Low hit the festival circuit earlier this year, veteran actor
Robert Duvall came to town and did a few interview sessions to
discuss this film, his career, and playing roles like the irascible
Felix Bush. The grungy, ill-kempt Bush is this mysterious hermit who
throws his own rollicking funeral party – while still alive – in
1930s Tennessee. He confront the folks who run the funeral home –
played by Bill Murray and Lucas Black – and his long-ago ex-love,
played by Sissy Spacek, with his odd event with both touching and
actor, going back to his days on television in such series as The
Outer Limits (his two- part episode, “The Inheritors,” is
considered a classic) or films such as M*A*S*H or the
original True Grit, the 80-year-old is now considered one of
the Olympians in that starry universe of Hollywood.
Yet he has
often stood apart from that celebrity-centric world. He has an
estate in Virginia, is married an Argentinian, Luciana Pedraza (who
is 41 years younger than him), and has his own film and television
production company. His politics leans towards
libertarian/conservative and he loves the western – all things that
haven’t set well with the Hollywood insiders and tastemakers.
In the last
two films he performed in, Get Low and Crazy Heart,
Duvall co-produced them, and much to his surprise, won back-to-back
hurrahs, awards and many nominations.
With a crinkle
to his eyes, a big smile and that good ol’ boy geniality, The Texas
native makes for a perfect interview subject. Whether he’s doing a
long string of one-on-ones, roundtables, or Q&As, he shows an
infectious enthusiasm and openness that makes each one seem like
he’s doing it for the first time.
How do you
prepare for a role like this? What’s the process with such a complex
I didn’t do a
lot, but just thought about it. Though this year I couldn’t because
I had to work, we usually go to Argentina where my wife’s from. We
go up to the North, to the Jujuy. We cook on Christmas Day. We’ll
cook meat and then her old man will jump off with one of the sisters
zipped up and hang glide with the condors, the biggest bird in the
world. While we’re there, there’s this is hotel where we stay,
there’s a window and a place where you sit, the patio, and I would
sit there. I’d say it’s a perfect [environment] if you were going to
write something, and I would look at those mountains and work on
this part. That sense of being with nature and looking at, not the
hills of Tennessee or Virginia. But, it’s just a matter of thinking
about it. Thinking about it a lot and not doing research necessarily
other than my imagination. They say, play the parts closest to your
imagination and I think there was a part of my imagination that this
was close to. I didn’t want to go in it for any way on accident. I
was just a little bit like my dad who’s from Virginia. My family is
Did you carry
such a powerful character with you upon leaving the set at the end
of the day?
I carry him with me I get pissed off. Or if things weren’t going
right or I didn’t think it was just right, you carry that
frustration with you, sometimes. But usually at the end of the day
if it went well then you go off and have a meal. And there was a
great Chinese restaurant down there in the middle of nowhere. It was
terrific. The better things go, the more relaxed and relieved you
are at the end of the day. If it doesn’t go so well then you feel,
ahh, you know? You just go home, get your rest and come in the next
shoot, were there other things that you, Sissy Spacek and Bill
Murray spent doing on your downtime?
We all went
out to eat, to different restaurants, and had fun down there going
out. We’d go to a party and showed Bill Murray a tango. He said he
wanted to learn the tango. He likes to try everything, Murray. The
guy’s a character. And Lucas Black – it’s great to work with the
guy. [He’s] from Alabama, with that thick accent, you need subtitles
for the guy, you know. [laughs] And Sissy is – [they’re all]
wonderful, talented people to work with.
character manipulating other people? At one point somebody says, “I
think he’s got an idea and he’s playing all of us.”
that guy said. I’m not so sure. Even having played the character,
I’m not so sure if that’s true or as much, percentages, or that’s
what they perceive in him. They perceive him to be a tough old guy,
but he’s not necessarily that. You know, he lives off these stories
that he likes, you know, “You boys come out here and throw rocks at
my windows for 25 years.” I think that they build up this myth about
this guy being a mean old guy, but maybe he’s not that. He could
have been a lawyer. He could have been a doctor. He could have been
a schoolteacher. He could have been a world traveler, merchant
marine. He’s not a dumb guy. He could have been a lot of things.
But, he chose to live in the woods out of this deep sense of guilt
or being ashamed of what he did or what he thinks he might have
Zanuck said it had been ten years and that you had stayed with this
No, I think it
was about five... Yeah.
