Robert Duvall is best known for his portrayal of stoic tough guys in films such as Apocalypse Now and The Godfather. But, as Michael Shelden discovers, he is taking his career in a new direction ? thanks to a glamorous Argentine girlfriend 40 years his junior
It's a good thing for Robert Duvall that it takes two to tango. Otherwise, he might not have discovered the love of his life. Fifteen years ago, he became obsessed with the tango after seeing it performed in New York by a visiting troupe from Argentina. Between films, he began travelling to Buenos Aires, where he took dancing lessons and haunted the tango clubs at all hours.
Then, one day, seven years ago, he was walking in the city when a beautiful young woman with long dark hair and a willowy build approached him.
"I hear you like to tango," she said. Luciana Pedraza was not a dancer herself and was relatively new to the city, having been brought up in the mountains to the north. But she wanted to meet Robert Duvall and knew about his secret passion.
A few nights after they met, he took her dancing and found her to be his perfect partner. They have been inseparable ever since. Once they had tangoed, nothing could keep them apart.
"I had been to Buenos Aires many times," he recalls now. "I love the city, and I've seen a lot of pretty women there. But she was something special. We clicked right away.''
It didn't even matter that they were born thousands of miles and many years apart. Duvall was 65 when they met; Luciana was only 24. When she told him her age, his first reaction was, "Oh my God, policia!" But to his surprise, nobody seemed to care, least of all Luciana.
"The age difference has never bothered her," he says, shaking his head, as though still amazed by his good fortune. "We go everywhere and do everything together. It's like we've always known each other.''
But for those who know Duvall only as a stoic tough guy in films such as The Godfather, his fascination for the elegant tango - and his romance with a young Argentine - may come as a big surprise. As an actor, he is brilliant at playing madly possessed vulgarians, and is most famous for his part as the rampaging, surf-loving Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, who goes into battle with loudspeakers blaring Wagner.
How can he play such a convincing madman and also do the tango? The question makes him laugh. "It's all about acting. The tango is a very expressive dance, and is great for an actor. You get into it the same way you get into a really good part. It's wonderful.''
At first glance, he looks more like Colonel Kilgore than any of his other characters. He walks with a kind of swagger typical of military men and is wearing a pair of cowboy boots made from the skins of wild pigs. "Very soft," he says of them, as we sit at an outdoor cafe in Beverly Hills.
But just as you begin to suspect that he will abruptly launch into an impassioned tribute to napalm, he starts discussing instead the short fiction of Chekhov and Borges. He is, in fact, a man of so many interests that his curiosity seems boundless. Mention some obscure fact in his presence, and he will leap on it - quizzing you until he's discovered whether he wants to know more.
Even now, at 72, he has a boyish charm, and it isn't difficult to see why his age doesn't matter to Luciana. Slender and energetic, he certainly looks much younger than his years. His skin is attractively freckled, his smile is infectious and his blue eyes are alert and bright.
Speaking in rapid bursts, he fixes you with those penetrating eyes and leans forward, punctuating his comments with a finger -stabbing the air. He is intense, but not intimidating.
"I like outdoor cafes," he says, with sudden enthusiasm. "I'm fascinated by the coffee shop mentality. People staying awake at odd hours, discussing their lives. That's one of the things that I like about Buenos Aires. You can leave the tango clubs and find a crowd at 3am, drinking coffee and staying up until dawn.''
He is rhapsodic on the subject of Buenos Aires, praising its public gardens, its casual elegance and, of course, its women. It's as though the whole city became for him a kind of fountain of youth, reinvigorating a career that was already spectacularly successful.
Since he met Luciana, he has added at least a dozen more films to his long list of credits, which go all the way back to such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird - with Gregory Peck - and M*A*S*H, The Natural and Tender Mercies (for which he earnt an Academy Award).
His latest films are Secondhand Lions, a coming-of-age comedy co-starring Haley Joel Osment and Michael Caine, and Open Range, a cowboy epic with Kevin Costner.
"I broke a few ribs when I made that film with Kevin," he says with a wince, grabbing his side. "I fell off a horse. But I'm fine now. And I loved making that movie because I think Westerns are great. The Brits have Shakespeare, the French have Moliere and the Americans have the Western. It's our national art form.''
