A lifetime in the moment – actor Robert Duvall – Interview
IF ANY ACTOR could be said to be incapable of a false moment, it’s Robert Duvall. Duvall carries his profound talent lightly, with a master’s relaxed assurance and effortless authority. Look at any Duvall performance and you’ll see that it has no use for glamour, and that the work ethic is paramount. He toiled steadily as a character actor on episodic TV and in movies all through the Sixties, and a supporting role in 1972’s The Godfather was the first payoff. You could call him the anti-Redford (he had supporting roles in two Redford films, The Chase and The Natural), advancing the cause of realism in screen acting with integrity and responsibility and with no regard for the office of stardom. This elevation of acting to new heights of naturalism and simplicity assumes an almost ethical dimension when linked to Duvall’s social-realist insistence on sticking to the truth of real life and experience. In this and many other respects he is close kin to Gene Hackman, with whom he roomed when they were both struggling actors. Curiously, apart from an oblique one-scene encounter in The Conversation, the two never worked together until 1993, in Geronimo: An American Legend–though both had played characters based on New York cop Eddie Egan in the early Seventies: Duvall in Badge 373, Hackman in The French Connection.
Much of Duvall’s work belongs in a cinematic pantheon of American masculinity, where his enduring theme is a familiar one: the temperamentally solitary or difficult mans uneasy accommodation with domesticity, exemplified by his Navy pilot in The Great Santini. His performances span a continuum stretching from the egoless quietism of his stoic, enduring sawmill caretaker in Tomorrow and his efficent, self-effacing consiglieri in The Godfather to the posturing egomania of his air cavalry Colonel in Apocalypse Now and his verbose criminal dandy in The Lightship. Duvall is adept at country folk and urban types alike, though he has gravitated towards the former in the latter half of his career, at least partly by dint of a lasting association and collaboration with screenwriter-playwright Horton Foote–beginning with To Kill a Mockingbird and The Chase, pivoting on Tomorrow, and continuing through Tender Mercies and Convicts. Though he seems to have retired it, for a time Duvall had one of American cinemas great improbable laughs–a hoarse, staccato bark, deployed to devastating effect in Apocalypse Now. In its ne plus ultra manifestation, the car scene in The Killer Elite, it finally suggests the hysterical or neurotic underpinnings of hypermasculinity–territory Duvall would definitively map in his legendary performance as Teach in Ulu Grosbard’s Broadway production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo in 1977.
A tremendously compressed interior life also made him an ideal incarnation of the paranoia and alienation of the contemporary-futuristic organization man of THX 1138 and The Conversation. By the same token, two of his greatest performances–his country singer hiding from life but facing hard facts in Tender Mercies (for which he won an Academy Award), and his resentful detective sibling worn down by the attrition of unspoken feelings in True Confessions–are indelibly poignant studies in inarticulate introspection. Latterly he has come to be what one might call an elder statesman, but for his indifference to status: the weary grace of his veteran Texas Ranger in the TV miniseries Lonesome Dove, the humane professionalism of his Los Angeles cop in Colors, and the gentle paternalism of his country doctor in Rambling Rose shade into the crumbling ruin of his senile autocratic plantation owner in Convicts and the dazed shadow of a man he presents us with as Billy Bob Thornton’s father in Sling Blade, unreconciled in his dementia. What finally unites all of Duvall’s performances is this: a sense of vigorously exercised will, of deliberate purposeful action, of fixed, absolute presence.
Duvall’s unshakable dedication to and curiosity about the truth of ordinary lives in all their contradictions, to the sublime or exotic that c an lie just beneath the everyday, carries over into his forays behind the camera: a 1975 documentary, We’re Not the Jet Set; the 1982 independent film Angelo My Love, a documentary-inflected drama about a charismatic New York Gypsy boy and his world, which compensates for its rough construction with scenes of extraordinary behavioral observation; and his new film The Apostle, which Duvall wrote, directed, produced, and plays the lead in, as a flawed but impassioned Texas evangelist who falls and reinvents himself to seek degree-zero redemption. This is a remarkable, fully realized vision of irrepressible spiritual exaltation–and incidentally a long-overdue corrective to the hypocritical, repressive born-again fanatic bogeyman so favored by good Hollywood liberals, a variant of which Duvall played years ago in M*A*S*H. The Apostle carefully balances and harmonizes the demands of dramatic narrative against Duvall’s own fervent commitment: to the truth of the moment and the life of the characters, his lifelong calling.
What inspired The Apostle? I’ve just always wanted to play one of these preachers. Many years ago when I was in Arkansas, just wandering around. I saw preachers who had music around them. a guy on a guitar. and this kind of thing has always interested me. There was a [project] called The Kingdom; Sidney Lumet was gonna direct and Mamet was gonna do rewrites–a strange duo for this subject. Hollywood said I wasn’t right for it. The two guys who wrote the script approached Horton Foote after it fell through and asked him if he could help revive it: “Could you talk Bob Duvall into playing the lead, because we wrote it for him? Horton said, “Well, Bobby’s s doing his own script since that s fallen through.” I gone once a month for ten months to Texas, stayed with friends and went to all kinds of churches doing research. Because of the whole sense of being in that community, really trying to immerse myself. sop it UK, and learn stuff, when The Kingdom fell through I just kept going.
