Actor Robert Duvall

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Oscar- and Emmy-winning actor discusses independent filmmaking, what attracts him to film projects now and what he’d like for people to say at his funeral.

Robert Duvall is one of America's most acclaimed actors. He's portrayed a wide range of characters, won an Academy Award (for Tender Mercies, in a role for which he composed and performed his own songs) and is getting Oscar buzz for his turn in Get Low, which would be his seventh nomination. He earned some of his best reviews for The Apostle, which he wrote, produced and directed, and won an Emmy for his lead role in the TV miniseries Broken Trail. Duvall began his career in the theater and, in '05, was awarded a National Medal of Arts.


Tavis: Pleased and honored to welcome Robert Duvall to this program. The legendary actor has turned in so many brilliant performances during his career which makes it easy to understand why he is a six-time Oscar nominee taking home the top prize, of course, for his role in Tender Mercies. He is once again part of the Oscar conversation for his role in Get Low. The film also stars Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek. Here now a scene from Get Low.
Tavis: When I saw that, I’m thinking to myself what I want to be at my own funeral, alive to hear stories people want to tell about me (laughter).
Robert Duvall: I’ll be at yours, but not mine (laughter).
Tavis: Good to see you. You been all right?
Duvall: Good to see you, sir. Yeah, I’ve been fine. You’ve been great too.
Tavis: Well, I’m trying to hold on, man.
Duvall: Yeah.
Tavis: We met many years ago – we’ll come back to this in a second. We met many years ago when you did The Apostle.
Duvall: The Apostle, right.
Tavis: That movie is one of my – I mean, as I said, so many brilliant performances in your career, but that movie, The Apostle, you directed that thing, wrote the thing, did everything, didn’t you?
Duvall: Financed it.
Tavis: Financed it?
Duvall: I got my money back, plus change, but that was it.
Tavis: Grip, gaffer, you did (laughter)?
Duvall: Almost, yeah. Somebody in the north said, “Oh, it’s over-acted.” They don’t know. Somebody said, “You don’t get into heaven unless you shout.” I mean, you know how it is. I mean, certain people way up in Minnesota, because they don’t understand what that means, what those people mean, when they really worship. Their form of worship is very specific.
Tavis: I thought about that last night going over this film because that movie, The Apostle, which I love so much, again, was in large measure about faith and there’s a connection in this movie to the notion of faith.
Duvall: Yes.
Tavis: I’ll let you explain it, but faith comes up again here.
Duvall: Yeah, it does. I did another movie that was religious, but this movie’s not religious. It’s spiritual, I feel, Get Low. It’s a spiritual movie. We did a religious movie with The Apostle and, hopefully, it was spiritual as well without just being the trappings of whatever, by being religious. The underpinnings should be spiritual.
Tavis: The element of faith works its way into this film, though, in what way specifically, Get Low?
Duvall: Well, it’s hard to explain. Boy, you could probably do it better than I, but it’s just something about a man that goes to live in the woods by himself for many years to live out his guilt and wanting to set up and go to his own funeral to see what people say about him before he really dies. I mean, there’s spiritual overtones there without being able to spell it out so specifically.
Tavis: Again, I don’t want to give too much away. It’s always dangerous walking through these films where you don’t want to give the story line away. What motivates him, though, to want to be present to hear what people are saying about him?
Duvall: I think because of something he did in his past that’s not still quite clear to him, that he feels very ashamed of. He’s very guilt-ridden and he wants to get that off his chest. He wants to hear what people say about him, but he ends up telling people what he wants to say to the world and to them and to his friend, Sissy Spacek. I think he wants to get the guilt off his chest before he really dies, before he really dies.
Tavis: I’ve asked this question of other actors in this seat before, but it’s really fascinating for me to get a chance to ask you this. Given all that you’ve done in your career at this age, what specifically is attracting you to projects?
Duvall: The parts, still.
Tavis: Yeah.
Duvall: The part.
Tavis: The part, yeah.
