When critics describe Robert Duvall's performance in "The Apostle" as one of the greatest in that actor's long, distinguished and amazingly varied career, you know that you are about to witness something quite extraordinary. Duvall, after all, was Tom Hagen, the consiglieri who oiled "The Godfather's" moral ambiguity; Duvall was Bull Meacham, the impossible father whose expectations no one could live up to in "The Great Santini"; Duvall was Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, riding the bombs with Wagnerian flair in "Apocalypse Now"; he was Boo Radley in "To Kill A Mockingbird", Gus McRae in "Lonesome Dove" and Mac Sledge in "Tender Mercies" - for which he won the 1983 Academy Award as Best Actor.
Duvall, in other words, has given many brilliant performances.
But as the philandering Pentecostal preacher Sonny Dewey who goes underground when he snaps in a moment of violence, Duvall may have given the performance that will define him in audiences' memories for years to come.
"The Apostle" was a labor of love for Duvall who spent thirteen years of his life and five million dollars of his own money nurturing the film - which he also wrote, produced and directed - from its first inception to its screen debut. The film costars Farrah Fawcett, Miranda Richardson, and Billy Bob Thornton. Duvall's other directorial efforts include "We're Not the Jet Set", a portrait of a Nebraska rodeo family and "Angelo, My Love" about New York's mysterious Gypsy community. In 1992, Duvall formed Butchers Run Films so he could become more actively involved in all elements of film development and production. The company's first co-production, "A Family Thing", which was written by Billy Bob Thornton and teamed Duvall with James Earl Jones, earned a Humanitas Award.
For his acting work in "The Apostle" Duvall has been honored for the third time with a nomination for Best Actor by the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences. PEOPLE Online talked to Mr. Duvall on March 19, 1998. Here's what he had to say..
PEOPLE Online: Good evening all! I'm Patrizia DiLucchio, this is PEOPLE Online on Yahoo!Chat - and tonight's guest is actor Robert Duvall who wrote, directed, starred in and produced the film "The Apostle," for which he has been honored with a Best Actor nomination this year from the Motion Picture Academy. Mr. Duvall -- what inspired you to keep trying to make this film against all odds, even pouring your own savings into getting it made?
Robert Duvall: I just figured the more I was refused, the more it spurred me on. It was something I had to do. It was a must. I hadn't seen a film like this done before. I wanted to try to put this subject in fiction form.
Skeptic998 asks: In the opening scene of the movie, Sonny stops at an accident scene to pray over a critically injured couple, and it appears that they are emotionally if not physically better for it?
Robert Duvall: Right. He does that. The inference is that maybe they're resurrected at that moment. They're helped, healed, uplifted. That's why I put that scene up front. I knew a friend's mother who used to go to accidents and pray for the victims.
Studmuffin79 asks: What is your biggest fear as an actor?
Robert Duvall: Perhaps that I won't be truthful in any given situation. I've always tried to keep that sense of truth, of life behavior within movie time.
AkivaG asks: What was your inspiration for "The Apostle"?
Robert Duvall: I remember attending a small church in Arkansas and I saw a preacher preaching and I had never seen anything like that. I was fascinated. Since then it's been a continuing thing. I've researched the subject. It's ongoing, up to and during the time of filming.
Mr_chatmeister asks: Mr. Duvall, thanks so much for joining us this evening. Do you have any spiritual practices or philosophy that you use in your work or your life?
Robert Duvall: I just have my own way of believing and praying and contemplating. It's personal and private. I believe in one God and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Kind of a quiet personal approach to things.
CitizenC asks: Mr. Duvall, what is the most challenging role you have ever played as an actor?
Robert Duvall: Stalin.
Goatwax asks: Were you surprised by your Oscar nomination?
Robert Duvall: Not really. I feel that the movie is as good as anything I've done. It was a pleasant surprise, but not unexpected. The movie didn't write itself or direct itself. I'm sorry the movie wasn't recognized in a fuller way. I always see a movie in its totality and not in terms of my performance.
Goatwax asks: How big of a risk is it to write your own movie?
Robert Duvall: The risk is the financing. To act, direct and write. Each capacity is a risk. They're all intertwined. It's all part of a wonderful challenge. When Horton Foote, the Texas playwright, supports what I do that's good enough for me.
Aelgifa_Galadriel asks: How difficult was it to keep yourself interested during the production of such a long project such as "The Apostle"?
Robert Duvall: It wasn't difficult at all to keep up my interest. It had to be done, it was a natural execution.
CC1982 asks: Have you been swarmed with designers trying to sell you their suits for the Oscars?
PEOPLE Online: Or loan them...
Robert Duvall: No. Just a few. My girlfriend has had people approach her about her gown, but I went with Hugo Boss who sent me over a beautiful tuxedo. It will suffice.
Mr_chatmeister asks: In one of the interviews I read with you about "The Apostle," you mentioned that a teamster watching the filming of a revival scene had a personal revelation. Have you ever had a personal experience that transformed your life or perspective in any way?
