INTERVIEW: Robert Duvall

by: Thomas Leupp
Aug. 14, 2003

At an age when most men are content to play shuffleboard and cash Social Security checks, Robert Duvall is arguably in his prime. The 72 year-old actor has done some of his most celebrated work in the past few years, receiving Oscar nominations for his roles in THE APOSTLE and A CIVIL ACTION. He doesn't appear to be slowing down either, having completed four projects in the last 18 months, including his sophomore directorial effort, ASSASSINATION TANGO.

We met last week in Los Angeles to talk about his most recent project, OPEN RANGE -- a project he almost had to bow out of after a nasty accident involving an ornery horse. Despite his busy work schedule, Duvall showed few signs of fatigue. He was earnest, candid and engaging -- he even told a few jokes (unfortunately, none were appropriate for print).

How close did you come to not doing OPEN RANGE?

If it had happened two weeks later, I couldn't have done it. So, it was six weeks of sleeping in the same position in Virginia, and I couldn't sneeze or anything. They don't tape your ribs anymore, cause that's bad.

You broke your ribs?

Six of 'em, yeah. I got bucked off, not trying anything, really. Just trying a horse out. It was weird. Out here in California, he was so calm. And I took him back to Virginia and it was like, something happened. So anyway, I got rid of him. I didn't own him; I just was borrowing him. But then they picked me a nice horse in Canada. Good cowboys up there.

Didn't that make you nervous about getting back up on a horse?

A little bit. I hadn't ridden much in years. For LONESOME DOVE, I rode all the time. I mean, I'd just ride anything.

Had you read this book prior to signing on?

I wish I had. They told us not to read it. It was so weird. I thought, is there plagiarism here? What's going on? It was weird ? they didn't want us to read it. So, I didn't actually get a copy of it.

Did Kevin pitch the story to you?

No. He called up my agent. Then he sent the script, and within an hour after I read it, I said I'd like to do it. So, the pitch was really the script itself.

Do you know Kevin from before this?

Not much. I've met him maybe twice, that's all.

What do you think of him as a director?

Well, I loved DANCES WITH WOLVES. I liked that a lot.

And working with him on this?

It was good. I mean, he came with his vision and we came with what we did, and there was a melding process. There wasn't a lot of rehearsal time. It was a lot of just doing it. There was a lot to cover.

What about Michael Gambon?

Michael Gambon was a funny guy. Complex guy -- I called him a pervert; he didn't like that so I stopped calling him that. But he would imitate me before a scene -- you know, bowlegged and stuff. And I'd say, "Do it again!" and just laugh. He's an interesting guy -- he used to be a gunsmith, for the Queen, before he became an actor. Then again, I'm not so sure about that. One thing he says he always tells young actors, "Whatever you do, to get ahead, make sure you lie."

You always seem to own every single part that you're in. It's almost as if you become someone else.

It's always you, turned in a way. You don't really become somebody. It's always gotta be you underneath, turned to that character, I think.

What do you do when you get a line that doesn't quite work? Do you ever change any of your lines?

Sometimes you do. I love to improvise, but if the script's good, you don't have to improvise. With my Tango movie, all the Argentine actors were improvising. They're such great actors and I don't know the language that well. So, we did a lot of improvisation. But with a good script like this, you just pretty much follow it and then you change some things. But if you can't make it work, you maybe switch it around a little bit.

But you've had to work with bad dialogue before, haven't you?

Yeah. They say the greatest actor the group theatre ever saw was a guy named Giovanni Grasso, from Sicily. He looked like a combination of Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn. They say his Othello was phenomenal. But then, he also did these melodramas that they say were so bad. But they say it was unbelievable, what he was able to do with bad material. So, you just have to work with bad material sometimes.

It's amazing that you didn't have that much rehearsal time, because the chemistry you had with Kevin is terrific.

Sometimes it's better not to rehearse, I think. I'd rather not rehearse. We rehearsed, but it was mostly a blocking thing. There was a lot logistics he had to set up. And we had Jimmy Muro -- it was his first time up as a cinematographer. But I knew Jimmy briefly before -- he's one of the top steadicam guys in the world. So a lot of the shot were set up with a steadicam, like a human dolly. It takes a while to compose a shot, but sometimes you don't need a lot of coverage, if you've got the thing moving and you get the closeup, the two-shot and the wide shot all at once. So, Jimmy was very good at that.

Did you train with a gun expert?

No.

Are you experienced with guns?

So-so. I mean, I'm not against guns at all. In fact, if push came to shove, I'd prefer to live in Texas. I don't even own a gun, but I don't mind other people owning them. When I was a younger actor, I didn't concentrate on (guns) so much. I concentrated on learning every day, taking a horse out -- bareback, English saddle, Western saddle, just to develop a seat. I knew that if I was gonna do westerns, I wanted to get a good seat on a horse.

Are you a fan of the classic Hollywood westerns, like HIGH NOON?

I'm not a big fan of those movies. They're very stiff when you see them. The acting is very by the numbers. They're cult movies, and people love them, but if you made that same movie today with the same results, it would be laughed at, because the acting is very much by the numbers. I think that acting is better than ever today. A lot of actors wouldn't admit that, but I really think that. The bar has been raised. You'll still see bad acting. But I think that overall, it's better now.

Are there any westerns that you're fond of?

People criticize it, but what Billy Bob did with ALL THE PRETTY HORSES -- he did an excellent job of directing, because the performances are very even. Billy Bob said the three-hour version was it, you know. Billy Bob is a very talented guy. I think that because of his personal life and because he's crazy, I think people are after him. Kevin said the best western he thinks was ever made was THE SEARCHERS. I saw five minutes of it and it was so phony, I couldn't believe it.

The Indians look a little phony.

In DANCES WITH WOLVES and movies like that, it was the first time you didn't see Armenians and Italians playing Indians. You saw Indians playing Indians, and different ones.

What are you working on now?

Nothin'. I'm taking time off. I worked a year and half, on four projects. I usually need to have a script in my hands at night as a pacifier, but now I don't want anything in my hands.

What do you look for when you get a script?

The character. And also who's directing, who else is in it. But it's the character that draws you in.

Did you feel any extra pressure, knowing that they wrote the part for you?

No. I felt extra pressure to be a nice guy on the set. (Laughs)

Is it different to work with a director who's also an actor?

It depends -- I think it's still a director there. He brings his vision and you bring yours, and you meld. It can be different, but it's still the same, somewhat.

You've done some of the richest work in your career in the last 10 years. Is there one performance that you're particularly proud of?

LONESOME DOVE.

Not this one?

Well, I haven't seen the movie yet. This character is like a cousin to the one I played in Lonesome Dove.

You got into a little trouble about some things you said about Canadian actors.

What did I say?

You said that there were better actors down here in the U.S. than up there.

That's what I thought was the case. I'm not lying. They're not exactly like Australia up there, are they? They don't like us up there, though -- I don't think they like us. I think we helped them up there, but I think they resent us. I know a guy -- I don't mean to be political here -- but this guy, he's my double. He's leaving Canada and moving to Stevenfield, Texas, because if you shoot a guy that breaks into your house in the middle of the night to kill and rob your family, they'll put you in jail up there.

They do that in a lot of states here, too.

Really? Not in Texas! (Laughs)

---- JoBlo.com