What would The Kingdom have been about?
As I remember, it was about two preachers, different aspects in their whole approach. It was a pretty good scrips. Were they grassroots preachers?
They came from grassroots, but there’s a contamination process that seems to set in with some of these preachers once they get into that nouvelle-riche realm. television or whatever: they can really become insufferable in their self-righteousness. It s a joke. Within the nucleus of this movement, there are some very sincere, honest people. But maybe they couldn’t handle it when they got this sudden power; I don’t know, maybe some of them don’t even want it. The thrill of it is to try to show this world the way it should be shown.
I saw clips of Elmer Gantry and it was all patronization time by Hollywood. putting forth caricatures and these quick, easy images of what really isn’t. So that’s an education process. When people would say. “Are you gonna make your guy this way?”, I said, no, he’s an honest guy who lives what he believes, but he has weaknesses like anybody else, hypocrisy … no more nor less than any Hollywood producer or guy that runs a studio who are making the decisions about this.
I called up Harry Crews, the novelist. a very talented guy. He wrote one script that was okay, but then 1 figured, He’s gonna write a script and explore those people–what if it goes so far in one direction that I don’t know how to pull it back? I’ve gotta jump in and do my own. Horton Foote encouraged me.
I direct as an actor; as an extension of that; and I feel that whatever I may offer as a writer … I was a terrible writer in school, I don’t consider myself a writer. What I know and what I think I understand about behavior, what I look for in behavioral terms … because that’s what I’ve been doing for many years anyway, taking something that’s nothing more than ink and transforming it into behavior. Even though the concept may be there, it’s still ink.
What really got under your skin about playing a preacher?
An actor always looks for challenges, and this was a wonderful challenge, something I felt I could clot I’m not saying other actors couldn’t, but I felt I had a bead on this guy. It was very challenging in a titillating, alive way. I wanted to see if I could recreate the rhythms, the temperament, the whole makeup and aura of the guy. I was afraid of having to direct it, but Coppola, Ulu Grosbard, Richard Pearce all told me I should: they sensed I understood it maybe more than they would if I would have called them in to direct. I didn’t wanna come up with an indictment or a critique of these people–I wanted something from their point of view. From within their midst but not really of them. To come into that realm and take out of it and gut forth what I feel is there.
That’s really an actor’s approach.
I think so. When I was in those churches I was very objective; I kept saying, I’m not really a part of this, yet I am but I’m not–I’m very cut off from it. But maybe that’s the way it had to be. I searched in a very enthusiastic and fun way, to really glean what I had to glean from it.
Did you ever feel swept up in it?
In the music, sometimes, the singing. One time in a very classic church in Harlem, the Metropolitan Opera Choir were singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and a very quiet emotion came Over me. I could count that as a conversion, if I were of this persuasion, but I just took it to be a very wonderful, personal feeling. I certainly could have counted it as a conversion if I had been looking to be converted. Sometimes people get swept up and that is very genuine; other times I think it’s a mass [psychology! thing, so the individual has to be careful.
In a sense, preaching is another uniquely American artform, like jazz or the Western. Was that important to you in how you related to it?
Very. I wanted to find the style of preaching and approximate that as well as I could, as I tried to in Tender Mercies with the singing. And that’s a big part of the infatuation for me. There was a line I took out of the script (because it got very long) where I said, “If preaching is in any part of my body, it’s in my blood and it’ll be there until the day I die and go to heaven.?’ And preachers are very good storytellers; I’ve been to churches where a guy will take one line from the Bible and then go on for an hour and a half, putting on almost impromptu plays or improvisations. When people give their tithes, it’s just their entertainment. They might shy away from saying that, but it’s true. It’s a form of entertainment for their spirituality. I noticed there are a lot of jokes in the sermons in the film.
Oh yeah, there’s a lot of humor. They’re always keeping that audience alive.
There’s a cutaway after the accident scene at the start of the film where the girl’s hand moves. It seems to suggest some kind of miracle.
Definitely. When I first saw it, it gave me goosebumps. That was meant to be. [My character’s intervention] could be a miracle, or some working that’s very therapeutic. Maybe there’s something to the power of prayer. But he did say “one may live and one may die,” and the young man already speaks, and you see her lifeless. And then she does move her arm. And it just happens to be a nice spiritual payoff.
What directors have influenced you? When people ask me that, they say, “You worked with Ron Howard, you worked with this other person….” And I’ll say, “Well, Ken Loach.” That kind of stops them in their tracks, which I kind of like to do. That movie of his, Kes–it was like, when I came out, I was a little confused. It wasn’t a documentary, I knew it was fiction, but…. Scorsese sometimes can do that, his New York films. And that Yugoslavian guy, Emir Kusturica–When Father Was Away On Business was stunning; he’s good with actors. Another film that was good was My Life As a Dog.
Weren’t you in one of Lasse Hallstrom’s films?
