The Apostle Duvall
One of America's great actors becomes a writer-director, too
by Elizabeth Snead
Robert Duvall is considered one of the greatest American actors of all time. But never mind that. Do as he says, and just call him "Bobby."
Discovered by Horton Foote in a student play, the young Duvall was recommended by the writer for his first film role. In an eerily powerful, although non-speaking, role, he played the retarded hero, Boo Radley, in To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck.
Among his finest film moments over the succeeding decades: Consigliere Tom Hagen in The Godfather films, Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, a retired Texas ranger in Lonesome Dove(1989).
Now Duvall, 66, has written, produced and directed his first feature film, The Apostle, which has gotten rave reviews in limited release and scored him his fifth Oscar nomination. In this quiet, moving tale set in the Deep South, Duvall also acts, playing yet another memorable, lovable but deeply flawed character, Sonny Dewey, a charismatic Pentecostal preacher brought down by his own frailties and passions but redeemed by his faith and ability to transform a community. The film also features Oscar-nominee Miranda Richardson, Oscar-winner Billy Bob Thornton and the infamous Farrah Fawcett in a surprisingly raw portrayal as Dewey's adulterous wife.
Duvall got the idea for the film after visiting a small church in Arkansas 13 years ago. But there was no studio interest in financing the small, odd film, so Duvall finally finished his labor of love one and a half years ago with his own money.
Here, Duvall talks about the struggle to make and find a distributor for his film, his casting decisions and use of nonactors in key roles, his fascination with preaching as a true American art form and getting Fawcett to be quiet and come out of the bathroom.
You had quite a long struggle to get The Apostle made.
Tell me about the beginnings of the idea. I was meandering around Hughes, Ark., for research for a part, and I went to one of those little churches years ago. That was way back. I saw those people, and it was very interesting to me that I had never seen that culture, that American art form.
You financed the whole thing yourself just to get it made?
My CPA greenlit it. Nobody out here did. ... So, we kind of had to do it ourselves. But when we showed it in Toronto (at the film festival), it was like a bidding war, and it went on until 1 in the morning, and they said that if it went to the next day, it would dissipate, maybe just fall apart. Therefore, it was consummated that night, and it was pretty interesting to watch.
How have the religious folks responded to the film?
Somebody just told me today that a friend of mine from New York who shot the film has a friend who said that his cousin, a Jesuit priest, saw the film and loved it. So it's interesting that the Catholics would like it, too. Some of them.
It's a touching, warm film. Your character is so human.
You start off disliking him, and then you see all the good that he does for people. I wanted to make him a good guy. That is why I had the scene in the beginning with the car crash. I had that in the middle of my first draft, and I put it up front because he is a good guy. He feels like he has a calling. He is human, he makes errors and then he has to pay for that eventually.
We haven't seen Farrah Fawcett do this kind of performance in quite a while.
You have to do a lot. She is great to work with when you get her going. She always wants to talk. I'm more, "Let's just do it." It was hard to get her to dye her hair. She spends 95 percent of her day in the bathroom. ... But once she comes in, she's fine. Just getting her there is the thing. That's the work. But once she gets there, she knows what to do.
When did you find the one-legged black fellow?
That's Wes. I knew him years ago, and somebody said, "I have got this preacher who would be good for the part of Blackwell." His wife was a wonderful gospel singer, and he is this wonderful, outgoing guy. He is a preacher. What does he know about movies? I don't even think he goes to movies. ... He lost his leg about 10 years ago. I keep saying, "Here is a black guy with one leg, and I got another black preacher who is blind." I was waiting for Farrakhan to take some shots at me. It just so happened to be my theory that "So what if they have a handicap, give the guys a chance. They can cut it." I am not so sure how I stand on affirmative action. I am not sure I am for it. But the casting guy said to me, Bobby, you have got to put some white people in this movie. On my side of the camera, there was a wonderful mixture of black and white people. It worked out nicely, in a good way.
And that is the reality of that area.
Absolutely. I talk to these journalists, the guys from San Diego, Philadelphia, Atlanta. But this one journalist from a little town, who grew up in Louisiana, he was smarter than the guys from New York! He asked better questions. This guy grew up in a town of 2,000, and he hit it right on the head: Only the Pentecostal church had integration, growing up. People said, "Well, did you make that up?" And I said, "No, it is in existence. That is the reality."
How did you get that preacher speech pattern down so well?
I watched those guys for years. I listened in churches all over the United States. The blacks can hold a note, sing it. The white guys do the cadence; some black guys do the cadence, too. I like the older black Baptist preachers more than the black Pentecostal preachers. That is the old art form of whooping. This old guy, Jasper Williams in Atlanta, [is] a terrific preacher. I hear he has a course on it: Whooping 101. It is a wonderful expression.
The best preacher I ever saw in my entire life, all-around, was Ishmael Williams from Hamilton, Va. He was 96 when he passed away. He had a wonderful style, but he also had wonderful content. He was a wonderful, kind man. I have only seen pictures of someone more spiritual than him, the Dalai Lama or Gandhi. He had something so special. I would go to his churches, and I got all that stuff about the little airplane flying to heaven and the whole church singing "I'll Fly Away." That is exactly what he used to do in his church. I got that whole idea from him.
Perhaps people don't see preaching as an art form because of the TV evangelists and their commercialism.
It's a shame, 'cause it is really an art form. Some of them are OK on TV, but they emphasize more of the spectacle than the content. The spectacle may be great, that aspect of the performance, but it becomes too spectacle-oriented. To me it's just deplete of spirituality. You have got to have your tithes, but it is so obvious. When you get out in the rank and file, there are some wonderful people, excellent people, who really believe. Churches were like the rock of a community. We have lost that. We have suburbs, and there is not that same family-type feeling, with the church being the center. In the black community, those preachers were spiritual leaders from the time of slavery till today. Up until a few years back, all those guys in the South voted Republican, the party of Lincoln, and then shifted over to FDR and Kennedy.
You weren't particularly worried that religious people would dislike the film?
No. I knew I was going to do it in a way that was going to give them their due by turning it around and letting it come from them, whenever I could. So, if they have trouble with it, you better not cast the first stone, as far as I am concerned. If some people get offended and don't want to see my movie, that's fine. But that doesn't mean the great poet David who slew Goliath didn't deviously send a man to his death so that he could lie in bed with Bathsheba. So, if they don't want to see my movie, I'm not going to rip out the pages of the Psalms and not read that part.
What is your favorite film you've been in?
This would be my favorite film, as a film. And the character of Sonny right up there, but Lonesome Dove ... I have done a lot of films that I like. The Godfather is a great movie. They were great movies Coppola made.
You have had an amazing career.
More and more. I have a great career as a hired hand. But with this film, I've realized I want to do more things on my own. I have more confidence now about directing. I feared it for years, put it on the back burner, hoping it wouldn't happen but really wanting it to happen. When we finally started, the fear dissipated, and it was very harmonious.
Cinemania, February 18, 1998