Robert Duvall: Soldier of Fortune

Certain actors always stop me cold.

Cruising through the channels on late-night TV, God help me if I should stumble upon a Bogie movie. Struggle as I may, the eyes will stay riveted to the set, the jaw slack, for the duration. I pay for it the next day, of course, but I really had no choice. Spellbound would be an accurate description. Brando’s another one who gets me. And then there’s Robert Duvall. I catch a glimpse of a Duvall performance and I’m locked on. I believe every moment. And that’s the only measure I need to assess an actor’s greatness. Can any one of his performances keep me up at night?

I’m convinced there’s only one thing that can give an actor, or any kind of artist, really, that kind of power—an obsessive, half-mad lust for the truth. Duvall told me that Brando used to watch reruns of “Candid Camera” to study behavior. That’s competitive. In his own case, Duvall takes notes, literally and figuratively, every time someone or something touches him emotionally. His “emotional memory,” if you will, is set at savant level. And his ability to interpret that memory physically, in his work as a performer, is a gift as real as those possessed by world-class athletes and rocket scientists.

General Truth: Robert Duvall, The Plains, Virginia, Feb. 14, 2003

Like the best writers, Duvall gets his “material” from primary research, not his peers. As a friend of mine would say, this is the kind of guy who has a Ph.D. in life. If I didn’t live it, I knew guys who did, is his basic methodology. How did he make his performance as Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove so real? He worked with ranchers in Montana, of course. How did he deliver one of the most poignant screen performances ever as a man of the cloth in  The Apostle? He lived around Pentecostal preachers. How did he play a tango dancing killer in Assassination Tango, the new movie he wrote, produced, directed and starred in? He studied tango for years and he has a home in Argentina. He was also an assassin who used to work for the CIA with Chuck Barris. Just kidding. But he did know a real-life assassin and got some of his story from that knowledge.

The tagline for Assassination Tango is “No one is more dangerous than the man who lives two lives.” If living two lives is the measure of danger, Robert Duvall is one scary customer, as he lives at least three. Life #1 is the quiet one in a sprawling home in rural Virginia. Life #2 is
the Hollywood fast lane, where he works with the biggest names in the business on a regular basis, where he owns a production company and where he travels almost once a month. Life #3 is his exotic, laid back existence at his second home in Buenos Aires, where he dances the tango, savors the food and watches football games with his beautiful longtime girlfriend, the actress and documentarian Luciana Pedraza. This is a man whose life you wouldn’t mind having. And with four new movies scheduled for release this year, he shows not a sign of slowing down. After all, he knows the truth waits for no man.

Tim Rhys, Moviemaker Magazine (MM): So Gods and Generals is coming out this weekend.

Robert Duvall (RD): Yeah. Ninety million dollars came out of Ted Turner’s pocket!

Duvall (as hit man John J. Anderson) directs Assassination Tango in Buenos Aires.

MM: Did you enjoy your experience playing General Robert E. Lee?

RD: Yeah, I did. And it’s not a bad movie. Better than I thought it was gonna be. Lot of battles. It’s a little long… But Steve Lang is so good in it. He plays Stonewall Jackson, which is a tall order for a New Yorker. He’s the centerpiece of the film. And Ron Maxwell did a good job. It’s a nice movie. Long hours, but historically, it’s a pretty important film. Worst war we’ve ever been in.

MM: I always hear you’re a direct descendant of Robert E. Lee.

RD: Yeah, well I hear almost everybody else in the world is, too (laughs).

MM: I always see that in the biographical sketches about you.

RD: My mother always claimed that, but it was my dad’s side
that was from Virginia.

MM: Is that why you ended up back here in Virginia?

RD: Well, no, my dad passed away. My brother had been here. And it’s certainly a beautiful state. My brother passed away, too, now, died of cancer.

MM: You grew up in a military family, right?

RD: Yeah, we moved around a lot. I was born in San Diego. We moved to Annapolis, back and forth. My dad had gone to the Naval Academy when he was only 16 years old, the youngest there. Right off the farm in northern Virginia. His family had actually been pro-Union Southerners. They’d named my grandfather Abraham Lincoln Duvall. So they were behind enemy lines. But there were pockets of pro-Unioners all over the South.

MM: There are so many reminders of the Civil War in this part of the country.

RD: Yeah, you’re reminded of it every day. There’s history in evidence everywhere. This house, it was built in 1743.

MM: Did you do a lot of studying for the part of Lee?

RD: I didn’t have a lot of time, but I did some studying. I’ve always kind of wanted to play Lee because of the connection with my dad. I knew the accent and everything because his people were from there.

