Soul Authority
Robert Duvall puts his money where his heart is to make 'The Apostle'

by Jason Matloff

Thirteen years ago, actor-director Robert Duvall visited a small Arkansas town to do research for his character in an off-Broadway play. Hoping to kill some time, he wandered into a church. Simple as it was, what he saw struck a deep chord in him. "I was impressed," recalls Duvall. "There was a lady preacher and a man preacher with an acoustic guitar, and I thought I'd like to do this [onscreen] some day." About five years later, he completed a script for The Apostle, not knowing what a battle it would be to get the actual movie made.

The battle now won-The Apostle, a sweeping, touching tale of a flawed but sincere preacher named Sonny (Duvall) trying to atone for his sins, has received rave reviews, and both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics gave Duvall their Best Actor awards-Duvall's air is one of contentment. The intensity of his deep-set, keen blue eyes notwithstanding, the legendary actor, who made his mark in some of the most memorable American films ever (The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, to name two) is positively serene as he sits down to tell the story of how he turned a dream project into reality.

Duvall shopped his script around to all the major studios and independent companies but heard only rejections. One particular meeting delivered a harsh lesson about Hollywood's definition of loyalty. "After I did Tender Mercies, one studio head told me, 'Look, if I'd known, I would have backed it,' " Duvall says. "So I took The Apostle to him and he said no. So it's malarkey. The bottom line is it's a business, and that's the way it is."

Eventually it was Duvall's personal accountant who showed him how he could make the picture. "He told me that I was financially set to help swing it-so really my CPA green-lighted the movie." Duvall poured $5 million into the project, violating the golden rule of never putting your own savings into your own film. It's a rule the actor is used to breaking. "I've directed three films, and it's all been my own money." Given the material Duvall has chosen-pictures about people Hollywood generally ignores or, worse, doesn't even realize exist-it's not completely surprising that industry support has been almost impossible to come by. His 1977 documentary, We're Not the Jet Set, was an endearing look at a redneck Nebraska family; the 1983 feature Angelo, My Love followed the adventures of an extremely charming young Gypsy boy in New York City.

Having laid out his own money, Duvall could cast his movie without having to defend his risky choices. He had worked with a group of nonprofessionals on Angelo, My Love and wasn't afraid to put screen novices like one-legged preacher Brother William Atlas Cole and country songwriter Billy Joe Shaver in The Apostle. That gamble paid off in rough-edged, authentic performances. The choices Duvall made for the professional actors in his cast seem, if anything, even more risky. But TV-movie staple Farrah Fawcett displays subtle excellence in the pivotal role of Sonny's wife. The writer Horton Foote (Tender Mercies), a friend of Duvall's, was knocked out by a woman he took to be a Texan nonactress in the part of a secretary and must have been equally knocked out when Duvall informed him, "That's [actress] Miranda Richardson from London, England!"

In an I'll-do-your-movie-and-you-do-mine maneuver, Duvall enlisted another pal, actor-director Billy Bob Thornton, to play a racist thug. Duvall had contributed a pivotal cameo to Thornton's breakthrough, Sling Blade, and had previously appeared in A Family Thing, which Thornton coscripted.

Duvall, who recently completed acting work in A Civil Action, is clearly hoping that the acclaim he's received for The Apostle will help him launch other projects, including one on one of his life's great passions, the tango. "I have a very nice career as a hired hand, and I make good money," the Oscar winner says. "So maybe now I'm set enough that I can do a few of these on my own."

Premiere, March 1998