Clint Eastwood Talks ‘J. Edgar’

The award-winning director explains why he's returning to acting, whether the FBI really has a problem with his latest film, and what J. Edgar Hoover really had to do with Dirty Harry.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

As an entertainment journalist, I’ve been privileged to see many different movie stars over and over throughout the years. Clint Eastwood is rare though. He usually lets his films speak for themselves. He did appear at a press conference for his latest film, J. Edgar though, so I will report everything the screen legend said.


On the One Take Clint reputation.

What I do is whatever it takes, it takes. Sometimes you see a scene right away and a take looks great so you might print that and you might print a couple more and take elements of all three. It just depends. You’re looking for the highlights. You’re looking for the best elements of the scene, but preferably you’d like to have one good take that would go all the way through. But I’m always trying for it on the first take. That was Don Siegel’s favorite thing. He says I may not get it but I’m always trying for it. I’ve got this reputation for shooting one take which is a wonderful reputation to have but it’s hard to live up to. If I did it, it would be kind of shoddy, I think.


Why he’s returning to acting:

I could say a lot of things. I could say boredom. Actually it’s kind of based on material. I was just telling somebody a few minutes ago that I’d been trying to retire to the back of the camera for quite a few years. And then, in 1970, when I first started directing, I said you know, if I could pull this off, I can some day just move in back of the camera and stay there. I never was able to pull it off because somebody offered me a role. Once and a while they come up with a grumpy old men thing and they say “Okay, let’s get Eastwood for that.” So, we’ll see. Every once and a while somebody writes a script, but even regardless of what age you are, most of the actors here would all agree that it’s all based upon material and the material has got to spark with you. It may be great material but you think it’s great material for somebody else. Or it’s great material and I’m perfect for it. So, you just have to make that judgment and if you feel in the mood to do it.


81 years old and better than ever:

I think aging, so far, has been okay. I think it’s been good. A lot of people regret, because we live in a society that reveres being at the prime of life and everything, but you have certain primes at certain times, and mine happens to be, I think, now. I think I am doing better at certain things right now than I have in the past, and maybe not so good at others. I do believe if one keeps busy it’s very good for a person. In fact, people are always rushing into retirement and we read in Europe people there are talking about their retirement age and moving it to 67 or something. Well, back when they started retirement funds and everything, the average age was 70 or 60, and then all of a sudden now it’s 80. Oh, I’ve passed it, haven’t I? And so you keep in shape, you keep yourself mentally in shape. And if you keep yourself mentally in shape, chances are physically it will follow suit.


Dirty Harry Vs. J. Edgar Hoover:

I don’t think Hoover conforms to Dirty Harry at all. Dirty Harry was a mythical character that came along. Don Siegel and I approached it as an exciting detective story, nothing too much except it. The writer of that, Harry Julian Fink had written it that he was a man concerned with the victim and this came about at a period of time when everyone was obsessed with the rights of the accused. So all of a sudden we come out with a detective story with a lot of violence and stuff but it was also concerning the rights of the victims. Shortly after that, there became all kinds of victims’ rights organizations, so we felt maybe we were ahead of the curve on that. Maybe I haven’t the parallel though because Hoover was an administrator. Even though this congressman in the picture is giving him a hard time and this all happened in real life so he ended up making arrests and stuff, but he was an administrator. He administrated a very large organization so why would he be out on the street making arrests? That’s what he has his agents for. He was just under scrutiny from people because they disliked him or he was aggressive or whatever.


The alleged FBI scandal:

I have great respect for the FBI, and I knew there have been some rumors lately that the FBI was disenchanted because of what we were doing in story, or doing a certain take. That’s not true. Actually the FBI was tremendous enthusiastic about us doing this film. They didn’t read the script, though. They know nothing about it. Their philosophy is “Go ahead and make the story you want to make, and hopefully we’ll love it.” So that’s that.


Living through J. Edgar Hoover’s reign:

Did I meet Hoover? No, I never did. I never met him. I just kind of had my own impressions growing up with Hoover as a heroic figure in the 40s, actually the 30s, 40s, and 50s and beyond but this was all prior to the information age so we didn’t know about Hoover except what was usually in the papers. This was fun, because this was a chance to go into it. [Screenwriter Dustin] Lance [Black] had gone and done stuff from autobiographical material and biographies from other people, and it was fun to delve into a character that you’d heard about all your life but you never really knew and try to sort that out. We never knew too much about the Tolson, Gandy, any of his close confidants, but through researching this movie that was what was fun about making the movie: you get to learn something about people. And then watching the other actors and everybody, we’re all just kind of learning history, or putting our stamp on history, our interpretation of it. Sure, a lot of things probably didn’t happen exactly the way they happen in this film, but they’re pretty close, and Lance had done a great job of researching what time certain events happened in history so they could coincide with other events. Like, for instance, when they’re taping Martin Luther King and they get the news that JFK had been shot, it could’ve happened in that particular period of time so those could be parallel events.


The characters of J. Edgar:

Hoover, I’m sure, felt that he was right in everything he did and even the things that we don’t like about his character. Everybody always feels that they’re right even if they’re wrong and that’s what a whole actor’s career is built around rationalizing your way into whatever character you’re playing. So it was great fun. And Helen Gandy, for instance, when I went to the FBI, she was sort of legendary as far as running the place, and even Robert Mueller who’s the director today says “Oh yeah, Helen Gandy, she ran the place.” She was one of those women that there were quite a few of in those days that would come into a job and after a period of time everybody would come and go and pretty soon everybody was relying on her. We listened to the tapes of her talking to the Congressional Committee after Hoover passed to the whereabouts of all of the so-called files. She stood her ground and you could tell she was somebody who was very confident after 50 years of being on that job. Nobody could burn her down. She just had her story and she stuck to it. Those kind of characters all made it interesting. You get this collage of people that all come from a different place. You ask yourself about Hoover and his relationship with Helen Gandy and his relationship with Tolson, where did it come from? With Tolson, was it just because of lack of trust? Other people come and go and rumors fly in a big organization like that. He had one or two people that he trusted and that was the extent of it probably.


Eastwood’s theme of, ahem, Absolute Power:

Well, with people in high office, they go into the extreme, which is absolute power and absolute power corrupts and what have you, so there’s always the corrupting thing with the 48-year stint as the director of the Bureau of Investigation. And because he formed it all and he had the trust of various executives along the way they just relied on him and nobody could remove him. We at least approached it from that way. There are so many parallels in society today that you can use, whether it’s the head of studio or a head of an organization, a major newspaper, a major factory or company, of people who stay too long, maybe, and overstay their usefulness.