Actor Robert Duvall reminisced about his 40-year acting career, legendary films and the acting methods that have propelled him to the top of the film world at Lisner Auditorium last week. With a career including almost 100 feature films and a laundry list of awards and honors, Duvall has been an essential piece of many of the most influential and successful films. Known for accepting difficult roles and playing jagged characters, he has made a name for himself with his honest acting style.
Some of his roles include mafia lawyer Tom Hagan in “The Godfather,” a murder-committing preacher in “The Apostle” and an over-the-hill country singer in “Tender Mercies,” for which he wrote and performed songs.
In his latest film, “Assassination Tango”, which he directed and starred in, he plays an assassin/family man with a love for the dance.
Duvall’s conversation with National Public Radio’s Robert Mondello began with a discussion of Duvall’s role as Boo Radley in the film version of Harper Lee’s classic book “To Kill A Mockingbird.” In “To Kill,” Duvall’s first feature role, he acted alongside the legendary Gregory Peck. But Duvall’s role included no spoken lines.
“I did have one line, but they cut it,” Duvall said, which was received with laughter from the audience. Despite his lack of speech in the film, Duvall was able to masterfully portray Radley, a victim of prejudice, Mondello said.
After his film debut, Duvall appeared in a number of movies, including his role as Frank Burns in “M*A*S*H*.” Although one of the only comedy roles of his career, Duvall’s performance was memorable and proved he could effectively play a variety of roles. Duvall conceded that the best comedy often comes not from comedians, but from people with a peculiar tick or odd trait.
“The funniest people in life to me are not professional comedians,” he said. “I think that if you can find true behavior in the character, to lighten up his act, than that’s better comedy than if he tried to play comedy or go for something.”
One of Duvall’s principles in acting is to portray characters truthfully. Duvall’s work in comedy, although not the actor’s favorite, reaffirms the principle.
Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” for which Duvall was nominated for an Academy Award, broke the actor into the big time in 1972. When asked how he was able to play a German-Irish man living with and working for an Italian mafia family, Duvall responded, “You just try to believe. When they say ‘action’ you try to enter that world of real action.”
He said that he was not intimidated working with Marlon Brando, who also starred in the film, but that Brando’s acting style is completely contrary to his. Duvall said while he gets into each one of his characters, Brando remains the same for all of them. Duvall described a time when he watched Brando during a film shoot, and imitated Brando’s famous groan:
“Action! ‘Uhuhuh.’ Cut! ‘Uhuhuh,'” Duvall mimicked. “With Brando, there is no ending or beginning.”
Another famous Coppola project that Duvall spoke about was “Apocalypse Now,” in which he played the crazed Colonel Kilgore. The film was a huge production, and the shoot rarely went as planned, which drove Coppola mad, Duvall said.
“It was more difficult for Francis (Coppola), than the actors because everyday he would call in about 25 helicopters. Sixteen of them would go down to the pending revolution with the Muslims in Southern Vietnam,” he said. “He’d throw tantrums worse than any actors. He’d break surfboards, just like he was crazy.”
“Apocalypse Now” also birthed such legendary lines as Kilgore’s “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” which he said people on the street constantly repeat to him.
“People come up to me with an attitude that they and I are the only ones that know this line,” he said.
Duvall also spoke briefly about his acting methods.
“The key to a natural performance is to stay calm and allow the scene to take care of itself … if you sneak up on something, you know it might work. So you don’t put pressure on yourself,” he said.
Duvall said, most importantly, to portray truth instead of a false emotion.
“Even if you play it totally simple, that’s better than going for something false. If you go for it simple, which I try to do and then something does happen, then that’s the bonus. That’s the reward,” he said.
To finish the evening, Duvall cut the conversation short and brought his girlfriend and “Assassination Tango” co-star Luciana Pedraza onstage to tango with him. The dance reflected his acting career: vivid, emotional and straight from the heart.