Many cinephiles have a short list of virtuoso actors who are so graceful and true we'd watch them read a phone book. For me, the list includes Jeff Bridges, Helen Mirren, Diane Keaton, John Mahoney, Christopher Plummer and that great icon of American cinema, Oscar-winner Robert Duvall.
So when a publicist for Seven Days in Utopia contacted me recently about the Christian-themed film and asked whether I'd like to interview Duvall, I jumped at the chance. A loudhailer of a film, long on message and cliché but woefully short on subtlety or artistry (save for Duvall's charmingly folksy performance), Seven Days in Utopia — set in rural Texas, it's an exploration of redemption and golf — is not a flick I'm going to be urging you to run out and see or rent, unless you, like me, would watch Duvall read the proverbial White Pages.
In the film, which opened in theaters last fall and was released on DVD at the end of last year, Duval plays Johnny Crawford, a golf-pro-cum-cowboy who helps a young pro golfer, Luke Chisolm (Lucas Black), reclaim his game and his faith. Duvall's Johnny is like Yoda with a five iron and hearkens back to many of the archetypal characters the Oscar-winner (who turned 81 years old last week) has played throughout his storied career.
Duvall, who began his career on the New York stage in the early 1960s (as a struggling young actor at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, he roomed with fellow students Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman), has appeared in some of the most spiritually eloquent films of our time, often playing the role of ersatz sage and spiritual counselor. He is a workingman's working actor with about 150 performances in film and television productions under his belt buckle since his premiere in an episode of the Armstrong Circle Theater television series in 1959.
From "Boo Radley" in 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird and "Tom Hagen" in The Godfather (parts 1 and 2) or "Lieutenant Kilgore" in Apocalypse Now and "Bull Meechum" in The Great Santini, to "Mac Sledge" in Tender Mercies (for which he won the best actor Academy Award) and "Gus McCrae" in Lonesome Dove or "Wayne Cramer" in Crazy Heart and "Felix Bush" in Get Low, Duvall has created indelible characters who are authentic, honest and transcendent.
Duvall's crowning achievement in what is undeniably a vastly successful acting career is the 1997 Oscar-nominated film The Apostle, a project more than 20 years in the making that he wrote, directed and starred in, winning the Independent Spirit Award for both best male lead and director. The film, truly a labor of love for the masterful actor, tells the story of "Sonny," a Pentecostal preacher with a wandering eye and a temper as passionate as his faith. Duval spent years researching Pentecostalism and its practitioners, and the end result in Sonny is a complex character as admirable as he is loathsome, and one of the most eloquent explorations of faith in the history of cinema.
The Apostle (1997)
In my encounter, by phone, with Duvall, I came away with the impression of the man as a truth-seeker, lover of beauty and master of his craft. He is disarmingly forthright and down-to earth, and what he had to say about film — and faith — was a gift. God bless him.
What follows below is a transcript of our conversation, gently edited for clarity and continuity.
Seven Days in Utopia (2011)
SOJO: What attracted you to this particular project? It’s different from a lot of the other projects you’ve been involved with.
ROBERT DUVALL: Yeah, it was quite a bit different, I think. How do you think it was different?
SOJO: This film was much more message-y than the others.
RD: Yeah. It hits you more directly on the head, right.
It’s OK. With the Get Low, it was more oblique, the message. It was a little more off hand. This one was OK. I mean, I liked it and it was a good package. They offered me a good deal. I like working in Texas. Utopia, Texas, and Fredericksburg are wonderful places to work. [Lucas Black, who also starred in Get Low] is a wonderful young actor, plus he’s a scratch golfer and that was all part of the package. We had good people. The supporting cast was wonderful. So it was a very kind of inviting thing to do because I love going to work in Texas.
SOJO: Are you a golfer yourself?
RD: I did it years and years ago and I’m a big believer in hobbies between jobs to keep from going nuts, but golf is one that just takes up too much time, I have a feeling. So I didn’t get into that much.
SOJO: “A good walk interrupted…”
RD: If I were a golfer now, I’d ride around in a cart.
SOJO: What do you think the message of the film says to people?
RD: Whatever it says, I don’t really quite know, even though, as you said, it was a pretty obvious thing. I just think that whatever message they get is an individual thing and that is reflected in the fact that individual audience members take away individual concepts of a message. So it’s an individual thing, whatever they take away.
