Q&A; WITH ROBERT DUVALL : The Chameleon Who Disappears Into His Roles


Robert Duvall, says Richard Harris, “is the closest thing you’ve got in America to Alec Guinness. As great as Guinness.”

A chameleon who disappears into his roles, Duvall has also become one of the country’s busiest actors since his debut as Boo Radley in “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1962. Currently, he can be seen playing two very different characters: a shy, retired Cuban barber living in Florida in the just-opened “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway” (in which he co-stars with Harris) and the leathery Native American scout Al Seiber in “Geronimo: An American Legend.” He also recently wrapped a role as a newspaper editor in Ron Howard’s “The Paper,” due out next year.

There’s no pretense to Duvall, who will be 63 in January. Twice divorced, with two grown daughters, he lives with his companion, Sharon Brophy. He greets a visitor to his Upper West Side apartment with a warm smile, extends his hand and introduces himself--”Hi, I’m Bobby Duvall”--as though he doesn’t expect you to know.


Dressed in dark slacks and a dusky peach sweatshirt over a blue shirt, he settles into a couch in a large living room that showcases his Oscar for 1983’s “Tender Mercies” on the mantle. The furniture is pushed back to reveal the polished wood floor--perfect for the tango, one of Duvall’s hobbies.


Question: Tell me a little about this apartment--how long have you lived here?


Answer: About 13 years. Caruso used to live here, back in 1916. I’d like to meet Pavarotti and show him this place. He’s one guy I’d really like to meet.

Q: Why?

A: I love all that singing. We grew up listening to tenors. My brothers both sing. And Pavarotti’s a pretty amazing guy. Actually, we don’t really live here. We live in Virginia on a farm. I come to New York from time to time, and every time I do, I realize how overrated and provincial it is. I certainly don’t think it’s the beginning and the end of America. In fact, if I never came here again, it would be OK.

Q: You’re known for the research you do. What did you do to prepare for the role of Walter, the elderly Cuban barber you play in “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway”?

A: I hung out in Miami, wherever I could turn around and find a Cuban. They have the second largest population of Cubans next to Havana. I hung out with these old guys who play dominoes together. I got shaved by this one Cuban barber a lot. I met a wide variety of people and just sopped up whatever I could.

I did a lot of work on the accent, but it was all pleasant work. You just try to make it your own, so it comes from yourself.


Q: Did you have to learn how to give a shave for the scene where you shave Richard Harris?

A: I’ve got this Italian guy I get a shave from occasionally when I’m in New York. I went once a week in Miami to get shaved by this 82-year-old Cuban guy. Of course, we had no blade when we did the scene; they put sound effects in later.

Q: Is being shaved a sensual experience?

A: Not sensual. Sens uous . It’s like when you get a massage. It’s very soothing. It’s just a nice experience--the hot towel on the face, a little massage of the shoulders.

Part of it is the idea of servicing somebody. There are certain people who do that all their lives, who are good at that. There are certain immigrants who find a dignity in it. This character that I play is not afraid to say what he did for a living.

Q: Yet you initially didn’t want the part.

A: I wasn’t sure about it. I was offered either part (the role of Walter and the role of retired sea captain Francis Joyce, ultimately played by Harris). So I said, “Let me go to Miami and look around and see if I feel I can do it.” I went for four days and began to get a little confidence.

Q: There are people who would probably be surprised that you needed to build up your confidence to play a role.

A: Maybe confidence isn’t the right word. I just wanted to see if I could do it. Once I committed to myself to do it, I knew I wouldn’t feel shaky or insecure. It’s just that some parts are closer to you than others. Like “Lonesome Dove”: That script was so great, I could follow it immediately. This script was wonderful, but it was not all there. This part was not as close to me.


Q: Was there a particular key to the character of Walter?

A: One of the keys is the innate decency in certain Latin gentlemen. There’s a gentlemanliness about them that they all seem to have.

Q: Is that something our culture has lost?

A: If we have lost it, it’s because we’re not bound by any traditions, even in the good sense. Certain of the young in our country are so indulged that they don’t tend to learn manners or protocol.

Q: How much of a challenge was the part of Al Seiber in “Geronimo”?

A: I read one book on the guy. He was a German immigrant but we made the decision to play him as a Western guy. I know a guy from Texas, who, if you put him back 100 years, he’s that guy.

Q: Why do you like Westerns?

A: I love the horses, being outside. When we were shooting “Geronimo” (near Moab, Utah), we shot for 10 weeks but I worked five. So I had a lot of free time to go fishing and drive all over. I love the West.

Q: The tango is one of your hobbies--how come?

A: When it goes right, I get a certain serenity, an inner peace--not a trance, but a very calm feeling. Tango people rip each other worse than actors. The guys in “Tango Argentino” are an interesting lot. They don’t give you a lot of credit. I’ll take a lesson from one and, at the end, he’ll say, “I guess you dance well.” That’s it. You better have a secure ego because you’re not going to get it lathered by him.

Q: You directed the film “Angelo, My Love” a couple of years back. Would you like to direct again?


A: Maybe. I have a thing I’ve written, in which I’d play a Southern Evangelical preacher, that it’s taken me more than eight years to get off the ground. And there’s a movie I’ve written--about the tango--that I’d like to do in Argentina, in Spanish. But it’s very difficult to get the money for these things.

When I made “Angelo,” I learned a lot more about acting from the purity of those people. They had a presence with a minimum of artifice. A lot of actors bring a lot of artifice to their work. When I worked for Henry Hathaway in “True Grit,” he used to say, “When I say ‘Action!,’ tense up!’ That’s not the way to get the best out of people.

Stripping away artifice--it’s the constant standard I aim for in acting, to approximate life. People talk about being bigger than life--but nothing’s bigger than life. The idea in acting is to approximate life, because life is pretty big, given the selections.