From Godfathers to Apostles: a profile of Robert Duvall

by Tom Cunha

Legendary actor Robert Duvall takes his third stab at directing -- after a 1975 documentary "We're Not the Jet Set" and 1983's "Angelo My Love" -- with "The Apostle," a small film about a Pentecostal preacher who, after assaulting his estranged wife's boyfriend, flees to a small Louisiana town and forms his own congregation with the help of a retired preacher. Duvall (who also scripted and stars) creates a balanced portrait of a religious man who, while serving as a beacon of inspiration to his followers, is nonetheless haunted by his own demons. The depiction steers clear of the fanaticism that Hollywood often brings to such characters, instead painting him with respect and humanity.

"He has weaknesses. Pros and cons. He's not a fanatic," says Duvall, "I just think it's part of his background, that's his way." This labor of love effort is a crowning achievement for the veteran actor of such American classics as "M*A*S*H," "The Godfathers I & II," "Network," "Apocalypse Now" and "Tender Mercies." Himself a religious man, Duvall says of the experience, "I think the movie will stay with me more than maybe any other movie I've done."

Duvall was inspired to write the modest $5 million project thirteen years ago. "I was passing through Arkansas years ago, I went to one of these little churches. It was a woman preacher and another guy. I had never seen anything like that. Right away I said, 'boy someday I'd like to play one of these characters.'" He adds that the practice of preaching is "a true American artform. It's kind of theatrical in a good way."

It was, however, a long haul getting this story to the big screen. "Nobody really wanted to talk about it or get behind it. Agencies don't want to get behind it because they don't make any money. So, therefore, you're really on your own."

After countless pitches to studios and twelve years of basically hearing "thanks but no thanks," Duvall realized that the only way his dream project was going to happen was by coughing up the funding himself. "I put it on the back burner hoping it wouldn't happen because I was afraid of it. But then I knew I had to do it because it was something I was committed to. Each year I would say 'it's now or never.' And then last spring it was really now or never and my CPA said I think you have enough money to back this. My CPA is such a cautious guy and he greenlit the movie. Not my agency, not any studio, he did."

Any trepidation Duvall had about taking on the project soon dissolved once production started. "Once we started, all those fears kind of melted away. We had seven weeks. I wanted twelve to do it but we had seven weeks. We finished early. Three of those weeks were five day work weeks. We finished everyday around five or six. I never felt tired. It was a very harmonious experience. We edited at my farm in Virginia."

The risky venture seems to have paid off. He has thus far won Best Actor honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics, and his work, as well as the film itself, is being universally hailed, some of whom have called this his finest performance to date. Quite a compliment considering his unforgettable work in "The Godfather I & II," "The Great Santini" and "Tender Mercies," for which he won an Oscar.

Speaking of Oscars, nomination announcements are right around the corner and speculation is strong that Duvall may be a contender for the gold this year. "It would be nice," admits Duvall, but he remains reticent nonetheless and cites his Emmy nomination for the 1989 television miniseries "Lonesome Dove" as an example of his expectations being let down. "If I ever got an award, it should have been for that. So you never can tell. I've seen people win awards for terrific work. I've seen them win awards and you say, how did they win that?"

While Duvall will remain first and foremost an actor, or "hired hand" as he calls it, he definitely wants to direct more in the future, even if it takes another 12 years to kick start his next project. "I don't think it will take as long this time. Even if I have to put up my own money again."

Among the directors whose work Duvall admires are Ulu Grosbard (who directed him in "True Confessions"), British helmer Kenneth Loach ("Ladybird, Ladybird"), Nikita Mikhalkov ("Close to Eden") Emir Kusturica ("Underground") and Lasse Halstrom (who directed him in the Julia Roberts vehicle "Something to Talk About") who Duvall particularly hails, "You name me one director in the history of Hollywood that ever did a film with the sensitivity and the beauty of "My Life as a Dog." Beautiful film. I never saw a film out of this country like that. He really goes for behavior."

Duvall is also praiseworthy of vets Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman, the latter of whom directed him in PolyGram's current release "The Gingerbread Man." "He's great to work with. I hadn't worked with him in years." So how was it different working with Altman this time around as compared to their collaboration on "M*A*S*H" back in 1970? "Not a lot different. We're all getting older and Bob's gotten heavier and he has weak knees and he walks slower, but it's still the same nice aura on the set. He's an interesting guy. It's fun working with Altman."

While Coppola is one director Duvall holds in high regard, he nonetheless opted not to return for the third installment of "The Godfather" in 1990. "The only reason, I bet my bottom dollar, that they were doing that movie was for money. Why wait fifteen years? I said look, if you're going to pay Pacino twice what you pay me that's OK, but don't offer me three times less than what you're going to pay him. So we said forget it."

Duvall will also be seen later this year in "Deep Impact" about a comet that's headed towards the earth, and "A Civil Action," which pairs him with his "Phenomenon" costar John Travolta. In the meantime, directing-wise, he has a couple of coals in the fire which he is optimistic about, "I always felt like a late bloomer. My career is better now than ever."

indieWIRE, February 3, 1998