Real life love Luciana Pedraza (as Manuela) teaches the hitman with a heart a thing or two about Argentinean style romance in Tango.

MM: Did you spend more time on the east or west coast, growing up? You seem
to have more of an east coast sensibility
.

RD: Both, really. I was 10 the last time we left San Diego, and I was very sad. We really loved it there. I can still remember the house, the name of the street, everything. Then we moved to Annapolis for about eight years, during the duration of that WWII period. My father commissioned a destroyer out of Bath, Maine. So yeah, I grew up on both coasts, and I’ve worked in so many of the states, but I really love the west.

MM: So many of your movies evoke a real sense of “Americana.” On purpose or not, you seem to pick scripts where the settings and the geography really inform the work.

RD: Right, absolutely. I mean, even when I played a Cuban barber with Richard Harris, the place was the Cuban section of Miami. So it’s always important.

MM: Thanks, by the way, for carving out a good amount of time for us. You don’t do a lot of these lengthier interviews. Do you consider yourself a private person? Or does it just work out that way because you live in Virginia?

RD: [Laughs] I guess that’s just the way it works out. It’s funny. You grow up with certain actors, friends, and when you begin to “make it,” you never see each other.

MM: But you chose to live here, and not LA.

RD: Well that’s true, but certain guys live in Montana. Some live in Maine. New Mexico. Actors can live in different places. I still try to get out to LA a lot, once every month, though lately I haven’t. Been working too much. But I like going back. I have a lot of friends there. I have this one Cuban friend who throws the best parties in Los Angeles. Not necessarily Hollywood parties. I mean, I like a good Hollywood party, but I go out there and I have friends, regular people, that I mix with.

MM: And then you can leave.

RD: Exactly. I don’t know why I set it up like this, really. I just found this place. It’s one of those things. I bought it about eight years ago. I got a good deal on it, so I decided to grab it. Everybody was after the place. We enjoy it. We travel a lot, spend a lot of time in Argentina. I could live anywhere, really.

MM: Who’s into the horses, you or Luciana?

RD: We both were. Not so much now. I’ve had three major crack-ups on horses over the years.

MM: You broke your ribs recently from a fall, right?

RD: Yeah, right before [Open Range]. The insurance company was pretty stringent. They made me do a stress test and even though I still had my broken ribs I went on the treadmill and did okay.

MM: Do you work out? You seem like you’re in great shape.

RD: I do work out some. Not a lot.

MM: So I want to talk about Assassination Tango. Were you trying to create something that took advantage of locations both in the U.S. and Argentina?

RD: Exactly. It was fiction, and yet it was based on things that were happening. The second day down there, it was so spooky… There was a well-known, seedy businessman who was assassinated. That’s the word they use down there. It was all over the papers, the television. He and his wife were both assassinated in the middle of the night in kind of a posh resort area. And whoever did it put a sign across the bodies which said “Gringo was here.” The ironic part about it was these people were my assistant production manager’s parents.

MM: That is spooky. You had a separate crew down there?

RD: Yeah. We picked a wonderful crew there, got one of the top cinematographers. We took a soundman down there, certain key people. But the rest of the crew was Argentinean. There was only a little second unit up here, because it was $100,000 a day to shoot here, $50,000 to shoot there. So the more we could shoot there the better, because I much prefer to work there anyway. I had an excellent production designer who made certain streets look like New York…

MM: So you first brought the script to Francis Ford Coppola?

RD: Yeah, he was the second person I showed it to other than October Films. We did The Apostle with them, which put them on the map. Had you ever heard of October before that movie? They made the money, I didn’t. We showed it to them and they didn’t respond, so we showed it to Coppola…

MM: Had you shown Coppola The Apostle?

RD: The movie. Not the script. We’d talked about it and who I could get to direct and he’s the one who encouraged me to direct it. I showed it to him afterward.

MM: You hadn’t planned to direct The Apostle?

RD: No. And the closer I got I knew that I might have to, and I was afraid of directing; I kept putting it off.

MM: At what point did you just say “I’m going to finance this myself?”

RD: Well, when my CPA called me, out of the blue. He’s a very conservative guy, and he said I had the money to do it. And by his saying that it was like a comfort cushion.

MM: Did you just stop knocking on doors because you didn’t feel like it anymore, or had you just about exhausted your financing possibilities?

