By Steven Rea
Euliss "Sonny" Dewey is a Pentecostal preacher out of Texas, a man of earthly passions and heavenly aspirations, a husband and father with a hankering for women, a gun in his glove compartment and the belief he's been called upon by God. He is the invention of Robert Duvall, performed by Robert Duvall in the richly satisfying The Apostle -- a movie written, financed, produced, and directed by, yes, Robert Duvall.
And whatever else you say about the apostle E.F., as Duvall's character comes to call himself on his tumultuous odyssey through the deep South, he's no caricature.
"I wanted to make this guy real," says Duvall, on the horn from Hollywood the other day. "I didn't want to be condescending or patronizing, the way movies about preachers usually are."
In The Apostle, which opens tomorrow at the Ritz Five and Ritz Twelve/NJ, Sonny commits a violent crime in a moment of anger and is forced to abandon everything for a new life. His journey takes him to a sleepy Louisiana town, where, armed only with the ability to fix cars and to woo people with his words, he assembles a congregation and erects the One Way Road to Heaven Church.
Duvall turned 67 last month. He has just about the same number of pictures to his credit, beginning with his haunting portrait of simpleminded Boo Radley in 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird, and including his cool study of Corleone family counsel Tom Hagen in the first two Godfathers and his Oscar-winning portrait of a troubled country singer in 1983's Tender Mercies. It was about the time that he was making Tender Mercies, in fact, that Duvall witnessed a Pentecostal service in tiny Hughes, Ark. He knew right then that he wanted to capture the elation and theatricality of it in a movie.
And it only took him 15 years to do it.
"I was going to do another film on the subject first, and I'd done a lot of research, but that fell through," reports the actor, on a break from shooting Civil Action, a courtroom drama in which he stars opposite John Travolta. "I'd done so much research I just decided I had to write my own. That was 13 years ago. I wrote it in about a month."
Duvall, who had directed a documentary (1977's We're Not the Jet Set, about a rodeo family) and a feature about Gypsies (1983's Angelo, My Love), showed his script to some directors -- Francis Ford Coppola, Ulu Grosbard, Ken Loach.
"Everyone responded to it, but they also said, 'Well, maybe you should direct it because you understand the subject matter. You understand the character.' "
Duvall set about finding a studio to finance the project. For whatever reason, nobody came forward. "Eventually it became a matter of now or never . . . and about a year and a half ago my CPA decided that maybe I was OK enough financially to swing it myself."
As Duvall is fond of saying, "my CPA green-lit the picture."
Joining Duvall in the picture is a mix of seasoned actors, country music stars and amateurs. There's a Billy Bob (as in Thornton, of Sling Blade) and a Billy Joe (as in Shaver, of "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal [ But I'm Gonna Be a Diamond Someday ] " fame). June Carter Cash -- who long ago studied at Sanford Meisner's storied Neighborhood Theater, thesping upstairs with the pros while Duvall was downstairs taking classes paid for by the G.I. Bill -- plays Sonny's mother. Rick Dial, an Arkansas furniture salesman, is a radio DJ. English actress Miranda Richardson gives an uncanny performance as a Louisiana secretary who catches Sonny's eye. And Farrah Fawcett is taut and edgy as Sonny's adulterous wife. About Fawcett, Duvall says, "I don't know whether you saw The Burning Bed. . . . This is brilliant acting she did, in the moment, as good as any of these top feature women. "She's a bit ding-y to work with," he adds with a chuckle, "but she understands this kind of woman. Yeah."
Appearing on Letterman last week, the night after Fawcett was a no-show, he and the host exchanged jokey speculations as to the actress' excuses. But it's a testament to the force of The Apostle's story that Letterman also made a rare foray into serious discourse with Duvall.
Clearly engaged by the film, he asked his guest whether The Apostle's Sonny went around building churches and reciting the Bible because "he has accepted Jesus Christ as his lord and savior, or is he doing this just because he's good at it?"
"What do you think?" Duvall responded.
"Because he's good at it," Letterman returned, with the manner of an eager student.
(Letterman also asked Duvall about showing his film at the White House the weekend after the Monica Lewinsky story broke. Duvall sat in the first row of the first family's screening room, one seat removed from the President and Mrs. Clinton as they watched The Apostle -- and, reportedly, liked it immensely.)
A few weeks ago, The Apostle landed six nominations, including best feature and actor, from the Independent Spirit Awards for indie films. Duvall's performance won him the Los Angeles Film Critics Association actor nod, and a nomination in the same category last week from the Screen Actors Guild.
In a year when studio biggies such as Titanic and L.A. Confidential are expected to dominate the Academy Awards, Duvall's little "preacher film" is considered the dark horse. Does he think about the Oscar nominations -- to be announced Tuesday in Los Angeles -- and an acting or writing bid?
"If you're human, you think about it, absolutely," he says. "I would be a liar if I said no. And if that happens, it's wonderful. I know it's a long shot . . . but I would love to see the film itself be up for some things.
"Last year all these independents were in prominence, and now the studios [ have re-emerged ] . And some of the films they're touting are pretty good, so that's OK. They have a legitimate case, obviously. But I would love it if the movie would get some recognition."
Nowadays, when he's not working -- or when he is working, putting The Apostle together on a computerized editing console -- Duvall lives on a farm in Virginia in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After three marriages, Duvall's companion is Lucianna Pedrazza, "my girlfriend from Argentina." The pair fly off to Buenos Aires often -- the actor has become a passionate tango dancer, and hopes to make a film set in the "social dancing underworld."
Don't expect that project, if it happens, to offer simple characters, or caricatures, either. Duvall has always been drawn to complicated figures, eccentrics, people working out conflicts of the heart and soul. And because of that, there has been a faction from the Pentecostal world that has not taken Duvall's portrait in The Apostle well.
"I've heard some people thought it was a little
rough," he notes, gearing up into preacher mode.
"But I always say no matter how bad my guy was, he
wasn't as devious and evil as the great psalmist
David who killed Goliath, who sent a man off to die
so he could lie with Bathsheba. That was a pretty
evil thing he did. . . . "If some of the religious
don't like it for those reasons, then I say don't
throw the first stone, because you may have some
faults of your own. It's like cowboys would rather
watch John Wayne than a real docudrama about real
cowboys. Everybody wants a romanticized version of
themselves, and maybe some of these preachers are
the same way. They want to watch a miracle play, or
something on TV like Touched by an Angel. . . .
Maybe they like that, but I'm not about to do
Philadelphia Inquirer, February 5, 1998