Interview

03.13.14

Robert Duvall on His Storied Career, His New Movie, and Why He’s Ditching the GOP

The film legend opens up about his favorite roles, the film industry, why he’s fed up with conservatives, and more in an in-depth interview at SXSW.

A century from now, when Venice is underwater, reality TV has gone the way of The Hunger Games, and Russia’s president is a dead ringer for Johnny Weir, a budding cinephile will enroll in an American Studies course entitled, “Legends of Cinema.” And an entire section of that class will be dedicated to the work of Robert Duvall.

The 83-year-old icon has won an Academy Award, four Golden Globes, and an Emmy. He’s appeared in six films on the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 Films, more than any other actor. The Godfather. The Godfather Part II. Apocalypse Now. To Kill A Mockingbird. M*A*S*H. Network. Many view the Duvall-starring miniseries, Lonesome Dove, as one of the greatest westerns ever.

A quarter century later, Duvall has reteamed with Lonesome Dove screenwriter William D. Witliff for A Night in Old Mexico. The film, directed by Emilio Aragón, tells the tale of Red Bovie (Duvall), a curmudgeonly Texas rancher who will not go gently into that good night (in his case, a trailer park-retirement home), and whisks his grandson, Gally (Jeremy Irvine), off to Mexico for one final adventure. It boasts an excellent late-career performance from Duvall, who hasn’t lost a beat as he’s aged.

Duvall is seated across from me in the bowels of the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, Texas, where the film is premiering as part of SXSW. He’s sipping on a coffee and clenching a script for his upcoming film, The Judge, a comedy he’s starring in opposite Robert Downey Jr. that (allegedly) hits theaters on Oct. 10.

“These are additional lines—we have to do additional shooting,” says Duvall. “With the money they have for these four days of re-shoots I could finance a movie I’m trying to raise money for! It’s a script I want to direct here in Texas about Texas Rangers.”

After exchanging some more pleasantries, Duvall opened up about his storied career, from his early days in New York City palling around with Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman to A Night in Old Mexico, and why he, as a longtime Republican—he even reportedly narrated a video for the 2008 Republican National Convention—is voting Independent.

I really enjoyed A Night in Old Mexico, and your performance.

I love the movie too because it’s storytelling—it’s not gratuitous sex, fights, and all that crap. Whitliff started working on the screenplay 25 years ago, right after we finished Lonesome Dove, and I was walking around with my ex-wife and he said, “Now that we’ve done Lonesome Dove, let’s do A Night in Old Mexico.” I said, “It’s too soon! I gotta get a little older.” Dennis Hopper was going to direct it at one time, then some crazy French guy who disappeared. So it was now or never with this Spanish guy who brought the money to the table. 

Have you ever had a wild time in Mexico?

I got a little sick on the food! But not too much. On this movie, the crew—including this girl in a bikini—got bored and stole a patrol car from the props people and drove down the highway and started arresting people! So they put them all in shackles and orange jumpsuits, but the judge let them off. If they had gone into Mexico, it would have been tough.

A Night in Old Mexico opens with your character at a very low point, ready to commit suicide after losing his family land. Have you ever, in your career, reached a low point?

Oh, yeah. Around the time of M*A*S*H, I was always looking for the next job. I thought, “When’s the next one coming?” I did TV and then I wanted to get into movies, but it was TV, TV, TV. Come on! Some of the old episodic shows were good to do, but it got to be repetitious.

“The Republican Party is a mess. I’ll probably vote Independent next time.”

But these days, you’re still performing at such a high level while many of your old pals, like Gene Hackman, have since retired.

Oh, I know! I haven’t seen him. I went to New Mexico and was producing Crazy Heart and emailed him but he didn’t respond. I haven’t seen him for years. But I’m married to a younger woman and hang around young people. That helps.

One of my all-time favorite SNL sketches is the “Who’s More Grizzled?” showdown between you and Garth Brooks. But I’ve got to ask: who’s more grizzled than Robert Duvall?

