By Nick Nunziata
Contributing sources:

Robert Duvall is one of the truly elite upper echelon actors living today. There are few even in the same ballpark, and unlike a lot of the beloved ones, Duvall's managed to stay vital and employable without a hitch for several decades. On top of that, he's a writer and director as well. His latest director/writer gig, Assassination Tango is an interesting little curiosity of a film. The story of an aging hitman whose work takes him to Argentina, where he discovers the art of Tango dancing amidst his murderous plans, is an interesting and solid one. That said, the film has a different feel, a different swagger than most and is certainly not for everyone. I dug it, and the opportunity of speaking with Duvall and his co-star/love Luciana Pedraza was one I'd have not missed for the world. After hosting a quick Q&A with the duo the night before, I spoke with them at Atlanta's Ritz Carlton about the film.

After a little small talk (it was a roundtable interview), people started asking Duvall questions. When my turn came up, I wanted to make sure Luciana got to be involved:

Nick Nunziata: Knowing Robert Duvall the person, what was it like working Robert Duvall the director?

Luciana Pedraza: It was great. I admire his work as a director also. After I saw his three films I just felt I would like to try to be in one of his films. First, he suggested something for The Apostle but I didn't feel right because what I feel about the South, the Pentecostal church or whatever. Somehow we're together for five years until we come up with the idea that I could play Manuela (her character in Assassination Tango, a professional tango dancer). I felt it maybe was a crazy idea but I felt OK about it. I don't know if I was right for the part but I was ready to do something like that. I don't know why. It's those instincts that says you can put yourself on the line. You're ready to do certain things. Certain people feel they're ready to get married or be fathers or mothers. I was ready to ask for that challenge. Maybe because I saw Bobby working as an actor and as a director. I knew if I needed help I was going to recieve that help while we were working but in turn I did have my own freedom and I need to, to create Manuela. To make believe that Manuela came from this culture. I'm from northern Argentina, which has nothing to do with Buenos Aires. I didn't know anything about the tango (which will surprise you when you see how adept she is in the film), I came from jumping horses and different styles. From Catholic churches, a different. I felt he was the right director to take the challenge with.

Duvall then discussed Gods and Generals (he liked it better than Gangs of New York) for a short while, because one of the interviewers asked about the reaction to the film. He said nice stuff about some of the other performers, Stephen Lang in particular.

Nick Nunziata: It's really rare to see a central character like the one in your film who's a romantic lead and an action lead who's over the age of sixty. You don't see that often...

Robert Duvall: You don't?

Nick Nunziata: No you don't. Amores Perros.

Robert Duvall: You've got to keep fit!

Nick Nunziata: Was it a challenge?

Robert Duvall: It was fun. You know, everything's a challenge but it was fun and I got fit. At the last minute... the day before, I have the oldest wigmaker in Italy, he's my make-up guy. He did me for Robert E. Lee too. His aunt makes all the wigs. He brought me a wig and we talked about it. It was nice, with the ponytail. One day before we started shooting, it gave me a whole sense of the character. It was me, but alittle something added. It gave me a sense of myself, in a narcissistic way. When I got to Argentina I felt I fit in, with the dark glasses and ponytail. It fit in nicely.

Nick Nunziata: The first time we see you in the film in disguise is a great comic relief moment.

Robert Duvall: Yeah, yeah. I'd go in real quick and we'd make those scenes up. (As the old Italian guy and pantomiming the two of them coming up with a disguise) "Oh Bobby, come on", he's a great make-up artist.

Another interviewer made a comment about a scene where Duvall dips his head into a bowl of water and he mentioned that his mustache came off, once again with more fun impersonations of the italian make-up guy. Which reminded me of another scene.

Nick Nunziata: I noticed in the beginning of the film, you had liquor in front of you but you didn't drink it, instead you splashed it on your face. Later in the film you did drink it, while you were in Argentina. Was that a sign of your character loosening up?

Robert Duvall: There was another time where I just sniffed it.

Nick Nunziata: Then with the the family of tango dancers you drink it, was it because he was finally comfortable?

Robert Duvall: Well it also was to get me a little off guard, paranoid. Thinking I was being followed, of course I was being followed. I heard that salsa dancer Benny More did that. Initially, I got up and did the salsa, but we took that out. There was good reasons. Benny used to do that before he'd sing, because he was an alcoholic. So I figured if I did that (sniff the liquor) it just would be that I shouldn't drink because I had a drinking problem.

Another interviewer asked about the difference between his bigger and smaller roles and Duvall talked for a while, eventually teasing us on his upcoming collaboration with Kevin Costner. He said his role there was just a hair under Lonesome Dove, one of Duvall's most beloved roles.

Nick Nunziata: That's Open Range? I've heard great things. How was Costner as a director?

Robert Duvall: Filmed up in those Rocky Mountains near Calgary. Yeah, he was good. We'd sit down and talk and we'd come in and do it, yes. It was 13 weeks, a long time.

Nick Nunziata: You lend a rather improvisational nature to your sets. How much of the final film adhered to the script?

Robert Duvall: Much of it is scripted. In The Apostle, all the preaching was scripted for the most part. In this, the big tirade with Frankie, it was all scripted. When I got to Argentina it was scripted, but because of the language...when the police interrogate Ruben Blades, I cut them loose. I let them improvise and just added subtitles. With Luciana, it worked differently. Partially scripted, sometimes totally improvised.

Luciana Pedraza: He didn't even know what would come up when I asked him.

Robert Duvall: The coffee shop scene we just used two cameras, two magazines, and we just shot.

Nick Nunziata: That scene seemed so natural.

Robert Duvall: It was. We never knew what was next.

Luciana Pedraza: Well, that was the idea.

Robert Duvall: Natural, but alive. Sometimes you can be natural but not be alive. What we did what, we centered her character... which I think threw the people up at MGM when the scene came in. It's an 8 minute scene. It wasn't written. We designed her part... she has a wonderful niece, so we did it backwards, let's take your niece and make her your daughter in the movie. You have a little family thing.

Luciana Pedraza: That became my independent activity.

Robert Duvall: Absolutely.

We then rambled on about Pedraza's preparation and her interaction with her niece in the film (what a cute kid). Then Duvall mentioned how the Oscars were a popularity contest (there's news) and how he found Halle Berry's performance in Monster's Ball to be one of the best female performances ever and we got ready to call it a day. Before we did, I had to do my customary DVD thing...

Nick Nunziata: The DVD for The Apostle was excellent. Loaded. What do you have in mind for Assassination Tango?

Robert Duvall: I don't know, there's a scene I have of her and Geraldine putting on make-up. It was so alive, so great, but I had to cut it out. Maybe that'll go on the DVD.

-----, 2003-03-24