ROBERT DUVALL PLAYS ALBERT GRUSINSKY IN WE OWN THE NIGHT
Screen legend Robert Duvall is full of praise for director James Gray after working with him on We Own The Night.
“He’s a very talented young guy,” says Duvall. “He loves working with actors and he brings the best out of them. I was very impressed with him and I liked him a lot.”
Gray has cited Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather as one of his major cinematic influences and said that he wrote the part of veteran police office Bert Grusinsky with Duvall, one of his favourite actors, in mind.
“Yeah, I know and that’s very nice of him,” says the 76 year-old actor. “And somewhere between Coppola and the English director, Ken Loach – who gets very good performances from his actors – is James Gray.”
Duvall lines up as the elder statesman in a stellar cast recruited by Gray that includes Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg – who play his sons – and Eva Mendes.
“The young actors are better than ever,” says Duvall. “There are great young actors and just as good as my generation. Maybe we help raised the bar and the standard but there are wonderful young actors out there including these guys.”
Set in the 1980s, We Own The Night is the story of two brothers, Bobby – played by Phoenix - and Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) who end up on different sides of the law. Joseph has followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the New York police force and Bobby is the rebel who runs a hip nightclub awash with drugs and gangsters. Eva Mendes plays Bobby’s sexy girlfriend, Amada.
When Bobby’s father (Duvall) asks him to help trap a Russian gangster who uses his club, at first he refuses but when his brother is shot, he finally has to decide which side he is on.
“It’s about families,” says Duvall. “And that’s always interesting because there’s always things going on, undercurrents and rivalry, and that’s what this is all about.”
Duvall was born in San Diego, the son of a naval officer, and first started acting in the 1950s after a two-year spell in the army. Studying under acting coach Sanford Meisner, he shared an apartment with a young, aspiring actor, Dustin Hoffman, and was close friends with another, Gene Hackman.
“It’s a very fickle business,” he says. “I haven’t seen Hackman in years and yet when I did Geronimo with him it was ‘hey, how are you doing, man? Good to see you…’
“And then it was ‘action’ and we started acting and then ‘cut’ and we start talking again. It was like we picked up where we left off but I haven’t seen him since, 15 years ago. Dustin I see every now and then, at the Four Seasons or wherever, and it’s very natural to see him.
“Maybe it’s easier in London but we got 3,000 miles separating us. Hackman lives in New Mexico, I live in Virginia, Hoffman has five houses all over the world so we don’t see each other so much.”
Duvall kicked off his movie career in style – playing the mentally disabled Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird in 1962. During the 60s he combined stage work with TV whilst gaining an increasing reputation as a commanding screen actor.
He starred in Coppola’s The Rain People and at the beginning of the 70s he took the leading role in George Lucas’s THX 1138. In The Godfather (1972) he played Tom Hagen, the trusted adviser to the Corleone mafia family, a role he reprised in The Godfather Part II (1974).
He won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Tender Mercies in 1984 and has been nominated a further five times during his illustrious career. His remarkable film CV includes his standout role as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Sling Blade, The Apostle, The Gingerbread Man, Deep Impact, Open Range and Lucky You. He has become closely associated with the western and has starred in two of television’s most celebrated treatments of the genre, Lonesome Dove and Broken Trail.
Q: Do your friends call you Bobby?
A: Yeah. When I was a kid my name was Bodge because my brother couldn’t say Bobby, he said ‘Bodgee’. And as I became older I became Bob and now it’s Bobby Duvall. But my parents never called my Bob, they always called me Bodge.
Q: What keeps you young and enthusiastic to tackle films like We Own The Night?
A: Well, my wife is younger and that helps. Hanging out with young people is good and she’s got me doing yoga now and if I eat a meal and I really try to a little exercise to work it off. You know it’s so easy to put it on and I love good food. If I have a plate of pasta I go home and I do 100 of these crunches and a little yoga, so I try to do a little exercise, not a lot, I don’t believe in going to the gym or any of that stuff. When I met my father in law he said ‘I don’t know whether to call you father or son’’ (laughs)
Q: In We Own The Night you are the patriarch of the family. Is that a role that you recognise in your own life?
A: I don’t know, I think my wife is the general (laughs). So I don’t know if I’m a patriarch in my family. My mother always ran the show, even though my father was in the military. So I don’t know, if I’m a patriarch or not. I guess I don’t really have any real say in the matter, I only have stepdaughters. I don’t guess I fit the role of patriarch in life.
Q: There’s a lot of suppressed emotion in the film. How did you approach that?
A: I say to my wife, I cry for money. If they pay me, I’ll cry (laughs). If it calls for it you can plan it, I find and if it happens it happens. I try to choreograph certain scenes almost in the back of my mind without even talking to the director about it, so then if it happens it happens, it’s legitimate. Usually with an emotion it’s almost more moving than if you let it come out. Sandy Meisner the acting coach once said ‘if great acting is crying then my aunt Tilly could be another Brando…’ all the women tried to cry in his class. I don’t mind showing emotion at all. It’s necessary to find the conflict in the character
Q: Your generation of actors is recognised as one of the best. Do you see young actors that you admire working now?
