Robert Duvall, a six-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner—for 1983’s Tender Mercies—has been in a remarkable number of classic films during the course of his long career. The magic started when he portrayed Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird in 1962. With his numerous other titles—a short list of which includes The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Network, The Apostle (which he directed) and The Great Santini, as well as such classic Emmy-winning shows as Lonesome Dove (his personal favorite) and The Broken Trail—Duvall is regarded as one of America’s finest, and most iconic, stars. Now, with another memorable and indelible turn opposite Robert Downey Jr. in The Judge, there is tremendous buzz that Duvall could be headed for Oscar #2. And it would be well-deserved.
How did you get involved with The Judge?
It came through David Dobkin, the director. He and Robert Downey Jr. had seen a film I did that was at the Toronto film festival a few years ago called Get Low. On that strength, they cast me (for this film based) on a certain type of vulnerability. Dobkin came to visit me in Florida when I was down there on vacation. We talked, and one thing let to another. At first I didn’t want to take the film. The character was very negative. Then I talked to my agent and my wife and said, “Okay, we’ll go.” Once you decide, then you have to jump in and really go for it.
You and Robert Downey Jr. work so well together in this film. What was it like working with him?
Well, it was great. He’s a wonderful guy. If he has an ego, he doesn’t show it. The vanity doesn’t show. He’s a very off-hand, very open, very democratic guy to work with. He and his wife— both as producers and actors on this film—were wonderful people to work with.
Did you have a rehearsal period to work out scenes for this film?
Not so much, a little bit. I’m not crazy about (rehearsing). (The Judge costar) Billy Bob Thornton, I like working with him. I call him the Hillbilly Orson Welles. He says, “Rehearsal’s for pussies. Only two takes.” I like that theory. Maybe four takes at the most. Three or four, but two is good. You catch the freshness.
I’ve talked to you many times. I know you’ve made a lot of movies, you’ve directed movies, you’ve worked in the independent world. To get really great scripts made, it seems as if the major studios aren’t as interested in them.
No they’re not. This (film) seems more like it’s from an independent filmmaker outside the system. Which used to be within the system in the 1970s. (The major studios) are interested in making money. They make money with the big action films. It’s easier to raise $100 million than three. I just did a film of my own that I wrote and directed for $2.2 million in Utah. It’s called Wild Horses. It’s kind of a western. It’s modern day, about a family, it’s complex. I got James Franco and Josh Hartnett. I got the Texas Rangers to be in it. I got top horses from Texas. So, working in Utah was great. I said, “I love working with you people, you drinking and non-drinking Mormons.”
So, you really like going behind the camera?
Some. My wife was in this film. She’s wonderful. She plays a lady Texas Ranger. She’s outstanding. She won’t listen to me as a director, so I let her do her own deal.
Do you have a favorite role? When you did Tender Mercies did you know that was going to win you the best actor Oscar?
I was the only American up (in the category), so I hoped so. All the rest were Brits. I knew I won when Dolly Parton opened the envelope. My favorite part was Lonesome Dove. That was my Hamlet.
That was done for television.
Now everything’s on television. I did Stalin on television. I did Broken Trail on television. Television can be good. It can be very good.
You seem to me like you’re 40 years younger. You’re just so enthusiastic.
Well, somewhat, somewhat. You can plan something and plan it, but something comes around the corner that surprises you that’s better than what you planned. You never know what’s around the corner. Like this film here; The Judge was like that.
What are you looking forward to doing after you finish Wild Horses?
Well, I’ve got the rights to something written by what some people call the greatest western writer of all times, Elmer Kelton, from West Texas. A lot of Texas people don’t even know him. He was out in San Angelo. He wrote for The Stockman’s Gazette as his day job. He wrote beautiful novels. So, I have the rights to The Day the Cowboys Quit, about how some cowboys that worked for big ranchers went on strike in the 1890s. They weren’t allowed to keep their horses or their cattle. So they went on strike and they lost out. But it’s all about stealing brands and thievery and rustling. We’re trying to raise the money now and get it off the ground.
Photograph of Robert Duvall by Mark Mann