Robert Duvall and Billy Bob Thornton slip into each other's thoughts with such ease that anyone with them can't help but feel like an interloper. The two friends have worked together three times since they first costarred in The Stars Fell on Henrietta (1995). It was an auspicious beginning: The film was shot in Texas, and of their many shared passions, none stands out more than a love for the South.
Duvall has consistently visited this part of the country in his films, from his debut in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) to his Oscar-winning turn in Tender Mercies (1983) to his recent, heralded portrayal of an itinerant evangelist in The Apostle (in which Thornton cameos as the spiritually needy troublemaker). Like Duvall's triple-play work on The Apostle, Thornton wrote, directed, and starred in 1996's sleeper extraordinaire, Sling Blade (in which Duvall cameos as his father) - in its way, an ode to his beloved Arkansas. This month Thornton will be seen as a much slicker Southerner - a version of campaign fixer James Carville - in Mike Nichols's Primary Colors. Then the two will race to protect us all in competing save-the-Earth extravaganzas: Duvall in Deep Impact and Thornton in Armageddon.
ROBERT DUVALL: Hey Billy Bob, how you doin'?
BILLY BOB THORNTON: Whaddaya say, Bobby?
ELIZABETH WEITZMAN: How did you two first meet?
BBT: I told my agent that I only wanted two things out of him, and then he could retire. I said, "I wanna work with Robert Duvall and Jim Jarmusch, and that's all I need."
RD: We worked together first on The Stars Fell on Henrietta, and then Billy Bob and his partner [Tom Epperson] wrote that beautiful script, A Family Thing .
BBT: Bobby came to us and said, "I'd like to play a man who finds out he's black." And we said, "Well, that's a tall order."
RD: [laughs] Yeah, I guess it was.
EW: You're from such different parts of the country yet all four of the movies you've done together are Southern. Why is that?
RD: Well, we traveled around when I was growing up, but my father's people were from Virginia. They were Southerners but pro-Union. My grandfather was named Abraham Lincoln Duvall. And actually, a lot of my mother's relatives were from Texas, and I'm related to Robert E. Lee, way back. So I have some roots, and a kind of feel for the South because of my background.
BBT: Before I met Bobby, I just assumed he was from Texas. There's very few actors who can play Southerners who aren't. I think because of his people being from there, he's got it in him. You just couldn't do it otherwise.
EW: Your roles in The Apostle and Sling Blade could so easily have been patronizing in less careful hands. Do you feel - and I'm really referring to all the Southern characters you've created, from Tomorrow [1972, starring Duvall] to Primary Colors - any responsibility to correct the stereotyped images of the rural South that are still so pervasive in the rest of the country?
BBT: I do, for sure. That's a terrible thing, to go to a movie and see a caricature. I think a lot of it is because there weren't many filmmakers from the South early on. And so you got guys from the Bronx and California makin' movies about Mississippi, butchering Southern dialect.
RD: We've always made better city movies in this country. You know, we don't glorify the Ku Klux Klan - because they shouldn't be glorified - but I don't know how much worse they are than the Mob. And we certainly take great pains to glorify them, so my point of view is, if you can make a hundred gangster movies in New York, why can't you try to make one authentic preacher film?
BBT: And I'm certainly not claiming the South's any better than anywhere else, or a better place to make a movie about, but it does have a real knack for scandal, and I think that's a wonderful thing to explore. So movies about the South shouldn't just be about how great it is. Part of the interesting thing is how screwed up it is, too.
RD: Billy Bob has said he wants to write the definitive American tragedy - the Hatfields and the McCoys - and no New York actors will be allowed in it.
BBT: That's right. Matter of fact, we're gonna have armed guards.
EW: To keep the New Yorkers out?
EW: Do you share an interest in Southern writers?
BBT: Well, I don't know as much about the contemporary ones. I mean, I'm not a real well read guy, but the people I do read, I kind of read all their stuff. Faulkner had a brother named John that not a lot of people know about. Matter of fact, Bobby, I've got to get you a couple of his books, 'cause I think you'll love them.
RD: He was a good writer too?
BBT: He was terrific. And a lot funnier than William.
RD: William you kinds gotta decode when you read, don't you?
BBT: [laughs] Yeah, it's kinda like reading physics - Southern physics.
EW: Billy Bob, it seems there's a pretty strong connection between Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird and Karl in Sling Blade. Did you have that in mind when you wrote the script?
BBT: Not consciously, but a lot of times you do something and don't realize your influences until somebody points it out to you or you sit back and look at it. And not only Boo Radley, but Bobby's character in Tomorrow.
EW: There are similarities between Karl and Sonny in The Apostle, too, in that they're both compassionate, instinctual, good men who've done bad things.
RD: Nah, there's no real kin between them.
EW: What about between the two of you? In the larger aspects, the way you're both willing to be one-man shows to make the films you want to make, and in the smaller details, like casting country musicians and nonactor natives, your working styles seem to have a lot in common. Is that actually the case?
RD: Could be. I fit into his style and he fits into mine. I try to minimize the word action because I don't like a beginning. It's just a continuation of life into the imaginary. And I think Billy's the same way.
EW: Watching both Sling Blade and The Apostle, I also noticed that each of your characters was instrumental in the redemption of the other.
