Amid the swirl of an early 1960s party scene in Clint Eastwood’s latest, an adaptation of “Jersey Boys,” the hit Broadway musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, a television screen flashes an unexpected face: young Clint, himself, in black-and-white.
The period-appropriate shot from the TV Western “Rawhide” — a wry Hitchcockian cameo — condenses in a moment the almost unfathomable breadth of Eastwood’s career: fresh-faced cowboy to steadfast Oscar-winning director. Does it feel like a lifetime ago to Eastwood?
“Several lifetimes ago,” chuckles the 84-year-old director. “Seeing myself in 1959 or ’60 or ’61 or whenever that episode was done, it was kind of like: Wow. I’ve traveled a long road since then.”
That road — from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns to Eastwood’s own “Unforgiven,” from “Make my day” to “Get off my lawn” — has made an unlikely detour down the New Jersey Turnpike. “Jersey Boys” — Eastwood’s 12th film as director since turning 70 — only adds to what’s by now one of the most remarkable late chapters of any filmmaker. How has he done it?
“I just never let the old man in,” said Eastwood in a recent interview. “I was always looking for new things to do. I rightfully or wrongly always thought I could do anything.”
Such an attitude explains many of his accomplishments. Who else would have thought a tragic story about a female boxer (“Million Dollar Baby”) could be such a success? Who else would have come to Iwo Jima to make the World War II drama “Flags of Our Fathers” and, out of curiosity and empathy, opted to also make a film (“Letters From Iwo Jima”) about the other side of the battlefield?
And who would have expected the man — “a tall, chiseled piece of lumber, a totem pole with feet,” as James Wolcott called him — mythologized as both the Man With No Name and Dirty Harry would be taken by the story of the guys behind “Big Girls Don’t Cry”?
“The whole secret in life in any profession, regardless of whether it’s entertainment or anything else, is just being interested,” Eastwood says. “Are you interested in life? Are you interested in what’s going on? Are you interested in new kinds of music?”
Eastwood, a piano player and jazz fan, has long been known for his passion for music. He made a film about Charlie Parker (“Bird”), sang in “Paint Your Wagon” and “Gran Torino,” produced a documentary on Thelonious Monk (“Straight, No Chaser”) and has composed most of his scores over the last decade.
But the falsetto-rich pop confections of Valli (played by John Lloyd Young, who originated the role on Broadway) and the Four Seasons would seem a higher register than Eastwood’s natural pitch.
“So many times you’d look off to the wings or even between shots and see him standing there trying to figure it out for himself, going (in a high voice) ‘Ooooo,’ says Michael Lomenda, who plays the Four Seasons’ Nick Massi in the film.
Though the “Jersey Boys” sensation on Broadway immediately brought interest from Hollywood, earlier adaption attempts flat-lined before Eastwood revived it with Warner Bros.
“I couldn’t understand quite why after nine years on Broadway, somebody didn’t want to do it,” says Eastwood.
Eastwood favored a faithful adaptation written by the musical’s writers, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and cast veterans of the Broadway and touring productions over more famous options. Erich Bergen, who plays songwriter Bob Gaudio, and Lomenda both come from touring shows. Vincent Piazza of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” was the lone outsider.
“We knew there was no chance in hell it would be turned into fluff,” Young says of hearing that Eastwood would direct “Jersey Boys.”
Instead, Eastwood’s film, which opens Friday, has more melancholy than your average musical, and gravitates toward the group’s tumultuous offstage personal lives. Eastwood’s famously efficient style of filmmaking — usually just one or two takes, always on time and under budget — was an education for the actors, most of them unseasoned in moviemaking.
“His fearlessness is somehow contagious,” says Piazza. “The harmony that you walk into and the space he creates for you as an actor is a rare, rare thing.”
Though Eastwood may seem like cinema’s answer to a chunk of Mt. Rushmore, he has a warm presence and is quick to smile. He has a habit of pulling taut the skin of his cheek, as if making age an idle plaything. He chases a publicist who has come in to wrap up the interview with a scowl and a good-natured “Get out!”
He recently finished shooting the Navy SEAL drama “American Sniper,” with Bradley Cooper, which he calls “a love story and a military story about a guy who’s very talented at shooting people.” It’s two films in one year for Eastwood in what he notes is his 60th year in movies.
“It’s fashionable to pigeonhole everybody,” he says. “You’re 60, you’re a senior. At 60, I felt like I was about 40. At 40, I felt like I was about 18. It’s just all mental attitude.”