An interview with Robert Duvall, author, director and star of The Apostle

PAT: Well, our next artist, I should say guest artist, is an Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe award winner who is best known for his dramatic roles in films like The Godfather, Apocolypse Now, and, of course, the series, Lonesome Dove. Now, he's got a smash. It's number 9, I think, in America. He produced it, he wrote it, he directed it, he starred in it and it's got him another Academy Award nomination. Here's a brief clip from this movie in the theaters right now, called The Apostle.

PAT: Extraordinary movie. Will you please welcome to The 700 Club, Mr. Robert Duvall. Good to have you with us. You have some fans here. The Duvall fan club came with you. Before we talk about the movie, we are here in Virginia and I want to clarify one thing. I saw one report that you had a farm in Virginia with 200 acres and one report was 350 acres. I want to clarify. Is it 350 or 200?

ROBERT: 360.

PAT: Neither one of them was right.

ROBERT: I got a beautiful place on a foreclosure. It's up near the plains, Virginia. In Middleburg. It belonged to Jack Kent Cook's son. Jim Wiley helped me get it. It's a beautiful place and I love it. My dad had been from Virginia.

PAT: I thought you had some roots back here.

ROBERT: Norfolk, Virginia. Naval Academy grad.

PAT: He was an admiral.

ROBERT: Yes he was. They were Southerners, but they were pro-union. There is a lot of that. They named my grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Duvall.

PAT: He was very popular.

ROBERT: My dad was a native Virginian. Always.

PAT: Let me ask you about this movie. It is really a powerful piece. Who did you have as a model? It's like you modeled after somebody or was it a composite?

ROBERT: It was a composite. I spent many years all over the United States. I remember going to six churches in one morning in Harlem. One after the other. For months, I'd be in Texas doing research and I just went from place to place. They were very fascinating men, you know. At the essence in the rank and file, they are wonderful people. You hear the bad side from movies and the press. When you get out in the rank and file, they're wonderful people.

PAT: This movie wasn't a put-down, but you certainly didn't gloss anything over. I mean, it was totally inter-racial. Your guy got his training in black churches.

ROBERT: Well, you know, I used to hang around with, you remember, old J. Charles Jessup. I wanted to show a person right from the beginning that it was genuine and sincere in his calling even though he erred. It is so easy to find movies, kind of a perpetual thing in Hollywood, to reeducate the public that there's always an indictment on this segment of America.

PAT: Anybody that has a Bible is automatically the crook. It's a stock character whether it s a western or whatever. You believed in this so much you put up your own money. You put $5 million on the line for this show.

ROBERT: Yeah, I did. I couldn't get a nickel out of Hollywood. I couldn't get a nickel out of New York City, or Chicago, or Texas. Got a lot of hot air in Texas. I love that state.

PAT: I won't comment on that.

ROBERT: I love Texas, but it sort of had to be. I'm very grateful that October Films picked up my money back and change. They're doing a wonderful job.

PAT: You've got a nomination now for an Oscar with it. It was a great performance. There was some great theological interplay in that man's character. Did you think of all the theology you were putting into it, or were you just showing something that appeared to you?

ROBERT: Well, yeah through the years, I studied the Bible to make sure I was based on a spiritual reality. I addressed certain things in my own way. That first scene, I had in the middle in the first go around. When I rewrote it, I put it up front because I wanted to show that the guy had a calling and was a good guy. It wasn't one of these things that's got this big redemptive thing. I knew a woman who's mother was a preacher and she'd get these premonitions in truck stops and go right into action as she preached the stoppage of blood from Ezekiel. I got that, all these stories I didn't make them up. The bulldozer scene. Paul Baggett down in Tennessee, a man had tried to bulldoze his tent one time so he put his Bible right in front and said, "Go ahead brother, I don't want to be where you're sitting if you go over that Bible." Then old J. Charles Jessup, he said when these cowboys tried to break up his camp meetings in Fort Worth, he said, "I would just tap them and they would carry them out." He said some people would leave and some would stay. There's a lot of colorful people.

PAT: Black and white. Like tag-team preacher team.

ROBERT: Oh yes, Holiness churches there's always been a mix.

PAT: That's the amazing thing. We talked about segregation in the south, but there was tremendous integration in that phase in society. The thing that struck me, you look at this character and you wrote him and conceived of him, but he had a character like David. The guy wanted to fight, he was lusty in his life and yet he wasn't . . .

ROBERT: He wasn't as bad as David. David sent a man to die so he could lie in bed with his wife. My guy would never do that. Ever. Never.

