IN HIS HANDS
Robert Duvall put his soul and money into 'The Apostle'

By ROBERT W. BUTLER - Movie Editor

More than 30 years ago a young stage actor named Robert Duvall stepped off a bus in tiny Hughes, Ark., for a brief visit that would spark a lifelong fascination with fundamentalist religion and result in the new movie "The Apostle," in which Duvall plays a troubled preacher.

As Sonny Dewey, a man who has lost his family and his church but is determined to start over, Duvall gives what may be the best performance of his long career. It already has earned the 67-year-old performer Best Actor honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics.

And both Duvall and "The Apostle" -- which he wrote, directed, starred in, produced and financed with $5 million of his own money -- are certainly in line for Oscar nominations, which will be announced Tuesday.

The seed of the film was planted in 1962 when the then-unknown actor landed a role in an off-Broadway show.

"The play was about a character born and raised in Hughes, Ark.," Duvall said the other day by telephone from his 200-acre horse ranch in Virginia. "And I thought I ought to at least see what the place was like."

Duvall recalls getting off a bus in tiny Hughes on a Sunday morning and wandering through the town, attracting the curiosity of the local sheriff, who gave the stranger some funny looks ("which maybe he should have," Duvall said, laughing). Finally, to avoid further scrutiny, Duvall stepped into a little church and into the middle of a loud Pentecostal worship service.

"This plump lady was preaching, and she had this terrific style. Very intimate with God. There was one guy playing guitar and preaching and singing. The music was really wonderful. And I thought to myself that these folks took God very literally, and that someday I'd like to play one of them."

No born writer

The son of a Navy admiral, Duvall was reared a mainstream Protestant. He was fascinated by the fabulous showmanship embraced by the preachers, a showmanship in the service of God.

In the ensuing years Duvall would become one of the greatest American film actors, appearing in such classics as "M*A*S*H," "The Godfather," "Apocalypse Now" and "Network," and winning an Academy Award for "Tender Mercies" in 1983.

But he never gave up his idea of playing a fundamentalist preacher. Over the years he visited small churches, North and South, black and white, to collect material and talk to believers.

He was encouraged to write the screenplay by his mentor, playwright Horton Foote, who had scripted "Tender Mercies." Duvall approached the job with trepidation.

"I'm no born writer. In school I flunked writing. But in a way I didn't write this movie. I just borrowed things that I saw. When Sonny prays and says, `I always called you Jesus; you always called me Sonny,' that came directly from a preacher I met. That's how he talked to God."

Duvall -- who made his directing debut in 1977 with the rodeo documentary "We're Not the Jet Set" and in 1983 directed "Angelo, My Love," a fictional film about a gypsy boy in New York City -- decided to direct "The Apostle" as well. He didn't trust Hollywood to approach the material with the sensitivity and respect he felt it deserved.

"We didn't need another movie making fun of these people or putting them down," he said. "If you're going to do that one more time, why even bother?"

Son of the South

Once again, Duvall plays a Southerner. Though his resume of roles is wildly varied, many of the most memorable have been characters born and raised below the Mason-Dixon Line: the spooky Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (his first film), the washed-up country singer in "Tender Mercies," the Depression-era father in "Rambling Rose," the engaging Texas cowboy Gus McRae in TV's "Lonesome Dove" and the Arkansas mechanic who discovers he has an African-American half-brother in "A Family Thing."

"My mother's people all came from Missouri and Texas and my uncles lived in Virginia," Duvall said. "Something has always drawn me to the South -- the juxtaposition of the races, the culture, the writing, the storytelling. It's one of the more interesting parts of the country, one of the last to retain its regional personality. The problem has been that with all this richness, it's easy to caricature. I've never wanted to make a mockery of it."

Finding financing for "The Apostle," though, was a problem.

"After I got the Oscar for 'Tender Mercies,' this woman studio executive came up to me and said, 'If you had come to me, I would have financed that movie.' And I thought, 'Oh, would you?' So years later I went to that same woman for 'The Apostle' -- and she turned me down.

"In Hollywood they talk big when it doesn't count.

"I showed the screenplay to one guy and he said, 'There's too much talk.' I pointed out to him that about all these preachers do is talk from morning to night.

"But it just didn't fit any formula they'd seen before. They'd say, 'So this Sonny guy is a charlatan, right?' That's the only way they could see it working."

Say 'Amen'!

Finally Duvall dipped into his bank account for $5 million and spent seven weeks filming in Lafayette, La. With the exception of a few leading roles, all the performers were real churchgoers Duvall had met and befriended while doing research.

"In a situation like this you expect the professionals to help out the beginners. What was funny was that once the non-actors got in their praying groove, they taught the actors. They set the tone. I never had to tell them what to do. Hey, they do this every Sunday.

"And if I got lost in the middle of a scene, all I had to do was yell, 'Somebody give me an Amen!' And they did. They covered for me."

The church scenes in "The Apostle" look real because they were real, Duvall said.

"You know the opening scene, the flashback with the old blind, black preacher? Well, he had fasted for 24 hours before coming in to preach that morning. I tell you, it wasn't a film set. It was a church service. We shot 45 minutes and I told him he could stop, but he couldn't. He just kept going -- singing, moving around. It was great."

Duvall said he kept rehearsals to a minimum and placed his camera far enough away from the action that the technology of moviemaking didn't intrude on the reality of the worship.

"I try to have the camera accommodate the actor instead of the other way around," he explained.

Making its debut at last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, "The Apostle" quickly found a distributor in October Films, which ponied up $6 million. "I got all my money back. Plus change," Duvall said with obvious satisfaction.

He's so happy with the outcome that he's planning to produce more independent projects, including movies about tango dancing (an enduring passion), soccer and a biography of country star Merle Haggard.

"I can always have a great career as a hired hand," he said, "but I want to be in control. I want to get things done that otherwise wouldn't get done."

The Kansas City Star, February 5, 1998