Duvall talks faith on film — except his own
Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service
July 27, 2010

Duvall talks faith on film — except his own

Duvall talks faith on film — except his own
Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service
July 27, 2010

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,


RNS photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Actor Robert Duvall plays Tennessee hermit Felix Bush in the upcoming film, “Get Low.”

“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

off-Broadway play.

“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.”