A: The young actors are better than ever. There are great young actors and just as good as my generation. Maybe we help raised the bar and the standard but there are wonderful young actors out there including these guys.
Q: Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman were your friends early on. Do you still keep in touch with them?
A: No, it’s a very fickle business. I haven’t seen Hackman in years and yet when we did Geronimo it was ‘hey, how are you doing man? Good to see you…’ and then it was ‘action’ and we started acting and then ‘cut’ and we start talking again it was like we picked up where we left off but I haven’t seen him since, 15 years ago. Dustin I see every now and then, at the Four Seasons or wherever, and it’s very natural to see him. Maybe it’s easier in London but we got 3,000 miles separating us, Hackman lives in New Mexico, I live in Virginia, Hoffman has five houses all over the world so we don’t see each other so much.
Q: Do you have friends in the business?
A: I keep in touch with James Caan some. Paul Gleason died and he was a very good friend of mine. I bump into Jon Voight now and then. But other than that I don’t have too many actor friends. It’s a kind of strange business that way, kind of fickle - for eight weeks you become friends and then it goes out.
Q: Do you think about the past or concentrate on the future?
A: More the future, but you do think about the past. I don’t watch my films too much. I’d love to play a gypsy. I loved what Brad Pitt did in Snatch and I’d like to play an American gypsy. I don’t watch my films too much, some of them I haven’t seen (at all). I like to see it maybe once and then I’ll think about it now and then. I’ll think about Lonesome Dove more than most things.
Q: You are closely associated with the western. Where does your love of the genre come from?
A: It’s our deal. The English have Shakespeare, the French have Moliere and the Western is definitely ours. When I was a kid I went to my uncle’s ranch in Montana for two summers - he had a big cattle and sheep place out there. And you know when I first went to Hollywood I would take out a horse every day - bare back, English saddle, western saddle – and I learned to jump a horse, so I would have a seat on a horse, because most actors can draw a pistol but they can’t ride a horse. So I wanted to do westerns and it served me well. So I think westerns are our thing. People say they don’t sell but they do sell and as soon as you make them they say ‘when are you going to do another one?’ in England they love Westerns, wide-open spaces and all that, I just like doing ‘em. At the end of my career I thought maybe I could do a gun fighter in a western who is mute, so I wouldn’t have any lines (laughs).
Q: Do you rate the Godfather films as highly as we all do?
A: Oh yes. They were great films. And somewhere between Coppola and the English director, Ken Loach – who gets very good performances from his actors – is James Gray.
Q: Having worked with Joaquin Phoenix in We Own The Night, how do you rate him?
A: He is a very talented guy. I said to him ‘you’re a lot better than I thought you were’’ because he was always fumbling around. He is very good in the movie.
Q: What do you mean ‘fumbling around?’
A: Well, I never saw what he was doing. He was always moping around and grabbing at me. But I think that was some kind of design with the director to get into my space. He was very good and Mark (Wahlberg) too, they are both very talented guys. Mark Wahlberg would fight a bear, that guy. He’s a tough kid - he went to jail and everything. It was interesting that Mark would play that guy. I couldn’t quite believe it when I saw it. But that was the character and they both did them very well.
Q: Your father was in the navy. What did he make of you becoming an actor?
A: Yeah, he worked with the British navy during the war, he was a career naval officer. He went to the navy academy he was 16 years old, off the farm in Virginia. He was a quiet guy and with my mother, they were the ones who pushed me into acting, which is unusual. I kind of floundered around looking for things to do until I found my niche. But they were supportive. My mother was an amateur actor.
Q: Apocalypse Now has gone down in movie history, not simply because it’s a great film, but because there were so many setbacks and traumas during the shoot. What are your memories of the film?
A: For me it was OK. I did the first six weeks and then came over to England and worked on The Eagle Has Landed and then went back and finished up Apocalypse months later - it went on and on and on over there. It was interesting to do it. They had me in a cowboy hat and boots and it didn’t seem right so I did a lot of research and they actually wore cavalry hats and spurs as kind of an honour to the last century, the cavalry. And I found out in between that the head general for the Air Cavalry was crazy, he used to deer hunt twice a week along the Cambodian border and he got shot down and killed doing that. And they would go into north Vietnam and they would hook a bicycle from the helicopter and steal it, they were crazy guys.
Q: One of your lines in the movie, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning..” is famous. Do people quote it to you a lot?
A: (laughs)Yes! I run into people who quote that line it’s as if it’s a private pact between them and me and only they and I know it. Hey everybody does it. When I did The Apostle one of these preachers said ‘I don’t go to the movies, but I hear Robert Duvall had a famous line in a movie,’ I love the smell of gasoline in the morning…’ (laughs)
Q: You’ve directed films before. Any plans on directing again?
A: I got an idea for one we’re working on now. It’s kind of a border movie, which is very controversial in America, and very complex, nobody has a solution, 72 countries come across that border illegally. So we will try and do that but I don’t know where we’ll get the money.
Q: You seem to work as much as ever. No plans to retire?
A: Yes, the work comes but not as much as it did a few years ago. You keep going until you run out of enthusiasm or until they have to wipe the drool or whatever. There’s always something out there. But they make all these remakes and yet there is so many good original stories, like this one in We Own The Night, out there.