SOJO: Sure. Like any piece of art, yes?
RD: Hopefully, yes. Like my character mentors the kid to be a better human being, and by being a better human being hopefully he becomes a better golfer once again, once he straightens his life out.
SOJO: Maybe a better question would be what message did it have for you?
RD: For me? The movie itself?
SOJO: Yes, sir.
RD: Not a lot. It’s just a good job and it’s a nice thing, it’s a job. I enjoyed doing it and the surrounding things more than the message of the movie. The message of the movie didn’t particularly move me a lot. I’ve seen that before. It’s a legitimate thing: somebody trying to make somebody better. Maybe I take away from it the fact that I want to be a better human being myself, no matter what I do aside from my profession. I never really thought about it. Maybe that’s what I could take away from it if I did think about it.
Crazy Heart (2009)
SOJO: Watching the film made me look back on your other work and I started to see a thread that I wonder if you see yourself. Not in every film, but you seem to be attracted to some of these really epic spiritually powerful films. And you often seem to play the role of both the spiritual counselor and a seeker, whether it’s Sonny in The Apostle or even Wayne in Crazy Heart. I loved you in that film — Wayne was such a vessel of grace. Do you see yourself attracted to projects in those ways? Is that something that’s conscious for you?
RD: Well, yes and no. I did the most unique film of my career, the most unique writing, is coming out this year with Billy Bob Thornton. Like I tell everybody, you better not bring your preacher to this one. If you do, he might like it, I said.
Billy Bob is a genius. He’s one of a kind. As far as helping people, when I did The Great Santini years ago, that’s definitely not a message film. It’s kind of a family thing. Years later, I’ve got letters similar to this, a young actor said to me, ‘I’ve had an ongoing [struggle] with my father who is negative; he’s a drunk,’ and this and that. ‘And this movie, The Great Santini, helped bring us together.’ Now, the movie wasn’t made for that. It was kind of a secular movie in a way, but the fact that it brought this father and son together made me feel really good.
The Great Santini (1979)
SOJO: What a blessing when someone is able to tell you that. You never know how you’re going to affect someone in the art you make.
RD: Yeah. And you don’t set out to do that. It just happens. … Lonesome Dove is like the Bible. People will watch it in droves once a year, twice a year. And a woman came up to me at a meeting and said, “I love Lonesome Dove. My daughter married recently and her fiancé had never seen Lonesome Dove and we would not allow him to marry into the family until he had. So it’s pretty interesting.
SOJO: I like that. I can see that as a litmus test that might work in my family, frankly.
Are you comfortable talking about yourself spiritually? I’m not one for, but, when I have the opportunity, I often ask artists how they might describe themselves spiritually speaking.
RD: Well, I mean, a great philosopher once said, ‘Don’t be just a farmer. Be a man on a farm.’ So I try to think of that. Be a good person first. In my profession. If I can help people, not that I set out to do that, but if I can maintain myself spiritually and otherwise, being a law unto myself and a legitimate island unto myself, if in my work that I help others, then so be it. That’s kind of the way I look at things.
SOJO: You came up in the Christian Science tradition, is that right?
SOJO: Is that something that you still connect with?
RD: Yes I do. Yes I do. It’s blessed me through the years. I don’t know if I’m an iconic member of that religion or an idealistic person, but whatever I’ve gathered from it I owe a lot to.
I was with a bunch of Navy SEALs the other day and I told about how when my father was at sea, and those moments would come — the warning. My mother would wake up in the night and pray for my father’s safety. I’m sure at times maybe that helped. I do believe in the power of prayer at times. My family was whatever along those lines and I benefited very much from that religion.
SOJO: There’s no way even the finest actor could pull off that performance (in The Apostle) if there wasn’t something authentic in your understanding of that.
RD: Oh yeah. I’m not of the same persuasion as the Pentecostal people, but there is some thread that I agree with. I have a plaque on my wall. People ask me if I have a token, something material from when I was growing up that means something to me. I have a letter from Marlon Brando on my wall that is as important to me as my Oscar. In that letter, I had sent him a copy of The Apostle. He loved the movie. And then I heard that Billy Graham loved it to. Therefore I got from the secular and the religious – from both side. Covered!
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
SOJO: Would you talk a bit about Horton Foote and his influence on both your craft and your personhood — maybe even spiritually?