Duvall: The director, who’s in it, if you can get the money. It’s easy to raise $100 million dollars with a big name knowing it might fail anyway than $10 million dollars or less. I’m serious. I’m going to Texas tomorrow to try to raise some money for a specific project. It’s very difficult to raise money now.
Tavis: What do you make of the way the business has changed, to your point now, that it’s easier to get $100 million for something that may flop than $10 million for something that may soar?
Duvall: I know. Well, the only way I can put it in a very simplistic way is that, in the 70’s, it was as if the independent filmmaking was within the system. Now it’s outside the system and now they do these big blockbuster movies and, you know, the big budget movies. I do think Get Low would have fit very well into the 70’s. I think it could have held its own as an independent film within the system.
Somebody once said – a famous director once told me that no good movies have been made since the 70’s. He hasn’t made any good ones since the 70’s (laughter). I won’t mention any names (laughter).
Tavis: But you don’t believe that, do you?
Duvall: No. I don’t believe it at all. I mean, look how it’s opened up. I can tell you just off the top of my head, The Apple, an Iranian film by a 17-year-old girl, beautiful movie. I mean, movies are made all over the world now. And look how it’s opened up now. There are more African Americans, there are Spanish, there are Latin.
You know, more people can act now. There’s room for all and I say, going into the 21st century, a lot of young people, rather than wanting to write novels or whatever, everybody wants to be in film. It’s kind of the in medium and I say the doors are open. Come on in. I think a lot of the young actors are better than ever now.
Tavis: But you don’t think there’s something, though, Mr. Duvall, in the process that’s being sacrificed, that’s getting sacrificed, by studios wanting to continue to refinance sequel one, sequel two, sequel three?
Duvall: I don’t think they’re gonna make a sequel of Get Low. I mean, it’s too unique. No, I agree, but yet those films – it’s such a big industry that outside the system, once again, these movies for $10 million or less or artistically the ones that keep everything afloat. But the big studios still make good movies now and then. It’s all about when you go to the movies and see all the previews; it’s all about violence, guns. Oh, it’s amazing. That’s all they show, it seems to me.
Tavis: You turned off by that personally? All the violence? You’ve been in violent stuff.
Duvall: Yeah, I have. Being more, I guess, but it’s there. So as long as it’s kind of justified, not gratuitous. But a lot of times, it is gratuitous.
Tavis: You mentioned a few minutes ago you’re gonna hop on a plane after leaving this studio to go to Texas to beg up on some more money for another project you want to work on.
Duvall: Yeah.
Tavis: Why work this hard at this age to do all of that?
Duvall: I want to keep living a little longer (laughter).
Tavis: You could be happy on your farm in Virginia.
Duvall: Totally happy.
Tavis: In case anybody told you lately, your legacy is locked and loaded. You don’t have to keep doing this.
Duvall: But I’m getting offered parts now that are as good or better than ever. Terry Gilliam wants me to go to Europe and play Don Quixote. What a great part that would be, and he can’t get the money. His money fell through. Billy Bob Thornton and his partner have written a brilliant script about the south that I keep saying puts Tennessee Williams in the back seat. It is so good. He’s trying to raise money; he’s trying to raise money. So it’s difficult.
You know, you keep searching, you know, and I like to hang around younger people. It keeps me a little bit young, you know. My wife’s younger. When I met my father-in-law, he said, “I don’t know whether to call you father or son.” (Laughter) When I came up, I said to Wilfred Brimley – oh, you should have him on your show one time. He used to be a bodyguard for Howard Hughes, an interesting guy.
I said, “Wilfred, you know, I got this young girl. Everybody’s saying I shouldn’t have her, she’s so much younger.” He said, “Listen, my friend, the worst thing in the world for an old man is an old woman.” So I said okay (laughter). So if you hang out with young people, that’s the way things go now, it seems like. Then it keeps you young and keeps you wanting to search a little bit, you know.
Tavis: Let me take you back, then, to your younger days.
Duvall: Okay. It’s a long time ago (laughter).
Tavis: Yeah. How did you know that this was your – in the spirit of that movie, The Apostle, how did you know that this was your calling, that this was your vocation, that this was your purpose?
