Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—For Americans growing up in 1930s and 1940s, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was looked on as a heroic figure.

“This was all prior to the Information Age,” says Clint Eastwood, who lived through the Depression and World War II, and has now made a biopic about the late controversial lawman. “We didn’t know about Hoover except for what was usually in the papers.”

Upon getting Oscar winning writer Dustin Lance Black’s revealing script about Hoover, the veteran filmmaker-actor was intrigued.

“It was fun to delve into a character you’d heard about all your life but you never really knew and try to sort it out,” says the two-time Oscar winner in his low, gravelly voice.

“J. Edgar” spans 50 years of the FBI director’s life, from his early days with the fledgling federal law enforcement agency to his final years as one of the most influential and feared men in Washington. While Black took some dramatic license with some of the events in Hoover’s life, much of it was documented or culled from sources close to Hoover.

“We’re all just kind of learning history or putting our stamp on history,” says the filmmaker. “I’m sure a lot of things probably didn’t happen exactly the way they happen in this film, but they’re pretty close. Lance has done a great job of researching what time certain events happen in history so it could coincide with other events.”

Starring as Hoover is three-time Oscar contender Leonardo DiCaprio, who previously played another larger-than-life figure of the 20th century, Howard Hughes, in Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator.” Oscar nominee Naomi Watts plays Hoover’s devoted secretary Helen Gandy, and Armie Hammer (“The Social Network”) is Hoover’s friend and colleague Clyde Tolson.

“The screenplay Clint and I responded to by Mr. Dustin Lance Black was a very fascinating portrait of a man,” says DiCaprio. “All of us, as actors, were very fascinated by these character that had devoted their life to government service.”

The story of Hoover’s life is told in a nonlinear way, bouncing between his early days in the bureau leading the investigation into the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and his later years, when he felt compelled to wiretap those he suspected of trying to subvert American democracy such as civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“That was Lance’s way to put it together and I found it interesting,” says Eastwood, “to go back and forth in time and show his present day attitude and how he was when he was younger and just starting out with all kinds of vinegar and being ready to roll.”

Though “J. Edgar” is a period drama, Eastwood says there are parallels to today’s society.

“Whether it’s the head of a studio or the head of an organization, a major newspaper or a major factory or company, (it’s about) people who stay too long, overstay their usefulness,” he says.

At 81, Eastwood is just getting warmed up. While he has been a Hollywood icon for decades, he continues to be one of the most productive and relevant filmmakers around, directing at least one movie a year. He occasionally returns to acting when a project intrigues him and there’s a suitable role. He last starred in 2008’s “Gran Torino,” playing an elderly man defending his home and a young friend against an encroaching gang. He is set to star in the baseball drama “Trouble with the Curve,” directed by his producing partner Robert Lorenz.

“Aging, so far, has been OK,” he says, smiling. “A lot of people regret it because we live in a society that reveres being in the prime of life and everything, but you have certain primes at certain times. I think that now I’m doing better at certain things than I have in the past and maybe not so good at others.”