RD: I quit knocking on doors because it got to the point where I knew I had to direct it, so I didn’t pursue [the financing] as intensely as I could’ve. And then I found out we had the money to cover it. The first thing we did was choose a right to work state, but that’s all a myth because the cameraman’s union came and wanted more money for this, that. It was nice working down
there, though. Louisiana was the place to do [The Apostle]. As was Argentina, for the tango movie. You can’t do those movies in Canada.

MM: You hate to see everything going north of the border.

RD: Absolutely. I was there for 13 weeks doing this big western called Open Range with Kevin Costner. Great part. I think it’ll open this summer. Beautiful mountains up there in Canada, I’ll say that.

MM: Back to Tango, there’s a great scene early on where your character,
John J., meets the ex-cop at the newsstand and you set him up immediately
as a guy who’s a little off-balance. Maybe a little dangerous, paranoid,
a little narcissistic…

RD: Yeah, yeah. And I gave that cop part to [Michael] Corrente, the director, who did the soccer movie (A Shot at Glory) with me. In one cut, that scene was left out. But I had it put back in after conferring with Francis. It just sets the tone so well.

Dances with Cattle: Kevin Costner and Duvall on the Calgary set of Open Range (2003)

MM: With The Apostle you obviously had final cut, but you didn’t on this movie, right?

RD: No, I didn’t.

MM: Did you fight for that in the beginning?

RD: Yeah. But the money…

MM: Otherwise you couldn’t get it?

RD: No, not at all. That’s what Corrente said—”How can you do this?” In The Apostle they said I’d have it cut from 2:30 to 2:12. We got another editor in there and he took out 60 cuts. And over the phone I had to put 60 cuts back in. It made the movie shorter and the guy was great at cutting within scenes, but it took out the underpinnings of the whole thing, culturally.

MM: And that movie depended on those cultural underpinnings. So in Tango, was there any tension during the cutting process?

RD: Yeah, some. So Luciana and I went to New York three or four times and did final editing, switched things around. She’s great, by the way. She’s doing two documentaries right now, one on Billy Joe Shaver, the country singer. What a poet he is.

MM: He was great in The Apostle.

RD: Yeah, he was. That was his first role. He’s so lucid in front of the camera, Billy Joe. His second day acting he was like “I got this deal down.” [Laughs]

MM: I’m a big Billy Joe fan. How’d you meet him?

RD: Just briefly when I did Lonesome Dove down there. I don’t know what made me think of Billy Joe Shaver. He was so natural. He’s a great guy. He wants me to move to Austin. He says “Austin’s the greatest damn city in the world!”

MM: Austin is a great city. I love it there.

RD: So do I. The barbecue, the football games. Anyway, Luciana’s footage of Billy Joe is great. And she’s doing another one on Horton Foote. Two Texans.

MM: I’d like to see them. So Assassination Tango is a fairly complex portrait of a killer.

RD: Well, it’s still “impressions of a life.” You can’t go into everything.

MM: But as far as the layers and nuances you put into the character: he dances, he loves children, he loves beauty, yet he kills in cold blood…

Robert Duvall as his real-life ancestor, Robert E. Lee, in Gods and Generals (2003)

RD: [I modeled the character after] I guy I met one time who was a hit man. He had a lot of energy. He was just a guy, a good neighbor. I had to fill in the background…

MM: You do some interesting things to bring your characters to life. In one scene, your hitman is just standing there, eating a sandwich.

RD: Oh yeah, I wanted to keep that in there.

MM: There’s nothing there, storywise. But in terms of character, every single movement helps reveal who he is.

RD: Yeah, yeah.

MM: I love the scene where you and Luciana are in the cafe. You took two people who were basically strangers—and she was terrific, too, by the way—

RD: Oh, she steals the movie! But it’s okay, as long as it’s in the family. [Laughs].

MM: And by the end of the scene you know they’re probably going to be lovers.
And the dialogue was great. I liked your line—” If I were a younger man… would
I have a chance?” And her reply, “You have a chance now—welcome to Buenos
Aires, my friend.”

RD: [Laughs] She caught me so off-guard. I was like an idiot there. It was all very natural, totally unscripted. Some people are so used to structured scripts. I often think it should be played a little looser. You see people who are always looking to pile wood on the fire. They want to get “emotional.” You just gotta be in the moment for it to work.

MM: So typically when you’re improvising, with non-actors, you move the camera back and give them room. Does that come from your training with Sandy Meisner?

RD: No, not so much. I came up with that. When I first saw Kes, the Kenneth Loach movie, and others, too, I said I know it’s fiction, I know it’s not documentary, but it’s walking that fine line… and I like that.