Duvall: To be an actor?
Tavis: Yeah.
Duvall: In this business. Well, it’s interesting because I come from a military family. My father’s from Virginia. He went to the Naval Academy when he was 16 years old. He fought the Nazis in World War II, came back and I was floundering around in college in the late 40’s, early 50’s, and it was my parents that kind of nudged me into being an actor on an academic level as an expedient thing to get through.
Then when I finished my tour as a draftee, then I went to New York. But they were the ones that brought it up that I should be an actor and I’m grateful to them.
Tavis: It’s one thing for your parents, though, to nudge you in that arena, in that direction. How did you know that you – I mean, you’re obviously gifted at this. How did you know that –
Duvall: – well, I didn’t know. I mean, I thought I would like to give it a try. We’d done, you know, skits around the house. You know, it’s easier to do it for your parents and friends. They think you’re great, but then to try to translate that into a worldwide thing, I don’t know. I said I’m willing to give it a shot. Let me go to New York and try.
Tavis: You’re making this difficult for me, Robert Duvall. Let me ask this another way. When did you know you were good at this?
Duvall: You never know.
Tavis: You know you were good.
Duvall: There’s always people – I’ll give you an example.
Tavis: Okay.
Duvall: When we had an opening night party for The Godfather, which was a great, great film, I think. I think we did good work in this.
Tavis: Just honored here recently in Los Angeles.
Duvall: What?
Tavis: Just honored here recently, The Godfather.
Duvall: Yeah. I won’t mention names again. A well-known director came up with a big cigar and said to us actors, “You boys were wonderful in this movie. I don’t know about the movie,” he said. And in six lifetimes, this guy couldn’t do one. You know, I guess when you get feedback from people who you respect.
Now I have an Oscar on one mantle in Virginia and, on the other side, I have a letter from Marlon Brando who was kind of like our godfather. That’s almost more important to me than the Oscar. I figure if I a guy like Brando thinks I’m okay and other people you respect, then that’s when you know that maybe I’m okay, I’m good at this.
Tavis: That’s been important to you throughout your career, to have people who you admire and respect –
Duvall: – yeah, I think so. I think that’s true with any actor, I would think. Yeah, I think so, yeah.
Tavis: What’s your process? How do you know when you have nailed what you intended to give in a particular performance? I mean, at the end of the day, at the end of a scene, is there something that you can tell me that you tap into to know that, okay, that’s what I wanted to do?
Duvall: It’s a good question because you want to know what you do between “action” and “cut,” that small lifetime between those two words. I guess, you know, if you felt you did something truthful and didn’t push something, that came from you in a pure way, then it could have gone differently, but maybe that was enough when it went that way. Some of these directors who do 16 or 17 takes, why? Two, three or four takes, it’s enough.
You know, when I did The Apostle, I made a joke that I was gonna put up a mirror so I could yell at the director any time I wanted to (laughter), but I didn’t do it. You know, if there was a director there, not me being the director, they would say, “Is it okay? I’m okay. Let’s move on.”
So instead of having somebody really there, then I know that it was okay and, if somebody was standing there, they would agree with me. You know, you go on from there. A sense of truth, talking and listening like we’re doing now, it begins and ends with this. Like somebody said, “Well, I saw you in something. All you did was play yourself.” I said, “Well, yeah, try it.” You know, it’s not that easy.
Tavis: What’s it like directing Robert Duvall?
Duvall: It’s okay (laughter). I’m easy to direct myself than other guys directing me.
Tavis: That wasn’t like schizophrenic for you, jumping in front of the cameras, then behind the cameras?
Duvall: No, not so much because they say when you direct, it’s so tiring. Then if you do both, forget it. I found that it was easier than if somebody knocked on my trailer door and said, “Will you come do your scene just as an actor?”
I found it exhilarating, relaxing and easier than if I just played a regular part, directing myself and acting in it. It was wonderful. I did it twice, that Tango movie I did with my wife. So it was wonderful. Working down there, we worked in Louisiana on The Apostle. Yeah, it was great.