Oh, I’m not so macho. Jimmy Caan tries being macho with the shoulders and ass so tiny. I never felt comfortable doing Saturday Night Live. Never did. Who was the funny guy that died? John Belushi. I called him and said, “We’ve got to do a Brando-off. I know someone who can do a better Brando than you!” In the Philippines, when I was doing my last rehearsals on Apocalypse, Jimmy Keane did an amazing Brando, and then we all started doing Brando impressions all over the Philippines.

Republicans in Hollywood seem to get a lot of flack and be a bit marginalized. Has it ever been tough, for you, to be a Republican in Hollywood?

Let me say it this way: my wife’s from Argentina, she’s been here for a while, and she’s very smart. She calls herself a “tree-hugging Republican,” but she might even vote Democrat next time because the Republican Party is a mess. I’ll probably vote Independent next time. I think it was Jack Kerouac who said something like, “Don’t run down my country. My people are immigrants, so I believe in this country with all its faults. To me, it’s a big country that’s made mistakes.” Some of the bleeding-heart left-wing, extreme left-wing, are actually different from liberals. That movie The Butler? It’s very inaccurate. JFK had one of the worst Civil Rights voting records. And the Rockefeller’s were much more liberal with the blacks. All the atrocities in the South were committed by the Democratic Party, but now, everything’s been turned around in a strange way. Some of these very conservative Republicans… I don’t know, man. I believe in a woman’s choice. I believe in certain things. I hear they booed Rick Perry last night on the Jimmy Kimmel show. But it’s a great country. We’ve done bad things. Slavery was terrible. One-third of all Freedmen in New Orleans fought for the South. I can’t figure that out. Those things aren’t told in the history books. There’ve been lots of contradictions and this and that. But I think the country’s okay, and hopefully it will survive.

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Claire Folger

I’d like to backtrack a bit since I’ve been a fan of yours for quite some time. You and James Caan came up in the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, while your pals Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman were over at Pasadena Playhouse.

I met Gene in New York and he said, “Dustin’s coming,” and Dustin, my brother, me, and a few other guys all had an apartment on the Upper West Side. It was a lot of fun. Dustin was a lot of laughs. We’d go into a bar trying to pick up girls and he had the worst pickup lines. He’d say, “We just put up some new linoleum in our apartment, do you want to check it out?” He was always talking about “new linoleum.” Gene was married at the time to an Italian woman and we’d come over and she’d cook us dinner, and then we’d all sleep on the floor, wake up when it’s sunny and have dessert. Hackman, when he stood guard duty in the Marines—and it was cold over there—it’d be two in the morning and he’d have his coat zipped up, and he’d unzip it and have a woman in there. But it’s such a big country you hardly see those guys. Jimmy Caan I see sometimes—and Wilford Brimley.  

Your first film role was in To Kill A Mockingbird, which was a very important film in 1962 during the Civil Rights Movement.

It was a wonderful statement. Gregory Peck was a gentleman and Horton Foote, the great Texas playwright, was always on the set. He and Coppola gave me great roles early on that really helped my career. I like doing character parts. I told someone recently that if I lived in England I could fit because I feel I’m a character actor. I played Stalin, a Cuban barber. Terry Gilliam saw it and wanted me to play Don Quixote, but it’ll never happen now. Johnny Depp wouldn’t do it with [Gilliam]. My friend, Scott Cooper, cast Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger [in Black Mass], but the guy who should play Whitey Bulger is Mark Wahlberg, because he knows Boston. I told Scott, “Johnny’s gotta get rid of his old bag of tricks and find a new bag of tricks to play that guy.” People love those gangster movies.

The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are two of the better films ever made. There’s a fantastic image on the set of the first Godfather where you literally have Brando’s lines written on a placard over your chest.

Duvall doesn’t recall, so I whip out my phone and show him the following picture:

[Laughs] I forgot about that! Sometimes we’d put up Brando’s lines but then remove them right before and put in a little wedding invite with really small letters and Coppola would say, “ACTION!” and he couldn’t see it! Or Pacino during a scene outside would have his lines up on a billboard and he’d look up at them. I don’t know how you could do it that way, but he did. In the Philippines, during Apocalypse, Brando had an earphone thing where they fed him lines. I think Downey does that, too. I don’t know how you do it. I like to learn them, and if called for, I love to improvise.

