Happy Birthday, Robert Duvall: The Screen Legend Lays Down the Law

Robert Duvall turns 84 today! We’re revisiting our most recent interview with the ever-opinionated, hardworking acting legend – still the coolest guy in the room.

At SXSW 2014, MovieMaker caught up with Robert Duvall, who was looking forward to a good barbeque with his “crazy Texas ranger” friends before premiering his performance in A Night in Old Mexico. With his latest film, The Judge, opening October 2014, the actor looked back at his incomparable career and shared his philosophy about rehearsals and the state of the film industry.

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Andy Young, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What do you look for in a project?

Robert Duvall (RD): The character. Who’s directing. Who am I gonna end up fighting with [laughs] and is the script good? But usually I start with the character.

MM: What traits do you look for in a director you want to work with?

RD: How much are they gonna leave you alone? I worked with an old-school director once who said to an actor, “When I say ‘action,’ tense up goddamnit!” You just go with the flow and see what happens. If it’s too harmonious it can be boring. The positive and negative can lead to a better end result.

MM: How do you generally prepare for a role? Do you rehearse?

RD: I rehearse sometimes. I like working with Billy Bob Thornton and he always says “Rehearsal’s for pussies. Two takes!”

MM: Why two?

RD: The bigger the project and budget, the more they milk every shot, and it gets tiresome. Take after take, angle after angle. I don’t understand needing 60 or 70 takes. If they think they know what they’re looking for, they don’t know it when they find it. After two or three, that’s when you find it. I’ve seen movies, like The Shining—that movie’s a joke. It’s a joke when you milk something like that.

MM: What’s your favorite part of the moviemaking process?

RD: Even though it can be laborious, I love going on location and shooting. I love to travel and meet people. I started in theater but you have to do the same thing so many times a week. I said to [Marlon] Brando once that he should do Othello and he said “Bo-ring!”

Sometimes you have good camaraderie with other actors. Jimmy Caan, Bill Murray, they’re great guys to work with—the two funniest guys. And Robert Downey, Jr.

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Duvall (center) starred with Robert Downey Jr. and Dax Shepard in 2014’s The Judge, directed by David Dobkin

MM: Do you do anything unusual to prepare?

RD: Each part is different. When I did The Great Santini I got up very early and went with the drill instructors to train people, and hung out with the marines a lot. For Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, where I played a Cuban barber, I would only eat Cuban food.

When I played Stalin, that was a real challenge. I sat down with an actor from Armenia who said, “To play Stalin, you’ve got to remember the East.” That meant nothing to me, but then it came to mean something—poisons, potions, mystery.

MM: You’ve worked with so many of my favorite moviemakers. Who’s a filmmaker you learned something from?

RD: Ulu Grosbard. We’d done American Buffalo and a few other plays on Broadway and then we did True Confessions with [Robert] DeNiro and me. He was a mentor to me. The good ones like him, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman, they let the performance come from you. They hire you for what you can do, talk about it from there, and get the performance.

We’re far apart in many ways, myself and Ken Loach. But when I saw the movie Kes… I knew it was fiction, not a documentary, but he melded the two. When people say, “Was Cassavetes your hero?” I say, “No, Kenneth Loach.”

MM: Do you ever try to boost morale on set?

RD: On Godfather II, one of the actors was drunk all day long and we couldn’t get his stuff. We had three shots to get before the sun set, and we got ’em! We moved quickly, and sometimes it’s better to move fast. Even a big film like that became like a small film.

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Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather

MM: The scope of moviemaking has changed so much over the course of your career. When you think about moviemakers starting out today and the new challenges they’re facing, what advice do you have for them?
RD: That door is open! As you’re starting out, try to get with a group rather than just go it alone as an individual. There’s so much competition now. Someone said there were 4,000 independent films made last year, and only three percent got distribution! It’s crazy.

Anybody can pick up a camera in any country now and make a movie. Hollywood is still the mecca, but can you name me any Hollywood director that’s ever made a movie like My Life as a Dog? The studios, all the suits around you, they’re meddling. The money’s here, too, but you’ve got a lot of bullshit in Texas… MM

Photograph of Robert Duvall by Daisy Saulls.

This article was originally published in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2015.

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