Yeah, [Something to Talk About]; it was okay. I think sometimes when those guys come over here, they miss the point. That’s why Kenneth Loach doesn’t come: he’s smart, plus he doesn’t want to work here anyway. I tried to get him to come direct Tender Mercies, but he didn’t want to, which I can understand. He liked my Gypsy film very much, which I sent to him. I met him once for coffee, and we talked a few times on the phone. I asked him if he knew a good writer to write a soccer script, set in northern England. Someday I’d like to play a soccer coach, an over-the-hill soccer player; that’s been in the back of my mind for awhile.
Which directors that you’ve worked with have had the most influence on you as a director?
Ulu Grosbard on stage and in True Confessions, very much so. Coppola in a different way: he’s more of a literary guy than a behavior guy sometimes, but I watched one of those behind-the-scenes documentaries and I realized he knew a lot about acting. He said to an actor, “I don’t care where you end up, just go.” A guy like Kenneth Loach or Scorsese or Ulu Grosbard helps you by setting the atmosphere, and then it comes through you anyway. I’ve seen actors who’ve worked with these guys be not nearly as good under other auspices. People say “bigger than life,” but nothing’s bigger than life. And now people are stuck on this term “over the top.” Granted, sometimes there are people with big personalities–and they’re not over the top, their temperament is such that that’s what it is. You play within the confines of the temperament–it’s going to be big at times and not over the top.
When you’re directing and acting in the moment, do you sacrifice anything as an actor?
Maybe not in this situation [The Apostle]. Maybe I could have used help–you never know what another eye might bring. I’ve worked with wonderful directors, and usually you know when the take is good, and they know when the take is good. You look at them, they look at you; you’re pretty much on the same wavelength if you’re working in the same way. I know when it’s okay. I worked with a crazy Polish director, Jerzy Skolimowski [on The Lightship], and he said, “In directing yourself, you prepare the whole situation and then at the last minute you step in front of the camera.” That’s kind of the way it was. I kept telling everybody it was just like a line rehearsal, just a simple throw-it-away, nothing’s precious, make it offhand so it’s like life; and that way I could arrive at a sense of behavior that was like life within picture time, instead of having to act out concepts and let’s sit down and rehearse that can be dangerous unless the director really knows what he’s doing. So we just kinda went with it each day. And that’s the way I work as an actor myself.
But aren’t there other things the director can do for an actor besides deciding if the take is good? A director may say something to an actor just before the cameras roll that gives them something they wouldn’t have had.
It doesn’t happen often. I’m sure that it’s happened to me–in a bad way more than a good way. Sometimes you want to say, “Please guys, back up–let me do it, otherwise you put on the costume and you do it.” The best directors I’ve worked with leave you alone. Maybe they’ll tell you something, say, “You wanna try another one?” And without too much direction, just by trying another one, something might happen. A guy like Kenneth Loach arrives at things through improvisation, and therefore you both find the way you want to go instead of just results. Going for results can be dangerous.
But I know what you’re saying. On True Confessions Ulu Grosbard said, “You don’t have to worry about getting anywhere, just see where it goes, forget about energy.” Usually it’s the other way round–directors want [snapping fingers] energy, pace–which is what’s wrong with so many movies: you just see everybody up there trying to do something.
A wonderful director like Stanley Kubrick–some of the worst acting performances in the history of cinema are in his movies. The guy that’s coming back, Terry Malick, you see nice performances, so it depends on who that somebody is.
Are you as an actor in any way dependent on the director?
Yeah, you rely on the director to let you alone and see what you do. A lot of times when it’s warfare it can still come out okay–it’s a resistance thing. But it’s better when you’re on the same wavelength.
What do you do as a director when an actor can’t solve an acting problem?
In Angelo My Love, I wanted a specific moment about how Angelo’s mother loved him when he’s being reprimanded by her. She was okay, but something happened, so I pushed her aside and off-camera I became the mother. As we do, another actor off-camera, we try to help each other. So when I said, “How much do you love me?”, Angelo said, “Up to Heaven,” and he got very emotional and I was a bit emotional. In that instance, I became that character and it worked. [On The Apostle] I tried to make sure everybody were themselves. I said, “Let’s not act, what I’ve written isn’t precious–let’s just see where it goes.” And these were talented people, so they came up with things.
Do you see a conflict between the director’s job of telling the story and the actor’s need to explore the moments truthfully?
I thought about that. I said let’s keep the story moving. (You realize that sometimes when these directors keep asking for pace, a portion of that is justified.) Eventually we had to pare scenes down or cut them out completely, but the sense of talking and listening … the actors understood the logic of the demands of each scene which would be different from simple talking-listening. But it still boils down to, I talk, you listen, and that’s what I wanted more than anything. Things are going to happen if talented people are relaxed and go that minimum route rather than the more result-maximum route.
As an actor, when you edit do you feel that you want to preserve the integrity of a take and the moments in it, or do you feel free to mix takes to create an edited truth?
Yeah, sometimes precious moments have to go. It’s better to cut around things rather than into them.
Can a director make a performance in the editing room?
Find it. If you don’t have it? I don’t think you can find it. A chef has to have good produce to make good food. Rearranging and mixing takes are legitimate cheating as long as it comes out somewhat pure. But when you have a good take, you try to stick with it, not out of laziness but out of clarity–instead of forty takes, which can get confusing in the editing room.
How has your directing evolved from your first film, We’re Not the Jet Set, through the documentary style of Angelo My Love?
