THE PLAINS, Va. — Amid the
rolling hills of Northern Virginia, actor Robert Duvall lives in a rural hamlet
not unlike the on-screen settings where he has immersed himself in Southern
It is, his wife says, “the
last station before heaven,” even if Duvall’s cast of fallen characters might
never make it all the way.
His characters are often
touched by faith, from washed-up country singer Mac Sledge in “Tender Mercies”
to a hermit in the upcoming “Get Low,” which opens July 30 in New York and Los
Angeles and nationwide in August.
And then there was Euliss “Sonny”
Dewey, a Texas preacher on the run from the law and his own foibles in the “The
Apostle,” which Duvall wrote and directed.
“You don’t have to agree
with everything that these people believe in, but you want to try to portray
them as accurately as possible … without dictating or putting judgments on
it,” Duvall said in an interview on the farm where he’s lived for 15 years.
Down an unpaved road and
surrounded by a silo, a barn and vast farmland, Duvall is almost as secluded as
Felix Bush, the mysterious man he plays in “Get Low.” Bush, a Tennessee
recluse, seeks the help of ministers to speak at a “funeral party” where he
plans to reveal a deeply held secret before he dies.
“I guess maybe he needed
that reinforcement of someone who was kind of an ally or believed him, kind of
like soul brothers in a way,” said Duvall, dressed in a cream-colored shirt
with the monogram “RL,” the first letters of his and his wife’s Luciana’s first
The 79-year-old actor said
characters like Bush, as well as Sledge and Dewey, deserve time on the movie
screen — with all their flaws and complexities — to reflect the rich spiritual
and cultural stew of Southern culture.
“They should be shown, should
be seen, should be portrayed but … with contradictions,” he said, noting that
even peace-loving Jesus chased moneychangers out of the temple “with a whip.”
It’s the kind of portrayal
that isn’t often seen in Hollywood, said Craig Detweiler, director of the
Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University in Malibu,
“By dignifying seemingly
common people, he’s also elevating and humanizing Christian faith in profound
ways,” said Detweiler. “Hollywood producers may ignore the flyover district
between Los Angeles and New York, but Duvall is very rooted or drawn to that
kind of land and place.”
Already known for his roles
in films like “The Godfather’ and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Duvall became a
researcher as he developed plans for “The Apostle,” the 1997 film that earned
him a best-actor nomination. He had already taken home an Oscar for his
portrayal of Sledge, in 1984.
He fondly recalls spending
more than a dozen years traversing the country, visiting churches, picking up
the signature cadences of black preachers, and recruiting non-actors for the
film. The spark of the project, he said, was a visit to a church in Hughes,
Ark., the real-life home of a fictional character he was portraying in an
“I said, ‘Wow, I’ve never
seen this,’” he said of the little white clapboard Pentecostal church with a
woman in the pulpit and a man on the guitar. “Someday, I want to put this on
When he couldn’t get funders
for the movie, Duvall ponied up $5 million of his own. In his tour of churches,
he was moved — a “wonderful feeling,” he said — by the choir of New York’s
Abyssinian Baptist Church, and recruited extras for Dewey’s One Way Road to
Heaven Holiness Temple at a meeting of the Church of God in Christ.
“You don’t have to totally
believe in what you see, but you can’t patronize it,” he said. “I put real
people — the real preachers, real people from the congregations, in my movie to
give it a sense of truth. That was a truth gauge.”
William Blizek, founding
editor of the Journal of Religion and Film, said Duvall’s use of real religious
people and actual words from preachers showed the actor’s interest in accuracy
without turning them into “saintly characters that could do no wrong.”
“In ‘The Apostle’ it was of
special concern to him to try to get this right,” said Blizek. “He thought
other movies had sort of mocked this kind of fundamentalist evangelical, what
he calls the Holiness Church,” he said.
Like Bush in “Get Low,” the
characters he played in “The Apostle” and “Tender Mercies” sought redemption or
forgiveness. But Duvall said the greatest crime of the runaway preacher in “The
Apostle” was one of passion, not premeditation.
“He killed a man out of the
moment, he didn’t premeditate it, like King David did in the Psalms,” Duvall
said. “Am I right? Every time I read the Psalms — which are beautiful — I think
of that. … Yeah, what Sonny did wasn’t as bad as that.”
Duvall, who spent so much time delving into the
faiths of the men he played on screen, is more reticent about his own. “My own
faith is a very personal thing,” he said, “so I just don’t talk about it.”