Robert Duvall by Daisy Foote

BOMB 37 Fall 1991
037 Fall 1991
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Robert Duvall in Rambling Rose © 1991.

Bob Duvall has just completed work on a film, Rambling Rose, written by Calder Willingham and directed by Martha Coolidge. Convicts written by my father, Horton Foote, and directed by Pete Masterson, is still to be released. I have seen Convicts several times. He plays Sol, the owner of a sugar cane plantation, worked by convicts. A deranged old man, lost in memories and haunted by his own past cruelties—it is a masterful performance, his King Lear. He has also completed two screenplays … The Apostle and another unnamed dealing with tango dancing. I read both with some trepidation—fear of a writer reading an actor’s words. But they are both wonderful. As in his acting—truth is the cornerstone. It took about a year to set up my interview with him. Lots of phone calls back and forth between me and his assistant, Brad Wilson. “Alright,” he would say, “we’re going to do this interview. Bobby wants to do this interview.” And then … well … life, Bob’s life got in the way. A film called Rambling Rosewas being filmed in North Carolina. Trips to his home, family, friends, and horses in Virginia. Off to Buenos Aires to visit his tango dancing friends and to do some tango dancing. And then it was February and the horse show circuit in Florida. (Bob owns and rides open jumpers—his ease in the saddle evident in Lonesome Dove ). He is engaged in a comfortable romance with life, but he is in no way a dabbler. It is all … from tango dancing and writing to acting and directing … taken very seriously. Never less than devoted. And I am reminded of this devotion as I sit in his living room and listen. Questions end up getting in the way. I watch and listen … and I learn.

Robert Duvall So you’re a writer?

Daisy Foote Yes.

RD Plays and screenplays …

DF That’s right.

RD Your daddy said you’re writing is about New Hampshire.

DF Some of it is. It’s where I grew up … What I know.

RD You write any short stories?

DF I’ve written some, but I’m not very good. I don’t really have the descriptive sense needed for short stories. I like using dialogue to tell a story. That’s how I see things—through my ear. But then Eudora Welty in her book On Writing talks about seeing things with her ears, and she writes novels and short stories.

RD The southern writer …

DF That’s right. Anyway … the ear is very important to me. I’m always listening to conversations.

RD That’s a good thing.

DF (laughter) It gets me in trouble sometimes. (pause) You’re obviously a big listener.

RD Oh, sure … Have to be.

DF It’s interesting to me how you spend so much time in Virginia.

RD Well … Now I do, but I didn’t before.

DF Did you ever live in Los Angeles?

RD Yeah. Part time. And strangely enough I like Los Angeles a lot.

DF Really. I’m surprised.

RD Well … now … I could see living in LA for reasons other than the business. There’s a lot to do out there. And there’s a lot of interesting clubs to go dancing at every night and restaurants, a lot of Cuban places. It’s kinda spread out. You gotta find everything and bring it to you. But there is a neutralness out there that can be strange. (pause)

DF I guess the part of it that makes me nervous, especially for actors, is that they can get very removed from the ordinary parts of life, living out there.

RD That’s true. They don’t want to go on location. Oh, I’d rather do the film here kind of thing.

DF And I think that would affect somebody as an actor.

RD Oh sure. Everything becomes neutral and flat, the accents, everything. It’s like permanent transience. People move out there and stay … you don’t know who your neighbor is. They have beautiful homes though. (laughs) And there are things you can do. But you gotta keep hungry. It’s harder to feel hungry out there. It’s a real company town.

DF I don’t think I could ever do it. I’d like to live in New Hampshire some day, part time, if I could manage it.

RD You know who else lives up there … just did a script of his.

DF The Rambling Rose!

RD Calder Willingham’s script. A beautiful script. Excellent.

DF As a kid … See … I always knew he was up there because he and my father were real strange animals. Nobody knew what a writer was up there. My father likes to be on the set with the actors while his scripts are being shot. Well, you know that he loves actors. He likes to be there to answer questions, watch the process. How did you feel about having a writer on the set?

RD When we did Convicts your dad was very funny. Your dad knows how to hang around. I say, “Horton, do you mind if I do something?” And he’ll say, “That’s fine Bobby.” And then I’ll change something. But I wouldn’t want many writers sitting there like that when you’re acting.

DF But Dad said something interesting about that. In Convicts there’s that scene when you’re with the boy, Horace, and you’re looking at the grave. And you say something like who’s grave is that? And he tells you that a convict is buried there. And then you lie down on the grave, you get very upset, emotional. You tell him that no convict is buried there. You tell him your mother is buried there.

