Robert Duvall on his new film and who should have played Vito Corleone
Robert Duvall may be 82, but he doesn’t seem it. He’s still energetic and personable, and not afraid to speak his mind. He’s promoting his new film, “A Night in Old Mexico, in which he plays an old-timer whose land has been taken from him by a company. Instead of moping, he heads out on the town with the grandson (Jeremy Irvine) he just met. But the conversation strays, touching on dance to his old movies to other movies. (When talking about “Mexico” actor Joaquin Cosio, he says, “He was in that horrible movie ‘The Lone Ranger.’ That was the worst thing I ever saw. That guy was so pathetic as the Lone Ranger.)
You first heard about this screenplay 25 years ago.
Bill Whitliff wrote it. He wrote the screen adaptation for “Lonesome Dove,” but he had written this as an original screenplay before. So when we finished “Lonesome Dove,” he said, “Let’s go do this.” I said, “It’s too soon. [laughing] I’ve got to get a little older first. Over the years he made it better. At one time Dennis Hopper was going to direct it. Then a French guy. Then this Spanish guy, Emilio Aragon, loved the script, even though it was a Texas story. We did in Southwest Texas. Wasn’t easy to get the money. It’s easy to raise $100 million with big names. Two or three million is very difficult to raise.
What drew you to this character?
He was just a nice character. He’s a good character — a real Texas character that Whitliff understands. He’s like a descendent of the guys from “Lonesome Dove.” This is kind of a western. I like doing westerns, so to speak. I like things with horses. I like dancing, in clubs where they sing. I want to do all that myself, unless it’s a stunt. Now it has to be a bombproof horse.
Some have said that you like to say in character during production.
Nah. I mean some of it sticks with you. But to stay in character all day long, that would be too laborious. Tiresome. It’s a game, like kids playing house. It’s adults playing house for money. It’s make-believe.
You’re an avid Tango dancer. You still keep that up, at your age?
Well, socially you dance. I like to dance the Tango. We dance socially, my wife and I, for pleasure. I’ll tell you a funny story about the tango. This guys travels all the world dancing professionally. He’s a good dancer. He came back to [Argentina] where the dancing gymnasiums are on the weekend. He danced three Tangos, he and his partner. He got a standing ovation for 10 minutes. When he walked away, they all went [stinker sound]. That’s the Argentines. Brutal.
You went to a New York theater school at the same time as Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman and James Caan. Do you still hang out with them often?
No, no. I don’t see those guys. The country’s so big. When we did “Crazy Heart,” I worked in New Mexico, in Santa Fe. Gene Hackman, I couldn’t get a hold of him. I emailed him and never heard back. We were friends for years. Great guy, wonderful actor. Retired. I hear he’s been in bad health. But when I see him we pick up where we left off. One guy I keep up with is Jimmy Caan.
Periodically I see Wilford Brimley. He used to be a bodyguard for Howard Hughes. Interesting guy. He sings jazz with a band. Old cowboy songs and jazz. He’s a Mormon, and they’re musical people. He sings very well. [laughs] He puts out albums. You put it on and people go, “That’s not Mel Torme. Who is it? I say, “It’s Wilford Brimley. [Laughs] Remember “The Grey Fox,” with [Richard] Farnsworth? He killed himself because he had cancer. I have a friend who’s a Texas Ranger — he just married Farnsworth’s ex-wife. Wilford sang at the funeral. Did “Home on the Range.” Had to sing it twice because he got choked up.
Early in your career you were in the 1969 film of “True Grit.” What was John Wayne like?
Somebody said we didn’t get along. That’s not true at all. We got along. It was the director [Henry Hathaway]. He said to an actor, the director, “When I say action tense up, goddammit.” Can you imagine your boss telling you that? It’s crazy. It’s the opposite of what you should say. Now the good directors are like, “Let it come from you.” Like Coppola on “The Godfather” — he said, “Let us see what you can do.”
That might have been that old-school style of film director — the kind who just cranks out movies.
I’m not a fan of some of those. I’m not a fan of “The Searchers.” No sir. No sir. Billy Bob and I have talked about that, and we both agree. There was some terrible acting in that. And Monument Valley is not West Texas. There’s a difference. That story’s never been told, of taking Quanah Parker, the girl, kidnapping her. There’s a book about it called “Empire of the Summer Moon.” Oh, what a book. It’s about Quanah Parker, the Comanches taking her, and how she was heartbroken when they brought her back because she loved her Indian culture. And they never captured that in “The Searchers.”
One movie I didn’t think I was going to like that I saw recently, because Woody Allen says it’s the greatest American movie ever made, which it’s not, but it’s pretty good, is “Shane.” I never saw it till recently. I don’t’ agree with Woody Allen, but there’s something pretty darn good about it. George Stevens directed it. I’m not crazy about “Giant.” But this movie’s interesting. Jimmy Dean was good in the first part, not so good in the second, when he’s in the makeup. James Dean was okay, but there’s a lot of good young actors now. But he was influenced by Brando.
What was Brando like?
This might sound like heresy to some: More right for “The Godfather,” that part, was the guy who starred in “The Sopranos.” [James Gandolfini] was more willing to play the pr—. Brando was more heroic. On the second day of filming, there was a makeup guy who came in the dressing room, saying, “He’s playing this like a kindly old uncle.” He was more romantic. But Brando was wonderful to work with. His scene with Al Pacino, he had a big sign in a tree. He was reading his lines. [Laughs] He was a master at reading those lines all over the place.
A picture went viral recently of you on the set with Brando’s lines attached to your body.
Yes! Someone pointed that out to me recently! Another guy, Luca Brasi [actor Lenny Montana], we’d have him take Brando’s lines away. And Brando would have to stop. We had him do his monologue to Brando then stick out his tongue and say, “F— you!” We put him up to it. It was good to have fun on the set, to keep it relaxed.
A couple months ago you did an interview where you called the Republican Party a “mess.” Did you get much blowback for that?
Nah. I’m more in the middle anyway. I don’t like either extreme that much. I’ll tell you, people knock Bush, and I’m critical too. He did more for AIDS in Africa, more than any president ever. But my friends and I know the border sheriff. Eight of them came up seven or eight times to Washington, and Bush wouldn’t meet with them one time. It’s his state, they were protecting the border. They didn’t like that. Everything overlaps. My wife calls herself a tree-hugging republican. She’s from Argentina, and she’s like, “The way you treated black people, how could that be?” She sees social things that need to be corrected. And all the atrocities in the South were committed by the Democratic party. The sheriffs in the Ku Klux Klan, they were all in the democratic party.
But that was a different party then than it is now.
Yeah. They switched. Because Martin Luther King Jr.’s father voted Republican until the Kennedys got to him. The only people I don’t like are the mink coat liberals. They live one way then preach another. I like ones that are more humble, practice what they preach.
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