Tribute's Bonnie Laufer talks to Robert Duvall about playing General Robert E. Lee in the war epic, Gods and Generals.

B.L. Aside from being in a spectacular war epic, what was really the draw for you to play General Robert E. Lee?
R.D. I wanted to see it done right. The bloodlines of my father are from Northern Virginia and my grandmother’s family were tobacco farmers. They were actually pro-union behind southern lines; they named my grandfather Abraham Lincoln Duvall. I had that to draw upon, it was a given. I read books and asked questions and I just knew that I could play this guy with all of the information I had around me.

B.L. You have played a real life character before, with Stalin.
R.D. Ooh yes, Stalin was a tough role.

B.L. Playing someone like Robert E. Lee who was so revered, so loved, what kind of responsibility did you feel?
R.D. It was an honor to play him. I always said that it was a responsibility, not a pressure but a responsibility. I wanted to do it as truthfully as I could. Often you see people playing the costume or the period. I just wanted to play a man with the correct makeup and costume, but just play it as truthful as we are talking and listening right now. I went from that point of view but I felt confident from my background and where I come from and people I know that I would be able to do it.

B.L. Plus, you spend a lot of time up on a horse!
R.D. I’m at home on most horses, I can tell you that much! I used to ride a lot, I do less of that now but I was comfortable riding.

B.L. What did you think of Stephen Lang who portrays General Stonewall Jackson? That guy is really fabulous in the role.
R.D. It was really nice working with him. We didn’t have too many scenes together but he was so committed to the role and he fought for it so hard. He really brought everything to the table.

B.L. Ron Maxwell who directed Gettysburg and now Gods and Generals had quite a job ahead of him when he took on both projects. He obviously has such a deep passion for the Civil War. What was it like working with this man?
R.D. He was great and it was evident from the get go that he had a vision. Ron was at the helm and he was so committed to these projects. I know that there is talk of doing a third film. He’s the guy to do it. There is no better director to tell stories about the Civil War.

B.L. Plus, the film might not have been made with the help and financing from Ted Turner, who is one of the executive producers.
R.D. It’s funny, I said to Turner, "Do you think the movie is too long? He said, "Well, so was the war." I guess it wasn’t too long for him to take $90 million out of his pocket and made it happen.

B.L. It must have been amazing having close to 3,000 re-enactors who portrayed the soldiers in the armies.
R.D. We could not have made the movie without them; they are the heart and soul of these kinds of movies. These are the guys.

B.L. This movie comes at a very poignant time in our history. We don’t know from one minute to the next if the U.S. will go to war with Iraq. What do you think people could learn from the Civil War or wars past?
R.D. There will be a segment of the population who will take it as a patriotic stance, and there will be those who will totally negate that, which is fine. If people do take it as a patriotic deduction then that is also fine because I think it serves as that. We are a nation who has made mistakes, and the Civil War for one was absolutely horrible. If we look underneath that, Lee said, "War is so terrible we shouldn’t grow too fond of it." So if you look underneath the battles and you dig deep you can see that war is terrible and sometimes movies show the glamor of it. Hopefully we can learn that war is terrible but unfortunately there will always be wars.

B.L. You have a whole bunch of movies coming out this year including a film with Michael Caine, and a movie you directed called Assassination Tango. What is left for Robert Duvall to do? Do you have an ultimate plan?
R.D. I don’t know. I don’t really have one. But if it comes it’s going to present itself to me. Believe it or not, I am getting offered more parts now than I did ever before and that’s fine with me. I don’t really know how to spell the word retire but when it happens it’s going to happen. I’ve got four films coming out and they are each different and for the first time in a year in a half I’m not chomping at the bit. I took a two-month vacation in Argentina in the sun so I am just going to enjoy some time off, but I have some nice things coming up. You can’t get rid of me yet!

---, 2003-02-21