RD: Yeah. I mean, how many people do you know for 50 years? He directed me on Broadway in American Buffalo. I knew Horton for years. I met him at the Neighborhood Playhouse. We did a play of his and he liked what he saw, so when they were going to cast To Kill a Mockingbird, they said, ‘Remember that boy you saw play the drunk? He could be very good for this part.’ So I got the part.
Lillian Foote actually had broached that with Horton. So I got that part and then did four or five films of his and, ya know, I always said between him and [Francis Ford] Coppola — if I had never had more to do than what they offered me to do, it would have been a wonderful mini-career. Apocalypse Now. The God Father II. The Conversation.
It was wonderful working with Horton. When I would be doing research, like on The Apostle, I’d call into him and tell him what was going on, the kind of preachers that I’d met. When I had it in a rough-cut form, I sent it to him to look at, as I did with Coppola. So they were people who were kind of like mentors.
When people have asked me whether I had a mentor, maybe I should have said that I did. I never thought about mentors, but maybe these guys were like that to me, somewhat. Horton Foote: He was a wonderful man and a lot of fun. He had a great sense of humor and it was great to sit with him in hold court.
Get Low (2009)
SOJO: Did I read that you were actually shooting Get Low when Horton passed?
RD: Yes. I said, ‘Horton, I want you to see this movie. It reminds me of your kind of writing.’ We brought Charlie Mitchell in from Alabama to make the final rewrites, kind of a southern tale. And the day I was giving [the climactic funeral party] speech the first time, my wife’s phone rang off camera when the mule brought my coffin on and it was a message that Horton Foote had just died. It was so strange.
When I came off camera, I was like, wow. I was really moved. It was like he was there, like it was full cycle from To Kill a Mockingbird to that point. He never got to see the movie but I wanted him to.
I bet he was there. I believe in that.
Tender Mercies (1983)
SOJO: Would you tell me a little more about The Billy Bob Thornton film?
RD: Jayne Mansfield’s Car. ooh, man. It’s different. Let me tell you. Don’t expect the same. It’s the most way-out film… It’s so legitimately real.
Billy Bob wanted to direct The Hatfields and the McCoys one time and he said no New York actors would be allowed below the Mason-Dixon line. He’s an interesting guy, Billy Bob, and he’s written this script with his partner, Tom Epperson, and when I read it – I’ve never read anything like it. I said, 'It puts Tennessee Williams in the back seat.'
I always call him ‘The Hillbilly Orson Welles,’ Billy Bob, and this movie is the most unique movie I’ve ever been in. Like I said before, don’t bring your preacher, but if you do, he might like it.
SOJO: Well, my preacher might like it.
RD: Yeah. You’ve got to be a little more open, not so closed as some of them are. It’s the most unique movie I’ve ever been in. I think they’re going to bring it out at the Berlin Film Festival in February and then wait until next September to bring it out.
Fascinating…. What is your preacher? What’s his religion?
SOJO: Well, ya know, Protestant. The denomination is Evangelical Free, but that really doesn’t mean a whole lot. It’s a Bible church.
RD: That’s nice. You believe in Jesus?
SOJP: Oh yes. It’s a very loving, very prayerful community in this little surf town where we live.
RD: More liberal than others, maybe?
SOJO: In some ways it is and in some ways it’s not.
RD: That’s fine though. That’s fine. What’s the name of the denomination again?
SOJO: Evangelical free.
RD: Evangelical free? Interesting. Ya know, I love this kid, Tim Tebow. This football player. I follow him. Oh man, he’s won five in a row. He’s something, this guy.
SOJO: What do you like about him?
RD: I know he’s religious, that’s what he thinks. I don’t look to that so much, although that helps him, obviously. But the guy is so committed. He’s like a warrior. He’s leading his team under severe criticism from the purists and he’s beginning to prove them wrong by really learning how to throw the ball. He’s so disciplined. He’s a winner.
He played the team from Minnesota the other day and his great receiver who he had in Florida when they were national champs said, ‘Be careful going into the fourth quarter. This guy can do it.’ And he did. He’s a winner. But people put him down right and left.
I love the way he plays. He’s so positive. I love to see that. I like a warrior. He’s a warrior.
Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. She is author of four nonfiction books, including The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers and her latest, BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl.