As one of the greatest living actors, Robert Duvall is a man of few words, but those words are brutally honest and raw—a trait sorely lacking in many of today's Hollywood newbies. And whether you preferred him in "The Godfather," "The Apostle," "Apocalypse Now," or "Tender Mercies" (where he won a Best Actor Oscar), or his most recent, "Crazy Heart"--or any number of his other films--his performances always make a big impact.
"Crazy Heart," which Duvall co-produced, stars Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake, a washed-up country artist. The film is up for three Academy Awards this year: Best Actor, Jeff Bridges; Best Supporting Actress, Maggie Gyllenhaal; and Best Original Song: "The Weary Kind."
Duvall recently spoke to Entertainment Editor Dena Ross about "Crazy Heart," country music, and his dream role.
Photo: Jeff Bridges (left) and Robert Duvall in Fox Searchlight Pictures' "Crazy Heart"
"Crazy Heart" has been described as similar to your film "Tender Mercies." Is that part of the reason you wanted to work on the film or was it something else?
Oh, no. Scott Cooper, the director, made the adaptation from the book and our company [Butchers Run Films] helped get it off the ground. That was it. It's something I couldn't participate in as an actor, because I'd already done that. So, we looked around, and we thought of Jeff [Bridges]. It took a long time to get him. We went to other people. And then, eventually we came back to Jeff. He's a hard actor to get. And he's the right guy. He'll win an Oscar this year.
Do you really think he will win?
Oh, absolutely. He's going to win the Oscar. The two best performances this year, for me, are him in ["Crazy Heart"] and the kid in "The Hurt Locker" [Jeremy Renner]. It's the movie of the decade for me. "Crazy Horse" is a wonderful movie too
Who else do you think is going to win big at the Oscars?
Oh, I don't know. I have to see who's up.
You mentioned before, the lead role in "Crazy Heart" wasn't really a role you could play, since you did a similar role in "Tender Mercies," but you do have a small role in the film as Wayne, Bad Blake's friend. Why did you decide to do that supporting role?
I did because if I didn't do it, they couldn't get the movie off the ground, they claimed. So I filled in and did it, because I was one of the producers.
Did they also think that it was just a great role for you?
No, they needed my name in the movie, they said. So I said, “Okay, I'll do it.” That's what it boils down to, to be quite honest.
Among other things, the movie is an underdog story. What is it about underdog stories that you think resonates with so many people?
I don't know. [But they] especially [like the] underdog if they're [in a] country western [movie]. Not that people love country western music, but they seem to like country western movies. I guess they like the underdog. They like drunks or something. I don't know, maybe the rejuvenation, redemption.
There's a lot of spiritual themes in the movie, too, as you just mentioned--redemption, salvation. Were you attracted to that aspect of the film?
No, no. I just was attracted to it because it was a good story. I try not to look for messages in films.
The difference between this and "Tender Mercies" was I had a support system in "Tender." There was a wife, a child, a new child, a stepson, and a baptism--a spiritual baptism. Blake has no support system, other than my friendship. The guy's out there on his own. He had a wonderful scene with Brian Gleason playing his son that was cut. Shouldn't of been cut, but it was. And even his son puts him out.
So he's really treading on thin ice at the end, and hopefully he'll come through in a positive way. The way Jeff played it, he played it so well, it works, I think.
What do you think of Maggie Gyllenhaal's role? Do you think she's going to win an Oscar?
I have no idea. It could be political, very political. They [the Academy] can be political. She did a good job...and the song.
You said you don't like to look for messages in film, but what do you hope that people come away from "Crazy Heart" thinking or feeling?
[That it's] a feel-good movie. If they feel good, that's good. Come away, feel good, that's their hope, that you can make your life better. Make it better. You can do better.