There’s maybe a little more structure in The Apostle, and the way of filming is a little more conventional, but it’s still the same sense of letting those people and their society dictate what the fictional form will be, and then turn it around so that as much comes from them as possible. That’s why we peopled the churches with real people. If I got stuck I’d just say. “Give me an Amen,” and they’d know what to do. You try to get from them what they’re about without judging them. In Angelo My Love the one actor I got was Timmy Phillips, who played the teacher at the beginning. He was a wonderful improviser–had he not known how to improvise as an actor, he couldn’t have kept up with that Gypsy boy, who just improvises in life and was able to do it in front of the camera as well. They were natural actors. so I just pounced on that.
How were you attracted to the Gypsy world of Angelo My Love?
I met the kid in ’79 when I was living on 71st and Columbus. I saw this kid and I didn’t know what he was. He had a diamond ring and a blue suit. He was 7 and he was trying to kiss this 25-year-old woman. And he would stand there and a guy would go by and he’d say, “Hey mister, do you have the time?” And the guy would say, “Quarter to 3.” Eight seconds later another guy would go by and he’d say, “You got the time?” “Quarter to 3.” Then another guy would come along: “Hey man, you got the time?” I said, “Angelo, what are you doing?” He said, “I wanna make these people work for me.” This 7-year-old kid. In that society the kids are privy to everything, all the tricks and chicanery.
How did the story evolve?
I just kind of pieced it together. Some guy had written a Hollywood script that wasn’t right; I conferred with Horton Foote and he said, “No, do your own.” I did my own and he said, “I like this better. It’s fresher, it comes from them more.” A simple story, but it held it together. It took four years to get off the ground, and in the meantime I hung around with them. All of that was valuable time: it seemed to be wasted on one hand but valuable on the other.
You didn’t whitewash them; you show some of their negative aspects.
Yeah, that’s right. They’d say, “Oh, we don’t do those things.” Well, they do. The scene that I like so much is with a Puerto Rican lady who was the editor’s aunt. I didn’t say to them, “Hustle her”–I just said, “Just try to find out where she lives.” So they hustled her. I didn’t have to direct them, they knew how to do that. I whispered things to her and we just kept it alive, made it real within movie time, and she didn’t quite know that it was being filmed.
You get the sense that they can be predators.
Absolutely. What about the last scene, when Angelo is listening to the radio preacher and he telephones the man he thinks they may have killed.
He wanted to check to see if the guy was still alive, see what’s there with that guy who’s been the adversary. In The Apostle I call up the Farrah Fawcett character, my wife, to make sure she’s there, and then hang up. My parents died, and one time I called their number, maybe just to see what was there. People do strange things. In We’re Not the Jet Set, it’s a very conservative area out there. A kid crossed a wire fence to steal some corn and he was electrocuted. There was a court case and [the man who electrified the fence] was brought in and the charge was dismissed. So B.A. Peterson used to call this man and say, “John So-and-so?” “Who is this?” “I’m that little boy you killed. I’m calling you from heaven.” “WHO IS THIS?” And then he’d hang up.
Why did you make We’re Not the Jet Set?
I was doing The Rain People with Francis Coppola, and there was this interesting family out there in Nebraska. The father was a good-looking guy and he had all these kids. They were rednecks and performers, but they were Episcopalian; it was a strange combination. And he said, “All you boys on the movie come on down anytime, ride our horses, make yourself at home, you getting any pussy?”–all in one sentence. So funny. We were there about six weeks and I thought, boy, they should be in a film, just the contradictions of this patriarch. So after a few years I took a cameraman down there together with my [then-]wife and we went there for two weeks about six times and filmed. The cameramen … one guy was on dope and the camera would wander off [the subjects]; another guy shot tight and wanted to keep all the film to himself; finally we got the right guy and matched it all together. John Cassavetes really liked it a lot and he sent me a script to direct. And when I worked with his wife [Gene Rowlands], she said, “Oh, we all liked Angelo My Love.”
Did the film turn out as expected?
In any film there’s always an unexpected turn. You say, Oh wow, I missed that moment, but Oh, I got this, and if you try to recreate stuff it’s too hard. And you always try to get the humanity and warmth even in a family that’s at each other’s throats; you always try to get that vulnerable side. Though it’s a documentary, you shoot it as if they’re scenes. I understand this film the other night about Neil Young [Year of the Horse] was interesting, but a little weak as far as the humanity of the people; it was just about the music, instead of getting in there. When George Lucas did a documentary on The Rain People, Francis was in there cursing and practically throwing things at Shirley Knight, saving “What are we going to do?”–it was like a scene. Somebody allowed that to happen; it shows interesting stuff instead of just what wants to be shown. So we got some pretty interesting stuff, these people got pretty loose in front of the camera. They might be aware of it as an actor might be, but they might just regard it as a lamp or something–I know it’s there but I’m into this.
So you didn’t feel they played things up for you?
Not so much. I think you’ve got to watch for professional actors playing up more than you do the nonactor. The nonactor can get inhibited or nervous. If you give people what they can do, then that’s gold, film-wise. You’ve got to give people what they can do.
In what way is the character you play in The Apostle most like yourself?
