And yet reporters at a press conference at New York's Waldorf Astoria on the day of the Tony Awards ceremony can't quite believe that Eastwood signed on for Jersey Boys. Based on the long-running Broadway musical, the Warner Bros. release follows the 1960s pop group The Four Seasons from its beginnings to its messy breakup.
"What characteristic of each of the Four Seasons do you relate to most?" asks one reporter.
"That I relate to?" Eastwood responds. "Well, I try to relate to the whole thing. I don't know why, I couldn't give you a reason. I love music, all kinds, I immerse myself in it. I love to do films about musicians. And I enjoyed the play so much. Going over to New Jersey, seeing that Tommy DeVito has a street named after him–there's a cultural thing that's going on still with these guys because of the play. I mean, there's no street named after me."
Another asks Eastwood if he actually likes pop music. "I wasn't a fan of that particular era of music," he admits with a touch of exasperation, "but I did like The Four Seasons a lot. 'Can't Take My Eyes Off You' is one of the classic songs of the era, and it would have been a classic in the ’40s, ’50s, whenever."
The director, sporting a beard, is flanked at the conference by the movie's four leads—John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda and Vincent Piazza—along with screenwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice.
Eastwood became interested in the project after two years' work preparing an update of A Star Is Born with Beyoncé attached to star. Meanwhile, a version of Jersey Boys by screenwriter John Logan had passed from Sony to Warner Bros., which had doubts about proceeding.
"I had lunch with the head of the studio and asked, 'Why would you pass on that? It's been such a popular play, it's still a popular play, it's been out there for ten years,'" he remembers.
The director read the Logan screenplay, but when he saw the play, felt that it did a better job telling the story. A friend unearthed an earlier script by Brickman and Elice. "Only in Hollywood would somebody give you a script by someone else when they already have a script that's a hit," he complains.
"It's a wonderful play with a lot of excitement, so I don't think it was too much of a challenge to bring to the screen," Eastwood continues. "I can approach it from a more realistic angle, cut a lot of the stage business, keep things moving, be practical."
"We tried to deepen the screenplay a little bit," Brickman says. "A two-and-a-half-minute song on stage will hold with an audience, because there's something mystical and wonderful about being in a room with an actual live performance. But on film it doesn't work. So you're dependent on certain kinds of invention to keep things moving, while keeping the music in."
For example, Eastwood takes the hit "Sherry," which is performed in a straight rendition in the play, and turns it into a montage that shows how the song was written, arranged, produced and recorded.
Brickman adds, "The music and the story in the stage play have about equal weight. What Clint did was to put the story a little more in front."
"Music in theatre functions as a close-up," Elice says. "When a character sings in the theatre, in a spotlight, what the spotlight does is get you to look exactly where the director wants you to look. In film, of course, you just push into a close-up. That's why I think Clint was so clever to bring the story more to the front than the music."
Eastwood ended up seeing three versions of the play, in San Francisco, Las Vegas, and on Broadway, while looking for the right performers. "Casting a film to me is one of the most important things," he says, drawing laughs from Brickman and Elice when he adds, "next to writing. If you cast the movie properly, then it takes place very easily. Cast it improperly and you're fighting an uphill battle."
Young originated the role of lead singer Frankie Valli on Broadway. Lomenda, who plays bassist Nick Massi, had amassed 1,200 performances. Bergen, as keyboardist and songwriter Bob Gaudio, had been turned down after auditioning for the Sony version. Eastwood laughs at Bergen's story, noting that he cast the actor because Gaudio himself thought he had done the best job on stage.
The only lead without experience in the play was Vincent Piazza, a "Boardwalk Empire" veteran who was cast as the hotheaded DeVito after a "spectacular" audition. "For a while Mr. Eastwood was the man behind the curtain," the actor recalls. "I remember thirty or forty days into choreography in a room with basically eight men trying to teach me how to dance, and Clint walks in. I turn and shake his hand and two days later we were shooting."
Bergen notes that the other three leads had four days of rehearsal. "We did the same choreography as from the show, so it was pretty easy for us. Our fun came from making sure Vincent felt comfortable doing it with us."
Eastwood's shoots are famously brisk and no-nonsense. As Lomenda puts it, "I'll spend the rest of my life trying to chase the experience I had on that set. The fact is that he's an actor first, he has an actor's sensibility and creates the best possible environment."
"Especially as an actor in the theatre, you're always prepared to work at Starbucks tomorrow," Bergen adds. "What I've learned from this experience, especially working with Mr. Eastwood, is to cut out all the crap, all the other stuff that comes along with show business and potential fame. You walk onto a Clint Eastwood set, there's no ego there. There's respect for everyone, from the actors to the catering truck."
"Especially the catering truck," Eastwood jokes.
The director's deceptively simple style in Jersey Boys masks some intriguing choices. As in the play, each of the four leads takes turns narrating the story, breaking the "fourth wall" by speaking directly to viewers. And although it's promoted as a musical, there is only one full-fledged production number, "Oh, What a Night," which appears at the very end of the movie.
An exuberant song-and-dance routine that features almost all of the cast, the number was shot, amazingly, in four hours. "We did it in one night, almost as an afterthought," Eastwood recalls.
"As much fun as it looks, it really was that fun," Bergen says about the number. "For most of the time it was only one camera. Clint was standing behind it, and he didn't prepare for the final piece of choreography, where we're sort of running toward him. He starts running backwards, and we're like, 'Oh god, don't run over the director.'"
Eastwood's next project is American Sniper, based on Navy SEAL Chris Kyle's autobiography and starring Bradley Cooper. "I finished that about two nights ago," he reveals in an aside.
"I'm just very lucky," the director sums up. "I play a little golf once in a while and there's a saying, 'I'd rather be lucky than good.' Of course I pay tribute to the writer, the writer is the creative artist. Directors and actors are interpretive. If you can take zero and make it into something, that's always amazing to me."