MM: I watched Albert Maysles’ documentary on you recently and there are a couple of scenes where you’re directing. The way you subtly manipulate the action is very interesting. You’re more diplomat than despot, but you definitely get your point across.

RD: You have to know how to work backwards to get that real behavior. If you just work backwards, they can get it.

MM: Now, by working backwards, do you mean—

RD: —I mean you have to start from zero. I’d say “Don’t do anything. We don’t have to get anywhere in this scene. We don’t have to even get from A to B. Nothing’s precious. Change whatever you want… let’s just see what happens. If they’re talented people, they’ll respond to that.

MM: A lot of this script was taken from true stories you’d heard, people you knew.

RD: Yeah, that’s right.

MM: And you record things you find interesting. You’re almost like a cultural journalist, in a way, in that you take snippets of dialogue and things you experience and you remember them and write them down. They come across as so truthful when they’re turned into fiction.

RD: General truth. The truth of the behavior. What happened in that world of tango, for instance, I’d been around it for years.

MM: Even with The Apostle, you’d written down phrases over the years that you wanted to use later.

RD: Oh, absolutely I do that.

MM: Do you consciously do that on a regular basis? Or just when you know you want to make a movie about something? How does that work?

RD: I stack things up. Like when I did the western, Luciana said “I know you’re doing this part because you spent two years on those ranches in northern Montana, you learned how to play those characters.” So you file things away. Like when I surfed in Apocalypse, I’d heard during the Six Day War there was an Israeli colonel that, once they won the war, they couldn’t find him. He was off snorkeling! So I’ve learned that a lot of people, the better they do things, the more they do diversionary things. It’s like “I’ll kill you later. I’m going to look at this tango thing first.” That’s where I got those ideas from.

Pedraza and Duvall stepping out in Assassination Tango (2003)

MM: I read somewhere that “you bring to directing what you know is an extension of yourself.”

RD: Yeah. And for acting, too, of course.

MM: Is that for every character you do? Do you look inside yourself and your own experiences for every character?

RD: You look inside yourself, but you look outside yourself, too. You look around at different people. You incorporate things that you respond to emotionally. If it strikes an emotional chord in me, then I can make it work for me, in an innate way. You pick things up. You remember things. Even when you’re right there shooting, sometimes, you’ll remember things from way back that help fuel you.

MM: So it makes sense that an actor would improve with age.

RD: I think so! [Laughs]

MM: A writer I like said “As an actor, Duvall is incapable of a false moment.” I would think that’s one of the greatest tributes you could ever get.

RD: Well, yeah, that’s nice. I hope that’s true.

MM: There have been so many “truthful” moments over the years—I could ask you about a dozen, but one of my favorites is when, as Tom Hagen in The Godfather II, you said, “Michael, why do you hurt me? I’ve always been loyal to you.” Your face registered the conflict, anguish, hurt pride he was feeling—so much was going on inside your character’s head.  I know that actors don’t always like talking about the mysteries of how they summon those performances, but… what insight can you offer?

RD: People say “It’s in the eyes.” But it’s not in the eyes. It’s in the thought process. It’s in the willingness to let go and not push. To go from zero. Just like we’re talking right now, you and me. Just roll the camera. You don’t try to do too much, you just do it…

MM: So when you’re directing and you’re doing an improv you set up a situation and kind of just let them go?

RD: Yeah, exactly.

MM: I would think you’d burn through an awful lot of film like that.

RD: Not necessarily. The people generally know what they’re doing.

MM: Did you ever think of shooting digital video? The tape is so cheap, it seems like maybe a natural fit.

RD: I’d love to do a movie like that, with video. Because it’s about the performances. It’s nice if it’s pretty, it’s better if it’s pretty. But it’s ultimately about remaining truthful.

MM: Oh, you gotta do DV, with that attitude.

RD: If I could just get another story I wanted to do. I gotta find a story and it’s hard.

MM: Speaking of hard, this independent moviemaking is a hard gig, as I don’t have to tell you. There aren’t a lot of guys who have had as full careers as you’ve had who are getting into this game. You’re 72 now and you’re thinking about doing your next project, trying a new technology, maybe. You never slow down, do you?

RD: I guess not. And I don’t know where it’s coming from. Sometimes what they offer me is better than what I develop myself, so I’ll do that. I’ve got great parts right around the corner offered to me. But I do want to direct again. What kind of camera would you recommend?

MM: Oh, several companies make excellent digital video cameras now. Sony, Canon, Panasonic. It really depends on what bells and whistles you’re looking for.

