Clint Eastwood, ‘Gran Torino’

Film offers icon a chance at first acting Oscar

Nothing would make Clint Eastwood’s day more than winning a lead actor Oscar.

At 78, he’s been nominated twice (“Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby”), earning picture and director honors on both films, and yet he remains unrecognized for the craft that made him a screen legend.

“Gran Torino” could be Eastwood’s chance, especially as his onscreen stints become more scarce (of his last half-dozen projects, Eastwood has appeared in only three).

“Each film, I think, ‘Well that will be the last. It’s about time for me to go to the back of the camera and move along,'” he says. “Then this part came along, and I thought he was a good character for me to be playing.”

Eastwood, who carefully oversees the campaigns for his films (both theatrical and Oscar), is keeping the film under wraps until the last possible minute — a strategy that worked for both “Million Dollar Baby” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.” But he does offer a bit of insight into what appealed to him about Walt Kowalski, painting a very different picture from the growling, rifle-packing old codger featured in “Gran Torino’s” trailer.

“It’s based around a character who was in the Korean War, saw a lot of combat there,” Eastwood explains. “He came back, worked in the Ford factory for 50 years. His wife passed away, and (he) is estranged from his two sons.”

Walt has lived in the same Detroit neighborhood for decades, growing increasingly disgruntled about the riffraff and immigrants moving in on his turf. He’s a bit of a bigot (in Walt’s eyes, he served his time fighting Asians and now finds himself surrounded by them) and not at all happy with the local gang activity.

“He’s one of these guys who finds it very hard to accept change,” Eastwood says. When Walt catches the next-door kid trying to steal his prized car, he agrees to whip the boy into shape, with effects both transformative and tragic.

Eastwood already had one Oscar contender in the works when he received Nick Schenk’s script. Rather than queuing the project to make later, he says, “I figure don’t put your toe in the water, jump in. It’s present day, not complicated to shoot. It’s just the story of this one crazy character.”

So he went to work immediately, making “Gran Torino” while waiting for his team to finish the post-production and visual effects on “Changeling.”

“Everything’s kind of spontaneous in my life,” he says. “I don’t want to be Sir Edmund Hillary (who climbed Mount Everest), but it’s there, so let’s do it.”

Coming attractions As a director, Eastwood is in pre-production on “The Human Factor,” starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman. Pic examines the life of Nelson Mandela after the fall of apartheid, as South Africa hosts a rugby tournament.

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