Features - Scotsman on Sunday

Sun 14 Mar 2004

Mane attraction: Despite being injured when a horse 'bucked him big-time', Duvall got straight back in the saddle to star alongside Kevin Costner and Diego Luna in Open Range.


All quiet on the western front

When people talk to Robert Duvall, they like to remind him that they, too, love the smell of napalm in the morning. Lawyers identify with his efficient consigliere in The Godfather. And Scottish football fans may reflect on his efforts to bring authenticity to a film about the beautiful game by employing footballers as actors and staging a punch-up on the pitch.

Duvall has been in the saddle for more than 40 years, but his wild ride seems far from over. A horseman born and bred, he nevertheless got "bucked off big-time" two months before playing an 1880s trail boss in the forthcoming western Open Range, directed by Kevin Costner. He broke six ribs, convalesced gamely, then did his own riding scenes. "If it had happened a month later I wouldn¡¯t have had time to heal."

He admits that the accident left him "a touch nervous" about getting back on a horse, but there was no keeping him out of the stirrups for long, especially as he has a fondness for westerns. His own favourite role was as the deceptively laid-back Gus McCrae in the television mini-series Lonesome Dove. "The western is our genre," he says. "The English have Shakespeare, the French Moliere, the Russians Chekhov. We Americans have the western."

Open Range is a very Kevin Costner vision of the west, a masculine landscape where men speak low, slow and infrequently. When they do open up, they are revealed as prairie philosophers, decent men with deep convictions. Set against an epic backdrop of big-sky country, the film has all those classic themes of loyalty, freedom, love and revenge, with a balletic 15-minute gun-battle climax against the main villain, played by Sir Michael Gambon. Before a take, says Duvall, Gambon would defuse the tension by imitating Duvall¡¯s bow-legged gait, reducing both the actor knight and the Hollywood prince to uncontrollable laughter.

These good-humoured high-jinks sound at odds with Duvall¡¯s reputation for intensity. But he is full of contradictions. There are few actors who have left such an indelible mark on film as him. His share of roles in classics include Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, Kilgore in Apocalypse Now and the tough-love father in The Great Santini. He has played everyone from Joseph Stalin to Dwight Eisenhower, Adolf Eichmann to his own ancestor Robert E Lee. Yet these days he seems to care more about his off-screen obsessions (a quirky assortment that includes tango, football and horses) than conventional success.

A lean, balding man with pale green eyes and a quick, crinkly smile, he is strikingly ordinary in appearance, but flashes of his screen characters surface constantly as he talks. It¡¯s a one-man, non-stop film festival ranging from cowboys to cops, criminals and a bunch of small-town folks and workaday guys. Nominated for an Academy Award five times, he won Best Actor only once, for his born-again country singer in Tender Mercies 20 years ago. Again, contrarily, it¡¯s one of his less memorable films.

Paradox feeds Duvall¡¯s work. The children in Mockingbird believe Boo is a sinister monster, when he is actually a gentle giant who will eventually save them. "You have to find the contradictions," he says of acting. "I think people are like that in life."

Much of his inspiration for nuance and gesture is drawn from people he encounters in life. For Open Range he recalled the cowboys who worked on his uncle¡¯s farm in Montana. "You meet these guys and you file them away. It¡¯s nice to hang around them because you learn about people, and that can only help your acting."

As well as watching real people, Duvall is also an observer of other actors¡¯ skills and doesn¡¯t hold back the praise when he comes across a performance of merit. Around the time My Name Is Joe was released, Peter Mullan was touched when he received a fan letter praising his accomplishment, then astonished when he registered that it had been sent by Robert Duvall.

"Oh, yeah, he was terrific," yelps Duvall when I remind him of this. "He did a wonderful job in My Name Is Joe, absolutely." So does he make a habit of sending fan mail to other actors? "No, no," he says firmly, and then immediately counters this. "Well, I¡¯ll drop a note. Or if I know a friend of theirs, I¡¯ll say, ¡®Tell so-and-so that I saw them in a movie and I thought they were terrific.¡¯

"I saw this western that was made recently, called Wild Bill, and Jeff Bridges was just terrific in it. Now Jeff Bridges is from the beaches of LA, and to me he is a better actor than most of those guys who came out of the actors¡¯ studio or the group theatre. Just a kid off the beach. Talent is individual, it can come from anywhere."

