Newsweek; U.S. Edition - April 13, 1998

SOCIETY

THE `APOSTLE' SPEAKS

PLAYING A SOUTHERN PREACHER HELPED ME UNDERSTAND THE MEANING OF HOLY GHOST POWER.

BY ROBERT DUVALL

ALMOST 30 YEARS AGO, I stopped off in a little town called Hughes, Ark., for the night. It was a whim, really--I was about to play a character in a play who was from there, and his line that ``it's a 30-mile ride from Memphis back to Hughes'' had just stuck in my mind, so I jumped on a bus. When I got there, I figured out pretty quick that the local church was the only show in town. I went in and sat in the back and listened to these two country preachers. Over the years, I've forgotten the substance of their sermons. But I never forgot the wonderful cadence and rhythm of that preaching. It grabbed me pretty quick that as an actor, this was something I would like to do.

Filmmakers hardly ever depict spirituality with such a strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit, and when they do, it tends to be patronizing--full of charlatans and snake handlers. (I've heard folks in Hollywood refer to the whole of Middle America as ``flyover people,'' the terrain they squint at from the airplane window.) But what I really wanted to do was try to understand what these preachers go through and what they believe, and to portray it in an accurate way. So when I first approached various studios about this movie 15 years ago, they wouldn't go near it. First of all, any actor has trouble getting an independent project off the ground. But what made it tougher was that there wasn't the obvious ``hook'' of indicting the religious right. The title character of ``The Apostle,'' Sonny Dewey, wasn't a caricature or an Elmer Gantry type. In the end I financed the film myself; it's probably the only movie ever greenlighted by a CPA.

It turned out that I probably made a better film because no one would touch it back then. I never would have had the wonderful scenes in the movie of a whole group of ministers doing tag-team preaching, or the shot of the auditorium full of African-American men chanting ``Jesus Power,'' because these things came from years of research. When I decided I was going to write, direct and act in ``The Apostle,'' I knew I would really have to know my stuff. I went all over the United States listening to different kinds of preachers, even going to six Harlem churches in one day. I'd sit and take notes, or just watch, and the wonderful imagery that ended up in the movie almost all came from ordinary preachers. Lines like ``Mama, we made news in heaven this morning'' and ``I'm on the Devil's hit list'' came out of their mouths before they came out of mine.

I was raised in the Protestant faith, to believe in Jesus Christ and his teachings, but our church was nothing like Sonny Dewey's. So I have to admit, some of the carrying-on I saw struck me as so much surplus electricity at times. I did my best not to pass judgment, and tried to just understand how they were thinking of the Holy Spirit as something that just comes up and grabs you. But one Sunday, at one of the churches up in Harlem, I did have a moment where I felt something. We were singing along with the wonderful choir, singing ``What a Friend We Have in Jesus,'' and I felt a certain quiet, emotional uplift. It was a stillness, more than any kind of noisy exaltation. I suppose that at that moment I could have stood up, like people do, but I didn't. What I did do was when I wrote Sonny's last sermon, I included a part about a ``still, small voice'' that can touch you. Because that was my experience.

Since ``The Apostle'' has come out, the reaction has been just overwhelming. Marlon Brando wrote me a really insightful letter, and I heard the Rev. Billy Graham saw it twice and responded positively. (I figure that between Graham and Brando, that's pretty much both sides of the fence.) But I think the reaction that meant the most to me came from a woman who ran up to me in the airport in New York and said, ``I saw your movie, and the Apostle was just like my uncle back in West Virginia. He preaches every week in his own garage.'' If the character I created was as real to her as her uncle, that's good enough for me.