SPECIAL BONUS: See Robert Duvall demonstrate a birdcall!(754 KB)
Since he made his film debut more than 30 years ago as spooky Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, it's hard to imagine an actor who has portrayed a wider range of characters than Robert Duvall.Think of crazed Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, crafty consigliere Tom Hayden in The Godfather, country-western singer Mac Sledgein Tender Mercies, or his personal favorite, cowboy Gus MacRae in the acclaimed TV miniseries Lonesome Dove. Now he costars with Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter.
The Oscar-winning actor finds serenity in his many non-Hollywood pasttimes. On his Virginia ranch, he rides horses, including "a wonderful jumping horse" that was a surprise Christmas gift afew years ago from his Days of Thunder co-star, Tom Cruise. Duvall also actively engages in birdwatching, tennis, singing, songwriting,and, believe it or not, dancing the tango.
Q: As a young struggling actor, your social circle included Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, James Caan. Do you still pal around together?
A: Not much. Once people become successful, for whatever reasons it goes like this. I don't know if that's true in other professions;it might be. We talk about each other with the fondest of memories and respect. I see Dusty maybe once every 3 or 4 years. Jimmy I don't see much anymore. I used to bum around with him a lot and have great times. We used to call him All-State, cause he likes to drive boats, rope in rodeos, play the horn; he does everything! He was a lot of fun, but that was way back. The memories are the things you live off of really in those relationships.
Q: You all used to hang out on the Upper West Side [of Manhattan].
A: There were 6 of us who used to live in one apartment there:my older brother; Dusty; this friend who was a cantor, a terrific singer; and two other actors. We used to have great parties.
Q: You also had some odd jobs in those days. Midnight shift at the post office?
A: Yeah, and I quit after 6 months. The security was great, I had money in my pocket; I'd never had that before on my own. So I quit because I knew that [otherwise] I'd be there ten years later. You go through different jobs with the optimistic feeling that you're not going to be doing this someday, and fortunatelyit worked out that I didn't have to, that I could just chuck a job and know that eventually I could make a living at what I really wanted to do.
Q: Inspiration for all those struggling New York actors who are sorting mail.
A: Yeah, it's a tough business. A lot of times [young actors]will say, 'What should I do? What's your advice?' I say, 'Stayin Texas. Stay in Nebraska, or wherever, cause there's a lot of community theater.' It's tough going to New York or L.A.
Q: Your early battles with certain directors are infamous. Do you find that you're able to call the shots more often now?
A: I always did call the shots! If they hire me, I want to do it my way. Way back, I worked with a director once, and I said,'If you don't listen now, you'll be on your own. That's all I want you to know.' I think the good directors leave you on your own, and then can make suggestions and make it better. But not hovering and pampering, as I call it. Some of the old-time directors tended to be a little bit dictatorial, and I think it showed in some of their work.
Q: We're speaking of Henry Hathaway, perhaps?
A: Yeah, he was a wonderful guy, but he just... I mean, he once said, "When I say, 'Action!' tense up, goddamit!' Imagine [quarterback]Johnny Unitas saying, 'Tense up!' You know, we try to stay relaxed,even in an emotional scene. Intense is different than tense.
Q: And this was in True Grit, with John Wayne.
A: Yeah, it was an alright experience. I took the job mainly because I wanted to see that part of Colorado. It was so beautiful down there.
Q: Do you often select roles on the basis of location?
A: Yeah. London, Buenos Aires, Texas: those are my three favorite places to work. I'd do a film just to go there. And I enjoyed The Great Santini in South Carolina. The Carolinas are wonderful.I love that part of the country.
Q: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." Did you have any idea when you played that scene [in Apocalypse Now] that it would become a cinematic classic?
A: No, I didn't think of it, but now that I look back it's the kind of line that obviously would become that. It's a pretty nifty line.
Q: We missed you in Godfather III. Any regrets about not joining the project?
A: No, not really. I felt it had been done, and why wait all that time? The premise was okay, but I don't think it was as good as the other two. But Frances is obviously a big talent, and one of these days he's going to have another really good movie.
Q: You often refer to certain roles as being your Lear or your Othello. With your theater background, do you harbor Shakespearean ambitions?
A: No, I don't. If it came along at the right situation, I would give it a shot, but I don't think to accomplish certain things in acting you have to do Shakespeare. It might be interesting to do a Shakespeare character in a film, but I don't know if I want to lock myself into a long run on a Broadway stage. I wouldn't mind playing King Lear maybe someday.
Q: We hear that the tango is a special passion of yours.
A: Yeah, I like to dance the tango. I'm a club dancer, not a stagedancer. The stage tango is not really the tango. The club dances are less polished and more improvised. They're more subtle and less production-oriented. I've become very involved with that.I've even developed a tango script that I really want to do.