SXSW Interview: Robert Duvall Talks ‘Wild Horses’, Working with Coppola, His 60-Year Career and More!

"I find sometimes emotional scenes are not that difficult for me. I find a way of tricking myself to trick myself to make something happen." - Robert Duvall

Robert Duvall Wild Horses Interview

“I find sometimes emotional scenes are not that difficult for me. I find a way of tricking myself to trick myself to make something happen.” – Robert Duvall

Robert Duvall is, hands down, one of my favorite actors ever. He’s had so many iconic performances and been in so many incredible films that to list them all would take up most of my day. So, when I got a chance to talk with him at this year’s SXSW, I couldn’t say ‘Yes!’ fast enough.

Duvall premiered his latest directorial effort, Wild Horses, at the festival. The film, which he also wrote, stars Duvall, James Franco, Josh Hartnett and his wife, Luciana Duvall and it’s about a Texas Ranger who reopens a 15-year-old missing person’s case. Layered on top of that is a really nice story of a family of wealthy ranchers and the estranged eldest son who unexpectedly returns to town.

Duvall and his wife sat down with me and a couple of other writers to talk about Wild Horses, his cast, Francis Ford Coppola, his 60-year career and so much more.

Luciana, Robert directed you in his last film. How has he changed as a director?

Luciana Duvall: No. He’s very subtle about what he looks for and very specific at the same time. And if he knows that you’re in search of something but you’re not quite there, in a very indirect way, he will let you know.

Robert Duvall: Yeah, over 13 years she’s harder to direct now than then.

Luciana Duvall: No, I think what he wants is that you are in touch with yourself. No matter what you do. If I’m going to throw this purse, if I’m going to yell, or if I walk away, or if I want to improvise… as long as you’re in touch with yourself.

Does it make sense? Meaning that you’re not trying to force something. You do it and you feel it. You just feel it. You’re not aware about it.

Robert Duvall: Let the process take you to the result, rather than going to the result.

Luciana Duvall: So it becomes very off hand. And by doing that, by not having the pressure that you have to do it right or perfect, it just becomes almost improvised. It becomes thrown off. Even if it has imperfections. So, it just becomes something offhand.

Robert Duvall: A guy like Brando used to used to watch Candid Camera. He’d try to make it as lifelike as possible within movie time. On stage or whatever. Some people say, “Oh, he’s just playing himself.” I say, “Yeah, try it.” Not always easy. Wilford Brimley says, “Well, when they say action, you better come up with something.”

Yeah, it just seems like even whenever I’m preparing to write something or act or whatever, if I’m up here in my head, it’s not gonna get here [in my gut].

Robert Duvall: That’s interesting, because I call filmmaking and acting from ink to behavior. Starts from ink, and that’s one thing. Behavior is another. You get that little journey.

When you’re on set, how prepared are you? Do you know what you’re gonna do before the camera rolls?

Robert Duvall: Not enough sometimes. Because we only had 22 days and sometimes there’s miscommunication between different departments, but you just try to hope for the best and kinda let it find its own way. Let it find its own way.

I would say start from zero sometimes and end with zero if you have to. Because nothing is definitively zero, there’s always something there.

And you all shot in Utah?

Robert Duvall: We did. Because it’s cheaper and Texas is tougher. We couldn’t afford it. Very small budget. We finished in 22 days. We shot in Skull Valley. It’s 45 minutes out of Salt Lake City. It looks a lot like west Texas.

You’ve just come off of another Oscar nomination with The Judge. Is that acting bug still biting you?

Robert Duvall: Maybe. Yeah. We were supposed to do something with Terry Gilliam. It’s not a good script. I don’t know if they’re still going to do it. I would play Don Quixote or a version of that. And then I met… I don’t know if you saw this wonderful movie called Wild Tales? We talked and he says he has a western and maybe he wants me to be in it. So I’ve got a few things. And also I do have the rights to The Day the Cowboys Quit by Elmer Kelton. He was one of the greatest Western writers of all time in Texas. He wrote for the Stockman’s Gazette in St. Angelo. He knew the land, the air, stock like nobody. And this is a story based on fact of some cowboys that weren’t allowed by the big ranch owners from the east, they wouldn’t allow them to have their small herd of horses or cattle, so they went on strike. Very interesting. So I have the rights to that. And AMC, we’re working with them to get a 2 night miniseries.

Oh, wow. Nice.

Robert Duvall: It could be one of the great westerns ever made if it’s done right. The right director. But Terry Gilliam… I had played a Cuban barber in a movie once. I really did my homework a lot… he liked that. I don’t know if it’ll ever happen but you daydream about certain things. Somethings you plan and something comes around the corner to surprise you and it’s better than what you planned. So we’ll see, but The Day the Cowboys Quit with AMC we’re really trying to inch it forward. With hopefully Charlie Mitchell, he wrote Get Low. Because of Get Low, I got The Judge.

Oh, really?

Robert Duvall: I didn’t audition!

When was the last time you actually auditioned for something?