Tavis: I think I read – speaking of your earlier career, I think I read somewhere that, while you were filming this movie, Get Low, the director passed away of –
Duvall: – I’ll tell you.
Tavis: Yeah, tell me. I don’t want to screw this up. You tell me.
Duvall: Not the director. What happened was, Horton Foote, the great writer –
Tavis: – the writer, yeah.
Duvall: He’s really one of our great writers. Some people don’t know this, but he is as good as any that we’ve ever had, I think. So he was 93 at the time, still working. I said, “Horton, I want you to live to see this movie, Get Low, because it’s very much like your writing.” I kept telling him this.
So now the final speech I give, the first day I give it to the audience, about why I did what I did in my life, and now here comes a mule with a coffin that I built for when I really die. The camera was rolling, visually and speaking and everything was going on.
My wife, Luciana, was off camera. She got a phone call that Horton Foote, the great playwright, had just died. It was like goose bumps. It was like full circle from To Kill a Mockingbird to this moment. It was like omnipresent. He was there. And when I came off, she told me. I got very moved. It was so ironic in a most specific way.
Tavis: When you look back on To Kill a Mockingbird 50 years later, you see what, you think what?
Duvall: Well, you know, I mean, I started out in the theater, but I’d rather do films because, you know, you don’t have to do it eight times a week. I’ve had a wonderful career and I’m very grateful, very grateful. There’s still more before I have to drool. I mean, there’s more. I want to do more. You know, Gene Hackman, a wonderful actor, he’s retired, God bless him. You know, I heard he was ill. I haven’t been in touch with him.
You know, I think it was Michael Caine or somebody who said, “You don’t retire; the business retires you.” So when the business retires me, I’ll be ready. But I want to do a few more things because it’s a wonderful business to be able to do certain things. I only see my things a few times, if that. Some I haven’t seen. Probably Lonesome Dove was my favorite.
But a departure from that, the most intense departure you could have is when I played Joseph Stalin on television. I hadn’t seen it in 20 years and I said, “I think I did okay.” In the final scene with my daughter, I said, “I don’t think I could do any better.” You know, some people like you, some don’t.
Then I heard that Nikita Mikhalkov’s father was Stalin’s personal poet. Eight times he worked with Stalin and he wrote their national anthem. When he saw our movie, Stalin, he liked it and he liked what I did.
You know, I don’t read reviews, but that’s the greatest review I ever got when he said I touched the soul of Stalin. Here’s the guy that knew Stalin. And when I went over there to work with HBO, they were not well organized. I never knew the guy was alive until I got back to the states. Nobody introduced me to him. It would have helped my research.
You know, I don’t look at my work that often, but that – because it was very different from something like Lonesome Dove, very different from something like To Kill a Mockingbird or the other things with Horton Foote that I did, you know.
Tavis: When you say that you think Lonesome Dove may be your favorite, tell me why.
Duvall: Well, here was a guy that loved and respected women even though they were prostitutes. He loved life. He even said to his partner, “You know, we were Texas Rangers, but we killed all the people that were the most interesting that we should have let lived.” Looking back on his life, he was really much of a philosopher and I should let the English play Hamlet and King Lear. I’ll play Augustus McCrae because it was a great, great character.
I was fortunate enough to be, in the last part of the 20th century, in Godfather I and II and Lonesome Dove, which were the two biggest film things in almost our history, although The Godfather was better directed. But the arc of Lonesome Dove is a great novel. It’s up there with Dostoevsky, I think, Lonesome Dove. And at one point, I walked into the dressing room on Lonesome Dove and said, “Boys, we’re making the godfather of westerns.”
So I was fortunate to be in those two films and they were very much different, but the part of Augustus McCrae was very unique. I love westerns. I love to ride horses and I like all of that, you know.
Tavis: Given what you said earlier in this conversation about what you regard as sacrosanct and it’s not really Academy Awards, although they’re nice, but the respect of all giants like Brando, I wasn’t surprised to hear you say this. But when you say that you don’t read your reviews, you never really have, what’s the story behind that?
