Clint Eastwood has been directing himself and others longer than many of his colleagues have been alive. If he walks a little slower on-screen, he’s entitled.
Eastwood’s first film behind the camera, “Play Misty for Me,” came out half a century ago, and he’s still at it. At age 91, with his new “Cry Macho” set for a Sept. 17 release in theaters and on HBO Max, Eastwood — whose acting credits date to 1955 — is perhaps the oldest American ever to both direct and star in a major motion picture. But ask if anything is different between then and now and you get the verbal equivalent of an amused shrug.
The rutted road to the Academy Museum’s long-awaited premiere was marked by behind-the-scenes infighting, financial woes, ousted leaders and a racial reckoning.
“I never think about it,” Eastwood says, considering the question. “If I’m not the same guy, I don’t want to know anything about it. I might not like the new guy. I might think, ‘What am I doing with this idiot?’” He smiles at the thought.
Eastwood at 91 is like that, relaxed and at ease. Wearing tan pants and a blue patterned shirted, he settles into the sun in a secluded corner of Tehama, his 2,000-acre golf club-gated community accessed by winding roads worthy of a land-grant rancho. He’s game to talk about both his new film, “an odd movie in today’s world, kind of offbeat,” and the career that led up to it.
With a screenplay by Eastwood veteran Nick Schenk (“Gran Torino,” “The Mule”) and the late N. Richard Nash and based on Nash’s novel, the 1979-set “Cry Macho” tells the story of Mike Milo — “a broken-down ex-rodeo guy,” in Eastwood’s words — who, out of a combination of obligation and desperation, agrees to help his former boss (Dwight Yoakam) extricate his son (newcomer Eduardo Minett) from Mexico.
Like every Warner Bros. release this year, “Cry Macho” will be available to stream on HBO Max the same day as it appears in theaters, a situation Eastwood dryly dismisses as “not my favorite thing in the world. How that’s going to work out at all? I still don’t know.”
Given that it is an Eastwood film, “Cry Macho” features a certain amount of action and jeopardy, including the actor throwing a punch (“It might not be as good as I’ve thrown in the past but it was fun to do it”) and getting on a horse for the first time since “Unforgiven” three decades ago.
“The wrangler was worried. She was saying, ‘Be careful, be careful now.’ She was scared I’d end up on my rear end,” Eastwood remembers. “But if you treat the horse like a buddy, he’ll take care of you.”
Never a vain actor, Eastwood doesn’t make a big deal about playing a character old enough to be teased about taking naps, someone on whom the weight of years and injury is always visible. “I don’t look like I did at 20, so what?” he says. “That just means there are more interesting guys you can play.”
Along that line, and despite everything that is familiar about it, “Cry Macho” has a different energy, more sweet-natured and earnest than is traditional for the filmmaker.
It’s a story that focuses on a protagonist who’s fed up with macho posturing while dealing with age and the possibility of change and renewal, all within the classic Eastwood frame. (It also features a rooster named Macho, played by 11 birds because, in the director’s words, “chickens are not the most versatile animals in the world.”)
It’s a mark of how different “Cry Macho” is from business as usual for Eastwood that an incident the director highlights in the filming involves not a stunt or an action set piece but the situation around a little girl who’d been cast as the granddaughter of one of the main characters, only to get bumped because she tested positive for COVID-19.
“But then the producer came to me and said the test was a false positive and we could use the girl after all,” Eastwood relates, smiling. “She was so elated, it was one of the happiest days we had on the whole picture.”
It’s one of the oddities of the project that “Cry Macho” was originally offered to Eastwood by producer Al Ruddy in 1988, but Eastwood’s response was, “I’m too young for this. Let me direct and we’ll get Robert Mitchum, an older dude.”
Mitchum did not work out, and other filmmakers toyed with the story with various stars in the role, including Arnold Schwarzenegger before and after his time as governor of California. “I always thought I’d go back and look at that. It was something I had to grow into,” Eastwood says. “One day, I just felt it was time to revisit it. It’s fun when something’s your age, when you don’t have to work at being older.”
That sense of trusting your instincts is a theme that comes up again and again, both in terms of what projects to do and how Eastwood the actor approaches a role.
“I never thought of acting as an intellectual sport,” he says. “You don’t want to overthink something. You want it to be emotional.
“If you think about it too much, you can take it apart to the point where you don’t like it anymore. If you think about it four different ways, you forget what dragged you into it in the first place. It’s like somebody throwing a fast pitch across the plate. Just swing at it, step in and go.”
As to future projects, Eastwood admits, “I don’t have anything percolating at the moment,” but adds “I didn’t have anything percolating before this one. If something comes along where the story itself, the telling of it, is fun, I’m open to it.”
While initially, “the whole point of directing was something you can do as an older guy,” at this point, Eastwood says he keeps at it simply because “I just like it. I have nothing against other directors, but I might have a whole different take on things and I don’t want to be thinking, ‘Why did I give it to him?’”
As to acting, Eastwood admits being a bit conflicted, sometimes wondering, “What the hell am I still working for in my 90s? Are people going to start throwing tomatoes at you? I’ve gotten to the point where I wondered if that was enough, but not to the point where I decided it was. If you roll out a few turkeys, they’ll tell you soon enough.”
Very much a child of the Depression, Eastwood has said he’s grateful “not to be still bagging groceries at 37 cents an hour.” When I mention that line, the actor nods and says, “I still remember that job.”
“All through the Depression and the war, my growing-up years, my dad had all kinds of jobs. He went job to job and we traveled all over the state. He worked at a Standard Oil station at the corner of Sunset and Pacific Coast Highway, it’s not there anymore, and I remember him telling my mother when I was just a little kid that some ancient actor or other had come in to get gasoline.
“I wonder if my dad would have liked to have been an actor or a singer. He had a good voice. He and another fellow would perform at parties, but none of those breaks ever came his way.
“I remember when I told my father I was dropping out of L.A. City College to train to be an actor at Universal with a six-month option. He said, ‘Don’t get too wrapped up in that, it could be really disappointing.’ I said, ‘I think it’s worth a try.’ But I always remember it could have gone the other way.”
Kristen Stewart felt Princess Diana’s presence while making “Spencer,” a role that made her feel “taller than I’ve ever felt.”
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