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DUVALL, ROBERT : The Apostle

ANDREW L. URBAN met Robert Duvall at the Cannes film festival this year (1998), where The Apostle was selected for Un Certain Regard – a gesture of recognition for the film that Duvall had to finance himself to get made. He wrote it. Produced it. Directed it. And he stars in it.
You get the idea.

He sits there at the large, round, empty table with a white tablecloth, looking vulnerable and almost small, smiling, as we – four or five assorted journalists from various countries – seat ourselves, some sliding little tape recorders towards him. He smiles benignly as the publicist, a large man with a white beard, briefly introduces us. When he hears Australia, he smiles and arches his eyebrows, offering his condolences on the recent loss to Iran at the soccer.

" Robert Duvall has been digesting this character for over 40 years! "

Here he is then, doing the mandatory group interviews, back to back over a single day, his small but expressive hands gesticulating with every word, talking about his film – and it really is HIS film - The Apostle, which he so wanted to make he financed it and directed it himself. It’s been a long time in the making, probably even more than the 13 years he physically worked on it, if you count his early recollections from the 1950s "listening to a Texas radio station. . . had a preacher on … then I saw them on television…" Robert Duvall has been digesting this character for over 40 years!

How does it feel now, having been rebuffed by movie money in both New York and Los Angeles, to be in Cannes (where the film was invited to screen in Un Certain Regard), on the top floor of the Carlton Hotel in the large, airy function room known as La Belle Otero, its French doors open to the breeze coming in from the Mediterranean, talking to journalists from Germany and Australia, from Denmark and France, about this film, this THING he had to do? Is this the moment of elation, or has that already passed?

"I’m getting sort of continuous elation . . . the toughest thing was to cut it down,"

"Well," he smiles, "I’m getting sort of continuous elation . . . the toughest thing was to cut it down," he says moving on. It seems he can’t really identify – or maybe he can’t really articulate - that sense of achievement in simple terms. He does, however, coyly mention that the film has earned critical praise, not that he reads the reviews any more, but he got personal letters from people like Francis Ford Coppola and a specially warm one from Marlon Brando. ("Can't tell you what he said," Duvall says with a shy smile, a grin that suggests plenty.)

He also refers to its relative box office success in the US, where it grossed over US$20 million.

Now that is clearly chicken feed for many Hollywood movies, the sort of money that can be taken in a weekend, not over a month. But then The Apostle is not meant to be a mainstream film, albeit it has recognisable (‘marquee value’) stars like Duvall himself, Miranda Richardson, June Carter Cash and a surprising Farrah Fawcett.

"This is a film with limited mainstream appeal."

Yes, but with its singular focus on a single character, Euliss ‘Sonny’ Dewey, the self-dubbed Apostle EF, this is a film with limited mainstream appeal. It begins in Texas, perhaps echoing Duvall’s first contact with lay preachers through that Texan radio station, where Sonny is in full Pentecostal flight, until his world crumbles when his wife finally has had a gutful of Sonny; and as she is also a force in their jointly run church, Sonny gets the boot. Inflamed by this injustice, Sonny is smoldering in his own righteous way, his dangerous streak rising to the surface when at a football game he comes face to face with the younger pastor, Horace (Todd Allen), who is romancing his wife, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett).

In a moment of fury, Sonny strikes out at the young man with a baseball bat, a short but powerful swing that changes his life. On the run, leaving behind his elderly mother as well as his wife and kids, he finds a secluded parish in Louisiana, at a largely black village called Bayou Bouette, where he sets up a new church all for himself, the One Way Road to Heaven Church.

Here, he continues his "moooove me, Lord" style preaching, trying to ease himself over his past, and trying to seduce the married-but-separated Toosie (Miranda Richardson) with not much success. All the while, he preaches and he preaches, on the local radio and in the street, and of course in his own converted shack, now church. He is inspirational, too, both as the character, and as the actor. Duvall completely inhabits The Apostle.

"..a composite of many apostle-like preachers I’ve seen."

But of course, not even The Apostle can just erase the past.

The film offers audiences "a composite of many apostle-like preachers I’ve seen. I’ve been watching them…and listening." It’s a character study of a man Duvall believes is basically "a good guy – he always believed, but he is full of contradictions. It took all of me to play him," he concedes.

And that shows: the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics voted him Best Actor for it and many feel his Oscar nomination for the role deserved to be converted, but Duvall places the Oscar second as a measure of success, citing religious and secular response as more important. "As a project, this is my favourite of all time," he says in answer to how he himself rates it, "along with Lonesome Dove."

"yeah, I guess I’m a believer,"

And what about Duvall; does he believe, is his fascination at all bedded in the faith? He shrugs softly, "yeah, I guess I’m a believer," he says with none of the force that The Apostle EF would have put into those words.

It comes as a slight surprise that Duvall is a social dancer, his favourite being the tango. It is in fact the tango that forms the connecting thread for another film he wants to direct and star in, linking the worlds of New York and Buenos Aires.

And yet another planned film deals with soccer, another personal pastime; "Yeah, I’m working on a movie we’d like to make in Scotland about soccer."

"I actually found it exhilarating, not draining."

Clearly, the experience of The Apostle was energising; "it was very difficult to finance and I was afraid of having total control, but once we started it was fine," he says. "I actually found it exhilarating, not draining."

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Robert Duvall:
"As a project, this is my favourite of all time, along with Lonesome Dove."

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