Robert Duvall Isn’t Finished Yet: ‘You Always Wish There Was One More’
The acting legend opens up to Marlow Stern about ‘Widows,’ why Michael Avenatti reminds him of ‘The Godfather’s’ Tom Hagen, and much more.
“My wife says that doing a film like Widows, which is such a unique film, you stay relevant,” Robert Duvall tells me.
And if anyone knows about cultural relevance, it’s Duvall.
The 87-year-old acting titan’s been nominated for seven Academy Awards over the course of his six-decade career (winning one, for Tender Mercies), and has arguably been a part of the most legendary projects of any actor, ever—To Kill a Mockingbird, Bullitt, True Grit, MASH, The Godfather I & II, Network, Apocalypse Now, and Lonesome Dove, to name a few. Heck, he was even in Newsies.
You can now add his latest film, Widows, to that list.
Directed by Steve McQueen, the Chicago-set heist-thriller centers on a band of widows (led by Viola Davis) who are forced to pull off one big job to settle a $2 million debt to a South Side crime boss (Brian Tyree Henry) after their husbands were killed during a robbery gone horribly awry. That same crime boss is running for alderman of a South Side ward against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the scion of a political family at odds with his influential father, Tom (Duvall), an old racist who laments how their precinct has gone to hell.
Duvall is, as always, magnetic—especially in scenes jousting with Farrell—and Widows is undoubtedly one of the year’s very best films, Golden Globe nominations be damned. The acting icon isn’t planning on hanging up his hat just yet, either.
“It comes in waves. There’s always a new set of legendary actors,” he says of his generation. “We’re on our way out, but there’s still some time left. Definitely.”
What an excellent film Widows is.
Oh, it’s one of the most unique I’ve ever been in. I have to go see it again! I was in it a year and a half ago, and I saw it once, but now I have to go see it again to see what it was all about!
How did you get involved? Steve McQueen said that you didn’t know who he was, and called your buddy Francis Ford Coppola to ask.
That’s not true at all! I knew exactly who he was. I don’t know where that came from! I’d seen a couple of his movies before and knew who he was. I had to turn him down twice, because I thought I had something coming up right at that moment but that didn’t happen, so the third time he came to me I readily accepted, because it was just great working with the guy.
Your scenes with Colin Farrell in the film are excellent. And it’s sort of funny, because one of Colin’s first big breaks was starring alongside Al Pacino in The Recruit, so there’s a little six-degrees of The Godfather thing going on there.
Right, exactly! You know, we just went in and said, “Hey Steve, let’s go,” and he set it up and we just went for it, see what happens. So you never know what’s going to happen till it happens, and it was pretty interesting to do because the moments evolved without necessarily planning them.
What’s your secret to remaining so damn prolific? I mean, you’re 87 and still cranking them out with regularity.
My wife. [Laughs] She keeps me in shape, yeah. But you know what I do? I work out a little bit, I ride a bombproof horse once a week, I try to watch my diet, and I just try to stay in shape. I try to keep myself “fit,” so to speak, in case something comes up. One of these days I’ll stop doin’ it, but as of now, there are a few things out there that hopefully will work out, and this was definitely one of them. It came out of the blue, but it was great working with this guy, McQueen. I mean, he’s really terrific.
I was going to ask if you’d thought about retirement at all, like your good buddy Gene Hackman.
Gene, yeah, he just retired and—poof—doesn’t work anymore! When I was down in Santa Fe working [on Crazy Heart], he came down to the set and I didn’t see, so I sent him an email or whatever and he never got back! He’s just kind of a recluse, so I haven’t talked to Gene in many years it seems like. Wonderful guy, wonderful actor. We go way, way back. He, Dustin Hoffman and I used to pal out together in New York while we were makin’ our way up.
That must have been a pretty crazy time with you three in an apartment in New York.
It was, it was. [Laughs] We used to go to the 42nd St. movies to see a double-bill, and Gene would say, “Don’t tell my wife!” He was supposed to be looking for work outside of acting to help out. Those were nice days, good days… way back.
That wasn’t exactly the nicest apartment, right? I read there were people sleeping on the floor and all that.
Gene was downtown with his wife, and a bunch of us—Dusty, my brother, me, a couple of other actors—we had a place uptown, and we’d go down to Gene’s and his wife was Italian, so she’d cook a meal and then we’d go take a nap on the rug and then wake up and have dessert. It was great.
But back to the retirement question, you’re still doing great work, but have you given it any thought?
Well, somewhat—we’ll see, we’ll see. There was one project that never came to be, which is just a travesty and I won’t talk about that, and then hopefully there’s a thing with Ed Harris that I’m going to do. He has a wonderful project called The Plowman from a great book that features woodcraft and carpentry in Montana State. We’re supposed to do that hopefully in the spring, and it’s a wonderful project. I hope that comes to fruition.
With Widows, your character in the film, Tom Mulligan, seems to represent the old world, whereas his son represents a more open-minded one—albeit just as hopelessly corrupt.
The old world is the new world! Those guys who live in Chicago are a lot like my character. It was a wonderful scene between us. I would have edited it a bit differently, but it’s a wonderful scene, and Steve McQueen is great. I called Francis Ford Coppola and said, “I’m working with this guy Steve McQueen from England,” and he said, “Oh, he’s good.” I told that to Steve and he liked hearing that, ya know? [Laughs]
You said that you filmed this movie about a year and a half ago, but your character goes on this nativist, anti-immigrant rant that feels very relevant in 2018.
