Sunday, April 5, 1998

Toughing it out

Robert Duvall fought to make The Apostle

By LOUIS B. HOBSON -- Calgary Sun

  HOLLYWOOD -- For The Apostle, Robert Duvall put his blood, sweat, tears and cold hard cash on the line.
 
 The Apostle is the story of Euliss Dewey, a Pentecostal minister from Texas whose prowess in the pulpit is matched only by his turbulent private life.
 
 In a moment of rage, Dewey attacks his wife's lover and must flee from the police.
 
 Dewey tries to destroy his past, repent his sins and rebuild his life.
 
 In order to get The Apostle made, Duvall invested $5 million US of his own money.
 
 He'd shopped the project around to most of the major and independent Hollywood studios for years, but nobody was interested.
 
 "They basically said that movies about these fundamentalist preachers simply didn't work. There wasn't an audience for them," recalls Duvall.
 
 This wasn't what Duvall wanted to hear. He'd been working on the idea and the character for more than two decades.
 
 "I was obsessed with the character. I knew I could make it work."
 
 At first, Duvall tried to find a writer who would convert his ideas into a screenplay.
 
 He couldn't find any takers, so 14 years ago, he sat down and wrote the screenplay himself.
 
 "I was never a good writer, but because I had lived with this character for so long, the movie basically wrote itself. I actually wrote it in long hand in about six weeks."
 
 Duvall showed his finished script to award-winning American writer Horton Foote. "He gave me a few minor suggestions, but said it worked. It's basically remained the same all these years."
 
 Three years ago, Duvall's accountant told him he had the financial resources to fund the movie himself, so he went in search of a director.
 
 He talked to Francis Ford Coppola, Ulu Grosbard and Richard Pearce, who had directed him in the past.
 
 "They each told me I was too passionate about the material to let it go and that I should direct it myself. They assured me it was common sense, not hubris."
 
 So Duvall became all things to The Apostle.
 
 "I gave myself the right to yell at myself. For the most part, I didn't have to, though there were a couple of days when I was in a bad mood and that was pretty harrowing for me and everybody else on set."
 
 With the exception of Farrah Fawcett, June Carter Cash and Miranda Richardson, who play the women in Dewey's life -- and Billy Bob Thornton, who has a cameo late in the movie -- most of the cast are non-professionals.
 
 "They didn't start out as actors, but we sure turned them into actors before we were done," says Duvall.
 
 One of the most astonishing performances of the non-professionals comes from Walter Goggins, who plays the young mechanic who becomes Dewey's most dedicated follower.
 
 "Walter had been saved as a teenager, so he understood the emotions," says Duvall.
 
 "When I save him in the movie, it was as if he was reliving that original experience.
 
 "Everyone on the set was riveted to him, including me. Thank heavens the cameras caught the moment. I don't think we'd have got such honest intensity a second time."
 
 Duvall, 67, is the son of a Methodist father and a Christian Scientist mother.
 
 "Because my parents were so religious, I attended church regularly. I've always been a believer."
 
 It was Duvall's parents who encouraged him to pursue acting.
 
 "We were a military family. We'd all band together and put on little entertainments for our guests.
 
 "My mother had been an amateur actress and there was lots of musicians on my father's side of the family. I inherited my mother's histrionics and my brother was a good singer."
 
 During the Korean War, Duvall served in the American Army. After his tour of duty, he enrolled in New York's Neighborhood Playhouse acting school.
 
 Duvall shared a small apartment with fellow aspiring actors Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman.
 
 He made his screen debut playing Boo Radley, the mysterious stranger who befriends and protects three children in To Kill A Mockingbird.
 
 It was playwright Horton Foote, who had observed Duvall in acting classes, who recommended him for the role. Foote had written the screenplay for To Kill A Mockingbird. More recently, Duvall has completed a role opposite John Travolta in the drama A Civil Action and will play a Scottish soccer coach in a small film being shot in Scotland this summer.
 
 Then there is his new obsession: A film about the tango. "I don't feel a day is complete if I don't dance. Fortunately, my girlfriend is from Argentina and is as much in love with the tango as I am.
 
 "I have a film mulling about in my head now. I'm just about ready to commit it to paper."