When you’re Clint Eastwood, you don’t have to try too hard with certain things. It comes with being a living legend. Want a hot screenwriter? Check: Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black. Want a hot cast? Check: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts and Armie Hammer are ready to work with you. And with J. Edgar, Eastwood assembled this dream team. We got a chance to talk with Eastwood and DiCaprio about the film, check it out…
Did you have more than two or three takes on any one scene that you did?
Leonardo DiCaprio: We actually did a lot of takes on this movie. I never left the set wanting more, that’s for sure. Clint is very adaptable and has his process and what he does is expect you to plant your feet and speak the truth like James Cagney says. That’s what we tried to do our best on this movie, and he gave us everything we could possibly ask for as actors.
Clint Eastwood: 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. 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 hard to live up to. If I did it, it would be kind of shoddy.
What did you learn about J. Edgar that may have altered your perception of him?
Leonardo DiCaprio: I think the screenplay that Clint and I initially responded to by Dustin Lance Black was a very fascinating portrait of this man, and these characters that had devoted their life to government service and that meant not having any kind of personal life whatsoever. They were representation of the FBI. That was their church. It’s a hard concept to wrap my head around – to completely sacrifice any sort of love in your life, to never experience that on a personal level. All three of these characters lived a life of service to their country.
What I was fascinated by was his take on entering J. Edgar Hoover’s career during a time of almost a terrorist invasion by Communists, the Red Scare, that sort of paranoia that was infused in our country, and the lawlessness of these bank robbers that were going from state to state and becoming free men when they crossed state lines and how J. Edgar Hoover really transformed the police system in America and created this Federal Bureau that to this day is one of the most feared, respected and revered police forces in the entire world. This story goes on to his later years where he became a political dinosaur who didn’t adapt to the changing of our country. It’s very much about the Kennedy years and the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King.
The one thing that was prevalent throughout his entire career was his staunch belief that Communism was an evil thing. He wanted to retain the fundamental principles of democracy in our country, but when the Civil Rights movement came along he saw that as an uprising of the people. He stayed in power way too long and he didn’t listen to his own critics and he was a staunch believer in his moral beliefs and his beliefs about what was right for our country. His career ended on a failed note in my opinion. You can’t deny that he wasn’t a patriot but at the same time his tactics were pretty deplorable.
You did a magnificent job in terms of the whole aging process. Did you take a closer look at older people and how they move or is it something that just comes naturally as part of the acting?
Leonardo DiCaprio: Thankfully Clint set that up for the last two weeks of filming so we got to prepare for that and we got to get our footing in our characters and then come to set and the last few weeks we sat in the make-up chair for 5 or 6 or 7 hours and I think a lot of us had our own research on how to do that, but there was a lot of prep time.
The challenge was not just the prosthetic work and how to move like an older man would move but more so how to have 50 years of experience in the workplace and talk to a young Robert F. Kennedy as if he was some political upstart that didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. That was the big challenge for us as actors.
Clint creates an environment for all of us to really focus on the acting and the drama and the interaction with the characters. I keep talking about his style of directing but it’s so catered for actors because he has almost like this splinter cell unit of people on set, the bare minimum. It’s like an elite squadron of Marines that are there and they sort of fade away and then that third wall sort of disappears and you start to feel like you’re actually submerged in reality and you’re really there. For doing difficult stuff like that, it’s incredibly helpful as an actor to feel like you’re immersed in that environment.
Clint Eastwood: Having an 81-year-old director right in front of you is something. I think the best example we had was when we did J. Edgar Hoover going in to see the President, we pretty much duplicated both shots so you’d see Leo going in as a young man and then coming at the final one when he goes into see President Nixon, he goes in and he does the exact same gestures but just as an old man. If you put those two pieces together, you see a dramatic change.
Mr. Eastwood, it’s great that we get to see a new movie of yours every year and now it’s exciting to hear that we might see you in front of the camera again acting. What does it mean to you to have a chance to have an acting role again?
Clint Eastwood: I could say…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.” Regardless of what age you are, most actors 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.
Clint, can you talk a little bit about the non-linear nature of the storytelling and the way it shifted through the different time periods? Why did you think that was an important or an effective way to tell the story?
Clint Eastwood: It was an interesting way to go back and forth in time and show him and his present day attitude and how he was when he was younger and just starting out with all kinds of vinegar and ready to roll. I think we stuck pretty well with the formula and it seemed clever to me. By the same token, it helped to go to what everybody is referring to here to justify all these characters.
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, I’m just deviating a little bit but I’ll get back to it. 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 would come into a job 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 had her story and 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.
