Jan. 08, 2004

Robert Duvall, actor

By Paula Parisi
This profile of Robert Duvall originally appeared in the Oscar Watch: Actors issue on Jan. 8, 2004

"He's a mysterious and complex actor," was how one prominent director responded to the name Robert Duvall. But he's all openness and congeniality as he saunters into the Ivy restaurant in Beverly Hills, looking every bit the cowboy in flannels and denim. "My driver got it mixed-up," he says, sounding bemused. "His notes said Ivy Rest, and we almost wound up at the Ivy rest home!"

Resting is the last thing you'd find Duvall doing. The actor -- who has branched into writing, directing and producing -- has about 80 major film and television roles to his credit in a career that spans five decades and six Academy Award nominations for indelible characters including the wing-tipped consiglieri Tom Hagen in "The Godfather Parts I and II," the napalm-loving Col. Kilgore of "Apocalypse Now" and soul-man Sonny Dewey in "The Apostle." He took home the trophy for his performance as alcoholic country singer Mac Sledge in 1984's "Tender Mercies."

Laying odds on the prolific Duvall's chances in the annual Oscar race has become an awards season ritual. This year, it's his turn as the untamed but honorable cattleman Bluebonnet "Boss" Spearman in Kevin Costner's "Open Range" that has insiders buzzing. The film tells the story of a band of cowboys who live unfettered by civilization as they roam the Old West, grazing their cattle free-range style, until crossing paths with a corrupt sheriff and rancher. Set against an epic backdrop of big sky country, the film deals with classic themes of loyalty, freedom, love and revenge in a simple yet profound way, climaxing with a balletic 15-minute gun battle that puts to shame every car chase and effects-filled shoot'em-up of the past year.

Duvall's approach to acting is similarly straightforward. "Listening and talking, talking and listening. And staying relaxed," is how he describes his technique.

That low-key philosophy infuses "Open Range's" Spearman, a man of few words and deep convictions. "After the war, the North and South, but especially the Confederate cavalry, had nowhere to go. Their homes were ruined. So they went west to become cowboys because they were already terrific natural horsemen. I kind of built that into my character. It wasn't emphasized too much, but he was named Bluebonnet after the Bluebonnet state of Texas. But the film was supposed to take place in Colorado."

The fluid interaction between life and craft seems to infuse his work. As a director on films including "Assassination Tango" (2002) and "The Apostle" (1997), Duvall has cast many non-actors.

"Real people already have a history," he says. "They're like a reality check, a truth check. When you get to a certain level they put the professional actor on notice. The key to getting a good performance is to just let it come from them. Turn it around. Don't even direct them anymore than you would an actor. As long as they're ready to step across that line to try it, that's the main thing."

For his own acting roles, Duvall draws inspiration from real life and creates character studies of people he meets. Like the guy who can rip quarters apart with his bare hands. Or the ranch-hands who worked on his uncle's farm in Montana. "You meet these guys and you file 'em away. It's nice to hang around 'em because you learn about people, and that can only help your acting."

Duvall's naturalistic approach was fostered, in part, by his early years studying with legendary acting instructor Sanford Meisner of the Group Theater. He says the most important thing he learned was to use every aspect of the environment and the mood around him to fuel his performance, making it more of a dynamic rather than a studied experience.

"A director once said to me, 'I was an actor once, but I didn't like it. It took so much concentration, a fire could break out in the audience when I was onstage and I wouldn't notice it,' and I said, 'That's why you're a director.' As an actor, you're going to be aware of it. You use everything. If a fire breaks out, that feeds you."

"Loose" seems to be the greatest compliment Duvall can pay a fellow actor. "Acting is a very individual thing," Duvall opines. "All these guys in the Group Theater and the Actors Studio, none of 'em are as good as this kid from the beach out here, Jeff Bridges. I saw him in a film called 'Wild Bill' (1995) and he was wonderful. And I don't think Brad Pitt was part of the Actor's Studio. Did you see him in that film 'Snatch' (2000)? He was terrific. Talent is individual."

Duvall's individual talents will next be seen in Universal's untitled Will Ferrell film. "It's a nice movie, about kids soccer," Duvall says. "I'm an older guy, with a young wife, the same age as my son, and we're always competing. We have sons the same age. This will really be my first comedy. But there has been humor in some of my other characters. Sometimes the best humor comes out of behavior rather than saying things to make someone laugh."

----- The Hollywood Reporter, 2004-01-08