Robert Duvall: Not quite like that. It's been a continuing thing. I think the experience of being reborn is a very personal experience. To standardize it is very difficult. Religion attempts to standardize it. But I find no place in the Bible where it's standardized. Being reborn on a daily basis throughout my life is the thing. No one has the definitive answer. Interpretation is very personal. I've had special revelations in my life, but they're very individual, not related to any denomination. I don't think anyone has the definitive answer. Man cannot judge what is eternal.
Dsj_syndicate asks: Mr. Duvall, how would you interpret your role in "Apocalypse Now" compared to the novella Heart of Darkness?
Robert Duvall: I didn't read the Heart of Darkness. "Apocalypse" was written by one guy and then Francis changed it. And then we messed with it, so I can't really give a specific answer to that.
Eenie2 asks: How was Farrah Fawcett chosen to play your wife, and was the character intended to be younger than you?
Robert Duvall: Yeah. I chose her because she's a wonderful actress. And why not be younger than me? I won't even go into specifics about how much younger my girlfriend is than me. These aren't unusual occurrences when folks have younger spouses.
Bradcayea asks: How does it feel being nominated for an academy award?
Robert Duvall: It feels very good. It's such a spectacle that it's hard to explain what it really might mean. Whatever it really means, it's a good feeling, a certain recognition. To be nominated is great...to win is even better. This is such a competitive business. The arts are just as intensely competitive as any other business.
BluAngel69 asks: Hey Mr. Duvall! How's yer tango coming along?
Robert Duvall: That's what I went over to Tucson for. My girlfriend is from Argentina. I've written a script about the tango I want to direct and act in. The older you get, tango becomes more of an emotional thing than a physical thing. It becomes more and more meaningful.
Acting4567 asks: What parts of yourself did you use to create this complicated man of faith?
Robert Duvall: Many sides of myself. Whatever it took to parallel the situation I tried to find in myself. It's always you beneath the character. You just have one heart, one psyche, one soul. Whatever it needed to be I had to grab.
Teach2er asks: We loved you in "Lonesome Dove." Any plans for another miniseries?
Robert Duvall: No plans now. I don't do a lot of TV. I did Eichmann for Turner, but I won't do another thing like "Lonesome Dove" for a hundred years. If the right miniseries came along, something on that level, I would be interested. For the most part, though, I'd rather do motion pictures.
Gritslady asks: What kind of relationship did you acquire with Tommy Lee Jones in "Lonesome Dove"? You seemed to have a very special rapport with each other.
Robert Duvall: We were friends, without socializing that much. We hooked in together vibe-wise. It was very pleasant and profitable to work with Tommy. Very enjoyable and productive. Nothing we had to work at. Everything fell into place.
DRAMATICIRONY asks: Did you enjoy working on the "Godfather" movies?
Robert Duvall: Yes I did, very much. Coppola's "The Godfather" and "Godfather II"... it doesn't get any better than that. Especially Godfather I, with James Caan, Marlon Brando.
Gibley5 asks: Robert, what your fondest memory of working with John Wayne in "True Grit"?
Robert Duvall: When I got in this yelling match with the director in the San Juan Mountains. Wayne got a kick out of it. That was my fondest memory.
Eikciv97 asks: Was your role as Boo Radley in "To Kill A Mockingbird" your first role ever? My students always ask me that when I show the film.
Robert Duvall: Boo Radley was my first motion picture character. I'd done a lot of TV and stage work before that. Horton Foote and his wife were instrumental in getting me that. We had a 35th anniversary at Paramount a while back.
PEOPLE Online: What was it like seeing Jem and Scout all grown up?
Robert Duvall: It was interesting. They don't look the same. Jem looks very different. I saw them at a special evening for Gregory Peck a few months ago. There is a certain resemblance still there.
Spidey_Yo asks: What role did you have to put the most research into in order to make the character believable not only to yourself but also to the audience?
Robert Duvall: I try to put as much research into all of them as I can. The most? I think "The Apostle." The research process was ongoing for many years. It was on the back burner for a while, but it was always there. That was probably the most intense. Maybe also the Cuban barber in "Wrestling Ernest Hemingway." I put a lot of work into that.
Goatwax asks: Does this movie portray any of your personal feelings or experiences?
Robert Duvall: Definitely. It's an extension of my feelings. Anything I try to do as an actor, writer or director draws a lot from myself. There's always a melding process between personality and the other facets of production.
MIrish13 asks: What was the best practical joke played on you on the set and what was the best one you played on someone else?
Robert Duvall: The mooning process on "Godfather I." We mooned each other from car to car, with Brando and with Donald Sutherland. Donald, as an aftermath, waterskied by me at a beach in Florida and mooned me.
Avidmoviegoer asks: Is the success of this film an answer to your prayers? Have you ever had an answer to your prayers?
Robert Duvall: I didn't pray that it'd win an Oscar. It's a fulfillment, a sort of answer to a prayer. I just got some awards from a Christian organization, Dr. Ted Baer who's a spokesman for the Christian community, bridging the gap between Hollywood and the religious community, presented it. Answers to prayers are an ongoing thing. I think the film will have a long life. Badger80 asks: How does a major celebrity maintain his or her private life without alienating the media and risking one's career?