Of course, as well as penning billets-doux to gifted actors, he can also be marvellously tactless about those who don¡¯t impress him. Asked to describe the experience of being directed by Costner, Duvall begins unenthusiastically, "He¡¯s a professional actor and as a director he has a vision. Then we stop and do what we do. He¡¯s like any other director, really..."

Duvall grows a bit more candid. "His westerns are still imitations of films that have gone before rather than the true west, I feel." He then essays a late save: "But he knows how to do that well."

Duvall is also too candid to gussy up the downside of playing Apocalypse Now¡¯s Bill Kilgore, whose napalm speech was recently voted the most memorable cinema line of all time. "People come up to me all the time and quote it, yeah," he says wearily. "And they always behave as if only they and I know the line, nobody else does." Then he brightens a little. "When I was doing research for The Apostle, all the preachers told me that they didn¡¯t go to the movies - and then one of them said, ¡®Oh, I hear you had a famous line: I love the smell of gasoline in the morning¡¯." He laughs heartily.

IF ANY actor can be said to be incapable of a false moment, it is Duvall, whose sinewy performances have no use for easy glamour. He was born in San Diego in 1931, the son of an admiral. At school he was so aimless that his parents, recalling his flair for doing sketches at home, suggested he pursue acting. "They shoved me in that direction," he says, "just to find something I could enjoy." His drama class debut got him his first A grade.

After two years in the army serving in Korea, Duvall went to New York in the 1950s and trained at the Neighbourhood Playhouse. His friends in cramped accommodation were struggling actors Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman: "Dustin used to sleep on Hackman¡¯s floor. Then my brother, me, Hoff and about three other actors rented an apartment together and we would visit Hackman at the weekend. His wife would cook big Italian dinners and we¡¯d all lie down on the floor. Afterwards we¡¯d have a nap then get up and have dessert. Those were good days, but now I hardly ever see those guys. Hackman lives in Santa Fe. I live in Virginia. Hoffman has about 65 houses all over the world. But back then we had great times together. They were good guys. When we do see each other, we pick up again right where we left off."

For almost a decade he worked odd jobs and struggled until - through his friendship with playwright Horton Foote - he won his first role as the mentally handicapped Boo Radley in the 1962 film version of Harper Lee¡¯s To Kill a Mockingbird. The rest is history.

Now 73, Duvall remains engaged and involved in life. He has no plans to retire - "they¡¯ll have to wipe the drool off me" - and makes film after film. Between pictures he rides on his Virginia farm, travels and is an accomplished tango dancer. He has been to Argentina more than 30 times, he performed the tango at a 1999 White House state dinner for the president of Argentina, and he wrote and directed this year¡¯s pet project Assassination Tango, to capture and communicate his feelings for the dance.

"It¡¯s an expression of both the joy and sadness of life. It¡¯s sweet, it¡¯s sensual and it¡¯s sexual all at once. It¡¯s also deeply personal. It¡¯s whatever you want it to be. It¡¯s very special."

His co-star in Tango is his long-time Argentinian girlfriend, Luciana Pedraza. Although not formally trained, he knew she could handle it, he says, because she could weep her way out of a parking ticket. To prepare, she had English lessons and a year of acting exercises and rehearsals and, to make the role feel real, Duvall recruited Pedraza¡¯s two-year-old niece to play her daughter.

They have been together since 1996 but have yet to marry, perhaps because Duvall has already had three wives. He married a model called Barbara Benjamin in 1964, but they split up in 1975. Duvall simply says: "Things burn out." Perhaps this is not surprising, given the actor¡¯s temper, which is quick and explosive. While starring in American Buffalo on Broadway in 1977, he got so frustrated by a woman gasping at his character¡¯s unrefined rants that he finally threw a handful of peanuts at her. This intensity has made it difficult for women to live with him. A four-year marriage to actress Gail Youngs ended in 1986, and a four-year marriage to dance instructor Sharon Brophy finished in 1995. Youngs called him a tortured soul, driven by a perfectionist¡¯s zeal.

