Gran Torino: Interview with Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood, an actor and director whose body of work encompasses some of the most enduring and iconic films of all time, has not been in front of the camera since his 2004 Oscar-winning film, “Million Dollar Baby.” “I hadn’t planned on doing much more acting, really,” he says. “But this film had a role that was my age, and the character seemed like it was tailored for me, even though it wasn’t. And I liked the script. It has twists and turns, and also some good laughs.”

“Gran Torino” came to Eastwood’s producing company, Malpaso, from first-time screenwriter Nick Schenk, who wrote the script from a story he conceived with Dave Johannson. “This was based on their experience in Minnesota and people they knew,” comments Eastwood’s longtime producer and trusted partner, Robert Lorenz. “We got the script from Bill Gerber, who had received it from Jeanette Kahn. I read it fast, not necessarily thinking that it was something for Clint to act in, but about half-way through I slowed down and started to take it in. It was actually very good, so I read it a second time and just really liked it. I’ve learned never to oversell anything with Clint, so I gave it to him, saying, ‘I don’t know if you’ll want to make this or be in it, but you’ll enjoy reading it.’ And he called me and said, ‘I really liked that script.’ And it went from there.”

Schenk says the character of Walt Kowalski wasn’t written with a specific actor in mind, noting, “Walt’s a little bit of everybody’s shop teacher, or even your dad when he’s watching you reassemble your bike and screwing it all up. I think everybody knows someone like that.”

Originally from Minnesota, Schenk drew on his time working at a factory job with a number of Hmong families–the little-known culture from Laos and other parts of Asia that allied with the U.S. during the Vietnam War–that had settled there. “The Hmong culture is somewhat invisible,” he attests.

Walt, who slings racial slurs like most people use nouns and verbs, appears to be an unrepentant racist, but as he makes tenuous human connections with the Hmong people that have moved into his neighborhood, the layers of hostility peel away. “Walt did things in Korea that haunt him, and he sees those faces in his neighbors,” Schenk remarks. “To Walt, all Asians are the same, all mixed in a blender. And so it just happens that here’s another culture that has no face, and as he learns more about them, he begins to reflect on what happened to him in his own experiences in Korea.”

Producer Bill Gerber notes that “Gran Torino” bears echoes of the relationships explored throughout Eastwood’s body of work. “Clint has always dealt with complex issues of race, religion and prejudice in an honest way, which can sometimes be politically incorrect but is always authentic,” he says. “But because of your familiarity with Clint, you understand that there’s more to Walt than what’s on the surface. You start in a fairly dark place, and then you begin to see who he is underneath because of his relationship with these people.”

“In retrospect, I can’t imagine anyone besides Clint Eastwood making this movie or playing this character,” adds Dave Johannson. “As a filmmaker Clint is very sparing and also doesn’t flinch, no matter how uncomfortable the subject matter. As an actor, it took a certain level of fearlessness to play Walt, who, to put it mildly, isn’t a very sympathetic character at first. Walt’s bigotry is something he has held onto for 60 years, and having the courage to change something about yourself that is so ingrained, particularly later in life, is a rare and difficult thing. Walt is a physically brave man, but the story forces him to show emotional courage.”

The story unfolds after the death of Walt’s wife, Dorothy, when he has reached the final chapter of a life that has in many ways been defined by haunting experiences in Korea and his 50 years at the local Ford plant. But now the war is long since over, the factory has been shut down, his wife has passed away, and his grown children barely have time for him. “Walt has worked hard and his sons have been reasonably successful,” says Eastwood. “He’s lost his wife, and he’s estranged from his grown children. They’ve gone off and left him, and he’s just kind of in the way. But in their defense, Walt’s not an easy case to handle because he’s so cantankerous, and, of course, the grandchildren have piercings and things, and he doesn’t approve of all that.”

“Walt’s very tough to have as a dad,” says Brian Haley, who plays Mitch Kowalski. “Mitch is the opposite of his dad. Walt is a hardworking blue-collar guy, and his son is a shallow suburban yuppie. They have a complex relationship. Walt doesn’t know how to talk to his son, and Mitch doesn’t know how to break through to his dad.”