Robert Duvall: You wouldn't risk your career by alienating anybody, unless maybe you shoot someone in Hollywood. When you go into your own private world, people honor that. When you go to work you go to work. There's a time for everything.
Preacher8765 asks: You have said that you have always been attracted to and fascinated by these charismatic preachers. What in particular fascinates and attracts you to them and this subject matter?
Robert Duvall: One of the true American art forms is the American preacher. It's always fascinating to me to see who's sincere and who's not. When you separate the chaff from the wheat, there's definitely some wheat. It hasn't been really treated well in the movies. These men have never been really given their due. I wanted to do it right, to give a legitimacy to it.
Fanducci asks: Mr. Duvall, now that you've created something as personal and passionate as the possible, what can you do for a follow-up?
Robert Duvall: I'm always looking for things. This is really the highlight of my career. There are certain projects I want to do. Now I want to produce, direct, write and act instead being just a hired hand. There are a few potential ones we're working on now.
PEOPLE Online: Can you tell us about them? Or would talking about it jinx it?
Robert Duvall: I finished "Civil Action" with John Travolta. There's one on soccer we're developing in Scotland. I play a Scottish coach. There're others....the one on the tango. Not too much I can speak about concretely, both as a hired hand and my own projects.
A_l_v asks: I'm wondering how you "release" yourself from a film after it's done. E.g. "Apostle" must have taken so much emotional energy out of you. Do you live with that character long after it is done or are you able to detach yourself from it/him soon after?
Robert Duvall: It's all play acting. The good part stays with you. There are many stages. When something goes well, you can leave it behind for the evening. I've been a professional actor for a long time. When they say "action" you can get right back into the mood. It's in and out. That's better, because you're more in touch with yourself. The more relaxed you are the better your acting.
Gittarman asks: Mr. Duvall, I personally feel that you deserve the Oscar for all the work you put in "The Apostle," but my question is how do you feel about the nomination?
Robert Duvall: I feel good about the nomination. If I win anything, I want it on the merit of my own acting.
_Bridget asks: What part have you wanted to portray, but have been unable so far?
Robert Duvall: The big one was "The Apostle." The tango project. There are many things I want to play still, but I don't know what they are until they present themselves to me.
Eurythmic_gal asks: I had a little problem with the scene in "The Apostle" when Sonny hit the guy in the playground. If Sonny was fervent about his religion don't you think he would not take a violent approach to that situation?
Robert Duvall: Well, once again, we're humans. King David in the Bible was a great sinner. He sent a man off to die so he could lie with Bersheeba. This was in the heat of battle. If that's objectionable in the movie, well, that's how things sometimes happen. It's not like Christians are perfect. My guy had to go to prison to pay for the secular crime, but he was saved in the end. You have to create a dramatic situation. Reality is better than fiction. These are all things that have happened to preachers I've known.
Hurricane68 asks: Of all the directors you've worked with, which would you say influences you most when you direct?
Robert Duvall: That's hard to say. I take a little from each: Coppola, Altman. Kenneth Loach. Nikita Makaokoff from Russia. There are many directors I have tremendous respect for. They've been my guides, my models for how I like to approach things as a director. I've worked with some and watched many. And there are some I don't want to be like.
Skeptic998 asks: Did you do anything emotionally and spiritually to prepare yourself for your role as not only the writer and actor but also as the director of the film?
Robert Duvall: I did many things. Constantly read the Bible. It was a quiet process through the years just getting myself ready. Visiting churches, visiting preachers, thinking about Christianity, constantly looking for ways to bring what I had to the table morally and emotionally. Constantly analyzing without making a big fuss about it.
Artistry asks: It seems to me that you don't go in much for external characterizations ... yet, as Dr. Watson in "Seven Percent Solution" (one of my faves), you did the accent, the physicalization, the whole schmeer ... why did you choose to do so? And what drew you to the role?
Robert Duvall: I thought it was an interesting project, to go to England and throw myself to the wolves. I do characterizations with accents, I did Eichmann, and the Cuban barber. I've definitely played these kinds of roles. But you most always make sure it's coming from you. I see people do it where it's not coming from them, and that's the pitfall.
JAKE_SKY asks: Is it true that a New York drama coach told you you would never succeed in the "business"?
Robert Duvall: I've never been told that. I've gotten bad reviews by provincial rags on the Eastern seaboard. I find more insightful reviews of "The Apostle" in the heartland than in NY and LA. I never really studied with that many people.
PEOPLE Online: Our final question for the evening:
SpiceyGurly asks: What is some good advice that you want to give to kids that want to follow in your footsteps?
Robert Duvall: If they want to be serious actors, on a professional level, I recommend going to NY, LA or possibly Chicago, or some other large metropolitan area where they have legitimate theater. Learn your craft. Do stage work. If you're going to put it on the line you have to go to a large city.
PEOPLE Online: Mr. Duvall, thanks so much for joining us online this evening. I know who I'm rooting for on Oscar night.
Robert Duvall: Thanks. Nice to be with everyone.
PEOPLE Online: Thanks to everyone in the audience who joined us. Great questions. This is Patrizia DiLucchio for PEOPLE Online on Yahoo!Chat -- goodnight all!