March 2004

The Robert Duvall Interview


He's a Hollywood legend and Sue Wilkinson was lucky enough to meet him! Find out what happened when actor Robert Duvall spoke to BBC Tyne

Coming face to face with a Hollywood legend is somewhat scary, especially when it's Robert Duvall.

What would the man who brought alive the Godfather, Apocalypse Now and the Oscar winning Tender Mercies be like in the flesh?

In reality, Robert Duvall is no scarier than your average grandad. He looks great for his age (73 since you're asking) and he's in fine fettle, looking tanned and relaxed.

It comes as a surprise that this compelling character actor, who has played some of cinema's most memorable roles, is so likeable, witty and entertaining.

Open Range

Duvall is promoting his new film Open Range, a heart-warming, action-packed tale of the American West directed by Kevin Costner, and set in the vast, epic landscapes of the prairies.

In the film, he plays Boss Spearman, an old-style rancher or "free grazer" who roams the countryside with his cattle and lives off the land with his small band of men.

So what was the attraction of the part for the veteran actor?

"I was always attracted to these cowboy men when I lived back in Montana as a boy," says Duvall. "I knew I could play that guy."

"My uncle always said that I could have been a rancher if I'd wanted to be that," he recalls.

So would he have enjoyed living during the great days of the American West?

"I don't think I'd want to have lived then - there was no electricity, no lights," he says quickly. So much for the romance of the great West then!

Out on the range

In the film, Duvall gets to try his hand at riding and gun fighting. The gun fights were planned with great accuracy, as Duvall explains.

"They worked on the fights for three weeks. They tried to make it as realistic as possible. Kevin choreographed it, and tried to make it bloody at times, and clumsy here and there. It was a well-thought out process."

Duvall's all-time favourite westerns are the ones "ringing truest to life - ones about the good range man and the good horseman".

His favourite is Lonesome Dove, in which he stars as plainsman Augustus Macrae. Duvall lights up with enthusiasm, "Let the English play Hamlet and King Lear, let me play Gus Macrae."

It also turns out that he loves the classic western True Grit, "although it wasn't that easy to do, it was wonderful working with John Wayne."

Duvall likes his westerns realistic and gritty, and isn't afraid to admit that he thinks "High Noon is a pretty corny movie".

So does he have a theory about why the western seems to be back in vogue? "It's a cyclical thing. When they make one, everyone loves them," he says.

"Different genres come around in succession¡¦ People always welcome the western. It's our genre - America's genre."

Back in the saddle

Duvall suffered for his art during the making of Open Range, breaking six ribs when he was bucked off a horse. "They guaranteed that horse wouldn't buck," he quips.

"I mended in time. Thank goodness it happened two months before shooting."

"I was hesitant to get back on a horse," admits Duvall, "but the wranglers were very helpful, and after a while, I got in the groove of it."

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Open Range was working with a top notch cast. Duvall is complimentary about his co-star and director Costner, "He's a professional actor and as a director he has a vision.

"Open Range is still an imitation of films that went before rather than the true West, but he knows how to do that well."

Duvall also enjoyed working with the rest of the cast, "Michael Gambon was great to work with and he'd make me laugh, and imitate my bow legs!"

"Annette Bening was very serious, very real and very truthful. She added wonderful things to the film. They originally wanted a younger actress, but she is great."

Making movies

Duvall enjoyed Open Range because it is a classic western with a touch of class, and regrets that Hollywood has become so formulaic.

"Today, everything has to be made by committee, and has to have special effects, but there's always room for good films."

"Hollywood is still the mecca for good or bad, but it isn't the beginning or end for film making," he opines.

It turns out that Duvall is a big fan of small, indie films, "There are some wonderful independent films from Iran, England and Australia. I loved Brad Pitt in Snatch and Peter Mullen in My Name is Joe - and these are worldwide films."

Duvall recently made his own low budget movie The Assassination Tango, an antidote to the big Hollywood blockbuster.

So does this make it hard for him to return to being directed by someone else, "You have to fall in line with the way the person works. You try not to step in," he offers. "You're a hired hand rather than having total control."

He's impressed by the new generation of young film directors too, "There's so many now¡¦ I think the bar has been raised."

On and off duty

These days Duvall lives in Virginia, but he remembers his days as a young star. He speaks fondly of the time when he shared a flat with Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman.

"Back then we had great times together," he recalls. "When we see each other now, it's like we never left off."

All three are now huge stars, but despite over 40 years in the industry, Duvall isn't ready to hang up his cowboy boots yet.

"I'll keep on acting till they wipe the drool. I like the business. I like to do different parts and diverse characters. I haven't lost my enthusiasm yet!"

It's clear that acting runs in his blood. Duvall's next movie is the Cuban thriller The Lost City with Andy Garcia.

There's also Kicking and Screaming, a soccer comedy with Will Farrell, which he describes as a "really delightful movie", released later this year.

It's not his first football film - he starred in A Shot At Glory in 2000 which was filmed in Scotland, and featured a soundtrack by Geordie musician Mark Knopfler..

Duvall has developed quite a passion for the North East's favourite game, "I like soccer very much. You have a great league and I love Michael Owen - he's my favourite football player." Pity he picked the wrong team to support though...