The word of Bob

While in Boston last fall playing a ruthless lawyer battling John Travolta in the locally shot Class Action, Robert Duvall found time to chat about The Apostle, a film that he wrote and directed and in which he plays a member of another maligned profession -- pentecostal preachers.

"From the days of Gone with the Wind they've gotten a caricature treatment from mainstream entertainment," says Duvall of the intolerant, repressed, hypocritical, corrupt image these men and women of God have taken on from the media and movies. "The only time I ever saw it done right was a cameo played by Ned Beatty in Wise Blood. True, some of these guys are a bit too vocal about being judgmental and it'll come back to haunt them. Like that guy Jimmy Swaggart -- I mean, come on. But I think they all basically want to do good. Sometimes the ones that get on television are seduced by nouveau riche-ness and everything goes out the window. But when you get in the rank and file with these people, black and white both, there are some wonderful people."

It was in the rank-and-file of fundamentalism that Duvall first was inspired to make The Apostle.

"Way back I was doing an Off Broadway play and I played a guy from Arkansas, so I thought I'd just stop off in that area, just to see what it was like. I bumped into a bunch of roadworkers from northern Louisiana and I went to one of their little churches round the corner. It was my first visit; I'd never seen that on television or on a movie or anything, these kind of guys, these preachers. I figured it would be interesting to play one someday, so I put it in the back of my mind."

Way back, apparently. It would be more than a dozen years before Duvall invested $5 million of his own money to make the film. This was money well spent: the film, and in particular Duvall's acting, has been critically hailed; he's been voted best actor by the National and Boston Societies of Film Critics and is a dark horse for an Oscar nomination. Part of the electricity of his performance is in his preaching scenes -- he indeed seems to be channeling the Spirit.

"The character could be a mechanic, he could be any guy, his profession is secondary," Duvall demurs. "But the fact that it's this profession, it makes it different, so you have to do a lot of homework. So it is a different experience. But I think that the overall acting is about the same. After a couple of takes you know when it's right, the director knows when it's right, and you're kind of on the same wavelength.

"On the other hand, though, I was in a church in Harlem once where we went to six services in one morning, and I sat up there in the chorus with members of the Metropolitan Opera. They sang one of their songs and during the course of that singing I really had quite an emotional experience. It could have been interpreted as a complete thing if I had wanted to, if I had gone that way. But I didn't; I'm not of that persuasion."

Moving from the sacred to the profane, second-time director Duvall (his first film was Angelo, My Love, in 1983) was bemused to hear that sometime actor Quentin Tarantino would be reprising Duvall's old stage role of the killer in Wait Until Dark (the show gets a pre-Broadway run at the Shubert Theatre next month).

"Is he an actor, too? He's a talented guy. And he might be good in that part. I did it on Broadway, but I did it so long ago. He'd probably be better at it now. He won't have to wear a mask; he's pretty scary as it is."

The Boston Phoenix, January 29, 1998