TELLURIDE, Colo. -- For an actor who is famous for playing threatening authority figures, Clint Eastwood is an awfully nice guy.
Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is also utterly disarming in person, Eastwood doesn't intimidate people off-screen. He's soft-spoken, thoughtful, almost shy, willing to talk about his movies but equally enthusiastic when the discussion drifts to the history of jazz or his days as a lifeguard in the 1940s.
Of course, there's always been a side to Eastwood that has little to do with Dirty Harry or the "man with no name" of his spaghetti westerns.
It's most obvious in his latest picture, "White Hunter, Black Heart," in which he seems to be having the time of his life playing a charmingly wrong-headed director who is more interested in elephant hunting than making movies. (The character is quite obviously based on the late John Huston, and Huston's daughter, Anjelica, even encouraged him to do it.)
"I never thought of myself as a leading man," said Eastwood recently during a relaxed two-hour talk at a Telluride restaurant. "I think I've always been a character actor. But this one is a reach, this one is risky.
"It's a fascinating challenge. I've never played a role quite like this. The character is not afraid to take risks, and I like the fact that I get to say things through the character of the director -- like his line about forced happy endings, and how "four million popcorn eaters shouldn't be pushing you this way and that."
For nearly 20 years Eastwood has also been directing movies: 15 to date. Two of them will open this fall. The first, "White Hunter," is based on Peter Viertel's 1953 book and goes into limited national release Friday. (It is tentatively scheduled to open in the Baltimore area this month, but no date has been set.) The other, "The Rookie," is a more obviously commercial Christmas movie in which he plays older cop to Charlie Sheen's rookie.
Eastwood decided to direct and star in "White Hunter" while promoting his acclaimed Charlie Parker biography, "Bird," in Italy a couple of years ago. Viertel's script had been kicking around for decades.
"You shouldn't shy away because something's been written a while ago," said Eastwood, who pointed out that the script for "Bird" had been sitting on a shelf for a decade. "I think this story is more timely now than when it was written."
Eastwood isn't worried about the fact that his offbeat movies don't make big money. He says that "Bird" was better received internationally than it was in the United States -- which may be why he won the Golden Globe for best director for it (the award is presented annually by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association).
He thinks the company will be prouder of "Bird" 20 years from now than it is now.
Eastwood has taken plenty of other chances with his career. His first real break, as the nameless gunfighter in the late Sergio Leone's dubbed Italian western, "A Fistful of Dollars" (produced in 1964), was the sort of thing young actors are advised against. But after playing bit parts in such 1950s movies as "Revenge of the Creature," and the bland second lead on "Rawhide," a successful western television series, he was ready for something completely different.
"The inspiration for making 'Fistful' was 7 1/2 years of playing the young sidekick on 'Rawhide'," he said. "Leone didn't speak English and I didn't speak Italian, and the producers didn't know what I was doing. To them, I seemed not to be doing anything with the role. For some time I didn't even realize the picture had opened in Italy and was doing great business, because they'd changed the title (the original name: 'The Magnificent Stranger')."
Eventually it was clear that they had an international hit, and he and Leone followed it up with "For a Few Dollars More" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Eastwood then joined up with director Don Siegel on "Coogan's Bluff" and "Dirty Harry".
Eventually they made four "Dirty Harry" sequels. But he says there won't be anymore.
"I don't mind doing another detective story, but I don't know where you can take the character of Harry Callahan that's new and different. It's very difficult not to get into a state of imitating yourself."