I don’t know that he’s like me so much, but I think every character you play has to be somewhat like yourself; it comes out of you someplace. I think the fun-loving aspect a little, or the ceremonious part; I have that side that wants to jump out and exalt sometimes, not necessarily religiously, about the things that I like. My passion is like his passion.
Do you try to find the common ground between you and a character?
No, I don’t really think about that so much. Maybe that’s there, unspoken or unconscious, that there’s just something about a part that I figure maybe I can do that.
Does playing a person with a strong spiritual side present an. acting problem, or do you feel you have your own spirituality to draw upon?
I think whatever I have I have, and it’s either there or it’s not there to draw upon. Once again. it’s a man first and a farmer second. You have to define that first whether he’s a preacher or whatever the occupation is.
You don’t have to come up with an “as if’ even, for expressing that spirituality?
Sometimes that can be unconscious if you just let go; if you have such zest and love for something, it might come with it. I don’t necessarily work with “as ifs,” but I think the “as ifs” can be unconscious. If they’re conscious they’re sometimes harder, but I think [snaps his finger] those substitutions come to me in an almost unconscious way as you do it. If you’re in a play night after night, then maybe you have to substitute, and that newness works, in the fact that you feel your life come back. Sandy Meisner had a sign over his desk, “There’s no right and wrong, only truth or non truth.” Certain film critics and people working in film should learn more about it. I’ve seen people get great performances honored with accolades, but they’re a little short on the truth [chuckles].
But if you’re portraying the inner life of somebody who, on his terms, is filled with the Holy Spirit when he preaches, don’t you have to decide if that’s real for you?
Good question. I always wonder that about the real guys when I see them. Because they say there’s a difference, and it could be between emotion and that. In many of them 1 don’t see the difference in terms of behavior. It’s such a personal and individual thing. It’s a very good question–I’ve thought about it very much. Who’s to say what somebody feels? The people who pass judgment on it and say, It’s this or this, very often are the ones I feel don’t have it anyway. So it’s a pretty touchy thing. I’ve seen a lot of preachers, and if you really watch them it’s like, Come on guys, come on. I found some preachers” imaginations spin them. I think the people that really feel something are real quiet about it.
What you ask is the beginning and the end of it all–that’s the question people wrestle with in life: can we really communicate with God? Some people say they do, but do they really? I’m not so sure a lot of them communicate as readily as they’ve stated. I’ve seen people taken over by the Holy Spirit and it’s definitely a type of emotion. Maybe within that, there’s something deeply convincing that’s coming from someplace. Years ago, speaking in tongues was considered more or less leaning towards the Devil; now it’s accepted. I don’t know what the difference is. The people who speak out the most for it on the verge of judgmental, are the people I expect the least from, as far as truth. I would be more comfortable around the people who put it in question and don’t know.
When Sonny wakes up in the middle of the night, he seems to think God is telling him to go to his estranged wife Jessie’s house? As an actor, do you have to make that real?
It’s the same God that’s supposedly warning her that’s leading him on. He has a premonition–where does that come from ?During World War II my mother woke up and sat up and begin to pray, and my father would be in a precarious situation in the North Atlantic fighting the Germans. So, those kinds of things bring people in touch with something, as far as protecting those around them.
As Sonny’s beginning the last sermon, the police officer enters and he loses his composure for a moment. Did you make a choice for yourself there?
It just happened. If I had made a choice I would have said, This is the way I would like to it to go, this direction. I just got kind of emotional; it was all a little improvised beat within what was happening.
What kind of link did you seek to make between Sonnys spiritual charisma and his sexuality?
It’s always been the Achilles heel of everybody in power. A big, big preacher I know, a nice man, once told me, “It’s amazing, there’s a wave of sensuality that goes back and forth between me and the women in the congregation. It’s something powerful, something you have to fight.” That’s interesting. So maybe preaching, which supposedly has this spiritual basis, is accompanied by a lot of sensuousness. I tried to suggest that Sonny was a womanizer. Still, his main love is dealing with those who evangelize.
Was the itinerant Texas oil prospector you played in The Stars Fell on Henrietta a kind of preacher figure to you?
Yes. I had a whole scene where I preached, “Between Heaven and Hell there’s a place called Earth, and in that Earth we find Oil.” I improvised the whole thing, and somebody said, “Those words aren’t in the script.” It wasn’t my film so it had to be cut, and the producer, Clint Eastwood, took it over from the director–there were a lot of egos floating around. But I thoroughly enjoyed that character; it was one of my favorite parts, [and] a wonderful script.
But he s also a trickster figure.
Yeah, he has a cat, like a witch; he believes in something supernatural. I didn’t try make Sonny a trickster. although he has his moves.
How much of your acting derives from observation of the world around you and how much from what you find in yourself ?
Oh, it’s a mixture. You prepare yourself, you think, you look around–it all feeds your imagination, it’s a hodgepodge–and then you just go with the moment and try to stay in the moment. Like my friend Wilford Brimley says, “When they say `Action,’ you better come up with something.”