Yeah, I’d say so. McQueen spends some time here. His other film before was done somewhere in the South, I guess. Billy Bob Thornton wouldn’t want to hear that! He didn’t like foreigners coming over and portraying the South. Billy Bob Thornton said he wants to make the Hatfields & McCoys, and no New York actors will be allowed below the Mason-Dixon line. Bill was a character, yeah. But with McQueen, it’s great working with the guy, and this is like four movies in one. He used one camera! One camera, one cinematographer, and he got all that action with one camera! It’s amazing.
We did an interview about four years ago down in Texas…
…Yeah, I remember that! You had those wild shoes.
[Laughs] I did. And it made some waves, because you said you were leaving the Republican Party over, in part, your frustration with their anti-immigrant stance. And it’s gotten even crazier since. What do you make of the Republican Party today?
Oh, I’m not gonna get into that! [Laughs] You know, it’s too crazy, politics. It’s nuts. It’s just nuts now.
It really is. You’ve played so many military men convincingly on film—MASH, The Great Santini, Apocalypse Now—and I’m curious what your own experience was like in the military? Because I read that you served in the Army for a bit following the Korean War.
Yeah, my Dad was in the military. Here’s a quick rundown: my Dad’s people were from Northern Virginia, behind Southern lines, pro-Union—even though they were Southerners—and they named my grandfather “Abraham Lincoln Duvall.” That was his given name. They were pro-Union during the Civil War, as Southerners. So I’m from Virginia and my wife’s from Argentina, but she says that Virginia, for her, is “the last station before heaven.” We like living in Virginia. It’s nice.
I know some military people who didn’t like [Apocalypse Now], but what are ya gonna do? You can’t please everybody. But when I did Apocalypse Now, I had been in the Army for two years, and I remembered and emulated the posture of certain Special Service Officers that made an imprint upon me when I was a PFC in the Army. I knew I wanted to be an actor, but I didn’t know that I’d be playing someone in the military. When I went over to the Philippines to play that guy, it was overkill. The name of the character was “Colonel Carnage,” which was ridiculous. But I did my research right on the set, and the Air Cavalry was related to the 1st Cavalry with horses where they wore those cowboy hats, and changed the character to make him believable. Coppola is great that way, in that he gives you a lot of leeway in finding things, but my first impression went back to those Special Service Officers in the Army.
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning…” is still one of the all-time classic cinema lines.
You know, in the Alabama football game [versus Auburn], Alabama was playing and they were winning, and somebody yelled out on the loudspeaker, “It’s like Duvall—it smells like victory!” right there during the football game! Somebody told me that!
You’ve told me that Lonesome Dove was perhaps your favorite project you’ve ever done.
Well, my favorite character. I walked into the kitchen one day and said, “Boys, we’re making the Godfather of westerns.” You know, I was fortunate enough to be in The Godfather I & II going into Lonesome Dove, which are two of the most epic films of the twentieth century—even though one was for television. But hey, a lot of people are doing television now. It’s all just action and cut, anyway.
The Godfather I & II are still regarded as two of the greatest films in the history of cinema. But what are the first things that come to mind when you look back on those films?
Oh, Jimmy [Caan] was a funny, funny guy. Jimmy would tell a joke and it would take Brando three seconds to get it, then he’d tilt his head back and laugh. Jimmy was funny. But during the middle of Godfather I I knew that we were onto something special; that this was an important film. And when we did Lonesome Dove, I felt the same thing: this is going to be important. And actually, wherever I go, I get more feedback on Lonesome Dove than The Godfather, although for me, Godfather I & II was more fully realized and better-directed than Lonesome Dove. With Coppola at the helm, he was just great to work with. It was real special. That’s a long time ago, now!
All this drama surrounding Trump and Michael Cohen has reminded me a bit of Tom Hagen, your fixer character in The Godfather.
Yeah. Although who’s the porn star’s lawyer? Avenatti? He’s more like a mobster lawyer, I think! But these lawyers are somethin’, these guys. It’s unbelievable.
You were of course the lead in George Lucas’ debut, THX-1138. But I’m curious if he ever offered you any parts in the Star Wars films? I could totally see you in that universe.
No, he never did, and I never worked with him again. He rose to great heights! I turned down the lead in Jaws because I wanted the other part—the Robert Shaw part—but I was too young for it. Because I like more character parts as opposed to just playing myself, you know what I’m saying? I’ve always liked to play character parts. That’s been my own personal theme throughout my career.
Your very first role in a film was an iconic character part: Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. Talk about coming out of the gate hot.
[Laughs] Yeah. Horton Foote, his wife Lillian, and Robert Mulligan, who eventually directed it, came to see me in a play at the Neighborhood Playhouse under Sanford Meisner, and then two years later when they were casting To Kill a Mockingbird, Lillian Foote, Horton’s wife, said, “What about that young man we saw at the Neighborhood Playhouse?” That was the genesis of that. And Horton was very supportive of my career too. Wonderful man.
And that film was very ahead of its time. It’s crazy to think that it came out in 1962, well before much of the civil rights’ legislation was passed in this country.
It was. Maybe it helped to be a bit of a catalyst for good things to come, hopefully.
You really have had such a wonderful career. I’m not sure there’s been another actor who’s been a part of so many iconic film and television projects. Looking back on it all, are you content?
Yes and no! I’ve done a lot of crap, but I’ve done a lot of good stuff, too. You always wish there was one more. It’s like the great jumping-horse riders—always looking for a horse, the horse.