An interview conducted by Josh Horowitz
April 10, 2003
Robert Duvall is one of our finest actors, an Academy Award winner and a tango enthusiast. Just deal with it, alright? Sure he was Tom Hagen, and Boo Radley, and Adolf Eichmann, but he really wants to direct. His latest effort behind the camera is ASSASSINATION TANGO, in which he also stars. I spoke to the revered Mr. Duvall (I ain¡¯t calling him Robert), on his recent publicity swing through New York. We talked up his latest flick, who he thinks really should have starred in ABOUT SCHMIDT, and his lack of thoughts on Nicolas Cage.
Robert Duvall: How are you? Josh Horowitz: Hi Mr. Duvall, how are you? RD: Good sir. Good.
JH: So how long have you been a fan of the tango anyway? RD: About 15 years, since I saw TANGO ARGENTINA on Broadway. That was the awakening process for a lot of people around the world I think. Then I started going to Argentina to learn more about the dance. I began to love the city. I¡¯ve been there about 38 times.
JH: Do people ever act surprised when they find out about this hobby of yours? RD: They don¡¯t seem to anymore. It¡¯s an accepted thing now. I feel in many ways more at home there [Argentina] than New York City now.
JH: How much time do you spend there now? RD: When we did the film we were there five times in one year. We rented an apartment there for six months. I still miss that apartment. It was beautiful. So once a year, twice a year, we go. We go to a house up at the foothills of the Andes, a 100-year-old Spanish colonial home. It¡¯s beautiful country there.
JH: You use several non-actors in this film including your longtime girlfriend [Luciana Pedraza]. How did you come to cast her? RD: I couldn¡¯t find anybody that spoke English, could dance tango, and act. We decided to make it a younger woman. We thought of different people and nobody spoke English. And then they [potential actresses] wouldn¡¯t call back. We just finally narrowed it down. She was the one. We rehearsed for a year. She had danced only five years at that point. She has a great feeling for it, not that all Argentinians do. Only one-tenth of one percent of the population dances the tango anyway. We went from there and constructed a part. We made her real life two-year-old niece her daughter so she would have a cementing process for her character.
JH: Is it techniques like that that can help a non-actor? RD: Very much so. To personalize things. At times we would improvise purely with two cameras not knowing what was next. Sometimes it would be partially improvised. Other times it would be more scripted. The New York part was scripted. But when we got there because of the accents and everything and they were such good natural actors I just let them go.
JH: What did these non-actors have that you wouldn¡¯t have gotten from a trained actor? RD: Freshness. No bad habits. They¡¯re every bit as good as the actor.
JH: You¡¯re directing yourself in this. Do you miss having a director to bounce ideas off of? RD: No. I really don¡¯t miss the director because most of them don¡¯t know about acting.
JH: How do you think your tango scenes compare to ones we¡¯ve seen in other films in recent years? What do think of those depictions? RD: Terrible. I liked certain things about Sally Potter¡¯s film, THE TANGO LESSON. But ordinarily it¡¯s more of a spoof. Any conclusion to the tango is short-cutted. They don¡¯t investigate what it is ethnically or its cultural roots, which are far-reaching.
JH: How about the tango scene in SCENT OF A WOMAN by your former co-star Al Pacino? RD: Not bad for a blind man. It wasn¡¯t really the tango.
JH: What about it wasn¡¯t the tango? RD: It just wasn¡¯t. It was shot from the waist up. It¡¯s like these guys trained to ride in a western and you can see they can¡¯t ride a horse. They take a crash course to be a western. You just can¡¯t take a crash course to be a tango dancer in a movie. That [film] was mainly a spoof.
JH: Your directing efforts have been very personal projects for you. Do you need that personal connection before undertaking to direct a film? RD: Well, for these films I¡¯ve done, you really have to soak up the culture of these people to get it right. If you¡¯re making a fiction film, it¡¯s entertainment but on the other hand you want it to be as real as possible. But it can be entertainment if you avoid some of the patronizing aspects that so many Hollywood movies have about the same subject matter.
JH: If Robert Duvall says I have a film I want to direct and I¡¯ll star in it and it¡¯s a modestly budgeted feature¡¦how difficult is it for you to get the money? RD: Very difficult. The money part is one of the most difficult things. The fact that [Francis Ford] Coppola always said I should do a tango movie and he liked my script, that¡¯s what gave us the green light. If it hadn¡¯t of been for him, I don¡¯t know where we would have gotten the money.
JH: Do you feel you have any commercial sensibilities as a director? Could you see yourself directing a more mainstream film? RD: (laughs) Maybe. I guess maybe I could with the right people around me but I like to do things that I develop from the ground up. I would probably be more tentative and more afraid of that though. Years ago I did a documentary John Cassavetes really liked and he sent me a script to direct. I said ¡°I don¡¯t know how to do this.¡± And then he got it into the New York Film Festival and won it and I couldn¡¯t event get into it!
JH: You were pushed pretty hard for an Oscar for THE APOSTLE a few years ago. Does it sting at all at this point in your career not to be recognized? RD: Well yeah, you like to win. Everybody likes to win. One of the biggest disappointments was when I didn¡¯t get an Emmy for LONESOME DOVE, which was my favorite part ever. It¡¯s political. It can be a popularity contest.
JH: Do you ever see a performance on screen and think, what would I have done with that? ABOUT SCHMIDT, for instance. It would have been interesting to see your take on that. RD: Well I think Gene Hackman would have done a better job than Nicholson or almost anybody. He should have played that part. He would have been better than Nicholson. [The film] was okay. It wasn¡¯t my favorite movie by a long shot. It was well-directed, actually. There was good work this year. I liked Daniel Day [Lewis]. I like THE PIANIST a lot.
JH: Adrien Brody¡¦ RD: Yeah and that German guy [Thomas Kretschmann] was sensational.
JH: I guess he¡¯s very well-regarded in Europe. RD: And now he¡¯s out in Hollywood playing Nazi parts. That¡¯s all he can get.
JH: You had an accident last year preparing for the new Kevin Costner film, OPEN RANGE. RD: Yeah, about a year ago¡¦it was pretty brutal. I broke six ribs. It was a small horse I was trying out and he bucked me off fast.
JH: Let¡¯s run through a few of the actors you¡¯ve worked with in recent years¡¦ RD: Sure.
JH: Nicolas Cage. You were in GONE IN 60 SECONDS¡¦not one of his best works but what¡¯s he like to work with? RD: He¡¯s okay. He¡¯s okay.
JH: Does he have that ¡®something¡¯ that the great actors have? RD: (long pause) No comment.
JH: [laughs] Okay¡¦moving on. Arnold Schwarznegger. RD: Good guy. Nice guy to work with. Good at what he does. Great sense of humor.
JH: Billy Bob Thornton. RD: He¡¯s the real thing. Very talented.
JH: John Travolta. RD: Talented guy. Good director, that guy, Steven Zaillian.
JH: Okay, Robert Duvall film trivia quiz. Who was Cole Trickle? RD: Who was what?
JH: Cole Trickle. RD: Cole Trickle¡¦(long pause) JH: Ringing any bells? RD: Oh, was he in a baseball film?
JH: I¡¯m afraid he was the character played by Tom Cruise alongside you in DAYS OF THUNDER. RD: Oh¡¦Cole Trickle. I¡¯m sorry. I¡¯m bad on names.
JH: That¡¯s okay. It¡¯s a weird name. RD: Yeah. Cole Trickle, huh¡¦