RD (proudly) I made that up.

DF I know you did. But I had no idea, until my Dad told me about it. I was surprised. He is very careful when it comes to improvisation.

RD Well … You gotta be careful. But Horton … He’s all right with all that as long as you’re saying you’re just trying this or the director says we’re trying this.

DF But the difference is when you improvise it’s always in the spirit of the script.

RD Sure. It has to make sense.

DF You’re great in that movie.

RD I love that movie. Love that part.

DF Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope it gets released.

RD I hope so. It’s a lovely thing. It should be out. (pauseRambling Rose is another thing. Calder (Willingham) he got pretty insistent, made us a little nervous, but he could be right. What he was going for was the breed. These were blue blood people. It’s a period piece, kinda from a feminist point of view. This young, buxom, somewhat attractive rural girl comes to this town during the depression …They give her a home … And she turns out to be a nymphomaniac. She goes nuts and tries to make it with the father [played by Bob] and ends up in bed with the son who’s 14 years old. His first experience and unbeknownst to the mother or others. It’s just what happens when this woman comes into their lives. She comes into this bright, literary family and causes a very profound change … A catalyst in a way. Laura Dern is the girl. She is wonderful to work with. Lukas Haas is the young boy.

DF He’s great.

RD Oh, boy, wonderful. And it was a woman director, Martha Coolidge. She was terrific to work with. She’s like a mother figure behind the camera. Good cinematographer. It was terrific. Good script. Calder did the adaptation. One thing he added—I wish they hadn’t cut. Beautiful scene. But the movie got too long … As they sometimes do. A lot of humor. I hope it will do all right.

DF When does it come out?

RD I think the fall. But working on that … Calder said you couldn’t play a redneck. There was a certain thing we had to work on. Really, really nice stuff. And hopefully it will come together well. I almost didn’t take it. You almost don’t take things … And they turn out better sometimes. Good part. Different. Less macho. I was a literary guy.

DF I remember a part you did. Very different from anything I’d ever seen you in before. I was watching television late one night, and I saw you in The Betsy.

RD Oh God.

DF Well. I gotta tell you, I’d never seen you doing anything like that before. You got the accent of that Boston Brahmin type of guy, the egg in his mouth, a whole attitude you got.

RD Nerdy guy. I took that part so I could work with Olivier. I turned down a part in The Black Stallion I probably should have taken The Black Stallion although Mickey Rooney was terrific in that part. I saw Mickey Rooney the other day on a talk show … He’s an amazing guy. He’s terrific as an actor. I’ve seen him do just startling work, startling. So I took that part in The Betsy to be around Olivier. Interesting man. Great stories to tell. It was right after I’d done American Buffalo. I wanted your dad to see that (American Buffalo). He never came. Some of the best things I’d done on stage.

DF Is that the last time you did theater?

RD Yeah. 1977. Time goes fast.

DF Do you ever want to do it again?

RD Maybe. Maybe. If the right part …But … You know … It’s a lot of work just for a short time. I’d rather do movies because you can travel, meet interesting people. You can probably do the same parts. And the critics. Why give these critics, that one negative guy, any satisfaction to rap you. I just don’t like critics a lot. If you do something a little more perverse, they like that, like Pauline Kael. She rapped Brando for years until he did Last Tango in Pariswhich was a bit perverse for some people’s taste. But because it had certain different things and anti this and anti something else … She liked it. But boy some of these critics are crazy. But with American Buffalo, De Niro came, Kazan came … All these people came and loved it. Now wouldn’t I be in a strange position if the reverse were true. Suppose that critic liked it and all those peers of mine hated it. I’d be in a pretty bad position you know. You have to kinda screen those things. Some of these New York critics didn’t like Tender Mercies. I mean what can you do to please them? Not that you have to please them. You know it’s like when I met Waylon Jennings. He kept saying, “You really didn’t do what you did … It’s impossible to do what you did. You can’t do what you did, but you did it. You played a Texan. You sold me.” So that was a great review … A review on the telephone from a valid critic. And then, Willie Nelson said, “You were aping Merle … Did you mean to?” I told him that I love Merle Haggard but I didn’t know I was imitating him. So these were the greatest reviews I could get. And hopefully stamp out some of the feelings from the bad reviews. If these country guys had said in print or vocally that it was bad … Well, that would have been even worse. So that was a compliment. That’s not going to happen with every performance. Some performances you do better than others. But I think I hit on that one. That was special material. And we all worked hard to come up with something special. And if you disagreed, that doesn’t mean you disagree just to disagree. You have disagreements with the director, the other actors because you’re all trying to make it better. It was a terrific project.