In England they work more with their imaginations. Over here, maybe if an actor’s got to play a cowboy, go out and try being a cowboy, what’s wrong with that? Olivier said to Dustin, “Try acting.” Well, that’s fine, that’s true: but also try being in the moment [snaps fingersl, which Olivier never was. He was a great actor in one way, but there are different ways. Mastroianni, who I love, said, “So many American actors want to suffer instead of act,” which is true. But sometimes if you’re suffering the right moment, which he could do, that’s when you’re suffering–when the camera’s rolling.
When you were beginning as an actor, did you try too hard?
I’ve always been a late bloomer. I did a lot of theater, did okay in some parts here and there, but I hadn’t lived a lot. A lot of kids today are better actors as youngsters than we were. In some ways they’re more sophisticated, more open–they have TV and movies. When I was coming up, in some ways I had a sheltered background and I feel I didn’t have much to offer. I feel like I got better as I got older.
Now that you’re well-known, is observation of people’s behavior harder to do unobtrusively now?
I still can in my own way. Sometimes I’ll say to a guy, “I’m using you, I’m studying you.” And being well-known opens doors for me. Now I’m playing a lawyer, so I’m going to the Supreme Court to hear this litigator argue, and I’m going to call the real guy I’m playing. I don’t necessarily need to meet him, because nobody knows who they are, but maybe just to talk to him, that could open a door, I could learn something. If I was unknown I could go into courtrooms easier and so on, but this way is another way. Was emotional freedom ever an issue for you as an actor earlier in your career?
I had to fight for it more at one time. Now it’s not much of a problem. Sometimes on a TV show I’d have an emotional scene and I’d be okay, but I was trying to go for the real thing, and that’s harder to do. I could approximate it, skillfully, [but] then it’s not the real thing. The real thing is hard to get sometimes–where do you draw from? Sometimes it’s just not there.
Yeah. And as you get older you get better. An emotional scene now is easy, but to get a glass of water and take it over there can be hard sometimes.
Over the years, has there been an aspect of yourself that you’ve had to cultivate in order to grow creatively?
To be more aware of myself, more aware of people, to be laid back enough to be open and to expand and not be judgmental. Actors are as vicious as these guys on Wall Street or anyplace. Maybe it’s always that way, but I’m really surprised when some of the young actors I know rip the shit out of each other. So you have to give credit, and by giving credit it keeps you on guard: if you feel somebody’s good, then you come up with something. You shouldn’t feel you have all the answers, you shouldn’t become that arrogant, because then you stop growing. So you say, Oh God that guy’s good, ooh, I don’t know, let me try something. To admit that keeps the growth process going.
In Colors you play a veteran street cop who has all this accumulated wisdom and self-assurance. Did you draw upon your own command of acting to find that level of authority?
I think so. But also for instance I went around with Roy Nunez, who was a technical advisor. I’d seen the way he related to hookers and kids; he’d walk that line and be very friendly with them…. In one scene with a kid I improvised a line. I asked the kid if he was scared and he said no. I felt his heart and I said, “Your heart s racing like a hundred-yard dash.” I had seen Nunez do this with a kid to mess with him, to deal with him that way. I didn’t tell the director [Dennis Hopper]–he welcomed those things. That’s experience.
Was the dynamic between you and Sean Penn reflected in the mentor-reluctantstudent dynamic of the characters?
I’m sure, yeah. We had an argument once in a restaurant, and he called a month later to do this movie and I said, “We’ll just keep arguing.” There was an edge there which was okay. Your death scene at the end was really extraordinary.
I told Dennis that I wanted to improvise. We did it in one take mainly; we did other takes but I said, “Sean, protect me in the editing room.” I thought that a macho cop, mortally wounded, might call out for the woman closest to him. So he says, “Someone call my wife.” Just the attack of the scene gave me a very cold, vulnerable feeling, as opposed to the death scene in Lonesome Dove where he goes out on a romantic wave, thinking of his sweetheart that he’ll never have…. It’s all playacting. It’s fun, too. You hit that emotional thing [snaps finger], but when you hit it, it’s like a nice game in the back of your head. Just by saying certain words, certain things go through your head that might trigger off something or introduce something that’s a surprise to you.
So there’s no specific emotional preparation?
Well, probably it didn’t hurt any the fact that I was separated from my wife and it was an emotional thing that in my own life I didn’t have somebody to reach out to and be real close.
I’ve always liked The Chase, even though it’s flawed —
Yeah, it’s pretty flawed. They should have shot it in Texas, not Hollywood. I was doing A View from the Bridge off-Broadway with Ulu Grosbard, and it was helping my career quite a lot. But on the other hand I wasn’t making much money and I had just got married and I had two stepdaughters and The Chase was $30,000, money which I’d never seen or heard of before. So I got out there, and I’d been playing Eddie Carbone, talking budda-bing, and now I was playing a guy was playing a guy from Texas and I had to take about four hours to talk myself out of this New York rhythm.
What was Brando like to work with?
When I first worked with Brando he called me into his dressing room and we talked. I said, “What do you think of the script? I think it’s okay.” “I think it’s pretty shitty,” he said [laughs]. Then I said to my wife, “This guy’s great, we’re going to be like friends!” And then we spoke a little on the set–and after that, for about eight weeks he wouldn’t speak to me. I thought, What a narcissistic peacock. He seemed full of himself. A guy with all these causes–he can’t say good morning to people [laughs]. I’d told my wife we were going to be great friends, and I figured out he probably knew I’d expected that, so he snubbed me. It was nice to work around him even though he wasn’t a particularly pleasant guy.
