One of the coolest things about doing a cover story on a great actor is talking to his peers about him, as an actor and as a person. The list of great actors that Robert Duvall has worked with runs very, very long, and we were fortunate enough to speak with some of them, including Glenn Close, Kyra Sedgwick, Robert Downey Jr., Billy Bob Thornton, Jeff Bridges, Walton Goggins, Diane Keaton and Beth Grant. Read on to discover ten themes that popped up again and again in our conversations.
1. His work is natural and grounded.
Glenn Close: To work with Duvall you seem like you’re not acting, you know. In fact there better not be too much acting going on around him because he’s so grounded and so real. I think he’s a touchstone for that kind of really real interesting base human behavior. So in The Stone Boy, where we played husband and wife, it really was just kind of—you know—existing. And it was just natural. True to the event … true to what we were reacting to. It was just heavenly working with him.
Kyra Sedgwick: He always is so vivid, and so real, and so spontaneous, and that’s the thing that I love so much about him. I think really great acting happens in the moment. Sure you can plan, but then you have to be really open to the moment. Everything he does is completely spontaneous and not self-conscious.
2. His keen interest in real people leads him to create real characters.
Robert Downey Jr.: I remember seeing The Great Santini and being afraid that he was real. So I guess, there’s a naturalism and intensity that works particularly well on film.
Billy Bob Thornton: He’d rather hang out with some old farmer he meets—you know, out in the middle of nowhere—then he would another actor, I think. Celebrity doesn’t mean a lot to him. He’s much more into the characters of life, which always impressed me about him because I kinda feel the same way. I just love a good character. That’s great for a writer, but that’s also great for an actor. The better your observational skills, the better an actor you’ll be. And Duvall has supreme observational skills.
Sedgwick: Tender Mercies was also a seminal movie for me, as was The Great Santini. And he totally chews up the scenery in that one. It’s brilliant! And those moments with Michael O’Keefe where he’s playing basketball with him, and he’s smashing his head with a basketball… he’s terrifying, and yet we loved him. How did we love that character? You should hate that character, and somehow we love that character! I was always interested in complicated familiar relationships. So, for me, that was a really amazing movie.
Downey: I was blown away by his portrayal of Felix Bush in Get Low. Stellar performance, really good movie, gotta see it. This was just a couple of years ago, and it got me thinking he was the right guy for The Judge.
Sedgwick: And all those Godfather movies! He has an ability to totally chew up the scenery, but in those Godfather movies, that’s not what he’s doing at all. He’s being the quite, strong, silent type. He’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant. For me, that says a lot about the actor, always playing the character and not the ego and only going for the truth.
Gene Hackman: I met Bobby, “Bodge,” at the Gateway summer stock theater in Bellport Long Island in the 50’s. He played Eddie Carbone, the lead, in A View From the Bridge. An apprentice at the time, I was impressed by Duvall’s focus. Having a small role in the play gave me the opportunity to observe, each night, his intense conviction. He went on to do the same play off-Broadway.
Thornton: He used to say there was a thin line between subtle and boring.
Paste: That’s fantastic!
Thornton: Yeah. He never, in other words you know how a lot of critics will just, if somebody does a performance that’s underplayed, They’re like, oh it’s so brilliantly under played. Well, not every person in life is under played. You know?
Thornton: That’s one of the things Duvall taught me. He said every now and then you’re a hyperactive motor mouth, or, you know, whatever you are. It’s like whatever the part calls for. You don’t just take any part and underplay it and that’s a good performance.
Thornton: So, one of the things I loved about Duvall was when it’s called for, you know, Duvall doesn’t just sit there and whisper. I mean, that’s not the way it is in real life. He does whatever the job requires, and that’s one of the best things about him as an actor, and one of the lessons I took from him. That’s just the way it is, you know.
3. He’s radically committed to the truth of the work.
Jeff Bridges: He’s one of a kind, and he brings that uniqueness to everything he does. You get a real freshness, working with him as an actor. Each take is completely different. He brings that Bob Duvall quality to all his work. He’s so spontaneous. He works with the other actors; he’s very inclusive, it’s not like you have to call him by the character’s name and all that kind of thing. He’s very open to discuss ideas. He’s got definite opinions about how things are, but he’s open, as well.
Paste: How does that play out, in the different takes?
Bridges: Well, he’ll insert an idea. Some of the work he did in Crazy Heart was improvisational, and then he would expound on the ideas. He brought in one of the non-actors who was there in the scene. His choices are so unusual and exciting and unexpected. I love that song he sings in Crazy Heart. He’s got such a beautiful voice.
