FAST CHAT: Robert Duvall

Erica Marcus
June 25, 2006

Trim in blue jeans and cowboy boots, Robert Duvall looks at least 10 years younger than his 75 years. And he carries himself with markedly less self-importance than that of the doormen and desk clerks at Manhattan's Essex House Hotel where he met Newsday's Erica Marcus. The actor was in town to promote "Broken Trail," the two-part original movie that premieres on AMC Sunday and Monday.

"Broken Trail" tells the story of veteran cowboy Print Ritter (Duvall) and hisnephew, Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church), who set out from Oregon with 500 horses they mean to sell in Wyoming. Along the way, they cross paths with an unscrupulous character who is transporting five Chinese girls from San Francisco, where he purchased them, to the brothel that placed the order. Although neither Ritter nor Harte consider themselves human-rights activists, they cannot ignore the plight of the Chinese girls and become their protectors.

Duvall sees "Broken Trail" as the third part of a Western trilogy that began with the acclaimed TV miniseries "Lonesome Dove" (1989) and continued with "Open Range" (2003), in which he co-starred with the movie's director Kevin Costner. In nearly 100 movies, he has made an indelible mark on virtually every film genre since his 1962 screen debut as Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

- You've acted in both theatrical movies and TV movies. Is there a difference in the way you approach the roles?

There's no difference. If it's quality, it doesn't matter if it's Broadway, Off-Broadway or off-Off Broadway.

- But what about the way TV movies are made?

When you make a TV movie, you have to pay attention to the editing. You have to be careful not to use too many close-ups because then you lose the body language - body language is essential. In "Broken Trail," there's a scene by the river where Tom and I are skipping stones. Without this [makes a sidearm gesture of throwing a stone], that scene would just become talking heads.

- But TV movies can sometimes be longer than theatrical ones.

With a miniseries, you have more time to develop the character. We originally talked to CBS about "Broken Trail." They only wanted to give us two hours. With AMC, we had four. With "Lonesome Dove," I had eight hours to develop my character Gus McCrae.

- How did "Broken Trail" take shape?

I knew the Haythorne family in Nebraska. This guy Waldo Haythorne's grandfather drove 700 horses from Oregon to Nebraska. I took Alan [writer Geoffrion] to meet them and he said, "I'd like to write this story for you." The next day, I called him and asked how he was getting along with the story. It was Alan who came up with the part about the Chinese girls.

- This role seemed tailor-made for you. I saw a bit of Gus McCrae in Print's talent for making biscuits. And the scene where you dance with Greta Scacchi - did that come from your interest in the tango?

The biscuits, yeah that was Gus. But the dancing, no. I was just doing a two-step like I've seen in Texas.

- You've played a lot of old cowboys. Any young ones?

Well, at this point I only can play old cowboys. But I did play one in "True Grit" when I was younger.

- You seem to do pretty well on a horse.

I've been riding for quite a few years. I own a few horses at my place in Virginia. My wife just bought me a horse - half Andalusian, one-quarter Arab, one-quarter thoroughbred. Don Manuelo. He's 10 months old.

- I wondered how the three of you managed to drive 500 horses in the movie.

Three of you could handle about 300 horses. What you do is first you wheel them [drive them in a circle] for about the first 12 miles, those are critical. Then, they pick an alpha mare to lead them.

- What has been your favorite role?

Gus McCrae.

- And the role that is closest to you own personality?

Probably Gus.

- What is it about "Lonesome Dove"?

Well, the book [Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel] was a great book. The challenge was to make a movie that was as good as the book. As opposed to "The Godfather," which was a good book, but was a great movie.

- I wasn't going to bring it up, but you - that is, Tom Hagen - have my favorite line in "The Godfather." It's when Michael has the idea to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey. He says that McCluskey was a crooked cop and that the newspaper people might like a story like that. And Tom says, "They might, they just might."

I don't remember that. I like the scene where we're about to kill Abe Vigoda [Tessio], and he asks me "Can you get me off the hook? For old times' sake?" And I say, "Can't do it, Sally."

- Do you think "Deadwood" has made TV safe for Westerns?

I don't consider it much of a Western; it might seem like one if you lived in one of the two provincial coasts. I call it a Western that starts in the Bronx and ends about 15 miles west of Buffalo.

---- Newsday, 2006-06-25