Could you reflect on your careerlong professional relationship with Horton Foote?
My career at one point was like a railroad track. After I did The Godfather, pretty many things happened, and the other railroad track I had was Horton Foote’s work. If I had had nothing but that, it would have been a nice little career. It goes back to the Neighborhood Playhouse, when I did hook into a part emotionally, which it’s always hard for a young actor to do. In The Mid night Caller I had to weep every night and come on stage drunk, and it seemed to go over pretty well. One night the lights went out and we kept going. Horton came to see it with Robert Mulligan and Kim Stanley, and they liked it. A few years later they were casting To Kill a Mockingbird and Horton’s wife Lily remembered me, and then they saw me on “Naked City” in an episode called “The One Marked Hot Gives Cold,” about a guy who’s falsely accused of child molesting, and they said okay and I got the part. Then we did his play Tomorrow off-Broadway about 1966.
In the film version of Tomorrow, your characterization seems to be built in a subtractive way, stripping away all expressivity.
Right. That was my signature performance–until Lonesome Dove. The guy could have been a relation to the guy in To Kill a Mockingbird. It was a nice thing to do after the play, but I wouldn’t see it for a year because certain people cut out certain scenes and I had no say. One scene I thought they cut out they did put back in, and if I hadn’t seen it I would have gone nuts. I couldn’t believe people could do that to a film.
What was the change in the character in terms of an arc?
I don’t know if people change, I think they alter. The guy was opened up in a way because he found love. It gave him a new lease on life even though it was internal and you couldn’t see it on his face. I have to ask you about your performance in The Lightship. It’s a curious film and a bizarre, colorful character, but it’s one of your best.
They told me in Venice that [John] Schlesinger voted me down to get the best-actor award; he said I was too flamboyant and thought I had made a mockery of gay people. I may have been broad, but I think I was accurate in what I did I don’t think I was out of my temperament. I wanted to be flamboyant, what I would do as a flamboyant guy. (When I see Schlesinger’s movies, I don’t think he’s any master of directing actors.)
It was nice working with Skolimowski–crazy fella, a daredevil. And I wanted to work with [Klaus Maria Brandauer]; he’s a talented guy-insufferable. He’d knock guys off their marks, put his head over the camera, offer the makeup girl $100 to sleep with him, and then turn around like it was everybody else’s fault. I played along with it, I figured I had to get through the movie. I didn’t know how to win with the guy. It was hard to go to work every day. In one scene I started singing “What a Difference a Day Makes,” I heard a Gypsy woman do that once, and he got so thrown by it–when he got insecure he’d get close to you. I loved him in Mephisto–that’s what I mean about a big temperament. The guy’s talented, but I think he’s burned his bridges. Skolimowski liked it if you did something bizarre. Like when I grabbed Arliss Howard and jitterbugged; I’d seen two Filipino guys jitterbug on my father’s ship when he was captain. Some critic said I’m sure it’s a performance that Duvall would want to forget–I liked what I did in it! It’s a little on the perverse side, and if you do something a little perverse, people tend not to like that. I really created that character.
All the mannerisms and affectations and business?
Yes. It wasn’t in the writing. What made him tick?
Just the sense of a bizarre adventure, to go out and live dangerously. A peacock, the kind of guy who’d do a striptease, Southern, aristocratic William [F.] Buckley a little bit, a guy that’s learned to live with his affectations.
When I was rewatching it, I remembered hearing that you had been interested in playing Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
Not true. They came to me. I had lunch with Jonathan Demme and we talked about the possibility. Gene Hackman was going to direct it originally and he wanted me to play the part.
Would you have done it with him?
I’m not sure I would have. I don’t like a part like that. It’s too … it’s like when they offered me the part in a movie with Sean Penn where I killed my son. I did want to play the lead in Schindler’s List, but they wanted a younger guy.
Is the kind of work you have to put in as an actor different in a supporting role as opposed to a lead?
No. You always try to make it as true as possible.
I’d like to touch on a few memorable supporting roles over the years and what ideas you brought to them. You’re in one scene in Sling Blade, one camera setup, sitting in an armchair, and you seem to be in a world of your own.
I’m in my own reverie; I was trying to go for a sense of senility, not knowing what’s there. I had a dog who died and I think it’s still there. What was your idea for Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now?
I enjoyed that. My idea for him–I did a little research in between the two times I shot and found out that the head of Air Cavalry used to go deer hunting twice a week and got killed that way. To overcome the tedium and boredom of war, they played games. One Israeli general always looked for a place to snorkel dive. They know their craft and their trade well enough, like us actors, that they look for crazy things to do when they’re working. Kilgore was a guy who liked to surf, he had a hobby, and in this particular war they could exist side by side.
By the time the movie came out – I didn’t care, it wasn’t my project – but there was a scene Coppola edited out where I save a baby’s life. I say, “Put him in my helicopter.” So he’s saving a baby after he’s probably killed its parents. We’d heard this was a true story. Maybe somebody told Coppola, “Let’s make this guy one way or the other,” but it was another contradiction and a nice moment.