What was it
that made you say to yourself, “Whenever it comes, I’m going to be
there, ready to do this.”
given up on it. The initial thing of a guy setting up and going to
his own funeral was very unique. They’re not going to do a remake of
this in twelve years like they did of True Grit. This is so
unique and original, they’re not going to do a remake. But I’d
forgotten about it. They came to my farm once and then they came
again. The initial script was good, then they rewrote, and it wasn’t
so good. Then they got a guy, Charlie Mitchell from Alabama, who put
in the final touches. This guy’s a terrific storyteller. If he
hadn’t come on, I wouldn’t have done it. But even when that
happened, they didn’t have the money, so I’d be sitting sometimes –
I don’t live in California, I go out there sometimes to work or
whatever – in a Palm restaurant and the Zanucks would be there. I
said, “If the Zanuck dynasty can’t raise $7 million, who can?’ So I
forgot about it. “Well, that’s a good project, but, you know, I’m on
to other things.” Then a couple of years ago December, they said,
“Now’s the time.” I said, “I’m not ready. I can’t.” “Oh, we’ve got
to.” I thought to myself, “I better do it now. This is a
wonderful...” But, you know, I wasn’t waiting. I’d kind of given up
on it, and thought of other things because they didn’t have the
money. But when they did, then we went.
This film has
stirred almost the same response that
Crazy Heart got...
said that. They spent a lot of money on Crazy Heart and it’s
different. This is my wife’s favorite film I’ve done in maybe
fifteen, sheesh, years. She loves this film and the script. But
maybe, we’ll see. I don’t know. That made a lot of money for an
independent film. I don’t know who made that much money. It made,
what... it grossed almost $39 million.
performance here is dead on, just every minute of it works.
Well, I don’t
always get leads in movies, and I’d rather play sometimes cameos or
supporting, but when something like this comes along I feel maybe I
can do this in a unique way.
What did she
love about it?
She just loved
the writing and there’s so much, and the performances. But she loves
what this guy, Charlie Mitchell, brought [to it]. A unique script,
just a certain aspect of humanity that’s in the script in a
different, very unique story. We sold it all over. It won some award
in Italy at a film festival, then it went to here, and it went
there. They’re taking it everywhere. [laughs] They’re trying
to build it up in a prestigious way, but also hopefully that it’ll
be a commercial success.
Have you ever
gotten a great script and as you were filming, things went haywire
and it didn’t end up the way you expected as with this film?
Did it end up
the way I envisioned it?
Yeah, in the
Yeah, I think
so. But with this writer, there was a time when they rewrote it, it
didn’t work, I said, “I’m not doing this.” Then when they brought
Charlie Mitchell on he added those touches of a southern storyteller
that was terrific. Little things, like the woman in white at the end
coming in an apparition, like a Southern Gothic story. And when that
hearse went away, they didn’t know that it was going to be and they
passed her coming on film and they all got like goose pimples. They
didn’t know what it was about. And the things with Sissy, when I
explained how I loved her sister, not her, then I have a thing where
I fall over from an illness, he added that. He added those things
with Sissy in the beginning. He really took the basic story and made
it more direct and made it work. That’s what really bonded me to the
project – his writing. That’s why my wife loved it, the writing and
the way it was executed.
Was that scene
where you beat up the guy who was harassing you in there originally?
When I hit
him? Yeah, they had to put stuff on him. Scott Cooper, he directed
Crazy Heart – I whacked him good. [laughs]
Is there a
theme or a line running through the roles that people think of you
the most? I’m thinking of
Tender Mercies and these country men.
I played a
city guy in The Godfather. I played Stalin once. [laughs]
But, yeah, yeah – my favorite part was in Lonesome Dove, when
I played [a character from] Texas. I love westerns because that’s
our thing. I said the English can have Shakespeare, the French
Molière, [Anton] Chekhov [for] the Russians and the Argentines have
[Jorge Luis] Borges, but the western is ours from Canada on down. I
say let the English play Hamlet and King [Lear]; I
play Augustus McCrae [laughs], because you have eight hours
to develop the character. But, you know, I like city guys, country
guys, whatever. I’ve played German guys. I’ve played Eichmann –
Adolf Eichmann. That’s where I met my wife in Argentina. Eichmann
went to Israel and they killed him and this Eichmann got a beautiful
woman from Argentina, my wife [laughs].
Do you still
dance the tango with her?
Yeah, we do.
recession hit do you find yourself taking roles and doing business
differently? Well, the business aspect of it might be different
because you always try to raise money and with my company we’re
always trying to do movies under $10 million. Another one of my
favorite things was Broken Trail, a two-part miniseries for
AMC. We did that and Eichmann, we did the tango movie, we did The
Apostle, we did, what do you call it? We did Crazy Heart. We’ve
had a good run, my company, in doing producing. But as far as taking
the parts, it’s the same thing. You read it and say, “Oh, I like
this part.” You go with your first instincts. “I think I can do this
part. I like it.” Then you say, “Who’s going to be the director? How
much?” [laughs] Usually the independent movies not much, so
you still do them because you love them.