BBT: Absolutely. There's not but three or four stories in the world. It's just how you treat them. I like to do simple stories and have complex characters. I start out thinking about who the people are, 'cause a story don't mean anything if you don't have interesting people. That's why when you see one of these big action movies, and you've got a bunch of nameless, faceless people fighting Sylvester Stallone or Harrison Ford, you're not scared of them. But if these same bad guys go out to the 7-Eleven, buy a burrito, and start talking about the football game, well, that makes them real people. And it makes you more afraid of them.
EW: Both your movies were very hard sells and then became surprise successes. Why do you think movies that stereotype Southerners and rural areas are so much easier to get made than Sling Blade and The Apostle?
RD: Well, people see the exploitation aspect whether they admit it or not. They make movies like The Beverly Hillbillies , or whatever corny stuff, because the obvious and caricatured is easy to do - even starting way back with Gone With the Wind . People like to watch artifice more than they do the real thing. A lot of movies are patronizing from whatever point of view, but it's so easy to do with the South because it's accepted, and it's expected. Those are the ones that make the money, it seems like - the ones that are always passing judgment.
BBT: I tell you, if you went by Hollywood's idea of Southern movies, you'd think all that happens down there is lynchings. I used to start out a show I did in a theater by saying, "OK, y'all know my name's Billy Bob, so you probably think I married my cousin and screw goats." But I also said, "Just remember this. If it weren't for us, you wouldn't have a great deal of your literature, and you wouldn't have any music. Because modern music comes from the South of the United States. Without it, all we'd have would be classical music and polkas."
RD: Maybe a little violin music from Nova Scotia.
EW: Billy Bob, can you talk a little bit about the degree to which you intended Sling Blade to be a religious film?
BBT: Well, I definitely wanted to make a comment on religion, which was mainly that it's not a bad thing at its core. I kinda get upset by people running down evangelists. If somebody believes in what they're doing, I don't know how you can knock it. There are guys who come on TV and take people's social security checks and drive home in a $100,000 car. But that's not what all Southern religion's about.
RD: And some of the Southern white religions should be just as valid in the liberals' eyes as black religion. The black church is accepted, but often in a patronizing way. A lot of blacks have the same outlook as whites about certain social issues from a religious point of view.
You know, I got more spirituality from one meeting in the church of this ninety-six-year-old black preacher near my home in Virginia than from any picture I've seen of the Dalai Lama or Mahatma Gandhi. I don't know what the Richard Geres would say about that, but this guy was a very spiritual man and the most impressive preacher I'd ever met in my life. Now, he was politically incorrect, but he would be excused because he'd been subservient to whites all his life and he'd got another set of standards. I remember one Sunday I was sitting there and he said, "Ain't no thieves going to Heaven, ain't no pimps going to Heaven, ain't no robbers going to Heaven, ain't no homos going to Heaven!" You can't say that now. But he said it. It was pretty interesting. But if a white guy said that - ooh, look out.
EW: When you make a movie that deals with religion in such an intimate way, does your personal sense of spirituality necessarily affect the movie you're making? And do you feel more spiritual or more connected to religion?
BBT: I think a little bit of both.
RD: Certainly it elevates the human experience, emotionally and culturally and spiritually, a few notches when you work in a situation like that.
EW: I know this is a very big question, but is there an overarching quality you could pinpoint that draws you both so strongly to the rural South on a visceral level?
BBT: Well, I think it's magic. It's a very supernatural place. Supposedly, the South is very close-minded. There's not a lot of emphasis placed on runway models, but I think the South is a lot more open-minded to the spiritual aspects of life. Maybe, as Bobby was saying earlier, not a lot of Southerners follow the Dalai Lama, but they're certainly open to ghosts and things like that. I think the imagination is very alive down there. You feel more of a sense of soul, or the spirit, in the South. That may sound like hogwash, but that's the way I feel.
RD: The genuine manners you see in the South, the friendliness and openness: Those are nice things. Except if you get up in the hill country - they're a little more closed.
BBT: Oh, absolutely. There's a lot of those people in the sticks that don't want you back there. I used to repossess furniture and TV sets and things like that, years and years ago, and we used to go out to a settlement outside of Malvern [Ark.] where they were all relatives; everybody out there had the same last name, which the community was actually named after. Boy, they didn't want you out there. At all.
EW: One last question: What do you think was the immediate point of association for you, the thing that initially attracted you to each other?
BBT: Well, I had the advantage of having watched Bobby for a long time.
RD: See, Billy Bob, he jumped into directing and everything far younger than I did. You know, I'm a late bloomer. But when he met me, he was all ready to write for people and write for himself, and act for himself, and direct for others, and direct for himself. I call him a triple threat: a hillbilly Orson Welles. [laughs] I think I like Sling Blade even better than the great thing Orson Welles did - what was the name of that movie about Rosebud? I think Sling Blade was pure.
BBT: Yeah, it happened very naturally, and like I said, Bobby was somebody who had been a hero of mine for a long time.
RD: Now he's become a hero for me.
BBT: What I respond to in Bobby is that he does things very real. It's all about being naturalistic and not contriving anything, not pushing it.
RD: People talk about things that are "bigger than life." There's nothing .bigger than life. Life is big and beautiful as it is. You just have to take selections from life and put it in fiction form. When you see that, it's just great.
EW: Thank you both very much.
BBT: OK, thanks a lot.
RD: Thank you, ma'am.
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