As befits a cowboy with a taste for Borges, Duvall divides his time between a large farm in Virginia and his beloved Buenos Aires. He and Luciana have a house in the foothills of the Andes, but prefer to stay in hotels in the city when they go back to Argentina. He wonders out loud whether it's time they went to the altar. She has never been married, but he has had three wives and endured three difficult divorces. So why tie the knot again at 72?
His eyebrow shoots up, and he scratches his jaw, thoughtfully. "Or why not get married? Maybe we should. I've been thinking about it.''
There's nothing stopping him. It's not about money. He has made enough of it to support any number of wives and ex-wives. And he has no children to worry about. ("I would have had them if I could," he says, ruefully.)
In any event, he seems genuinely confused by the subject, as does Luciana's family. They have warmed to him, but when he met her father - who is Duvall's junior by many years - the man looked at him and said: "I don't know whether to call you son or father.''
The fact is that he is restless by nature and needs diversion. The son of an American admiral, he was on the move constantly as a young man. His father's career took the family to various ports, and young Duvall grew up rootless.
His life was heading nowhere in particular when his parents talked him into giving the theatre a try. At the little college he attended in Illinois, he had shown some talent for acting, but wasn't ready to make a career of it until his parents gave him a push. The next thing he knew, he was in New York, struggling to win bit parts in small productions. Among his friends were two other actors who, like him, were enormously talented but lacked the conventional looks to get the lead in a Broadway play.
"Gene Hackman and I were close, and one day he told me about a good friend of his called Dusty Hoffman. We all got together from time to time and had a lot of laughs. We all started as character actors, and I still like to think that's what I am.
"All three of us have had long careers because we play characters instead of just trying to be stars. I like the stage, but I do prefer being in movies because you can get it right and move on. I don't want to do the same part eight times a week when I can do it once on film and try something else. As far as I'm concerned, the only difference between the theatre and the cinema is that an actor has to speak up a little more on stage.''
He inhabits his parts so completely that fans assume he must be as mad as Kilgore and as calculating as Tom Hagen in The Godfather.
"I can't be all those people I've played," he says, laughing. "But the fans do identify with these characters. I don't know how many people have come up to me over the years and repeated to me, as though speaking a secret, 'I love the smell of napalm in the morning.' They act like only the two of us know that line. But what's funny is that they often mangle it, substituting gasoline for napalm, or whatever comes into their minds.''
And how does he react?
"Usually, I just smile. I don't mind - except when they come up and say things like, 'Mr Hackman, I've always enjoyed your work'.''
To stay one step ahead of his old buddy, he works relentlessly to improve his talent. He began making a deliberate effort long ago to collect eccentric friends and acquaintances whose real-life characters he could observe and study.
"I like real people, not the make-believe stereotypes that Hollywood often gives you. The studios are happy to accept the caricature instead of the real thing, because it's easier to sell. You can finance and market caricatures a lot easier than complex human beings.''
To make movies that interest him, he has often had to finance the projects on his own and he wrote and directed one of the best independent films of recent years, The Apostle, which came out in 1997 and stars Duvall as a preacher trying to save his own tortured soul.
Having collected a whole host of oddball characters on his midnight wanderings in Buenos Aires, he was inevitably drawn to the city as the setting for another independent production. A true labour of love, the recently completed Assassination Tango features Duvall as an American killer sent to do a contract hit in Argentina. But the thriller aspect of the story is soon overshadowed by the world of the tango clubs, an often seedy environment that so fascinates the assassin that it diverts him from his mission and draws out his humanity.
Not surprisingly, the assassin falls in love with a young tango dancer played by - you guessed it - Luciana Padraza. In a scene that sounds a lot like real life, Duvall's character asks hers: "If I were younger, would I have a chance with you?" She replies: "You have a chance now. Welcome to Argentina.''
As he describes the film, Duvall glows, as though recalling a pleasant dream. He won't say it, but he seems especially proud of his dancing in the film. When I press him to evaluate his own performance, he blushes and turns uncharacteristically shy.
"On a good day," he finally admits, "I can dance a pretty good club tango. I'm not bad."