How much does
“how much” matter?
It depends. If
you’re going to do a big film, how much does matter. You know, it
does matter in this country. We had to cut Jeff Bridges’ salary. He
does a hefty thing. We make more in this country than other
countries and also I suppose it’s more expensive in a way to live in
this country, so how much matters some.
pretty well though.
Oh, very good.
My little company’s as good as any of the other companies as far as
– we’ve done well, especially doing something under $10 million.
Somebody said that there’s a list every year of the ten best movies
that never get made, so that happens, so we’ve done well. It’s tough
to get these things going. We got things we’re trying to get going
right now that hopefully, you know.
What do you
think when you hear people say, “This is one of the best Robert
Duvall performances ever – you’re going to get another Academy Award
the Academy Awards can be very political. [laughs] People
think of that, you know. When I did The Great Santini, I was
sitting in my chair just meeting the producers and they said, “Well,
they’re talking about Academy Awards...” [And that was] before we
even rehearsed it or anything! [laughs] Especially in
Hollywood, there’s a strange preoccupation about [awards] in this
country. If those things happen it’s a secondary thing; you just try
to do a good job. I like this role a lot. Maybe it’s one of my
[best]. I don’t know. I can’t [think about that]. There’s a friend
of mine coming tonight, I’ll see what he thinks. He’s known me for
years. He loved the script when he read it, so I’ll see what he
people, after doing this for 20 or 30 years... You look at them and
say, “God, it’s like they forgot how to act or something.”
But I have
more than that my amigo. [laughs]
What keeps an
actor fresh through the years?
It depends on
whatever you read is you’re going to jump in and do. No matter how
long you’ve been doing it, you still have a certain hunger to do it.
You’re still a bit hungry. I’m getting offered more parts now than
ever. It’s as good as ever. I was considered as a late bloomer, but
I’m blooming into eternity [laughs].
name of your company?
Films. Down in Virginia the small creeks are called runs. I don’t
know what that comes from, Bull Run, the Battle of Bull Run. My
father grew up on South Run in northern Virginia. They were
southerners during the Civil War, tobacco farmers, pro union behind
confederate lines, pro union! They named my grandfather Abraham
Lincoln Duvall. He was behind enemy lines, but they were
didn’t get hung for it?
didn’t. They had some dicey times when it came to it with the
bayonets and the stuff they had to hold, the babies and stuff.
What part of
Virginia was this?
near Fairfax County. We live now in Fauquier County, my wife and I.
My wife loves Virginia.
How did you
know that your wife was the one? In the movie, your character talks
about when he knew the woman he loved was the one. When did you
realize that about love…?
You mean in
No, in real
I guess after
the fourth marriage something better work. [laughs] She’s
very smart. She did an interesting documentary on Billy Joe Shaver;
I put her in the tango movie though she’s never acted, but she had a
certain kind of middle class street mentality of Buenos Aires. She
went down to take care of her mother, and strapped $15,000 in her
purse to go through customs. I put her in the movie – she said, “If
you think that young actress is going to play the part, I’ll take
it.” Now I know she didn’t have to go to Lee Strasberg, because she
said to her sister, this cop stopped them through a yellow light
like, “Whatever I say, you say, ‘Si. Si.’” The guy said, “You were
going through a red light.” “No, a yellow light.” “Si, si, going
through a yellow light.” She saw the crucifix, she played on it, “If
you’re going to give me the ticket, come here. I have my papers
here. I’m on my way to the hospital. I’m dying of cancer.” Tears.
The guy never gave it. So I said, “If you did this, you don’t need
to go to Lee Strasberg.” [Laughs] I put her in the movie; she
was terrific. She stole the movie!
You met her
when you did that movie?
No, I met her
before that. I introduced her to the tango. The other night I was
with the guy that danced over the closing credits. He’s a great
tango dancer. He was in town on his way to France, so we had dinner
and everything. He’s one of the good guys.
On the subject
of great movies that never got made; will
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote ever happen?
I hope so.
What a script. It’s like Shakespeare. I read it and still don’t
understand all of it. You know, Terry Gilliam has his own thing. I
want to do this film, I just hope there aren’t too many dwarves
running around, you know? But, it’s terrific. It’s different from
the version that failed eight years ago that he had to scrap because
the guy got hurt – the French actor [Jean Rochefort]. This is
totally different. I did a thing with Richard Harris where I played
a Cuban barber in Wrestling Ernest Hemingway and he saw it
and liked it. If he hadn’t seen that he wouldn’t have offered me the
part because I worked very hard putting on the accent and
Now that he’s
got you, what’s the roadblock?
It’s a little
more than like this. It will be three times the budget, something
like $25 [million or] something.
$20, $25, yeah.
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