RD: I’ll look into that. Luciana’s doing her documentary on Billy Joe now…

MM: He was on the Grand Ole Opry the other night.

RD: He was? God, I missed that. Luciana shot him testifying at a Baptist church about how he almost committed suicide, and how he wrote that song I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal.

MM: Funny, that’s the song he sang on the Opry.

RD: He wrote that for John Anderson to sing.

MM: And he was on there with Anderson; they sang a duet.

RD: Oh, man. Was that on cable? I didn’t know about that. Anderson sings more like Lefty Frizzell than Merle Haggard, don’t you think?

MM: I was going to ask you about Merle Haggard, actually. Did you model your character, Mac Sledge, in Tender Mercies after Merle?

RD: Everybody thinks that. Well, kinda. Willie said “You ate Merle, didn’t ya?” Then George Jones said “Naw, that’s my life story!”

MM: Your songwriting style and the way you phrased the singing was Haggard
all the way.

RD: Maybe, yeah. Anyway, Luciana’s got such great scenes in this Billy Joe documentary … I’m so proud of her. But you can’t tell Argentineans that because they’re so arrogant anyway. [Laughs]

MM: You met Luciana down there?

RD: On the street, yeah.

MM: Why did you start going down there?

RD: For the tango, years ago. I also did a project for Turner down there where I played Adolph Eichmann. But I was going to Argentina way back for tango. I wanted to see what it was about. I thought I knew a little bit. But I knew nothing before I got down there. It’s an interesting world. You go out on the streets at three in the morning, there are hundreds of people eating meals, stores open, music. There’s this one place I go there called La Viela, it’s a corner place. I watch the Super Bowl there, boxing matches—my favorite place to go anywhere in the world. It’s my favorite city.

MM: It sounds terrific. Tango, to me, is beautiful but looks hard to learn. Is it?

RD: Yeah. I’m always learning. It’s lifelong. When you’re younger you can do all those athletic things. But the older guys walk a certain way, and that’s what I like.

MM: I read somewhere you said “When you’re older tango means something different. It’s not so much about the physicality, it’s almost a spiritual thing.”

RD: Exactly. And the beginning and the end of the tango is the walk. You can tell the Argentines just by the way they walk. Very proud, elegant and very private, too. Not show-offy. Almost meditative. You see an uncle dancing with a niece or a mother with a son. It’s not sexual. And when it comes across sexual, that’s sometimes when they aren’t dancing so good. It is sensual, though.

MM: When you were starting out did you ever see yourself as an independent
moviemaker?

RD: Not so much…

MM: But when you first did We’re Not the Jet Set. How did you decide to do that?

RD: I just did it. I was working out there on a film with Jimmy Caan, and I met this family that I thought was so unique. It’s about a little boy in Valentine, Nebraska that fights in the 70-pound boxing championship. They still show it at the University of Nebraska. I couldn’t get into the New York Film Festival, but John Cassavetes, who won that festival, liked my movie so much he sent me a script to direct. I told him I wouldn’t know how to do this…

Duvall wrote, directed, exec. produced and starred in The Apostle (1997) which grossed $34 million

MM: I’m sure you shared his sensibilities, using lots of improvisation.

RD: Exactly, yeah. That’s it.

MM: You’ve said “the camera should accommodate the actor, and not the other way around.”

RD: Well, as much as possible. It’s all about marks. They wanted us to shoot Panavision, but I’m glad we didn’t. I really like handheld. But good handheld, not like those Danish guys do it, all over the place. And sometimes Steadicam is too ethereal.

MM: Can you talk about your writing a little bit. And particularly, your relationship with Horton Foote. How much did you learn about writing from Horton?

RD: You can always learn from Horton Foote. He’s such a wonderful writer. But for myself, what I did with my projects, I had to understand it more from the ground up. So it was more like I’d improvise it, you know, myself. Get sayings from people, work it out.

MM: Did you ever talk to him about Tender Mercies, how he came up with the story?

RD: Yeah, we talked. And we did a little improvisation there, too. He liked The Apostle a lot. And I want him to see Assassination Tango. I think we’re going to have a showing at South by Southwest. We’ll have our kick-off there, and then we’re going to Miami. You should go because Billy Joe’s gonna be there. Horton’ll be there, too. It’ll be old home week. And we may do a little more filming on the Billy Joe doc. He’s so popular down there. The Ladybird Johnson Foundation wants to see it when it’s done. Billy’s such a wonderful, funny guy. And he’s come through so much personal crap better than most of those guys.