How much of the behavioral stuff was written and how much was from you?
I always felt a lot of me was in there, in a good way.
The way your character leaves the film–leaving the frame with an unfinished sentence – is very memorable.
Yeah, “Someday this war’s gonna end,” meaning: it’s better that it’s over, but boy we’re having good time. This is what guys become military men for, whether they admit it or not. If you’re a military man, it’s better to have ribbons for combat than for no combat, I would think, so I guess there’s always some yearning for war. Like the line in The Great Santini, he’s a warrior without a war.
What about his physicality – the way he struts ?
He’s kind of a narcissistic guy, into surfing, full of himself, so I tried to get in shape. That whole strutting thing came out of costume and thinking about the war. Was the shooting as chaotic as they say, and how did that affect your creative process?
It was chaotic. To get up in those helicopters and look down at those scenes that approximated this war was really vivid, like it was real. Coppola said it was like being in a war, but it wasn’t nobody died, although it was dangerous being in those helicopters. The first two weeks in those helicopters I was an amateur, it was ridiculous, I was scared [laughs]. I don’t like heights. When they changed lead actors, we reshot stuff and I’d gotten pretty much okay about it, but I had to get used to it, and then a certain freedom came out.
What about working with Peckinpah in The Killer Elite?
I did that part because Jimmy Caan asked me to; I like working with Jimmy. One time we were shooting and Peckinpah just started talking right out loud during the scene [booming voice], “HE’S NIXON. YOU HATE HIM.” “How’d you know how I vote?” I said [laughs]. He was okay. A little out of it. How did you see your role in The Godfather? What sort of emotional life did he have?
Well, he was an adopted son and he couldn’t overstep the line, and I as an actor kind of felt that way. I was in the background. So that was one thing. I always felt he was like a Secret Service man, always watching. Emotional life pretty repressed.
How did you come to acting?
My dad and my mother pushed me into it. For a military family, that was kind of unusual. We put on skits for guests; my brother was a singer, my mother had been an amateur actress, and there was music and singing on my father’s side of the family. They maybe wanted me to go to the Naval Academy, but they could see that wouldn’t work. They said “Well, rather than being drafted and go fight in Korea, let’s see if we can’t find him something to do.” I was kind of foundering around in school, and they recommended acting as an expedient thing to get through. I’m glad they did. It was a small college in Illinois with a good drama coach. We did all kinds of plays, and I got into summer theater and one thing led to another. When I got out of the Army I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse and all that. They began to see I was real serious and they accepted that. Had you moved around a lot growing up in a military family ?
Yeah, that sense of a transient lifestyle definitely was in evidence in my early years.
Do you feel you have roots anywhere?
Not so much. The two cities I lived in were San Diego, California, and Annapolis, Maryland – two Navy towns. My father was from a farm in Northern Virginia and my mother was born in Missouri but grew up in Seattle. The bulk of her family was from eastern Texas.
So your connection with the South begins with that.
Yeah, roots, and mentality-wise as well. Was the Neighborhood Playhouse important to you?
Yeah. I had done plays, but I wanted to go get some kind of training under the firing squad of a guy like [Sanford] Meisner, who’s not an easy guy to relax around. He did tell me once he was easier to please than Strasberg. The thing that Sandy was so good at was teaching improvisation, and “simple reality” is the beginning and the end of anything. I didn’t agree with everything. I remember saying in front of some of his underlings that I thought were not so talented teachers, that anything goes; it doesn’t have to be the imagination, it can be personal, on the day it can be anything you take on to a stage. They looked at me like I was…. And when you really look at some of the work at Meisner’s place or at the Actors Studio, it’s not that great, so they shouldn’t be too smug.
Was Meisner teaching the repetition exercise when you were there?
No, but I thought it was terrific and I used it when I directed Angelo. I haven’t done it under anybody’s special auspices, but the way I see it, repeating what the other person says back and forth, until it takes a turn and you go in another direction, I guess it’s a form of script, and there’s a certain behavior underneath that. And it’s such a minimum thing that it keeps you within a certain frame of truth and prohibits certain results. I did it with Angelo before we filmed; it gets you off yourself and helps you go with your impulses in an improvisational way. Sandy said, “You do all that preparation and then you go in and forget about it and go with the moment and take from the other person.” What you get from the other person – if you’ve need to be emotional, that may happen, but don’t try to choreograph it. So what happens if you’re working with someone who’s not a good actor?
Well, you just take what you can get. You have to take what they give you and that’s it.
What were the hardest lessons for you starting out?
To relax. Nervousness … don’t worry about being judged. I always felt that there was somebody out there judging me. My brother once said, “Caruso always felt there was somebody out there in the audience trying to destroy him.” I always felt that too much, rather than being arrogant. You’re your own worst enemy then.
Were you conscious in the Sixties and Seventies of being part of a movement of actors trying to raise the level of realism that the so-called Method once promised?
I always wanted to be as truthful as possible, and I felt that so many of the old actors were not very truthful except for a guy like Spencer Tracy, who was just marvelous, and Walter Huston, too. I think we helped the actors that came after us.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Film Society of Lincoln Center
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