Duvall: I hear about them.
Tavis: But why don’t you want to read them?
Duvall: You know, I mean, everybody’s entitled to his or her own opinion. But when I get a review like the gentleman who was Stalin’s poet, that means more to me than somebody who writes for The New York Times or whatever who just has an opinion, who never studied acting with anybody. You know, I don’t think Pauline Kael ever had an acting symposium that she gave (laughter). So it can be very subjective.
So I just try – the best reviews I guess I ever got, so I was told, was when I did American Buffalo on Broadway and when I did Lonesome Dove. I’ve gotten other good reviews and I’ve got bad reviews like we all have. So I just try not to read them because, if I read one bad one, that sets me off for a month (laughter).
Tavis: (Laughter) And we don’t want to set Robert Duvall off, do we?
Duvall: Oh, man. I remember one time I was doing A View From the Bridge off-Broadway and everybody was applauding like this and one guy, I walked by and gave him the finger as I walked out. You know, I don’t want to know. Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, you know.
But, once again, if you get feedback from the people you respect, in that letter Brando sent me, he really responded to The Apostle, so I felt good about that because Billy Graham liked it and Brando liked it. So I got it from the religious and I got it from the secular, so I felt good (laughter).
Tavis: When you said a few minutes ago that there’s still more here before they wipe the drool off, you got more in you.
Duvall: Yeah, I hope so.
Tavis: I know you do. But here’s the question, though. Is there just more in you, which is pretty good coming out of you, very good – is there just more in you or, at this point, do you think you’re still getting better at this?
Duvall: Well, I always told someone way back that I always like to think of myself in the potential, that I would get better. I was always a late bloomer and I think I’m still blooming a little bit, you know. You know, I think that maybe when I was younger, you know, I had to fight through certain things to get a sense of reality. I think the older I’ve gotten, it does come a little more easily and offhandedly. Everything should be offhanded.
Now I think, you know, in a scene you can start from zero and end with zero. You don’t have to put the burden on yourself of getting to a result. Let the process take you to the result rather than going – like I worked with a guy one time in a movie. He said to an actor, an old-time director, “When I say ‘action’, tense up, damn it!” You may say that to Joe Montana in the Super Bowl.
I mean, there’s a difference between intensity and tenseness, you know. So I think that, through the years, I’ve become more offhand. You can still have emotional things if you’re offhand and more relaxed and maybe I am better as I get older.
Tavis: I want to end our conversation where we began and I don’t want to be morbid about this because, again, you got so much stuff left to do.
Duvall: Okay, but you said it, not me (laughter).
Tavis: (Laughter) Since you went there earlier, I want to come back. So this movie, Get Low, is about a guy who wants to hear what people say about him while he’s living, while he can still take it in. So if Robert Duvall were to do that, what do you want, hope or expect that people are gonna say about you and about your life and your legacy?
Duvall: Whether I’m there or not?
Tavis: Yeah.
Duvall: When I’m really gone.
Tavis: Fair enough.
Duvall: I don’t know. That’s really up to them.
Tavis: Well, you got to want them to say something. You got to hope they’ll say something.
Duvall: All right. Hopefully, they would say that between the cradle and the grave, we have a journey, and I hope that my journey has been with some grace and that I haven’t offended too many people or hurt too many people, that I’d done it my way.
That journey from the cradle to the grave is what I’ve done and, hopefully, it’s okay and certain people respect me for it and love me for it. You only have so many close friends anyway, you know. I only have one in the business, Jimmy Caan. We have great times still together. You know, just to be loved and respected by those who understand you the most.
Tavis: That’s all that matters.
Duvall: Yeah, exactly.
Tavis: I love this guy, and what an honor to have the opportunity to spend an entire show talking to the great Robert Duvall. The movie is called Get Low, and glad to have you here.
Duvall: Thank you, Tavis. Thanks for having me.
Tavis: My pleasure.
Duvall: I appreciate it.
Tavis: I’m honored.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm