While in Boston last fall playing a ruthless lawyer battling John Travolta in
the locally shot Class Action, Robert Duvall found time to chat about
The Apostle, a film that he wrote and directed and in which he plays a
member of another maligned profession -- pentecostal preachers.
"From the days of Gone with the Wind they've gotten a caricature
treatment from mainstream entertainment," says Duvall of the intolerant,
repressed, hypocritical, corrupt image these men and women of God have taken on
from the media and movies. "The only time I ever saw it done right was a cameo
played by Ned Beatty in Wise Blood. True, some of these guys are a bit
too vocal about being judgmental and it'll come back to haunt them. Like that
guy Jimmy Swaggart -- I mean, come on. But I think they all basically want to
do good. Sometimes the ones that get on television are seduced by nouveau
riche-ness and everything goes out the window. But when you get in the rank and
file with these people, black and white both, there are some wonderful
It was in the rank-and-file of fundamentalism that Duvall first was inspired
to make The Apostle.
"Way back I was doing an Off Broadway play and I played a guy from Arkansas,
so I thought I'd just stop off in that area, just to see what it was like. I
bumped into a bunch of roadworkers from northern Louisiana and I went to one of
their little churches round the corner. It was my first visit; I'd never seen
that on television or on a movie or anything, these kind of guys, these
preachers. I figured it would be interesting to play one someday, so I put it
in the back of my mind."
Way back, apparently. It would be more than a dozen years before Duvall
invested $5 million of his own money to make the film. This was money well
spent: the film, and in particular Duvall's acting, has been critically hailed;
he's been voted best actor by the National and Boston Societies of Film Critics
and is a dark horse for an Oscar nomination. Part of the electricity of his
performance is in his preaching scenes -- he indeed seems to be channeling the
"The character could be a mechanic, he could be any guy, his profession is
secondary," Duvall demurs. "But the fact that it's this profession, it makes it
different, so you have to do a lot of homework. So it is a different
experience. But I think that the overall acting is about the same. After a
couple of takes you know when it's right, the director knows when it's right,
and you're kind of on the same wavelength.
"On the other hand, though, I was in a church in Harlem once where we went
to six services in one morning, and I sat up there in the chorus with members
of the Metropolitan Opera. They sang one of their songs and during the course
of that singing I really had quite an emotional experience. It could have been
interpreted as a complete thing if I had wanted to, if I had gone that way. But
I didn't; I'm not of that persuasion."
Moving from the sacred to the profane, second-time director Duvall (his
first film was Angelo, My Love, in 1983) was bemused to hear that
sometime actor Quentin Tarantino would be reprising Duvall's old stage role of
the killer in Wait Until Dark (the show gets a pre-Broadway run at the
Shubert Theatre next month).
"Is he an actor, too? He's a talented guy. And he might be good in that part.
I did it on Broadway, but I did it so long ago. He'd probably be better at it
now. He won't have to wear a mask; he's pretty scary as it is."