Walt Kowalski’s a pretty angry guy.You really dialed him in and made him very, very vivid on the screen.What do you feel was the passion behind all his anger and frustration?
Clint Eastwood: Well, I think he has a lot of things that are haunting him, and those have been suppressed. But he’s also a guy who’s sort of out of kilter with generational changes. Whatever is haunting him has aused him not to be able to relate very well with his family or relate very well with a lot of people who are different than he is. And he’s lived in the same neighborhood for years and watched it change and doesn’t like what he sees, and then finally through this minority [group] that’s not well known, that he doesn’t like because they are different, he actually finds sort of a family relationship.
CM: And I feel like you made him very likeable even when he was spewing all this hatred, and you made him very real.
CE: Well he’s just a guy—that’s just the way he is. He’s from his generation—he’s not from this current politically correct group of people. Actually he plays probably to people who are bored with that sort of thing, which I think a lot of society is today.
CM: I think that’s probably what it was, that made me kind of root for him, even though of course part of what he was saying was really despicable. I guess it’s because he stood for something.
CE: Yeah, he wasn’t afraid to say what was on his mind even if it wasn’t particularly appealing. And of course, I felt he had to be that kind of guy because in order to change, and to make changes, and to show you’re never too old to learn a lot of things, including tolerance, he has to come from somewhere far away.Otherwise if he was pussyfooting around like a normal writer would probably write it, somebody who was conscious of every little insult in the world, he wouldn’t have come very far…
CM: How was it working with the actors who were from the Hmong group?
CE: They were great. I wasn’t that familiar with them…I’d never known any of them. I know there’s a large group in Fresno, and Minnesota, and a smaller group in Michigan. They were refugees after the Vietnam War, I knew all that, but I didn’t know them personally as I got to know them on the picture…
CM: And most of them, I’m assuming, weren’t actors at all?
CE: They weren’t.
CM: So how do you direct someone who’s never acted before?
CE: Well, I tested people and some of the people had sort of a knack, and some of them had maybe done plays in high school or something. But I just started working with them and they get in with other professional actors they kind of get the picture right away. And then we’d talk to them about the basics of acting, which is mainly listening…and they picked it up right away. They were a very smart group…
CM: And what about your son’s [Scott Reeves] part in the movie? That was fun to watch too.
CE: Yeah, he wanted to be in it and that was the only part I could think of. It came down to him and another fellow, and they were both very good, so I chose him. If he’d been one degree or so less than the other guy, I would have chosen [the other guy.]
CM: There’s something about the anger in the movie, I felt like I wanted to cheer for your character in the movie, and maybe, it’s like we talked about earlier, people are tired of being politically correct, and maybe it’s just because people just don’t do that much anymore. Would you say that’s a big part of what makes the character interesting, is that he’s not apathetic? There was a hero part of him…No matter how dangerous it was, he stood up to people.
CE: Absolutely. We’re in an era that’s against that…our legal profession has ruined the Good Samaritan part of our soul…they are so busy trying to find fault …most people are walking on eggshells with a lot of things, that’s the whole politically correct thing, but you’re especially walking on eggshells as people are in danger and need help. We’ve all seen pictures on TV of a guy who gets hit [by a car] and the people on the sidewalk just stand and leave him there until he gets hit by another car…In the old days, you’d like to think anyway, people would rush out and get the person to safety…it just goes to show the kind of society we are in, and you’d like to think that a Walt Kowalski type of person would be the person who…would try to do something… That’s one of the sad parts of society today, is you’re almost trained to stay away from everything, because everything’s a liability.
CM: Of course, in the movie, it seemed he might be terminally ill, so do you think that affected his decision to do what he did at the end?
CE: Well, yeah, it made him do it in a more creative way, maybe he thought he could set an example and get rid of those people and get rid of himself at the same time…
CM: If you had to say there’s a message from this movie…what is that message?
CE: There are a lot of messages. One is the ability to learn constantly in life, regardless of age. And the relationship with family, the relationship with church…either pro or con…Also the relationship of the man who, not wanting to, ends up mentoring a young guy who he sees has potential…he tries to turn him into something…and he does…
CM: Can you relate to Walt in some ways?
CE: Yeah, well I’m the same age Walt is. I didn’t go to Korea, but I was in the military at that particular time…it was just a different world…To show the two generations side by side, and the two cultures side by side, Walt and the Hmong culture, is just an interesting conflict to try to unravel…
CM: What are you planning on next?
CE: I’m going to do a story on Nelson Mandela…It’s a story about how he handled the transition from going from a prisoner to becoming president of South Africa and how he handles racial relations and various social issues through one sporting event. It’s a rather brilliant maneuver he made at that particular time for reunification of the country.