MM: He was so gracious when I spoke to him a few years ago for my movie. I called him, said I was an independent moviemaker, didn’t have a lot of money and I wanted to use some of his music.  He said, “Sure, it’d be an honor.”

RD: And that’s how he is. Merle Haggard is punchy now, from the dope and the liquor. George Jones is punchy. Waylon was. I don’t know about Willie. But Billy Joe has come through so much. What he went through with the death of his son and his wife, worse than almost any of those guys. And he’s come out better, maybe because of the religion. He’s still focused. He’s still
there. And he’s loved.

MM: Must be the religion. What else could keep him going, especially after Eddie died.

RD: I think that’s it. Who’s that writer from Alabama that wrote that book It’s All Over But the Shoutin’? Rick Bragg? Used to write for the The New York Times. He said in New York City if you talk about Jesus in everyday conversation they look at you like you’re a nut. But in the South you can do that. It’s acceptable.

MM: Do you think that because The Apostle was about a serious religious and spiritual journey, that was why Hollywood didn’t want to touch it? Was it the theme that scared everyone?

RD: Yeah, because there was no slant on it. There was no slant to caricature, to put it down. These people have to look for an angle so they can make a joke.

MM: Nobody ever told you that to your face, right? What kind of reactions did Oscar-winner Robert Duvall get as he knocked on every door in town to try to get some help with financing for this very powerful script?

RD: “It’s not for us; It’s okay, but if it were just more like Elmer Gantry… If there were some ‘scheister’ aspect to it, maybe.” They always wanted to “make a comment.” Like they were above that. Like [Southerners] are morons.

MM: So, with directing, do you feel like you kind of have it down now?

RD: [Laughs]. I don’t think you ever have it down. I’m not as confident as Billy Joe, saying “I got this deal licked.” You never have this deal licked. You’re always learning. But you try to go from your point of view; from your way of working, and to learn more from that basis. To learn your own way.

MM: You said that early on you were afraid of directing.

RD: Yeah, I was.

MM: Do you think it helps give you that edge?

RD: Yeah, but within that you gotta make it work for you. Turn the negative into a positive.

MM: That’s like something your character, Bull Meechum, said in The Great Santini. His son had asked him if he was ever afraid. Bull said “Hell, yes. That’s what makes me good.” I was just thinking maybe that applies to directing, too.

RD: Yeah, absolutely. On a film set I get pretty occupied sometimes. I’m short with people. Like I’ll do this, just leave me alone. I said to a director one time “Look, why don’t you put on my costume and play my part if you want.” We all have our fears, I guess.

MM: I read a couple of times where you’ve had some battles with directors on set.

RD: Some. I try not to. You try to preserve the relationship. The thing is, you’re both trying to go for something good, but some of them want to box you in, or tell you to do something. I always say ‘I don’t know what that means. You hired me to do something, so now don’t tell me how to do it.’ There’s usually a way out, though, a common meeting ground. But sometimes you have to really work to find it.

MM: Thinking about The Great Santini, do you think discipline has played a key role in your own life? You grew up in a military family, you’ve doggedly followed your dreams…

RD: Yeah, self-discipline. In that you’ve got to shape your own future; you’ve got to shape your career yourself. Plan it out and then go for it. And don’t look back. There’s an overall arc to your life and you just gotta see what happens by accident. Because even though you try, you just can’t plan everything out.

MM: You’ve been called a rebel and a maverick. Do you see yourself that way at all?

RD: No. I’m just a guy. Trying to do the best I can.

MM: But you’ve gone about it so differently than most.

RD: You think? I don’t know, maybe. Maybe.

As Euliss ‘Sonny’ Dewey/The Apostle E.F. in The Apostle

 MM: I think you have.

RD: But I think I have a lot left, you know. I think some of my best stuff is yet to come.

MM: You think you’re still getting better as an actor?

RD: I do. As aspects come out. I’ve always been a late bloomer. I think I do a better job now than when I was younger. I did certain things okay when I was younger, but some people do better when they get older. I always knew after The Godfather, even 10 or more years after any big recognition, it would still take a while…

MM: Well, you worked so long in TV and theater…

RD: Yeah, there’s guys that had more success than I did. Other guys from The Godfather got there quicker. I was always more of a character actor, playing secondary roles. Which I still like to do, but play the lead every now and then.

MM: How do you choose your roles?

RD: It’s whatever hits me. I like to know who the director is, who the other actors are.

MM: You must turn down a lot of stuff.

RD: Some. I turned down the lead in Seabiscuit.

MM: You did? Why?

