For a medium ripe with stories of mysticism and redemption and rebirth, it's the rare movie that takes spirituality seriously and at face value. But as writer, director, star and financier, Robert Duvall does so, in the ebullient, exhilarating "The Apostle." The third film directed by Duvall, it has been a dream project of his for almost thirty years since he walked into an Arkansas Penecostal service and was astonished at the vigor of the worship. ("I had never seen anything like that, and I said, boy, one of these days I'd like to do that.") Duvall's performance astonishes as well. Rather than depict his Pentecostal preacher character, Sonny Dewey, as an "Elmer Gantry"-type charlatan, Duvall draws a portrait of a flawed man whose belief is unyielding even as his life unravels around him. Duvall's rousing performance, particularly in the scenes where Sonny "exalts the Lord" is the best role of the 67-year-old actor's career.
No one would give the veteran actor the money to make "The Apostle," so Duvall paid for the $5 million movie himself. He jokes, "My CPA gave me the greenlight! He told me I had the money and it wouldn't hurt me to spend it. Studios and agencies look at you as a hired hand even if there's a project you're burning to do. 'It won't make any money,' they say. They don't go out of their way to help you, even your own agency."
When Sonny's wife, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett), leaves him for another man and takes his church and children away from him, Sonny reacts with fury. After smashing Jessie's lover with a baseball bat, Sonny hits the trail, telling a friend, "I think he might be on the road to glory this time." But Sonny's own glory begins when he tries to rebuild his life in tiny Bayou Boutte, Louisiana, calling himself the Apostle E.F. and starting a new church in the black community there.
Duvall has attended many church services through the years, with many different styles of preaching. "It's an American art form," he says. "Preaching is theatrical in a good way. I'm told that in many of the Catholic countries now, particularly in South America, there's a big charismatic Pentecostal movement. I know a woman in Cajun country, now she's a holiness lady. I asked her, 'If you were Catholic, why are you this now?' She said, 'Catholicism just wasn't enough. I want more!'"
The flamboyance of Duvall's earthy, heartfelt performance is a case of more-is-more. Duvall says he had no concern about the size of his performance. "These people really go out on a limb theatrically when they exalt the Lord." Duvall's sermons were mostly scripted, but of a lengthy scene near the end, he had a struggle. "That end sermon when I preached for twenty minutes, I knew it, but I barely knew it, so I was always reaching for it. But that kept it fresh. Sometimes I'd get stuck and I'd just say, 'Somebody give me an amen!' and that would give me a chance to catch up. But that's in the nature of the cadence of preaching, that split-second where they think of what's next, anyway."
Duvall's script is often riotously funny, but never satirical, and he's surprised by early reviews which describe Sonny as "a religious fanatic." "Anyone who says that missed the point, thinking that the form of worship, the yelling and exalting seems fanatical. I don't think he is a religious fanatic," Duvall says, "that's just his way of worship. He has weaknesses, he has his pros and cons. These preachers get up and exalt. They're not fanatics. Like his mother says when the neighbor complains, 'Ever since he was a little boy, some nights he talks to the Lord, other nights he yells at the Lord, tonight he happens to be yelling at him.' People do get angry with God in their life. But we never see that. I've known preachers who get hoarse, they preach through that level of hoarseness to another level of hoarseness and the next day they can hardly speak."
Duvall does a remarkable job of conveying the idea that preachers and shamans and teachers can be flawed men and still generate spiritual results, that even chicanery can bear spiritual fruit. "Well, my guy does a bad thing and he can be redeemed. But if you go back to the Old Testament, to David, the psalmist, the great poet, the great hero who slew Goliath, he deviously sent a man off to his death so he could lie in bed with his wife, Bathsheba. My character would never, ever do something that bad. But that was another time. When it's set in the present, we expect things to be smaller." Duvall opens the movie with a scene where Sonny tries to convert a young couple who've just crashed their car and may be dying. "I put that scene early up so we can see he's a good guy, always felt he had a calling. But he makes a mistake and he's got to pay for it."
Duvall insists that acting is simple and the many non-actors in his cast give performances to match his own. "You just relax. And you make others relax. I feel very comfortable between the words action and cut. It's a nice existence there." Is it a matter of not having to be yourself? "No, no. You're always yourself. You have only one temperament, one psyche. You just turn it as if it's somebody else. When somebody says, 'I'm the character, I'm the character,' it's not good acting. It's tense. Look at Paul Muni's work years ago with all his makeup and wigs, it's nothing next to Spencer Tracy. Tracy played himself, but this guy in 'Bad Day at Black Rock' -- he wrote the book, that's brilliant acting. You have to stay in touch with yourself."