Robert Duvall: That. It’s been a long time, I guess. I guess it’s been a while, yeah.

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Now, since you’re returning to the western, what kind of tone were you going for and what can I expect?

Robert Duvall: It’s a family drama.

Luciana Duvall: It’s a complex family. Hopefully the film tried to capture the universal aspect that families have. Wherever you go in the world, families are complex.

When you make a film or when you’re writing something, you always hear, not that I’ve ever done it, but you always hear well they want action. They want this. So, you throw everything you can, it’s like put it all together and hope for the best. But really I think when Bobby came out with his first draft…

Robert Duvall: It was not good.

Luciana Duvall: Well, it was incomplete in the part of the crime that takes place. But what was excellent, and somebody said, “Bobby knows how to capture characters.” So when you saw the family, the sons, his character, they were very well detailed, if I can say, in the screenplay.

Robert Duvall: We had Franco. We had Josh Hartnett. We had really good people. Horton Foote – the great playwright, his son-in-law. The AD would say, “Well you have to match. You do this and this.” And Franco said, “I’m not gonna do…” and I didn’t even hear them. I don’t want to hear that. Shoot it like a documentary, certain scenes, and then edit it accordingly. Other scenes you don’t. It’s more structured.

Luciana Duvall: But I think it goes back to your first question about Bobby. Now in this film I was more helpful, meaning more involved, than before. Because I was playing a role that is very complex and that I am very humble about saying I play a Texas Ranger. But I think what is fascinating about working with Bob is there was one scene, the boys didn’t have enough time to spend with each other, so when you see them on camera, they were not connecting. They were like James was reading, Josh was maybe doing something else, and Devon was somewhere else, shy. So, Bobby allowed an environment within the scene in which they became very close.

Robert Duvall: Yeah and I had one of an emotional moment in the scene and the camera wasn’t on me.

Did you have to go back and re-shoot your emotional part?

Robert Duvall: No. We just heard the voice. Which is ok.

Luciana Duvall: It’s a challenge for probably an editor. It’s a challenge for people who…

Robert Duvall: And that might be a fault of mine as a director, just let it roll. But I like that. See what happens.

It’s like a play almost.

Robert Duvall: Yeah. Surprises.

Luciana Duvall: Exactly. And it was very theatrical. First, because you have a small budget, you’re doing 9 pages a day. So you have to be very creative. So our thought, well, this should play out like you’re watching a theatre play or you just sit down and things unfold in front of you and it’s a very simple stage, very simply decorated, very simple with very few people. So you will see that there’s very little, little of everything. Just what you need.

Does it give it a more natural performance, do you think?

Luciana Duvall: Well, I think even if you’re going to the moon on a rocket, your performance should be always in touch with yourself. I always remember when the pilot that landed in the Hudson River, and when you hear his voice he’s probably more relaxed than I was looking for a dress for the Oscars. I mean, he’s like “Base, yeah, we’re about to land.”

Robert Duvall: Crash.

Luciana Duvall: “And we’re about to land in the Hudson. Get ready.” I mean, he’s so off hand. And sometimes you expect actors to be, “We’re landing! We’re going to land!” And it sounds phony. It’s like when you know what you’re doing, you’re very calm, you’re very collected.

Robert Duvall: We took a plane from Italy and then we went to Canada. This was kinda neutral. We’re gonna land. And then we got on the plane in Germany and the lady said, “Please fasten your seatbelts… tight.” Ok! So each country has their identity.

Offhand is a thing I like to hear. I think sometimes even in big emotional scenes sometimes, in life, sometimes people can be offhand. Something goes like this or something. And I don’t think everything has to be spelled out totally definitively completely, each scene. You see the essence and then you go on. It’s storytelling. It’s a tale.

Luciana Duvall: He will write a scene between me and James and it will be like playing poker. So we’ll go home, we’ll go over the lines until I get rid of my self-conscious sound, and then I will come to set and I will have things that I will throw to them, at them, without them knowing. So, when I feel like it, ok, I cover the points because you need to make points in the storytelling… but then I can come up with my own thing. And that’s something that is great about Bobby. He’s not worried about me falling on his lines or…

Robert Duvall: Plenty of other directors do that. More and more now. My mentors were different guys completely. My mentor without evening knowing it, was Kenneth Loach, who did Kes, about the little boy with the falcon, way back. I came out and said, “I know it’s not a documentary. I know it’s fiction, but wow. It’s so close.” I sent him a movie I had done with a gypsy boy, only one actor we used. And he liked it. So without knowing it, from a distance he was like a mentor.

Luciana Duvall: But you always said that working from stage and movies…

Robert Duvall: I worked with a director way back who said, on a film, old school director… I’m not big on a lot of old school directors and some of the movies they made. “When I say action, tense up goddammit.” That’s what he said to us. A director. And on stage your energy, sometimes… it shouldn’t be that, it should be your energy built rather than what they want you to come up with. They, what’s the difference between stage and movie. The only difference is stage, you speak up a little bit.

