As “Gran Torino” opens, Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood) has just buried his wife – and with her, his remaining interest in the world around him.
An unapologetically racist, judgmental and foul-tempered misanthrope, the only thing Walt cares about is the cherry 1972 Gran Torino he keeps in his garage – a car he helped assemble decades ago as an autoworker for Ford Motor Co.
You can imagine his reaction, then, when he catches Tao (Bee Vang), the teenage son of the Hmong family that has moved in next door, trying to steal it as part of a gang initiation ritual.
The relationship that ensues between the young man and the cranky coot forms “Gran Torino,” which may well be Eastwood’s final screen performance.
As far as acting swan songs go, “Gran Torino” is hard to beat. Walt is a taciturn, flinty, furious man – he’s so angry at the world, he literally growls when displeased – who’s haunted by a violent past that he refuses to speak about with anyone.
In other words, it’s a part tailor-made for Eastwood, who has built his career playing men of few words with restless souls who find redemption in the unlikeliest of places.
It’s also his first film role since “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004, though it’s the fourth movie that he’s directed since then.
Eastwood recently talked about “Gran Torino,” his return to acting and his thoughts about the possibility of finally winning a Best Actor Oscar.
Q: The character of Walt Kowalski is in a way a summation of many of the iconic characters you’ve played in the past – men with violent pasts at odds with the world around them. What was your reaction when you first read the script?
A: I liked the whole message of it, the whole idea that you’re never too old to learn tolerance and take an interest in other people. I’ve met a lot of people like Walt in my life, older people who were set in their ways and didn’t want to be a part of anything or anyone new.
At the same time, that’s an obvious message, so you have to bring it in from a really far distance and make it dramatic. Otherwise it’s just a guy who goes “Oh, they’re just people, too.”
Q: You had said in interviews after “Million Dollar Baby” that was probably going to be it for you as an actor.
A: I’ve said that a few times, and I always renege on my promise (laughs). When “Million Dollar Baby” came along, I thought this was a character I could play, I was the right age, etc. After “Baby,” I thought “That’s enough of that. I’ll stay behind the camera from now on.”
But then this came along, and I couldn’t think of anyone who was more right for this character than I was, at least on the surface of it. Because of the history of the characters I’ve played – Frankie Dunn (“Million Dollar Baby”) or Gunnery Sergeant Highway (“Heartbreak Ridge”) – this one sort of sums it all up, one old bigot and his family. So I decided I’d play him and live with him for a while and see how things go.
Q: Walt wants nothing more than to be left alone, but he’s also extremely lonely, even though he’s constantly driving people away.
A: He seems to be an equal opportunity insulter, doesn’t he? (laughs) I liked the way (screenwriter Nick Schenk) showed how Walt’s family didn’t have much time for him. They give him lip service on the day of his wife’s funeral, but they don’t want to hang with him too much. They’d much rather ship him off to an old folks’ home, which is typical here in America.
When he tells his son “Your wife went through your mother’s jewelry,” we know what he’s talking about – attacking the jewelry boxes when the matriarch of the family dies. Walt understands all that. So he’d rather just be left alone.
Q: In the film, you often frame Walt with a lot of empty space around him. The movie is in a way a paean to a vanished America: The neighborhood he lives in almost seems deserted. Walt’s way of life is practically an anachronism in the area where he lives.
A: Even before the problems auto workers are having right now, you could see Detroit was almost becoming an obsolete place. Ford and GM and Chrysler were not having the illustrious years they’ve had in the past.
Highland Park, which is the neighborhood where we shot, is an obsolete place. It was a neighborhood that had mid-range executives from Chrysler and GM, and it was a nice neighborhood. And then they had riots in the 1960s, and everybody took off.
There are a lot of nice people trying to bring it back today, but it still has a lot of crackhouses and a lot of problems that sum up exactly what you’re saying. It’s a time in America that’s gone now. I don’t know if it will ever come back.
Q: The filmmaking in “Gran Torino” has the feel and rhythm of “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby.” It looks from the outside fairly effortless. Has telling stories of this kind of small scale become second-nature to you over the years?
A: If it looks easy, that’s good. Whether it’s easy or not, I don’t know. I think it’s easier for me now than it was years ago because I’m just enjoying myself now, telling the stories I want to tell with no regard for anything else.
The one thing about getting to the age of 78 is you figure, “Well, you know, people can get mad at you, but what can they do to you?” (laughs) All they can do is call you an old guy and obsolete. That’s no big deal.
I’m at a time in my career when I can tell a lot of stories like “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Changeling” and things they wouldn’t expect (me) to do. Younger directors have to worry about a good Friday night opening and having a strong opening weekend. But I don’t have to worry about that. Naturally, I’d like the film to open well and for people to see it. But it’s not the main consideration.
Q: You’re somewhat of an anomaly among Hollywood filmmakers in that you’ve continued to direct – and receive great recognition for it – way beyond your supposed prime.
A: That’s true. People being put out to pasture has happened a lot in the past. Billy Wilder stopped directing in his 60s. Here’s a guy who had done some wonderful films and lived well into his 90s. What the hell did he waste all those years for?
I knew Frank Capra pretty well socially: I always liked him a lot. He was a lucid guy as an older man. He made some wonderful films, and I always wondered why it couldn’t just go on. But once he did “Pocketful of Miracles,” and that didn’t do very well, he just backed off. You can’t be discouraged if one thing doesn’t work.
Q: You’ve won Oscars for “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby,” but you’ve never won one for acting. If “Gran Torino” really is your swan song as an actor, then this is your last shot at a Best Actor prize. Is that something that’s important to you?
A: I suppose I wouldn’t mind. (laughs) I’ve gotten a few for directing and producing. But I suppose most would love to have one in their first profession, which for me is acting. But you don’t really think about that. …
It’s just a matter of what captures people’s imaginations at the time and who campaigns the best. And having just watched a two-year presidential campaign, the idea of launching another campaign myself is a bit much.
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