Just call him ‘Bobby’

Robert Duvall shares the wisdom gained in one of Hollywood’s most impressive careers

Gabriel Shapiro

Robert Duvall is one of the most respected actors working in the United States today. He is also gaining popularity as an extremely gifted writer and director. He has been recognized for his work in nearly every capacity in film and television, and has been nominated for and won scores of awards.

Upon meeting Mr. Duvall, or “Bobby” as he introduced himself, one is instantly taken by his open and friendly demeanor, which, especially given the stories that sometimes bubble up about Hollywood stars and their attitudes, is refreshing. He has an easy-going, relaxed way of speaking that helps the interview roll along naturally, and a very genuine air. That might be because Duvall doesn’t have anything to prove. He is a bona fide star in every way, and has lived his life on his terms.

Now, at 72, he has written and directed his fourth film, “Assassination Tango,” in which he also stars, portraying an aging hitman coming to terms with a long and sometimes sordid life. The film co-stars his girlfriend of seven years, Luciana Pedraza. Their nearly forty-year age difference has received a good deal of attention (especially by Howard Stern, whom Duvall reveled in shutting up by asking something to the effect of, “If I dated your daughter, would you call me dad or would you call me son?” – apparently catching the shock-jock off guard when he appeared on Stern’s television show last week).

The Daily recently had a chance to speak with Duvall, and despite a full day of interviews before getting to us, he was cheerful and talkative, shaking everyone’s hands and chatting about travel, the war, partying, cinemas of the world (he’s especially fond of Iranian and Argentine films), hating Dogma 95 movies and Hollywood’s “mink-coat liberals” (a term Duvall uses to describe people who vote Republican but talk a liberal game), loving Jorge Luis Borges, Austin, Texas, and hang-gliding.

Minnesota Daily: It was interesting in “Assassination Tango,” there was a moment between you (and Luciana Pedraza) in which you seem to be acknowledging your real-life age difference, and she seems to claim that the age difference would be more accepted in Argentina. Why is that?

Robert Duvall: Well, that’s more from an individual point of view because she is so much of an individual.

MD: So she’s not trying to claim some kind of cultural acceptance?

RD: No, it’s an individual thing. I think that when you go eight or 10 thousand miles away and you meet someone it’s very much of a street mentality; I call it a middle-class street mentality. Everything’s on the street until 3 o’clock in the morning, and everybody kisses, deals are made, there’s corruption, corrupt cops and she’s learned to deal with all that. She learned to act in the streets; she didn’t have to get a diploma from Lee Strasberg. She learned on the streets – it’s all that. And if you go 10 thousand miles to another country, unlike being on the streets of Minneapolis, Cincinnati, L.A., Chicago or whatever, I think you’ll be a little more daring because you’re so far away and things might happen and you know you’ve got a time limit on it. I think that her character is wedded to what she is in a way, too, and we improvised that whole scene.

MD: Having had such a long relationship by the time you went back to shoot this movie, was that a benefit or a detriment?

RD: Both, well, it wasn’t really a detriment, but it could have been. It was a benefit because we’d play the game and we’d improvise. When we were in Toronto shooting “John Q” I’d say to her “let’s improvise” you know, like kids play house, then we’d go to L.A. and I’d put her with another actor and they’d improvise so she gets to learn how to do that. So, when that day came that we had to be like we didn’t know each other, playing the game helps, but at the same time what she did that didn’t make it a detriment, she’d distance herself from me all day long, really, from me, Bobby Duvall, she really distanced herself, and she used all her shyness and insecurity in a positive way, if she felt at all nervous about doing a scene. So at that point it was like we didn’t really know each other. So it was acting, and there were steps to get to that point.

MD: You know that’s how you work best. Did you know that was how you wanted to do this whole movie? I read that you did not want to take actors or people and turn them into somebody else, but you advised them to play themselves.

RD: Exactly, because that’s what it boils down to eventually. I was talking to Alan Arkin one time and he was talking about Paul Muni and how he wasn’t the actor that Spencer Tracy was – Spencer Tracy more or less acted himself with certain character bits, so it’s always you, turned a certain way.

MD: How does that affect how you wrote this movie?

RD: Well, you write it, but then you change stuff. Nothing’s precious – throw it away, keep it offhand, start from zero. Don’t go toward a result; let the process bring you to a result. That’s what I try to do – turn it around and let it come from the cast. I find it’s much better to make a tango dancer an actor than to make an actor a tango dancer.

MD: The movies you’ve written and directed and starred in, “The Apostle” and this movie, you’re dealing with characters who are trying to come to terms with themselves. How much of it is autobiographical? How much is you sitting down and looking at yourself and what you’re going through?

RD: You don’t look at it that way, but you draw upon that; you draw upon things that are personal. I don’t know if you think of it that literally, but you could – there’s no rule that says you can’t.

MD: John J’s character (in “Assassination Tango”) in particular: He’s very good at what he does, but he’s dealing with getting older and being an older hitman, and he’s dealing with other things that parallel your life. He’s dealing with getting older, and you’re a very respected actor who’s getting older in Hollywood, which is known to be unkind to aging. How much of that contributed to the formation of that character?

RD: Well, you have to think of what you know, but not a lot. I didn’t think of it consciously. But getting older, somehow the parts that are coming my way are more than ever … and all the parts are different.

MD: People like to cast you as the “cowboy” type. Do you feel like you’ve been restricted or typecast ever?

RD: No, the farthest from that, I’ve been given more latitude than any actor I know, and I’ve taken it … I like to play different parts, and I don’t think I’ve ever been typecast. Things come in waves; I might do three military parts and then something else. I’ve played muted guys, the guy in “Godfather.”

MD: Do you have a preference in who you play?

RD: No, I just want to do something else I haven’t done before.

MD: So you like the opportunity to explore.

RD: Yes, exactly.

MD: Does that deep exploration ever interfere with directing? In this movie you’re directing yourself, is that more difficult?

RD: No, because if you understand what you’re doing, you’d have interaction between directors and actors anyways like, “Are you ready to go on?” “Well, I’m ready to go on, let’s go to the next scene.” You still have that gauge in your head; you look at the monitor and you know.

MD: As someone who has had as long and distinguished a career as you have, which is clearly far from over, and having done everything there is to do in the movies, what do you tell young people who want to get involved in movies, beyond the whole follow-your-dreams speech we always hear?

RD: Well, if you want to be a serious actor I would think you’d go to New York or L.A.; you’ll end up there, and as a filmmaker, I would say just start shooting film and really get to know a particular subject matter, and really get to know it. If you’re going to make a film about farmers, really get to know what farming is, what it’s really about, and then go from there. Whatever the subculture is, fictionalize that and work up. Always try to get the actors to be relaxed, talking and listening just like we are now; don’t be too much of a director. I once worked with a guy on a western and he’d say, “When I say action, tense up, goddamn it!” You wouldn’t say that to Joe Montana in the Super Bowl. Get with groups of people – acting groups, filmmaking groups, so you have a crew of people to draw from. After you get out of the University, you’re not so protected; you’ve got to just get out and do it.