RD: I was doing the thing with Michael Caine, Secondhand Lions, with Haley Joel Osment. Really nice script. The whole family can see this movie. We had real lions, we had giraffes. I think it’s coming out this fall.

MM: So you’re working now as much as ever, aren’t you?

RD: Well, I did four films in a year and a half. And they’re all coming out this year.

MM: You talked about other directors, like Loach, that you’ve looked to for inspiration—

RD: —Yeah, do you know he doesn’t watch his actors—he listens

MM: What about other actors? Who have you liked from the past? Who comes to mind who was inspirational to you?

RD: Well, our hero, coming up, was Brando. [long pause] He kinda squandered it. But he was so revolutionary in so many ways.

MM: Who do you like now?

RD: Halle Berry actually gave the best female performance I’ve ever seen. And Denzel. And the guy from Spain who did Before Night Falls? (Reinaldo Arenas) Brilliant performance. Just brilliant. And then Ricardo Darín from Argentina, world-class actor. So is Federico Luppi. His movie, A Place in the World… And how about the young American guys now… did you see Snatch? Brad Pitt was brilliant. I mean brilliant. You can knock this kid all you want cause he’s good looking, but he’s my favorite young actor in this country. And this Ed Norton is good. There’s a lot of good young actors out there.

MM: But you really think more than at any time before?

RD: More. I think they’re better at a younger age now.

MM: You’re very much a forward-looking guy. You don’t dwell in the past, do you?

RD: Well, I think you learn from the past and you have to respect the past. But I think you have to be comfortable with change, too.

L to R: Duvall’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies (1983); in The Godfather II (1974); in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

MM: So you’re an optimist.

RD: Yeah, you could say that.

MM: What about regarding the political situation?

RD: It’s tough now, because we’re like two countries. I don’t know man, we got some problems we gotta address, and soon. Michael Caine, his wife is a beautiful Muslim lady. Every time she goes to an airport they keep her two hours. It’s a joke.

MM: What do you think about how outspoken Hollywood has been with the anti-war rhetoric?

RD: The way Hollywood speaks out is absolutely beyond me. Some people are so ill-informed.

MM: You don’t mind them speaking out, as long as they’re better informed?

RD: I mean, why be so outspoken about it anyway? Does it help Sean Penn’s career to go over to Iraq? Did it help Jane Fonda to go over to Vietnam years ago? I don’t know.  But sometimes when these guys speak out… I get embarrassed.

MM: You don’t talk politically very often, do you.

RD: Not so much in public. You know, you’re safe if you’re a liberal in Hollywood. You’re safe if you speak out like that.

MM: So you’d obviously consider yourself more of a conservative.

RD: Somewhat, yeah. We were at was at a New Year’s Eve party and this guy, typical Hollywood, says something and I said ‘Wait a minute. Are you implying that you voted for George Bush?’ And he slouches… I mean, it’s very easy to be liberal in Hollywood, but if you’re not… people are actually afraid. In Hollywood they can be so vicious toward anybody with an opinion that’s a little different from the majority.

MM: That’s really why you couldn’t get The Apostle funded, isn’t it?

RD: I think there’s a connection… I think there’s a connection.

MM: Nobody wants to deal with anything “right wing.” Never mind fundamentalist.

RD: Yeah, and not even just right wing. They don’t want to show the truth, show something as it really is. They want to make a comment. But frankly, the bottom line is dollars, even more than being political.

MM: With Tango, did you think about the market at all when you were writing? After your experiences with Apostle, did you have any market considerations?

RD: I was just trying to make a movie, you know? Once a movie’s gone, it’s forgotten, no matter how big it is. So you just try to find your audience. Whatever that audience hopefully can be. The Apostle eventually found a good audience. We grossed $34 million, which is pretty good for that kind of film.

MM: You should’ve won the Academy Award for your performance. I’ve always said that.

RD: Some people told me that performance was overdone. I don’t think they understand the South.

MM: You deserved it, no question. Did it bother you that you didn’t win?

RD: If I’d been taking odds in Vegas [Laughs]… But you know, certain guys are the darlings of that town. And it’s almost like a popularity contest. I’ll tell you when I was even more shocked. When I didn’t win the Emmy for Lonesome Dove. So those two times, yeah. I felt I should’ve won. Back when I did The Great Santini, and I didn’t win, it was okay because De Niro was terrific in Raging Bull. I’m gonna give him that one. So that’s fine.  I mean if it was a toss-up and he won, that’s fine. He was wonderful. The movie was great. Everybody was great in it. But these other movies, when you can see legitimate defects from an actor’s point of view, ooooh. That’s different…

MM: So do you think too much is made of the whole Academy Award mystique? The importance everyone attaches to it.