Any fun stories from filming The Godfather movies? I imagine with James Caan around there were plenty of shenanigans on set.

Oh, yeah. I remember during The Godfather Part II, it wasn’t as much fun so he jacked it up and Jimmy was only there for a day. We went and had Hungarian food near the studio and the AD says, “Come on guys, you’ve got to hurry up.” So Jimmy takes the hottest pepper and puts it inside a pita bread, and Jimmy walks by with his shoulders just sort of looking away, and Coppola comes up, takes it, and bites into it, and yells, “YOU COCKSUCKER!” We knew he loved to eat.

Brando was so great in those films.

He had so much talent. I remember I told Brando once that he should do Othello and he said, “Bo-ring!” For the first time in fifty years, about a month ago, I saw A Streetcar Named Desire and thought, “Look at how unique this guy is.” At one point in the film, some particles go up in the air and you just see him take them in his hand. What a force of nature.

Coppola famously had problems with Brando though during the filming of Apocalypse Now.

Yeah. It was better the second time around. Coppola listened to so many editors, but the second time, Brando created this language with the kid, and my thing was better because they put back in a scene where I save a baby’s life. I like Redux much better.

I read that Harvey Keitel was cast in the lead in Apocalypse but Coppola fired him after a week of filming.

Yes, he was. Just a week. Harvey had been a Marine but I don’t know what happened. He wanted to go back to Manila on a plane every day, but we all stayed out there. I told Coppola, “Why don’t you try Jeff Bridges, or Steve McQueen. Jimmy Caan turned it down. Nobody wanted to go out to the Philippines. We stayed in these homes with no hot water, but it was fun. They got Marty Sheen. Nice guy, Marty.

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United Artists/Everett Collection

Did you actually surf out there, like Col. Kilgore?

I just body-surf, but don’t surf. Shooting Apocalypse was okay for me, but it was tough. All those typhoons destroying sets. It was crazy.

You were in Network, too, which in hindsight was such a prescient film.

Not one of my favorites. I liked working with William Holden. Great guy. When a girl came on set he’d light up.

Well, he did date Audrey Hepburn at one point. Not too shabby.

Did he? Well, he loved women. But there are weaknesses in that movie. The casting in The Godfather was pretty impeccable. But Lonesome Dove is maybe my favorite part. I came in the mess hall one morning and said, “Boys, we’re making The Godfather of Westerns.” Down here, it’s an icon. I ran into a woman who was a Texas Ranger and she said, “I wouldn’t let my daughter marry her fiancé until he saw Lonesome Dove.”

And miniseries are really starting to come back in a big way on HBO, with shows like True Detective, Top of the Lake, etc.

Have you seen this show called Red Road? [Shakes head] James Gray did it. He’s got a big opinion of himself. When I did Stalin it was very difficult to work with HBO, and with Broken Trail, we put AMC on the map, but they were very difficult to work with. On TV, it’s more compartmental.

Are there any young actors out there that you’re a big fan of?

Oh! Ok. The kid this year, if you and I live to be 100, nobody’s going to do it better than McConaughey did this year.

Have you seen True Detective?

Eh, it’s ok. But I’m friends with his brother, Rooster McConaughey. What a crazy family. He’s going to come on Jimmy Kimmel with me. Last year, I thought Joaquin Phoenix was terrific in The Master. I voted for him over [Daniel Day-Lewis in] Lincoln. Did you see Snatch a few years ago? Brad Pitt was terrific. Eric Bana in Chopper? So great. Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast? I don’t know if these guys will ever do that again. These guys aren’t so young, but Sean Penn, Denzel Washington, and Laurence Fishburne—he can be terrific. I loved his Othello. But with young actors, there’s room for all now.

What’s your take on the film industry today?

Well, my favorite movie from last year was The Invisible Woman. I would’ve voted for the girl [Felicity Jones] for the Oscar. Beautiful movie. Oh, but I wouldn’t know how to do it today. In the ‘70s, the independent filmmaking was in the system, but now it’s on the outside. I heard someone say there’ve been no good movies since the ‘70s, but there have been tons. Come on! Every bit as good as the ‘70s, some of them.