Throughout your careers you’ve come into proximity with people of enormous power, politically and otherwise. How did you take those observations that you’ve made from your own experiences and applied them to Hoover’s story?
Clint Eastwood: Well, with people in high office, the old – 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.
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.
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 tremendously 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.
Your screenwriter was born after Mr. Hoover passed away, while Mr. Eastwood, you lived through some of the Hoover era. Did that inform how you went about the material, having experienced some of that period?
Clint Eastwood: Well, 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 in the papers. This was fun, because it was a chance to go into it. And Lance 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, the 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.
How did making this movie and learning this story affect how you think about the idea of privacy? Something that Hoover went about destroying for people when they met his hands.
Leonardo DiCaprio: It’s interesting in this day and age to do a film about political espionage and wiretapping. I don’t think that those kinds of secrets that J. Edgar Hoover was able to obtain and keep for such a long period of time would be possible in today’s world, with the Internet, Wikileaks…It doesn’t seem like those kinds of secrets can be kept for that long period of time.
This is a different day and age, and there were huge, catastrophic events that were going to happen if we didn’t have a federal police system like that investigating a lot of activities that were going on in our country. It still goes on to this day, obviously. I mean, it’s an argument or a topic that people could talk about until they’re blue in the face, whether that type of information being released to the public is a positive or a negative thing. I suppose it depends on the particular event or subject matter. But I don’t think that J. Edgar Hoover would be able to do the same job in today’s era with all this massive distribution of information in a matter of seconds. It was a different era and time.
Clint Eastwood: He sure would be able to store the material easy. Just go around with a little iPad and have everybody in there.
Aging, has it affected you—
Clint Eastwood: What was that again?
Leonardo DiCaprio: Has aging affected you?
Clint Eastwood: I haven’t heard it. I haven’t (laughs)…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…
Leonardo DiCaprio: Happens to be right now.
Clint Eastwood: …It 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.
Leonardo DiCaprio: From an outsider’s perspective, it’s amazing what he does. If he’s not directing a film, he’s acting in it, or rather he’s composing the music for that film. His commitment to what he does is astounding. For all of us to witness. It’s inspiring, actually.
Clint Eastwood: 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, and so… 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.
How do you think the myth of J. Edgar Hoover informs Dirty Harry?
Clint Eastwood: 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.
Leo, why are you drawn to characters involved in social/historical stories?
Leonardo DiCaprio: I think Lance put it best when he said, “Look, if we can better understand these people and their motivations and how this event manifested itself to their politics, we can learn from them. We can learn from history.” To me, you couldn’t write a character like J. Edgar Hoover and have it be believable. I mean, he was a crock pot of eccentricities. We couldn’t even fit all his eccentricities into this movie. We could go on and on.
The fact that this man was, like he said, if not the most powerful man in the last century, one of the most in our country and he lived with his mother until he was 40 years old. He listened to his mother for political advice. The more I dug deep, you understand the history of the child and what motivated these people at a very early age, she wanted the Hoover name to rise to great glory in Washington so he was this incredibly ambitious young genius that really transformed our country and created this federal bureau that to this day is revered and feared. Yet he was a mama’s boy. He was incredibly repressed emotionally. His only outlet was his job. He wasn’t allowed to have any kind of personal relationships, or he felt that.
No matter what his sexual orientation was, he was devoted to his job and power was paramount to him and holding onto that power at all costs was the most important thing in his life. He should’ve retired much sooner than he did and many presidents tried to oust him later on in his career as depicted with Nixon as well. That was everything to him and he didn’t adapt or change to our country and that is one of the most important things a political leader can do. For me as an actor, I just loved researching this stuff. So much about – - we got to take a trip to Washington and I got to meet people who knew him and really understand and capture this guy to the best of my abilities. That’s half the fun of making a movie for me.
Was this an education for you?
Leonardo DiCaprio: Yeah, it is. It’s an incredible education. It was like I did a college course on J. Edgar Hoover but not knowing and understanding the history and reading the books, but understanding what motivated this man was the most fascinating part of the research.
Do you worry this will hurt your career?
Leonardo DiCaprio: No, not at all. I don’t have to sympathize or empathize with a human being in order to be able to portray them. I mean, some of the greatest roles that actors have been able to play haven’t been the most endearing on screen.
Clint Eastwood: It’s been historically actors have been made very famous for roles that were something that was far – - Richard Widmark could come to mind or something like that, where you do some famous role and everybody imitates you for the rest of your life. But obviously it’s much more fun to play something you’re not than it is something you are.
J. Edgar opens November 11.