Clint Eastwood returns to the toll of war in 'American Sniper'

Clint Eastwood has occupied a corner bungalow on the Warner Bros. lot for 40 years, long enough to have directed 28 movies for the studio and know to keep a bag of peanuts handy for the squirrels who like to venture inside his office door.

“That one there,” Eastwood says, crouching down to offer a treat to a squirrel that, judging from its size, has met the movie icon many times, “is probably the great-great-great-great-grandson of the first one I found here. Still a little shy. He’ll be inside and on the desk in another month. Then they’ll overfeed him and his cholesterol will go through the roof.”

From his trim appearance, Eastwood, 84, looks to be leaving the nuts to his guests. Not that he has had much time for entertaining. Eastwood has directed two movies released this year, the Broadway musical adaptation “Jersey Boys” and “American Sniper” (in theaters Christmas Day), the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), who during four tours of duty in Iraq, became the most lethal sniper in American military history with 160 confirmed kills. Eastwood sees the film as a continuation of movies like “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” explorations of military duty and the costs that come from serving one’s country.

Settling into a sofa that looks like he might have inherited it with the bungalow in 1974, Eastwood kicked up his feet and, in a leisurely conversation talked about “Sniper,” war and what might have happened if he had practiced more on the piano.

Chris Kyle says, “It’s a heck of a thing to stop a beating heart.” The line reminded me of the moment in “Unforgiven” where you tell the young, would-be gunslinger, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.” Did you make the connection?

I thought it was equally profound. I never got to know Chris Kyle to learn how he felt about killing people, just picking them off. But it is a hell of a thing. And in the picture, I tried to capture a feeling that he was OK with it, but only after maybe talking himself into it a bit.

But it comes with a price. There’s the scene with the psychiatrist after he comes home where you can see the toll those four tours of duty took.

He was somewhat resigned to it, but not without quite a bit gone. In that scene, you see him get a little defensive about what he had done, but just slightly. He said, “I’ll go to my maker knowing I did the right thing.” There must have been a little rationale in there to keep him going. I asked his wife about it, and she said he always strongly believed he was doing the right thing, protecting all those people. Still ... 160 confirmed kills. That’s a lot of people to be taking down.

And that’s just the confirmed kills.

Right. I remember when I was first starting out in this business 60 some-odd years ago, I was at the gym at Universal and Audie Murphy was working out. I wanted to ask him, “How did it feel to knock off those people?” Because, he had killed quite a few in World War II. I was curious if he ever thought about it afterward.

Kyle has the idea of being a protector, a “sheepdog” fighting the wolves, as his father puts it, instilled in him from a young age.

Which made his job as a sniper a perfect fit. His father was a big influence. I met him and the mother. I don’t know if he was suspicious of me or not. He didn’t talk too much. Maybe he thought I was some Hollywood guy coming in to reinterpret his son’s life.

I’d think you’d have pretty solid credentials with a conservative-minded, traditional guy like that.

I guess I give that perception. I’m probably not as conservative as he’d like me to be. (Laughs) Whatever people want to think, that’s what they draw in. I’ve been on the left and on the right in my lifetime. Now I don’t know where I am. You can get very cynical about it now, especially at this moment in history.

You’ve made plenty of war movies. It seems like we’re never going to run out of settings.

I was 11 when World War II started. My dad was a block warden and he’d go around with his little hat, and everybody was shading their windows with black. Then when it ended, I remember the celebration in downtown Oakland. Everybody was screaming and going crazy and I thought, “This will be historic. This will never happen again.” A few years later, I’m drafted in the army. I thought, “What happened to ‘never again?’” (Laughs)

Bradley Cooper says you’re still a fast worker. That scene with the psychologist you mentioned: One take.

My job is to judge it at the moment and not go back into a cutting room and look at 20 takes and analyze all the differences. Sometimes it’s different in a wrong way. I just do it the way I would have liked to have done it if I was the actor. I never had the advantage of working with Billy Wilder or John Ford or Howard Hawks.

They had retired by the time you became a movie star. Or, at least, they were moving in that direction.

I knew them socially. Frank Capra too. I always wondered, “These guys have such great minds. Why retire at 60 or 65?”

Quentin Tarantino talks about retiring, saying directors don’t get better as they get older. I think his words were: “I don’t want to be an old man director.”

Well, that’s easy to say now, but when he’s 60, he may change his mind. He’s a clever young fellow. But he might get there and say, “Wait a second. I’ve got something more I want to tell.” So I don’t agree with him on that. Yeah, I’m 84. But I’m still enjoying it. I’m not ready for the retirement home. Yet.

How old do you feel emotionally?

Eighteen. (Laughs) No ... 50, maybe? Physically, I feel like 50. But when I was 50, I probably felt like I was 30. I’m still a kid in a lot of ways. In this business, you have to be able to relate to your childhood. A lot of stories, it’s all make-believe. Your mentality has to be much younger than the 84 my grandfather was when he’d get up and milk the cows and that was it. Every day was the same thing.

Do you ever run across one of your movies on TV and start watching?

“Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” was on the other night. I watched it for 10 minutes and then shut it off. I did think, “I gotta see that movie again.” But I’d want to watch it from the beginning to get the nostalgic buzz from it.

Are you given to nostalgia?

No. I like the present just fine, thank you.

Do you ever get nervous?

Not that I know of. Sometimes maybe there’s something that gives you a little adrenaline lift. But I try not to think of being nervous. I feel like I don’t have that luxury. If you’re gonna direct the film, you should direct it. And if you can’t, don’t do it. Let somebody else have a turn.

What about just in normal, everyday life?

I’ve hit the stage where I’m like, “What the hell.” You get to 84, you think, “What the hell’s gonna happen?”

Do you believe in fate?

Yes. I was once in an accident and afterward, my mother said, “I think you have a little guardian angel on your shoulder.” She wasn’t a very religious person, so that was her way of saying there’s a sheepdog out there in the sky looking out for me.

What about the road not taken?

Sometimes I think I should have practiced more on the piano. I could be performing at Carnegie Hall. Or I could be sitting in a cocktail lounge right now with somebody putting a dollar in the jar and me saying, “Thank you, sir. Sure, I’ll play ‘Melancholy Baby’ one more time.”

What would you order for your last meal?

I’ve always watched my diet pretty well. Lots of vegetables and fruit. Seafood. So if it’s my last meal, I’d probably ingest something that’s terribly bad for you. Just say, “To hell with lipid panels! Adios, mofo!”

Isn’t your restaurant in Carmel known for its prime rib?

And I’ve never had it ... until about a month ago. It was great. But I’ve gone back on salmon. You can do anything you want, but certain things you don’t want to do all the time. Well, you can. I’m a freedom person. Libertarian. Do what you want.

But in moderation.

Well, a man’s got to know his limitations.

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