PAT: Just hit him with a baseball bat.

ROBERT: That was out of passion. It wasn't predetermined. So therefore when we think of things romantically in the past it is easier to accept that than somebody who is a redneck guy in front of us.

PAT: The thing is the man, he really loves God, he really is straight, he loves people, he's a man of the people. He's very humble but at the same time, we'll use this term, carnal nature. That carnality had never been given over to God. Did you go into all that? It's very profound.

ROBERT: Well one of the great preachers of Texas told me that he has to fight that sensuality that goes back and forth between the women of the congregation and himself. He has to subdue that. James Robison. He's a great preacher.

PAT: James had a tremendous deliverance. He was literally set free from those things.

ROBERT: He's a wonderful preacher.

PAT: Oh he's a terrific guy. Did you use him as one of your examples?

ROBERT: No, it was some of his scriptures I used. That thing with the nails (would) you put your son (through that)? There was a scene that was cut down where my character prayed for his own death. I had seen James do that. So I picked things and tried to use life as a guide rather than fictionalizing and make it up like it had been done in films in the past.

PAT: I tell you, it's so funny. I can't get it out of my mind.

ROBERT: I tried to turn the whole process around and let it come from the people. That's why I took people out of the churches and made them actors. When they were right, that set the professional actor on notice, to be pure. Like the one-legged man. The bayou man. He doesn't even go to movies. He's a wonderful man. He's a preacher from Dallas, Reverend Cole.

PAT: He's a real man.

ROBERT: Absolutely. Never acted before. I told him just play this scene the way we practice our lines in the hotel.

PAT: He was so natural. The whole thing was so natural.

ROBERT: Course I rolled 20,000 feet of film at first to get him to be natural. Tricks are legitimate in the filmmaking. Once you get it, it's pure. So however you get it is fine.

PAT: When it was all over, the poor character gets the shaft. But I guess you pay for your sins, but it was very tragic. Or was it, the conclusion?

ROBERT: If you do a secular crime, you go to jail. While you're in jail, you can glorify God. In that final chain gang scene, Ray Lameer, the sheriff down in Vermillion parish, we do that. He said, "In work detail, if we need some carpenters, we'll go out and arrest them. If we need more plumbers, we'll go out and arrest them. We make up our work detail." So I use real sheriffs in the work gang in the end.

PAT: In your own life, this thing must have had a profound effect on you. You can't do a movie like that without it affecting you personally.

ROBERT: Whatever I have to bring to the table spiritually I can't judge. We're going to be judged one day. All I can say is that I believe in one God and Jesus Christ. I do believe that. Maybe not the way everybody does, but I have my own way. It's a private thing and I believe in that special uniqueness.

PAT: It came through on this one. Is there a message to it?

ROBERT: I don't do something for a message, but one of the messages might be that there is a valid thing out there in the United States. There is an authenticity to spirituality at the core of these people. It's not to be patronized and taken lightly.

PAT: It's a tremendous movie. I do commend people to see it. You may not think it's the prettiest in the world and this man isn't the one you want as you're pastor.

ROBERT: I've found worse. So he's okay.

PAT: All I can say is congratulations. It was brilliant work. You just keep going on. You don't want to stop. What's the next stop?

ROBERT: I just finished a nice movie with John Travolta. I'm developing a thing I've always wanted to play, an over-the-hill-soccer-player coach from Scotland. I've got a guy who came back with all this information.

PAT: You'll have an accent like Mel Gibson?

ROBERT: More. Thicker, thicker. It's an interesting profession. You try to show the humanity of the people first. And whatever is second.

PAT: You did such a great job on Tender Mercies. Did you write any of The Apostle?

ROBERT: It was all my writing. I did terrible in school in writing. I wrote it out in longhand. It took me five weeks. I couldn't find anybody to write it so I did it myself. The more I got into it, the more I said these people have to be represented other than has been done in the past.

PAT: It was brilliant. The tension in between it was so subtle.

ROBERT: One other thing. During the tent scene there were seven conversions.

PAT: Are you serious?

ROBERT: On the way back, one of the teamsters started having an experience and all the preachers just jumped on him and saved him right there. It was great. I'm serious. Paul Baggett will tell you that.

PAT: That's great. By the way, we had some students from Regent University working on the film with you. Some of our graduates.

ROBERT: Yes, from the sound department. Wonderful people.

PAT: I commend it to you ladies and gentlemen. It will be a very moving experience. It's one of these extraordinary movies that comes down the pike only every so often. And this was a good one.

CBN, 1998