Complicating Walt’s desire to be left alone is his late wife’s priest, Father Janovich, who is persistent in pursuing her final wish to have Walt take confession. “I joke that my part is basically to show up to the door and have Clint Eastwood slam it in my face,” says Christopher Carley, who plays the priest. “Father Janovich is trying to break through to Walt without any real knowledge of how to do it, or how to get Walt to even have a conversation with him. Walt is not impressed by the fact that he’s a man of the cloth. He just thinks of him as a ’27-year-old over-educated virgin.’ Walt makes it clear to him that the regular way of dealing with people is not going to fly with him.”

“Walt is probably prejudiced against the priest for lots of different reasons, but mostly because he looks like a kid,” says Eastwood. “He’s trying very hard to get Walt to confession, but Walt just thinks he’s a guy right out of seminary school with a book of ‘how-tos,’ and so it makes for a very one-way relationship. The ‘padre,’ as he calls him, is a determined young fellow, but in the end, Walt does it his way.”

One of Walt’s only real pleasures in life is shining up his Ford Gran Torino, built in 1972 and lovingly preserved beneath a silk tarp in his garage all these years. In fact, Walt himself installed its steering column during his time at the Ford plant. “The Gran Torino is his pride and joy,” Eastwood attests. “Walt sort of is the Gran Torino. He doesn’t do anything with it except let it sit in the garage. But every once in a while he takes it out and shines it up. Walt with a glass of beer, watching his car – that’s about as good as it gets for him at this stage in life.”

In the midst of a run-down street of modest two-story houses, Walt’s home stands out, with its pristine paint job, neatly trimmed bushes and the American flag proudly displayed. He’s not happy with the turn the rest of his neighborhood has taken. “Walt’s a guy who is very, very disturbed about the way his world has gone,” says Eastwood. “He was raised in a neighborhood in Michigan that was populated with automobile people like he was, probably a high percentage of Polish Americans, like he is. So, when he sees his neighborhood changing, it discourages him.”

As the neighboring homes have deteriorated, Walt’s has been scrupulously maintained by a man used to working with his hands. “He’s the holdout in the community,” says Lorenz. “He’s somewhat stuck in the past in many ways. And emotionally, we learn that he has been stuck on something that hasn’t allowed him to progress as a human being. This dilemma is mirrored in every aspect of his life.”

Equally isolated is Walt’s neighbor, 16-year-old Thao, who is living in a house with his mother, grandmother and older sister. “He’s the only male in the household with no male role model to look up to or learn from,” describes Bee Vang, a first-time actor who won the role of Thao. “He’s awkward and unsure of himself as a guy because he’s surrounded by all these fe
males who are domineering. He’s in need of a role model and finds this in Walt.”

Thao is a shy kid, out of high school but without a job, who finds himself pressured into joining an ad-hoc Hmong gang, led by a teen called Smokie and Thao’s cousin, who goes by the name Spider. “Everywhere Thao goes, somebody picks on him,” says Sonny Vue, who plays Smokie. “He can’t stick up for himself, so the gang would be there to back him up. Becoming a gang was really so they could protect each other from other gangs in the neighborhood. But things get out of hand when they feel threatened by Walt–they think they have to get tougher, that it will make them more manly.”

As first-generation Hmong Americans, Smokie and Spider don’t have their elders to guide them the way past generations of Hmong have, because their elders are having a harder time assimilating than they are. “You’re trying to live in two different cultures,” says Doua Moua, who plays Spider. “So there’s a lot of rebellion, and that makes a lot of male teens come together and create a group to try to assimilate in the world around them. A lot of the girls are more bonded to home and family, where their mothers can guide them, and they don’t have to rebel as much against their culture or their parents.”

The gang initiation Smokie and Spider devise for Thao is to steal Walt’s prized Gran Torino. “Thao is trying to prove that he can be manly and trying to find where he belongs,” says Vang. But the heist is short-lived, as Walt surprises Thao midway through it, scaring the teen off without seeing his face. “He fails pathetically at this attempt,” Vang adds, “and ends up being even more scared and humiliated by the time its over.”

Not long after, the gang comes back for Thao, resulting in a fight that spills over onto Walt’s front lawn. Wielding his M-1 rifle, left over from his combat days in Korea, Walt issues a warning to all involved: “Stay off my lawn.” “He goes back into his war mindset,” Eastwood offers. “That’s when he really starts to see the problems with the Hmong community, mainly the kids who join gangs.”

