Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Robert Duvall Interview

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

CHARACTERS : A CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT DUVALL

by Neil Young

A mask of silent concentration and patience, bracketed by a pair of outsize headphones, the face once described as one that wouldn’t look out of place on Mount Rushmore looks more like a face that wouldn’t look out of place on Mr & Mrs. This is the San Sebastian Film Festival official press conference for Kevin Costners new western Open Range, and Duvall is sharing the stage just as he shares the screen in the movie with Costner, and youthful Mexican star Diego (Y tu Mama Tambien) Luna.

The assembled Spanish press, however, seem oblivious to everyone except Costner, resplendent in white cowboy hat, black shades (Ive got an eye injury, Im not trying to look cool, honestly!) and those outsize translation headphones. Eventually even the genial Mr C starts to get a little embarrassed. Look, guys, Im sure some of you have some questions for the guys up here with me Mr Luna and Mr Duvall, who I don’t have to tell you is a living legend. Duvall continues to squint impassively into the middle-distance, until the next journalist raises his hand and blithely begins, Senor Cost-nair Everyone cracks up, and the Rushmore granite cracks into a broad, wry grin.

A few hours later Duvall finds himself in the more relaxed, intimate and opulent confines of a suite in the Hotel Maria Cristina, the fanciest address in this most fancy and bijou of Spanish (or rather Basque Country) cities the accommodations where, everyone in town never tires of repeating, the Spanish royal family used to stay during their summer vacations. These days, the place is more associated with Hollywood royalty, as the film festival regularly lures the biggest names with its Premio Donostia lifetime achievement award.

Duvall, who only last week was honoured with a gold star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, could probably spend his whole year shuttling between film festivals receiving such plaudits. Yeah, he says, I was supposed to go to Sweden, and Belgium too but it all conflicts, its hard, you know. But Im gonna be around for a few years, I hope. Im not gonna quit for a while

Like all movie stars (except John Cusack), Duvall is shorter and slighter than youd expect from his screen appearances. He doesn’t get up from his chair throughout the interview he did, after all, reportedly break six ribs when thrown from a horse during rehearsals for Open Range – but he’s a surprisingly compact, slightly hunched figure with a pot-belly beneath his grey short-sleeve shirt: not so much a grand old man of the movies as a grand old grand-dad. Its as hard to imagine Duvall looking young as it is to imagine him with a full thatch of hair, but he’s visibly every minute of his 72 and a half years he’d make a much more plausible movie OAP than his seniors Sean Connery or Clint Eastwood.

But the eyes are still the same intense, cobalt blue (they remind me of the Ted Hughes line about hard circles of animal clarity) and Duvall in real life is very much the calm, watchful, alert presence familiar from roles like The Godfathers Irish consigliere Tom Hagen. Talking about a subject or, rather a person that interests him, however, he’s suddenly on. As when I happen to mention that Im from Sunderland, the former team of Ally McCoist Duvalls co-star in the little-seen 2001 Scots soccer drama, A Shot at Glory.

Where is he! Where is that guy?! yelps Duvall, pretending to scour the room in search of the man he once described as eighty times better for this part than [original choice] Russell Crowe, and more charismatic Olivier could never kick a ball, but McCoist is a very natural actor. The films lack of success hasnt changed Duvalls opinion one jot: McCoisty what a character! I said to Albert Finney, Im working with this guy McCoist, the footballer, Im gonna make an actor out of him, and Finney said [puts on gravelly-posh Finney accent] Shahp as a tack! He was right.

McCoist was a good footballer, of course, but not as good as Michael Owen I love Michael Owen, he’s great. Alive with enthusiasm Duvall recalls, He almost beat Argentina single-handed I got on the phone to people, I was saying, You should see this kid he’s brilliant. I looked into his record, and I found that in your version of little league when he was 12 years old he scored 13 goals in 18 minutes one game. Incredible!

Duvalls praise of Owen is entirely in character with a man who seems to delight in embodying the frontier spirit that prizes individual effort tellingly, the only bad word he has to say for anyone during the whole interview is reserved for a union representative with whom he crossed swords on the set of his self-directed 1997 deep-south drama The Apostle: Some arrogant guy came down with loafers and no socks from Baltimore, from the cameramens union. Duvall, himself neatly turned out in black jeans and brown suede cowboy boots, is dismissive: He wasn’t gonna give an inch, and eventually I made peace with this guy, even though he was very arrogant.

With a career studded with authority figures, and having been, since his arrival in town, so notably keen to distance himself politically from fellow Donostia-recipient Sean Penn (his co-star in 1988s Colors), its clear that Duvall is a long way from the caricature of the Hollywood actor as bleeding-heart liberal. Born in San Diego the capital of the American Navy into what he calls a military family (hes a direct descendent of Robert E Lee, no less), Duvall moved around all different parts of the country according to his fathers postings.

While himself a decorated soldier, Duvall only served in the army for a year before drifting into acting. My parents kinda pushed me into it because I was floundering they figured maybe I could do that, because Id do skits around the house I sang, because my brothers all sang a lot. I was pretty petrified at first, but I got to like it. In the beginning I went to New York to be a theatre actor, then I ended up in films, which I prefer. Id rather do that than eight performances a week on stage.

For a while it was hit and miss I was looking to make a living, Id gotten married, I had two step-daughters it was hard. Until I did M*A*S*H with Altman, and then I made a few good movies with Horton Foote he’s one of our great writers, from Texas. He provided me with some great roles, like Tender Mercies [for which the six-times Oscar-nominated Duvall won 1983s Best Actor award].

Though he rejects the suggestion that he’s offered Robert Duvall type roles (Ive played a Cuban barber, cowboys, Stalin) the actor does admit to being drawn to the role where he can put to use aspects of the vivid characters he’s met down the years even such an apparently unlikely figure as legendary Celtic footballer Jimmy Wee Jinky Johnston: I met a lot of characters in my time, Texas, here, there, all over the biggest I ever met was Jimmy Johnston. We spent about two hours talking what an entertaining guy, just to sit and talk for two hours. People say the Scots are dour, but they’re not: they’re like the Italians, they throw things, they curse!

He delights in recalling a Scottish cowhand who worked on his uncles Montana ranch: Morrison I actually saw him once run up on a quarter-horse a speed-horse, good for a quarter of a mile and touch it on the neck. He roped a baby coyote once. A natural veterinarian, amateur all the professionals wanted to know his secrets, but he wouldn’t tell em. A terrific guy, used to pitch horse-shoes, was the champion of Montana. So all that builds up, to play these parts, like Boss Spearman in Open Range.. It all gives me the the security to play that kind of part.

Its a security that Duvall has built up very patiently over the years: All the time in the sixties and early seventies, he recalls, I always figured that I was a sort of a late bloomer I felt my time was later than guys like Jimmy Caan, De Niro, Pacino. Its later now I guess Im still around! In fact, Im getting more offers than ever that’s fine with me. They want me to do Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea. The Internet Movie Database reveals a slightly less-exalted future project that sees the star return to familiar (astro)turf: Untitled Will Ferrell Soccer Movie (2004). The perfect vehicle for a Duvall-McCoist reunion, perhaps?

For the full transcript of the interview click here

by Neil Young