His resume speaks volumes: To Kill a Mockingbird, M*A*S*H, Bullitt, The Godfather, The Godfather II, The Conversation, Network, The Great Santini, Apocalypse Now, The Natural, Sling Blade… Robert Duvall is unquestionably one of the greatest actors living. Duvall deftly shifts from in front of the camera to the director’s chair and can easily wear the hats of producer and writer as well. He moves comfortably between supporting roles in big budget action flicks -- like his current gig in Gone in 60 Seconds -- and leading roles in smaller films such as The Apostle, which he also wrote and directed. At 69 years of age, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all.
A consummate storyteller, Duvall and I chatted recently about Gone in 60 Seconds and, at length, a whole lot of other things.
Did you learn to boost cars?
No, I don’t even care about cars. I let (my girlfriend) Luciana drive me everywhere. I just drive an old car. But I hear that the young people came in with their parole officers and showed the other actors how to really steal them. I heard it was quite fascinating. I guess when you’re that good at something like that, that’s what you want to do. You buck the law and challenge it if you’re that qualified of a thief. It can be seductive. I imagine to know how to steal a car in 60 seconds or less, that must be an amazing thing. But there is hard time to serve with stealing a car.
In the film, you were kind of the Yoda of car thieves…
What is Yoda? They even wrote that in the first draft, but I said, “Forget that, let’s do it another way.” I never saw Star Wars. I know a few others who haven’t seen it. I don’t know if I’m Yoda or not, but we all got along great.
Well, I’m sure the young cast members looked up to you as a mentor. Like Scott Caan. You, of course, worked with his father. How was it working with him?
They both are great. They play baseball. They play basketball. They work. They did everything. Vinnie (Jones) said Scott wakes up in the morning and pats himself on the back. If he was chocolate, he would eat himself! But Scott’s great, and Jimmy’s great. I love them. They’re great guys. I was with Jimmy the other day and we had a long lunch down at Typhoon’s. I like to go lunch with friends and sit for hours and just talk and carry on. He’s a great guy. He made Godfather I vibrant with his jokes and personality. Brando still talks about his jokes from twenty-five years ago.
How about Nicolas Cage?
I never met him before. He was more to himself. I was more with the other guys because our trailers were close to each other. Between takes, it would be more than an hour-and-a-half of waiting. It was fun because you got to hang out with these guys. We played soccer and games, joked around. Jones would talk; it was great. I really think the young actors are really better than ever. There is so much information and good people around.
You’re at a place where you can just take movies as gigs -- for the money -- and then turn around and do something with questionable commercial viability that you’re incredibly passionate about. How do you balance that?
This was a great job for paying. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have your face spread all over the world. You still try to do a good job, just like you would do for the ones you are more passionate about. I like to mix them up. It’s an interesting approach. I get a lot of supporting parts and I play the leads in some, but mostly the smaller ones.
And yet you were vocal about turning down Godfather III because you thought it was a calculated move to cash in?
It was a money issue for everybody. Why would Coppola wait twenty-five years to make a third one unless he wanted to buy another hotel or something?
Is maintaining that balance how you’ve sustained a career of nearly fifty years?
You get to a point where it works for itself, but you have to help shape it. I play a lot of supporting parts in bigger films and play leads in what I want to do. Once in a while, I get a lead in a bigger film, but, you know, that’s fine with me. A part is a part. I try to do as well in the little films as I would in the big films.
Is it ever work for you -- like a job job?
Yes, it’s a job sometimes, but it is fun. We complain and carry on sometimes, but it’s a wonderful profession, and I enjoy working. I get off into many things now, more than before.
You were just in Scotland shooting a soccer film. Can you explain a little about it?
Michael Corrente and I talked about it during Christmas three years ago and in less than three months, he raised nine million dollars. How he did it, I don’t know. Legitimate money, too! (laughs) It’s called A Shot at Glory. It was called The Cup, but then they had those monks that came out with the same title -- I actually enjoyed that movie a lot.