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Robert Duvall in Convicts © Tad Hershorn.

DF A friend of mine took a screenwriting class at Columbia, and the instructor told the class that Tender Mercies is one of the three best American screenplays. I’m always hearing that, how it’s the perfect screenplay. And I’m always amused by these stories considering how hard it was for my father to sell it. He was constantly being told by directors, studio people, that it didn’t work as a screenplay. It didn’t have enough of this or that. The only reason they use it as an example now is because of the success.

RD That’s right. What’s her name, Sherry Lansing said to me, “Oh, if Tender Mercies had ever been sent to us we would have done it.” Well, I don’t believe it! I sent them my preacher script, and they passed on it. It’s after the fact they say all those things. I thought that Bruce Beresford did a real nice job on Driving Miss Daisy.

DF I did too.

RD A good job.

DF I liked the movie better than the play.

RD It might be better since they opened it up.

DF Well, I liked her [Jessica Tandy] so much.

RD Now he [Morgan Freeman] did it Off-Broadway too. He’s terrific. I love that actor.

DF Incredible. He was great in Glory.

RD Oh yeah, and when he played that pimp …

DF In Streetwise.

RD My God, terrific, great. He was pretty good in that Lean On Me. The director mislead him the first ten minutes in that. But then he settled down and was fine. But he’s a heavy hitter … terrific actor.

(In 1972, Bob Duvall starred with Olga Bellin in Tomorrow a movie based on a William Faulkner short story, adapted by my father and directed by Joseph Anthony. Set in the 1930s it is the story of a Mississippi backwoods farmer. It is filmmaking at its purest and most beautiful. And Bob’s performance is a master lesson in the power of tempo and subtlety.)

DF I watched Tomorrow again last night.

RD Yeah …

DF The thing that has always been so interesting to me is the part where the woman you have just married dies, you don’t cry. Everybody cries these days. Most actors today would have cried at that particular moment. You know, it doesn’t matter what the emotion: happy, sad, angry … Why not show you can cry? That must mean you’re a great actor. Well, I think it can get so boring. It doesn’t mean anything after a while. It’s so technical. Most of the time there is nothing real behind it.

RD Sandy Meisner used to say … He’d look at the class, sorta like a peacock, “If crying means great acting, my Aunt Tilly could be another Eleanor Dusa.” Well … Now … You’re talking about that moment when she (his wife) dies?

DF Yes.

RD Did you notice the pause I had there?

DF You mean after the mid-wife tells you that she is dead?

RD Yes. You know why I paused?

DF Why?

RD ‘Cause I was gonna cry. I couldn’t speak. But I didn’t want to betray that. So I made sure that I was clear, so I could talk through that scene.

DF I don’t think that guy would cry, the kind of guy he was.

RD Maybe. He might. But whatever told me at that moment … I didn’t want to see him cry. Whenever you see documentaries, people are always trying to put a lid on their emotions, going against what’s there. That’s much more interesting. When you go against it, then the colors will come out. It’s a discipline, if you don’t cry you’ll be rewarded, something else will come out, something nice. When my own mother died I didn’t cry at first. It wasn’t until months later when I was packing up her clothes. Why did that happen? I don’t know … It happened, it just did. I didn’t plan it. (His wife, Sharon comes in to tell him she is taking the dog for a walk and would he like to meet them later in the park.)

DF I wanted to ask you a little more about improvisation. Maybe you’re just good at it, but I can tell in a lot of movies when they are improvising. I can tell in Spike Lee’s films, I could tell in Goodfellas … They get flat.

RD But Pesci was great in that film.

DF Yes he was. But it [improvising] can become like a ball being thrown back and forth and they never get it over the base.

RD I liked that girl. Did you like her?

DF Lorraine Bracco?

RD Yes.

DF She was great.

RD I liked her a lot. Because in a way what she had to do was harder. Cause they come around doing their bada bing bada boom, a great imitation of James Caan in the Godfather, and she just comes in and really uses herself.

DF She has to receive all of that.