I like the fact that this woman [Jean Craddock, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal], once the guy [Bad Blake] jeopardizes her son, she cut him off. Most women would go right back into that relationship. And, at the end of movie, [you might have] kept saying, "Well, I hope they get together again." But, when you really think about it, you've got to have a lot of respect for the character that Maggie played. She did not go back to the guy, because he jeopardized the safety of her son.
You come away with a good feeling. I like the good feeling movies. We've got a movie coming out next year called "Get Low." Everybody should see it. It's my wife's favorite film since "The Apostle." Under $10 million [to make]. This was under $10 million. The good movies--wonderful movies can be made for $10 million or less, and I think "Crazy Heart" really illustrates that very much so.
One of your last films, "The Road," is actually up for Beliefnet's annual award, The Best Spiritual Film of the Year. It's obviously not a feel-good movie, but many people have said there's a Christian message in that film. Did you view it from that perspective?
Well, it could be, but the point is they didn't push that. The Weinstein brothers, the wonderful Weinstein brothers didn't push that movie at all. They just let it kind of die on the vine.
I don't know if there's a spiritual message. I mean, it's pretty bleak. I read the novel way back, and it's wonderful. I guess if you hold on to certain Christian beliefs that's the only way you can get through. It's such a moral atmosphere with the whole post-apocalyptic experience that these two people are going through, the father and son. They have to hold onto something. I don't know if it's spiritual. Perhaps that's what it is--something higher.
I think you can view it two ways. Some people have seen "the fire within" that was referenced as a Christian metaphor, but then some just thought of it as hope in general.
Yeah, yeah. I don't know what the director thought. I only worked [on the film] for a couple days. It's an interesting film, but it didn't get a lot of emphasis like it started out. Maybe it's because they held it for a year. But I hope we don't get to that point in the world--post-apocalyptic where everything just shreds.
Right. You'd have to make some tough decisions.
You're a big country music fan. What is it about country music that you love so much?
I just like it. I have always liked it. When I was in the army, way back, I listened to Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce, Carl Smith, all the old-time singers—more like [my character] in "Tender Mercies." Jeff was more like the modern guys--Billy Jo Shaver and Kris Kristofferson, more country-rock. I've always liked country music. It's a certain aspect of America that goes back to the British Isles and the influence is very native to America. It's one of our appeals. They say Hank Williams used to stand on the corner in a small town in Alabama and sing with a black man way back in the '50s.
Do you like the sound or do you like the message?
I don't think the message—it's all corny. A lot of it is corny. But opera can be corny, life can be corny, melodramatic. I like the music. I like the…
Yes, it's an American thing.
I'm reading a book now on the 95 existing Congressional Medal of Honor winners. They're going to present me with an award at the end of the month here in California. I'm very honored about that.
Yeah. These guys, some of them prayed, some of them didn't. They had to react out of such a quick, impulsive thing, whether it's metaphysical or animal. You don't know what it is these guys did, but what they went through--it was amazing--to make this nation a better place.
Speaking of praying, do you have a spiritual practice that you follow regularly? Do you pray?
Yeah, I have my own ways of doing things. Definitely.
I read that you were brought up in the Christian Science religion. Do you still practice that?
Yep, I do.
What inspires you as an actor? What drives you or leads you to pick certain roles over others?
You're so honest. That's great.
It's money. [Also] if it's a good part, if it's a quality part, the director, who I act with, if it's a worthwhile project, then I select it. You're always looking for things. You're looking for different people. A guy approached me to play Don Quixote de la Mancha, one of the great parts in literature. When they get the money—it's always the money--I'll be doing that and whatever else comes around.
You never know, something comes at you from around the corner and surprises you, and then you go do it. Then you plan other things. It depends. What drives me is I love my profession. I love to do it.
What is your dream role? What is a role that you haven't played that you want to one day?
Don Quixote de la Mancha, right now. And I'd liked to play Devil Anse in "The Hatfields and the McCoys." That's a great part. "The Hatfields and the McCoys" is like American Shakespeare.