October 26, 2003

Robert Duvall - still in demand at 72

Obsessed with the dance as much as his acting, Robert Duvall is every bit as singular as his finest screen roles, says Stephen Applebaum

After four decades of keeping it real as an actor, Robert Duvall, at 72, is in greater demand than ever. He has appeared in four films in the past year and a half, he tells me as we hide from the blazing Sicilian sun at the Taormina BNL Filmfest, where his fourth directorial effort, Assassination Tango, is screening, and he needs a holiday.

As he sits on a sofa nonchalantly chewing gum, his lively bright-blue eyes sparkling youthfully, it is obvious that life is treating Bobby — nobody calls him Robert — well. However, it is not just the steady flow of work that is putting a smile on the thrice-married actor’s face. His seven-year relationship with Luciana Pedraza, a loquacious, self-possessed 31- year-old Argentine beauty who makes her screen debut in Assassination Tango, is apparently also in enviably fine shape.

Duvall might not have achieved the star status of a Robert De Niro or an Al Pacino, but that is no bad thing. Having resigned himself early in his career to the role of character actor, he has practically made the pursuit of authenticity his life’s work. Whereas Pacino’s personality informs everything he does, Duvall, whether playing a napalm-loving warmonger in Apocalypse Now or a street-smart legal adviser to the mafia in The Godfather, eradicates his own ego from the frame, disappearing inside the skin of a character. An actor’s actor, he researches his roles with the diligence of an ethnologist, hanging out with cops, drunks and Bible-belt evangelists in an effort to learn what makes them tick. “You go from ink to behaviour,” he says, “and the most important thing to me is behaviour, not in an indulgent way, but in an organised way.” “Bobby’s very intense,” Pedraza warns, “and when you tell him to bring more pace to his performance, or get mad, he will go nuts.”

Michael Caine witnessed Duv- all’s explosive temper recently while shooting Secondhand Lions. “It’s quite violent for five seconds, then it’s gone. People get quite scared,” he told People magazine. “It only happened once or twice,” laughs Duvall, brushing the subject aside. Still, his outbursts are notorious. Back in his early acting days, when he appeared in Waiting for Godot in Boston, he allegedly threatened the life of the director, David Wheeler. He also fought constant battles with Bruce Beresford on Tender Mercies, for which he won a Best Actor Oscar.

Such moods are not confined to the workplace, either. “He gets mad very often, or used to,” reveals Pedraza. “But I don’t pay any attention, because I know it’s not serious. I know it has to do with other things from the past and not us,” she offers, cryptically.

It is surely no coincidence that Duvall’s characters in the self-penned and directed films The Apostle and Assassination Tango, where he plays John J Anderson, a New York hit man hired to liquidate a general in Buenos Aires, have short fuses. Other auto- biographical influences, such as his strict religious upbringing and continuing love affair with the tango, also surge through these films.

Duvall does not like to analyse his own work, but, whether he acknowledges it or not, watching Assassination Tango is like looking through a window onto his life as an actor. Anderson’s wife, oblivious to the fact that her husband is a professional killer, complains that he becomes someone else when he does a job. While sequences portraying his immersion in Buenos Aires’s tango culture play precisely the way you imagine Duvall researches a role.

“Could be, yeah,” muses Duvall. “I check people out. Still do. I’ve got tapes I watch of tango dancers, because if you have a hobby, you try to be as obsessed with it as you are with your profession. So you go to the source and see how well it can be done.”

Duvall has built a dance studio on his 360-acre Virginia farm, and practises tango whenever he can. “It’s a very quiet, sweet, peaceful thing,” he says. Leaning forward conspiratorially, he whispers: “I like it better than acting sometimes. Sure, if something goes well between ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’, it’s the same thing. But with tango it’s more like an informal, nightly version of live theatre.”

As he talks about his obsession, I read him a quote from his second wife, Gail Youngs, saying that, his joie de vivre notwithstanding, he is a “tortured soul driven by his need for perfection”. The result is an almost comically excruciating exchange as Duvall repeatedly mishears the word perfection as affection. “Oh, perfection,” he says at last. “Maybe so, yeah. But I think a lot of people are like that. You just want to get better and better, but in doing that you have to stay relaxed, I think.”

He seems to have adopted the same attitude in his relationship with Pedraza. She approached him on a street in Buenos Aires when he was in the city filming Eichmann, and they have been practically inseparable ever since. Although he habitually laughs off the age difference by pointing out that they share the same birthday (January 5), just 41 years apart, he admits that he was initially worried about how people would react to their being together. Luckily, his best pal, the actor Wilford Brimley, had some sage words.

“He said: ‘Listen, my friend, I want to tell you something. The worst thing in the world for an old man is an old woman. But when she says “Action”, you’d better come up with something.’ I never forgot that,” says Duvall, laughing raucously and slapping his thigh.

With things going so well, is he considering walking down the aisle a fourth time? “I’m not sure,” he says, lowering his voice. “I like marriage in certain ways, but I always refer to it as a funeral.” He laughs nervously. “It’s a Freudian slip, of course,” he continues.

Serious one minute, almost laddish the next, relaxed yet driven, Duvall is as riven by contradictions as his best characters. Although a septuagenarian, he shows little sign of slowing down. He broke six ribs in a riding accident while preparing to play a trail boss in Kevin Costner’s latest western, Open Range, but still turned in a performance that, according to the influential critic Roger Ebert, “elevates Open Range from a good cowboy story into the archetypal region where the best westerns exist”.

As he’s obviously still having fun making movies, when is he likely to retire? “Not until I start wiping the drool off my chin.” You would be unwise to bet on Duvall giving up, even then.

The Times (UK)