Paste: Yeah, it’s a beautiful song. It’s a capella, right?
Bridges: Yeah, and that was an idea of his.
Sedgwick: He is absolutely insistent upon being spontaneous and upon having a moment to do that, and having the freedom and the room to do that as an actor. Honestly, I do think that it comes from a certain level of confidence, but I also think that it comes from a certain amount of… god, let me see if I can even articulate this… you don’t pick something like acting, which is such a collaborative situation, and expect to be in full control all the time of what is going on. And, in fact, nor would you want to be in full control of what’s going on. But I do think that it takes a certain amount of chutzpah, you know… an almost insistence upon the truth to make that room for yourself. Because, it is not something that is set up as part of the movie-making process. I hope that makes sense.
Paste: Oh it does! As both an actor and a director, myself, I completely hear what you’re saying. The director has to find a balance between giving the right direction, but also leaving the room for that freedom. Most directors err on the side of, “Hello my talking props.” I think that’s one of the things you’re getting at… it’s his willingness to fight… to put down his foot and get that truth and that authenticity.
Sedgwick: Yes, that’s totally what I’m getting at. When you’re movie-making on a schedule with producers, sometimes the sun is coming up and it’s supposed to be nighttime. It’s not conducive to: “Let’s take our time. Let’s be in the moment. Let’s try something new. Let’s make it fresh.” It’s about, you know, getting the scene in the can. And so, I think actors have to be really insistent upon trying to create something spontaneous and be in the moment.
Paste: That’s so interesting what you’re saying, because stars have power. Duvall has been a big star for more than 40 years now, and many stars use their power for a lot of things. But, one of the things that it sounds like he chooses to use his power and political capital for is to insist upon those moments, which I think is really remarkable. I think that’s really cool.
Sedgwick: Yeah. Me too.
4. At the same time, he’s got a great sense of humor and mischief.
Downey Jr.: It’s a bit daunting; he’s a no-nonsense guy. I wouldn’t want to be on his bad side, but he’s as lovely, witty, and as good a co-worker as you could ever ask for. He does a better Brando than Spacey, and if you’re lucky he’ll give ya a taste. Usually when the First AD calls “Rolling.”
Close: Duvall has a great sense of humor. Probably my most vivid memory from The Stone Boy—we’d be on the main road going back to Vermont, to the inn we were staying at. And he loved to moon people. He liked to moon them out the window of his car as they passed. It was a riot. We laughed a lot.
Thornton: He does have a great sense of humor, and he’s a great story teller. Sometimes his sense of humor could go a little bit dangerous. We were, at this point, working in Austin, and I was staying at the Omni Hotel there. Duvall was at the Four Seasons and he wanted me to go—Duvall always wants you to go sample a bunch of meat with him. He loves steak and barbecue and everything. I was supposed to meet him in the lobby over at the Four Seasons and, at the time, he had a little Jack Russell terrier named Gus, named after his character in Lonesome Dove. I went over to meet him in the lobby of the Four Seasons, and here comes Duvall down the stairs and he has Gus with him. Those things can be mean sometimes, little Jack Russells. He sees me come walking in, and he goes, “Get him, Gus!” And Gus goes and starts biting the shit out of my ankles. This is at the lobby at the Four Seasons, and Duvall laughs like it was a Peter Sellers movie.
5. The man can dance (especially the tango).
Hackman: We were playing touch football in Central Park with some other would-be actors when Bodge ran his forehead into the back of another guy’s noggin. (He probably still has the scar.) Blood was everywhere and we could see the bone shining through the three inch opening. He still wanted to keep playing. “Nah, it’s nothing. I’ll put a band-aid on it.” We walked him down to the hospital on 9th Ave, I think it was the Roosevelt, and talked them into tending to his wound. They stitched him up but no one had any money so we snuck him out. Bodge was home free, right around the corner to his tiny apartment on 57th and 10th Ave, which he shared with a Russian dancer.
Bridges: As you were just asking questions, my mind went to thinking about Bob, and thinking what a wonderful dancer he is.
Paste: Especially the tango, right?
Bridges: Yeah, and you know, dancing can be kind of a metaphor for acting. How you dance with your partner, there’s kind of a give and take, and listening to rhythms, and so forth. He’s got a great ear musically, and that can apply to the acting as well.
