In HBO’s potboiler-phenomenon True Detective, Rust Cohle, the detective-philosopher played with eerie intensity by Matthew McConaughey says, “Past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing.” For Matt’s good pal Robert Duvall, the line couldn’t be more apropos.
If you look at Duvall’s Golden Age acting contemporaries, most have slowed considerably in recent years. Heck, Duvall tried to contact his old pal Gene Hackman while he was shooting Crazy Heart in New Mexico but failed to get through to him. “I don’t think he’ll act again,” Duvall says. “When we did Crazy Heart a few years ago in Santa Fe, I couldn’t get ahold of him. I tried to email him, but he didn’t get back. He makes model airplanes, writes books, and paints.”
While Hackman may have called it quits, Duvall is still motoring along at 84. I’m seated across from the actor and his wife, the Argentine actress Luciana Pedraza, at The Four Seasons in Austin, Texas, where his latest film, Wild Horses, is premiering at SXSW. Duvall wrote, directed, and stars in the Western alongside Josh Hartnett, James Franco, and Pedraza. When I mention his impressive work ethic and ask how he’s managed to outpace other actors of his generation, Duvall—clad in a smart suit—shuffles a bit in his seat and chuckles.
“I’ve slowed down some,” he says—to a roar of laughter from his eye-rolling wife. “I like working. I’ve got the rights to The Day the Cowboys Quit, the great Elmer Kelton novel, and AMC is going to do it as a two-night miniseries. It’s going to be one of the great Westerns of all time.”
Earlier this year, Duvall was nominated for his seventh Academy Award—Best Supporting Actor for The Judge—and he says Pedraza deserves some of the credit.
“I understand his process,” Pedraza says. “When he played the judge, I told him to cross his legs and use the back of his chair to sit straight, because Bob never does that. It was great for The Judge for him to project that sense of authority, and [it] gave him a general air of command.”
In addition to slipping Duvall acting tips and generally making him feel young, Pedraza has also helped him move further toward the center politically. In the past, he was an avid, longtime supporter of the Republican Party. He was personally invited to George W. Bush’s presidential inauguration in 2001, worked the floor—and narrated the videos—for the 2008 Republican National Convention, and publicly endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012. But last year, Duvall told The Daily Beast that he’s leaning independent because the Republican Party today is, in his view, “a mess.”
“She calls herself a tree-hugging Republican,” a chuckling Duvall says of Pedraza. “I’ve moved more to the center politically, more of an independent. We don’t want the government, the church, or anyone to tell us what to do. Especially the church,” he adds.
Duvall’s also found himself disheartened by the GOP stance against birth control, as well as its devotion to religion and how the party has let it influence the myriad Republican political stances. “It’s unfortunate,” he says, shaking his head. “Women can’t be independent. Also, religion and politics should be completely separate. Completely separate.”
He pauses. “When we took The Apostle to the Rome Film Festival, I said, ‘Here, you have one church and a ton of political parties. In America, we have two political parties and all kinds of churches.’ It’s strange.”
Duvall’s new film, Wild Horses, is, of course, a Western—a genre that’s become scarcer and scarcer in movie theaters in recent years. It seems Duvall and his Lonesome Dove co-star Tommy Lee Jones are the only ones still carrying the torch and six-shooter. But Duvall says there’s still a place, and an audience, for Westerns in today’s Hollywood.
“People always say that they don’t make Westerns anymore and that nobody wants to see ’em, but we made Broken Trail, the one with the five Chinese girls, and that grossed $30 million for AMC and put them on the map!” he says triumphantly.
Aside from Duvall, the biggest marquee name attached to Wild Horses is James Franco, who plays one of the film’s cowboys. While some have questioned the head-scratchingly prolific artist’s recent output, Duvall has nothing but praise for Franco. The two first met around 2005, when a very green Franco visited Duvall’s farm in Virginia while he was filming Annapolis.
“He can take a page of script and learn it in 15 seconds,” Duvall says of Franco. “That’s why he’s doing his fourth movie this year. He has a photographic memory, and he shortcuts everything—in a good way. I thought he was very talented in that film City by the Sea, where he played De Niro’s son.”
In exchange for Franco acting five days on Wild Horses, Duvall says he’ll return the favor and shoot for two days on Franco’s upcoming film, the Steinbeck adaptation In Dubious Battle. The movie, now filming in Georgia, stars Franco, Josh Hutcherson, Selena Gomez, Ed Harris, and Bryan Cranston.
Duvall is still a fantastic storyteller, veering throughout our chat from current events to Ireland’s pro-Nazi bent during World War II (“Do you realize how pro-Nazi Ireland was? When Hitler died, the prime minister of southern Ireland called to give their condolences”) to Apocalypse Now (“That may be the best war movie”) to his burning hatred for Bonnie and Clyde.
“I hated Bonnie and Clyde. Hated it,” says Duvall. “It’s like a Saturday Night Live sketch. I saw it again recently. They make fun of the Rangers, and the acting is very sketchy. It wasn’t truthful in any respect. If you talk to the real Texas Rangers here, those guys hate it. It made them look evil, which wasn’t truthful at all.”
I ask him about his first film role—as Boo Radley in Robert Mulligan’s landmark 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird. Apparently, Duvall hadn’t heard the news that the book’s author, Harper Lee, will release a long-gestating sequel to her literary classic.
“I know Harper Lee’s written something, but I didn’t know that!” Duvall says. “Wow. It took her a long time.”
He pauses. “It really was ahead of its time,” he says of the film. “But it was my very first movie, so I was just so glad to be able to go do it, even.”He’s sure come a long way.