"TOO MUCH TALK," WAS HOW ONE studio exec rejected the script for The Apostle. So, Robert Duvall, who wrote, directed and stars in the movie about a fallen preacher who finds redemption in the pulpit of a predominantly black church, put up the $5 million for the film himself.
Now the movie that Hollywood didn't want to make is generating the kind of slow-burning Oscar buzz?in particular for Duvall's performance?that another labor of love, Sling Blade, did last year. With paradoxical subtlety, Duvall plays a showy man of the cloth without ever being a showboat himself. Of course, Duvall is quite capable of a revelation or two. At 67, he remains one of Hollywood's most versatile actors, with a gift for bringing larger-than-life characters down to earth, from his Oscar-winning turn as a has-been country singer (Tender Mercies) to Oscar-nominated roles in The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and The Great Santini.
So convincing is Duvall's Texas Holy Roller that it may come as a surprise that the actor is not from the Deep South. Although the thrice-divorced Duvall now lives on a Virginia farm with his girlfriend, Luciana Pedraza, an equestrian from Argentina, he grew up in Annapolis, Md., where his father was an admiral in the Navy. Like the characters he portrays, Duvall is full of contradictions. He can be perfectly frank about his politics (don't get him started on "mink-coat communists") and the people with whom he has worked ("[True Grit director] Henry Hathaway was an a--hole," he says), yet he is also generous: It was his open-mindedness that persuaded a family of New York Gypsies to let him tell their story in his feature-film directing debut, 1983's Angelo, My Love, and it is what helped him crawl into the skin of The Apostle's Bible-toting sinner.
Critics are calling 'The Apostle' one of the best American films about religion ever made.
I tried not to make it just that, but that's at the core of it. Like a film about a man on a farm is about the man first and the farm second.
You were raised a Christian Scientist, right?
I don't go to church, but that would be my belief.
Have you ever had a profound religious experience?
One guy said Duvall could do a better movie if he was born again. Who knows. I was in a church in Harlem where they sang "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," and I had a very quiet emotional experience. If I was of that persuasion, that would suffice for me as a conversion.
The movie is very racially mixed.
When [Luciana] came up from Argentina, we went to a lot of churches. After a while she finally said, "Bobby, you think we'll ever go to any white churches?" In many churches in the South, there's an integrated thing.
What about your own upbringing?
It was more segregated. My people weren't bad people. My parents just didn't grow up that way: My father was a segregationist, yes, but he didn't talk about things. He used to send a small pittance to [civil-rights activist] Julian Bond. He never even told us: So that's a contradiction. What makes people interesting are the contradictions.
You were in 'Sling Blade,' and Billy Bob Thornton is very moving as a complex bigot in your movie.
I knew Billy Bob had been married to a black woman and was the only white drummer in an all-black band; and then I'd seen him around redneck guys, and he's comfortable around them. So he runs the gamut without much judging.
You've made a number of movies with Francis Ford Coppola. Why didn't you do 'The Godfather, Part III?
Why were they doing this? They were doing it for money, because Coppola's always looking for money. He lives high on the hog. I figured if I was going to do it, come up with some real money.
Is Brando a strange guy?
When we did The Chase, he was talking and he turned to act as an extension of what [occurred before the scene]. I think that offhandedness is pretty special. I learned that from him. I said to my [then] wife, "We're going to be like brothers. I love this guy." Then he wouldn't even say good morning for eight weeks. He'd just walk past you. I wasn't used to people like that.
Which one of your characters would you most like to be?
I don't think I want to be a preacher, but I like this character a lot. I guess Lonesome Dove's Texas Ranger. He liked women and tried to give them their space and respect. Maybe the older I get, I get a little more intelligent about wives, or myself.
Make up the title for a country song that would sum up your life.
"I've Done It My Way, and If I Have to Do It Again, I'll Do It My Way Again." Or if it was a gospel song, "We All Have to Do What We Have to Do Between the Cradle and the Grave."
Al Weisel is the co-author, with Larry Frascella, of Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause, being published in October 2005.