RD Right. It takes a lot of concentration on her part. You know, it’s a colorful thing that these talented Italian-American actors have. It’s great. The style is so broad, and they do it well. But, like I said on a talk show, those people they’re doing [the Mafia people] are only one or two notches bigotry wise above the Ku Klux Klan. There may be a tendency to romanticize those people …

DF When you work on a part—I know this is a hard question—but can you give me some idea of how you proceed. I know you don’t like to intellectualize the process too much …

RD Well, you gotta memorize the lines if they’re a lot of them. (laughter) So I just go over it a lot. You do some research, try to help yourself. You get an accent. But I usually just go with my first love of the thing. Just try and like it a lot. And then when you go to do it, you just try to talk and listen. Keep it as basic as you can. Make it as much out of yourself as you can. Even though you’re a character you’re not becoming somebody else. People think you are. People talk about becoming the character. They say, I studied this all through school that you become the character. Well, you do … But you don’t. The thing is … You never want to lose control. You do a lot of stuff to help yourself. You have fun, and you study it. You take it with you. You go over it. Work on it. Here I could do that maybe. Or see if that works or it doesn’t work emotionally. If it doesn’t, I won’t put a burden on myself.

DF Is that where improvising can come in?

RD Well, you know, if you want to try something, you try it. But you gotta be careful it doesn’t become like Second City. It has to totally come out of the behavior, what’s natural for the part. You know, in The Godfather, that scene in the garden where Brando falls over dead. He kept playing games with the little kid. None of that was in the script. So when the little kid freaks, he really freaks. It’s a real moment. The thing is, there’s nothing bigger than life. Not ever. I mean I say this and some of these actors look at me with daggers. They say it’s all in the imagination. But it’s not. It’s a lot more. Just like if I was relaxed enough to play with my dog Gus before a big emotional scene in a movie, that’s better preparation than if I’m saying, oh my God, I hope I can get this emotion up. When I was directing Angelo My Love right before the cameras would roll, I’d yell to the gypsies, “No fucking acting!” I didn’t want them messing with it.

DF You’re friends with all different kinds of people. Tango dancers, country singers, professional riders, preachers, not just actors—people from all parts of life. Is that important to you as an actor, to keep your life diversified?

RD Yeah but it’s not any great intellectual research. It’s just about a good level of how ya doing … Let’s sit around and hold court. That’s what I like. To hold court for hours and eat. That’s good. That’s what you learn. And when we drove around Texas doing research for Tender Mercies this guy Lawrence Elkins, this big guy, he took us. And another guy who had a pistol in his boot. He was a motorcycle guy, a Vietnam veteran. I didn’t know him. We got in the car. We’re driving. I’m looking at him. I tried to sleep. He’s looking at me. Jesus … I’d wake up … He’s looking at me. I didn’t know these guys from Adam. Driving all over Texas. “What you looking for,” people would ask. “Looking for accents!” Go in get people talking. I finally found the right guy. But these other guys, they were great to travel with. When I did Lonesome Dove I got the same guy (Lawrence Elkins) to travel with me. As much fun as you could ever have just driving and talking about nothing. We went and found old Sammy Baugh. He was a quarterback for the Washington Redskins when I was a kid. I saw him play. He’s like a Texas Ranger now, about 70. Straight as an arrow. He lives in the middle of nowhere, this godforsaken part of Texas. Your daddy would probably say it was beautiful. But I would have to argue with him. It’s not so beautiful out there. And this guy, just the way he used his hands, the way he talked about athletics, the way he’d throw a pass. I used some of that when I did Lonesome Dove. Some of those gestures. He was my guy. And when we left there … I still don’t think he knows who we were. But it was great. To drive that far to find someone like him. He’s an old rancher now. Has some horses. Just sits out there now.

DF Did you put him on tape?

RD No. I didn’t want to talk to him about any of that. I just wanted to be around him. I don’t know why. He had a grace about him … what I needed for the character, Gus.

DF You just took it in and used it?

RD Right. I didn’t want to do too much about it. Just the flavor of it.

DF I understand.

RD I mean I could have still done the part. But the fact that I was around him blessed me a little bit for that part … A little more. But that’s where it all comes from. Without violating what you do. It’s still you. Morgan Freeman, it was still him when he played that pimp. But he probably saw guys, pimps around town. That guy he played in Driving Miss Daisy, yes sir, no sir, it was the total opposite … But it was still him.

DF The guy had real dignity.

RD He sure did. (pauses) Kim Stanley used to say something like, actors do their best work between the ages of 25 and 40. But I don’t think that’s true. I think the problem is when you don’t stay hungry. You gotta stay hungry, keep searching. Always keep searching.

Daisy Foote is a playwright and screenwriter living and working in New York.

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Originally published in

BOMB 37, Fall 1991

Featuring interviews with Nan Goldin, Elizabeth LeCompte, Robert Duvall, P.M. Dawn, Jane Wilson, Louis Edwards, Craig Coleman, James Chance, Hal Hartley, and Constance Congdon.

Read the issue
037 Fall 1991