Luciana Duvall: And how do you protect yourself when a director wants you to do that?

Robert Duvall: Get the fuck out! Boy, I’ve had my battles, let me tell you.

So when he says that, you just do what you want?

Robert Duvall: Yeah. I like Christian Bale‘s acting a lot, so he told me he worked with a director. The guy said, “I got notes.” He said, “I’m not taking your notes.” But sometimes this can be good, when you fight. Sometimes, [Luciana] doesn’t listen to me, which is fine. I knew she would, but that’s ok. She’s smart.

How did you get Franco and Josh to be your sons?

Robert Duvall: We were fortunate, they’re very talented. Well, the money guy and the guy and this and that. First we had Josh in one part and then they said, “No, only Franco plays this part. Then we had to apologize to Josh but he plays a different part which he was better for anyway.

And then we got Horton Foote’s son in law to play the other son. And then we had 2 Texas Rangers. I said, “Well, I don’t want anybody but the Texas Rangers to play the Texas Rangers because they do undercover work so they’re naturally good actors.” So they’re terrific. I got a sheriff from Hudson County, Texas. He ran two FBI guys out of his county. So these guys bring in authenticity, even if it’s a small way, a small scene. That if you get them to step across a line they can put a professional actor on notice. If they come in wanting to do it and they have no bad habits.

So there’s a melding process of using actors and non-actors. So it’s a nice kind of mix you try to do. Maybe you couldn’t do that with honest theatre, with Shakespeare or a Mamet play. In film you can do a lot of things, which is nice.

I saw a film from here 2 years ago called, The Dynamiter. They took kids off the street, it seemed very not amateurish, but very rudimentary. And then 2 nights later I saw the original Bonnie and Clyde, I couldn’t stand it. Fraudulent. Compared to this little teeny movie. So just because something comes from Hollywood doesn’t mean anything.

John Ford said something along the lines of it’s easier to make an actor into a cowboy than a cowboy into an actor.

Robert Duvall: I disagree. It can happen. Like my friend, Ulu Grosbard, dear friend, we did American Buffalo on Broadway. He did the movie I did with De Niro. He just was a dear friend and wonderful director. But he said criticizing John Ford was like attacking motherhood in Hollywood. I did not like The Searchers! Billy Bob Thorton and I have talked about it. I’m sorry. Tucson is not West Texas. And the kid in that was horrible, that actor. John Wayne I liked. It was beautifully staged but it was… that story’s never been told.

You and Eastwood are the same age. You ever wonder how he’s able to knock out 1 or 2 projects a year?

Robert Duvall: He’s become the poor man’s version of Franco. Franco’s gonna do 4 movies this year, but he can take a thing like this and memorize it in 10 seconds, Franco. Photographic memory. I think that’s the reason he can work fast.

And he’s writing books, he’s doing tons of stuff.

Robert Duvall: Eastwood, boy, he keeps going. I don’t know how but he keeps going.

What about Latina actresses and Latino actors? Do you think there’s enough work out there for?

Luciana Duvall: It just depends. Again, it’s like Bob. I mean, he’s been working for 60 years.

Robert Duvall: Many years.

Luciana Duvall: He’s going to do 2 days with James [on another film] and I can’t tell you how excited he is about doing this part with James.

Robert Duvall: At first it scared me.

It scared you?

Robert Duvall: Yeah, cause of memory.

Luciana Duvall: Well, that is probably the most difficult part right now plus you’re very tired. But after 60 years and he continues to be excited about it. And there’s a thrill about getting on the costume and looking for a hat or something very specific. And that’s I think what I found fascinating about being around him, even much more in the camera with him…

Robert Duvall: Jimmy Caan is that way too. He lives in the potential.

Luciana Duvall: Yeah, but you seem to be thrilled about working on a part. You seem to be like craving as if it’s your first day on a job. And I found that remarkable.

Robert Duvall: Somebody came up to me when I did Colors, that was a long time ago. “You’ve been in this a long time. How do you keep at it? How do you keep fresh?” This was in Colors! It was a long time ago.

Since you have been doing this for 60 years, do you find it in some ways easier with the confidence with your craft? Or do you still find it harder to get all the energy?

Robert Duvall: It depends. Sometimes it’s harder to do this than an emotional scene. Sometimes you do an emotional scene, you do it once. I find sometimes emotional scenes are not that difficult for me. I find a way of tricking myself to trick myself to make something happen. And if it doesn’t happen let it go another way.

I don’t want a director saying, “I want you to do this my way.” And a good director like Coppola wouldn’t do that. Some do, but then you find your own way, your own way of an emotional life or whatever.

But I think, yeah, I was always a late bloomer and I think I… in the last… in a certain part of my life I did better from Colors, Lonesome Dove, which was my favorite. When I played Stalin. When I played a Cuban barber. I had a certain accent. I danced the song. From then on I think my work was better than before, although I did some OK work before. I think when I did… when I worked Coppola in Apocalypse Now. I think I did something OK on that.

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