RD: When I was about to do The Great Santini I met the producer for the first time, I’m about to sit down in the chair, he says “Well, they’re talking about the Oscar…”  I hadn’t even sat down yet! So the whole world is about Oscars. It’s because a billion people see it, I guess. But last year I felt the two who won really deserved it. Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. That was as good as anything I ever saw, what she did. That was genius. That look that she gave Billy Bob at the end? Oh, my God. Was she gonna kill him or fuck him or both? [Laughs] Wow!

As Bull Meechum in The Great Santini (1979)

MM: You still get excited about good acting, don’t you? About the whole process, really.

RD: Yeah, I do. You know, when I saw Ricardo Darín in The Son of the Bride… It’s better than any Italian or French or Hollywood comedy I ever saw. It’s the best comedy  I ever saw, period. It’s so real.

MM: Do you watch a lot of movies?

RD: I get these DVDs sent to me. In spurts I see them.

MM: Seems like you see a lot of foreign movies.

RD: I see some. This Almodóvar, is he pretty good?

MM: He’s amazing, yeah.

RD: I saw one of his movies I didn’t care for.

MM: You might’ve seen one of his earlier movies. He started out doing sex comedies.

RD: A little perverse, some of them, right?

MM: I guess you could say that, but very funny, too.

RD: But this Talk to Her is okay?

MM: Yeah. I liked it a lot.

RD: Luciana wants to see it. She gets into big arguments sometimes about movies. She and my best friend hated, absolutely loathed Dances With Wolves. I thought there was wonderful stuff in that movie.

MM: I thought there was great stuff in it, too. Why did she hate it?

RD: Too “Hollywood,” too manipulative. My friend thought it was too liberal. I said no, it wasn’t liberal, Costner voted for George Bush, Sr.! I thought he accomplished a lot. You know Bingham Ray?  I told him I just did a good western with Costner. He said “Nah, what you should do is a remake of Ride the High Country. You and Hackman.”

MM: I’d buy that ticket. Would you want to do a movie with Hackman? Didn’t I read that you guys roomed together early on?

RD: Hoffman and I did. He was downtown. We’ve been talking about a script for a while now, me and Hoffman. But you know, this business is funny. Instead of us getting together, the heads of our little companies get together. Why don’t we get together? I mean, it’s a strange process.

MM: Why don’t you? You feel funny calling him up?

RD: I don’t even have his number.

MM: If you had his number, would you call him?

RD: Yeah, I guess. Him and Redford both… ‘Oh, I got money. If you want to produce your film…’ so I sent him the script. And, once again…

As Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now (1979)

MM: Wait, Redford said this?

RD: I never even heard from him. He never even had the courtesy to write back after I sent him the script for The Apostle. Then I sent the script to Dustin, who says “Oh, we got money.” Never heard from him, either. I finally called him on it. You were gonna help me, remember? His people didn’t understand the script… Two guys that were gonna help me… I never even hear from them.

MM: Pretty typical of Hollywood, I guess. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news.

RD: I guess.

MM: What’s your favorite genre? Is it the western?

RD: The genre of truth… Instead of bullshit! [Laughs].

MM: Good answer… You have a beautiful home here.

RD: Thanks, yeah. We were in Architectural Digest a couple months ago. We couldn’t get on the front cause Larry King got it! [Laughs].

MM: The décor looks Southwest. Is it typical Argentinean?

RD: No, not that I know of. Except for the blankets and a few other things.

MM: When did you go down there last?

RD: We just got back. We were there for a couple of months, but it was getting too hot. We left after Christmas, to get out of the cold. Luciana hates the cold.

MM: So you’ve never had kids, right?

RD: I have a couple of step-daughters. But none of my own, no.

MM: Just never happened?

RD: Never happened. And maybe it’s better that it didn’t happen, I don’t know.

MM: Well, as they say, it’s not too late.

RD: No, it’s not. I hear about these hundred-year-old guys in Russia having kids, [laughs] so you never know. You have kids?

MM: Two who live with me. Best thing in the world, for me, anyway.

RD: You want to look at it negatively, though, and you bring them into the world for what, really? That’s what I think about sometimes. This is a strange world we live in. Is it for you or for them that you bring them?

MM: You can look at it like that. But hey, I thought you were an optimist?

RD: [Laughs]. Oh yeah, that’s right! MM

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