These days, Duvall¡¯s life seems calmer. He met Pedraza on a Buenos Aires street. On their first date, Duvall introduced her to the tango, a culture that was chic years before but had since gained a coarser reputation. With Duvall it was love at first dip. When she told him she was 24 (he was 66), he feigned panic. "¡®Oh my God, Policia!¡¯ We joked about it." Pedraza¡¯s father, who is 20 years younger than Duvall, also possesses a sense of humour: "He said, ¡®I don¡¯t know whether to call you father or son.¡¯"

Now the couple have a domestic life consisting of walks, horse-riding and tango, with a few star perks thrown in. Duvall has his tuna salad shipped from a New York City deli and his barbecue is sent in from Texas because food is another of his obsessions. When filming Second-Hand Lions with Michael Caine in Texas last year, he laments that, because Caine¡¯s wife Shakira is Muslim, "She doesn¡¯t eat pork, so they didn¡¯t partake of the wonderful barbecue places all over Austin. Still, she is a very wise and very charming woman; she made sure we had dinner together once a week because he and I played brothers and she was keen to keep that bonding going off-camera."

Duvall¡¯s own films as a director have all been semi-documentary. His first, We¡¯re Not the Jet Set, profiled a Nebraska farm family. Angelo, My Love, a drama set in New York¡¯s gypsy community, was largely improvised because "gypsies can¡¯t read". His preacher feature, The Apostle, was similarly salted with non-professional southern actors to give the film a convincing flavour.

For 13 years, he circulated his story of a Texas evangelist who sins then saves, but no one took it up. In the end, Duvall not only wrote, directed and starred in the film, he spent 5 million of his own money making it. His faith paid off, and The Apostle was not only critically well received but managed to turn a modest profit.

Even so, his next pet production, A Shot at Glory, took six years to make its way to the screen. Finally, in 1999, he came to Scotland with director Michael Corrente and a tiny budget to make his football film. Despite the game having a lowly status in the United States, Duvall sounded remarkably authoritative on topics such as "Jinky" Johnstone or the Christmas-tree formation when he was interviewed at the time, and he remains passionate about football and latterday pin-ups: "I love Michael Owen - a brilliant athlete and my favourite player."

A Shot at Glory was billed as Scotland¡¯s biggest football film, although this is hardly a competitive category, given that Gregory¡¯s Girl was made for buttons and, more recently, The Match turned out to be the Cowdenbeath of scripts. However, A Shot at Glory did pair Duvall with Ally McCoist, the most unlikely coupling since Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams in Carry on Doctor. He even cast McCoist against type, as a starry, womanising ex-Celtic striker reduced to slumming it in the bowels of the league table. It was an honourable debut by McCoist, but at the time it was overshadowed by his off-screen performance with Patsy Kensit.

Duvall remains proud that he and the director found a surprising acting talent in McCoist, outwith the penalty box. "Ally McCoist walked across the lobby and we said, ¡®We¡¯ll put him in the movie,¡¯ without a screen test. We knew that was it. I had talked with guys like Russell Crowe, who was busy anyway. But as good an actor as those guys might be, they can¡¯t do what these guys can do on or off the field - that¡¯s the beauty of it."

Remarkably, news of McCoist¡¯s legendary elastic punctuality was known even to Hollywood, and on the first day Corrente was dispatched to tackle McCoist on the topic. "After that, he was never late. When I told Albert Finney that I was going to act with Ally McCoist, he said, ¡®Oh, the footballer? Sharp as a tack.¡¯ And he is. Ally¡¯s a character, man."

Duvall hasn¡¯t given up his interest in the beautiful game; when we speak, he is halfway through filming a new untitled project with Elf comedian Will Ferrell. "It¡¯s a nice movie about kids¡¯ soccer," Duvall says. "This will really be my first comedy, although there has been humour in some of my other characters. Sometimes the best humour comes out of behaviour rather than saying things to make someone laugh."