Walt’s unwitting bravery makes him the neighborhood hero, and his Hmong neighbors soon shower him with unwelcome gifts of food, flowers and plants. “He doesn’t want to have anything to do with these people,” Eastwood says. “He changes when he realizes they are intelligent and they’re very respectful of others, and I think he admires that. He has one line in the film where he says, ‘I have more in common with these people than I do with my own spoiled, rotten children’ and that kind of sums it up. It’s interesting, and often funny, how he starts out with a lot of prejudice, and then works his way out of it through these relationships.”

The only one to break through Walt’s prickly exterior is Thao’s spirited older sister, Sue, who is more Americanized than the rest of her family. “Walt is the kind of guy who will call you any names that he wants to,” says Ahney Her, who plays Sue. “He doesn’t care what race you are. He’ll say whatever he feels.” Her describes Sue as “a really brave character. She always talks nice to him, even though she does tease him with nicknames like ‘Wally,’ but ultimately she’s the person who is able to connect Walt and Thao together. I think Sue wants her little brother to become friends with Walt because if it goes the other way and he gets in with the gang members, he’s just going to mess up his life. She sees that Walt can be like a father, and if Thao listens to Walt, he could probably be led to a better life and a better way of growing up.”

Walt and Sue form an easy and light rapport. “She seems to genuinely care about him in a real way, not a phony way, like some of his family members who seem to be just going through the motions and doing what they’re supposed to do,” Lorenz says. “I think her sincerity appeals to him and he allows himself to get to know her a little bit.”

Eventually, Sue is able to lure Walt over to her house for a family celebration, where an encounter with a Hmong shaman puts words to the unspoken truths Walt has been living with all these years. “The thing about the Hmong family–which comes completely into focus in that exchange with the shaman–is that they’re willing to say what has been unspoken in Walt’s own family,” Lorenz notes. “They’re willing to draw attention to some things and ask him probing questions that make him reflect on himself more than anyone else has challenged him to do before. That’s the heart of his racism–a selfish inability to look at himself. Instead, he projects outward at everyone around him, trying to see his problems as things that others have caused, rather than looking inward to see how he can change and adapt, and these folks force him to do that in some way.”

To make amends for the near-theft of Walt’s car, Thao’s mother and sister pressure him into helping out Walt with odd jobs for a couple of weeks. “They want him to make restitution,” says Eastwood. “That’s part of their family pride.”

Walt’s initial response is to call the boy a litany of racist names, deliberately misspeaking his name as “Toad.” But as the boy earnestly throws himself into Walt’s missions to fix up the deteriorating houses peppering the street, Walt begins to glimpse something in the young man worthy of more than his scorn. “You start to see that their relationship is evolving,” says Vang. “Walt starts to appreciate him as things begin to develop with Thao, who is obviously growing and changing from the young boy he was when they first met. And now, with Thao having calluses all over his hands, he’s proud that he has finally accomplished something useful–that he is useful.”

The purpose of Walt’s work with Thao, continues Vang, is to “man him up. Walt’s not there just to teach him how to work, but also how to stand up for himself so that he doesn’t have to join a gang to feel like a man. Walt is the man who is helping Thao develop more of a backbone.”

Walt’s ultimate goal becomes to empower the aimless kid to get a job and stay out of trouble so he can have a future, but their oddball relationship also ends up changing Walt himself. “Thao doesn’t have a father figure to rely on and give him guidance, and Walt never had a real connection with his own sons that might have given him that satisfaction of fatherhood,” says Lorenz. “It’s sort of a perfect fit for each of them. Walt is also searching. He clearly knows that he’s in the last chapter of his life, and he’s searching for someone or something to make sense of it all and to calibrate the value of his life.”

Through it all, Smokie and the gangbangers continue to harass Thao and his family, ratcheting up the threat of violence, and forcing the old warrior to take on an entirely new and unexpected mission. “If you just do something half-way, then it becomes a Hollywood bailout,” says Eastwood. “And if you’re gonna play this kind of guy, you can’t go soft with it. You gotta go all the way.”



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