It was a wonderful experience because so often with athletic films, you don’t see the athletics done right. With the real players, it was wonderful. There’s difference between this and most athletic films -- like a football film that I saw recently -- they didn’t understand football when they filmed it. As a football fan, I didn’t get it! Over there, to begin with, we hired the guys from England that shot the World Cup. We brought them up and they filmed all the football matches. Then they hired a soccer editor to come and edit. All 22 actors at any given time during the film could have been 22 professional players. So they knew what they were doing.
Without screen testing him or anything, we gave the lead to Ally McCoist, the highest scorer in the history of the Rangers at the end of his career. He was terrific. And he was just a natural actor. He has a talk show over there, and (legendary forward) Georgie Best didn’t show up. He just got drunk and didn’t show up. So, Ally, he put a cardboard copy of Best and improvised the whole show. Ally McCoist is a very quick guy. So we hired him to play the young lead. He was terrific.
And you play a coach?
I play a coach. An Irish coach. I worked on the accent for months.
Is the film finished?
It’s a nice story and it worked better than I thought it would. When I finally saw it with the music, with that added dimension, I was pleasantly surprised. We had the guy from Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler. He did all the music. It was beautiful music. Then at the end, they had two prominent football commentators come in and watch the film with the music and improvise as they watched the movie and give their commentary as they would at any given match.
Are you planning to sit in the director’s chair again soon?
I am going to direct next year. Francis Coppola liked my script for a Tango film, and he is going to find some producers for it. You know, he could green light any movie and get 10 million dollars. He can loan to himself.
What’s the Tango film about?
The connection between Buenos Aires and New York through social dancing and the Underworld. And about this guy who has to go down there for a certain reason and he gets hooked on Tango. This great dancers who died several years back in Argentina -- one the innovators of the way they dance in circles there -- he once said that it is sort of a myth, but yet it’s a guide, too, that to be a good tango dancer that you should be a thief, a pimp, a bookie, some kind of criminal. Well, you know, it’s true.
I know Underground guys in New York that are terrific dancers who never had to go to a dance class. So Frankie Gio is an actor, he was a heavyweight boxer and terrific swing dancer. He was in Roseland one time and got into trouble, and the bouncers took him out and worked him over, but they couldn’t knock him out and he was on the ground, so they were thinking he would make a good bouncer, so they hired him while he was on the ground. His grandfather had actually lived in Buenos Aires, along with a lot of other relatives that he has. There’s a connection about this sense of Underworld people. They’re good dancers. You don’t really have to be a pimp or a thief, but that’s the myth.
I know you’ve turned down roles before because you felt that the violence in those films was portrayed irresponsibly. Where is the line between responsibility and irresponsibility?
Maybe everyone is a hypocrite at some point. There was a movie I was offered some time back and they asked me if I could kill my own kid, and I couldn’t take that part. People worry about the NRA when they should be worrying about the violence in movies. Both should be addressed, but there is so much violence in movies, and they talk about “political correctness,” but they do whatever they want to do to make money. That’s the bottom line. Maybe that’s the way it should be because it is a business. There’s a lot of double standard out here, I think. Maybe not the whole industry, but certain individuals.
You don’t mean violence per se, though? You’re talking about unrealistic, exaggerated, hip violence, right?
Absolutely. It’s damaging. Kids, people, adults, these images are always flashed. The politicians sometimes don’t address it because they like to be around Hollywood people. No one is held accountable.
And the ratings don’t work?
Well, how is Mission: Impossible rated PG-13? Is somebody buying someone off?
How do feel about Chuck Heston and other outspoken Hollywood advocates for the NRA?
I don’t know him too well. If that’s what he wants to do. There are problems besides the NRA. I don’t even own a gun, but I don’t hold it against people who do. I was in the Army. Out here, there’s a joke - -not a good joke -- but they say you have 2 ½ cars per family, and in Texas, there’s 2 ½ handguns per car. I don’t know much about Heston. If that’s what he wanted to do.
How do you reconcile the violence in The Godfather?
There was a lot of violence in that, but it was native to those people, indigenous to that culture. And there’s violence in my Tango movie, but I don’t think it’s overstated. Mission: Impossible makes it look like it’s chic and somebody said it desensitizes the violence. I’m not on a box preaching, I just think that there is a double standard in this town. Whatever is going to sell tickets.