Walton Goggins: I remember I went to this tango party with Bobby in Venice, like, whatever, however many years ago, and it was the first time I met Quentin Tarantino. And it was a party for eight people, and I’m standing in this room and I’m with Bobby and I’m like, “Okay yeah he dances. I mean I get it. Yeah, okay he can dance. Whatever that means.” And then he started tangoing. And it’s like, are you fucking kidding me right now? I’m sitting there with a glass of wine in my hand. I’m 25 years old, talking to Quentin Tarantino, and watching Robert Duvall out-tango every Argentine there. It was extraordinary.
Hackman: If you watch Bob carefully there is a sense of artistry in his movements. His years working with acting teacher Sandy Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse and his love of dance classes at the school held him in good stead, through his many varied roles.
6. He sees the work and the play as two sides of the same coin.
Beth Grant: I’ve only met him once, when we were doing Crazy Heart. I didn’t actually get to act with him, but he was very welcoming and gracious to me. One day, he and his beautiful South American wife, and our mutual friend, Edgar Johnston, and I were all standing at base camp outside the trailers chatting when his ability to tango came up in conversation. He grabbed me and whirled me around and dipped me over and I thought I had died and gone to heaven!
Goggins: I moved to Los Angeles when I was 19 years old. I had $300 in my pocket, and I spent that first $300 getting into class and studying in earnest. Thankfully, I landed with two unbelievable teachers, a guy named David Le Grand and a guy named Harry Mastrogeorge. I sat in a dark room for upwards of four to six hours a day and valet-parked cars at night and listened to my teacher really talking about what it is that actors ask themselves to do—like, what are you doing? And it is about playing pretend, and he always came back to that. It’s a child’s game. It’s about playing pretend. And the two people that he talked about were Bob Duvall and Jessica Tandy. Oh, and Anthony Hopkins—three people. He went over and over and over again about these three actors.
So I had been listening to that, like the military they would beat that into your head. But I got to set, and Bobby took me under his wing. He saw this young kid who had heart, and he said, “Okay, I’m going to take you right over here.” I remember sitting at dinner with a small group of people and I finally got up the nerve to ask him, “Bobby, how do you do what you do? How do you do what you do?” All he said was, “I play pretend. It’s a child’s game.”
And I lost my mind! I left that dinner and went to a pay phone because that’s all that was around at the time, and I called my acting teacher and said, “You weren’t lying! Like, it’s the truth. I got it from the man! That’s what he said.” It gave me such joy and such freedom. Watching Bobby work and realizing that, that’s it. It’s that complicated and that simple.
7. He blew us away in his very first role, in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Close: I always think back to how Shakespeare called actors “players.” That’s the way I think of it. If you can’t have that aspect of play, of openness, the back and forth, the reflecting off each other … that’s basically what we do, and Duvall’s a master.
Grant: I fell in love with him in To Kill A Mockingbird when he played one of our Southern “special” people, Boo Radley, with such simplicity and dignity. Even though the character wasn’t onscreen very long, he made a big impression.
Sedgwick: He was stunning as Boo Radley. I’d read the book as a kid, and then I saw it in class. He captured this otherworldly quality of this guy who everyone is so terrified of. And, then he turns out to be this gentle lamb. But, I don’t think he speaks in the movie! But that moment when the door pulls back, and there he is—I remember it so vividly. He’s got these giant rings under his eyes, and he’s got the sweetest little smile. And, of course you’re projecting onto him everything you know about him, and all the things we’ve been told about him, and all the little toys that he’s left behind. It’s just so beautiful. It’s such an incredible moment!
Close: For me, the iconic moment is “Hey, Boo.” That’s probably my favorite movie of all time, and that moment is so incredible! And that’s something where he never says a word. He’s so eloquent in that one, tiny reveal. To me, that is the essence of Duvall: He breaks your heart, and he’s a hero at the same time in his total silence. Not many people could have done that.
Diane Keaton: I went to The Neighborhood Playhouse, and Sanford Meisner was my teacher. [Duvall] was a legend already. Sanford Meisner did nothing but talk about him endlessly and all of us were just sort of like, “Oh my God, we could never be like him, ever. There is no chance.” He was already a legendary character. You know I named my son Duke Bradley Keaton after Boo Radley, because to me he was the hero of the movie, and he was so remarkable.
8. We grew up watching him, and wanting to be like him.
Thornton: I wasn’t someone who was going to be an actor when I was a teenager, but he was still somebody who I noticed. With most actors, I just watched a movie like any kid—I didn’t care who the actors were. But he stuck out to me. He’s been a mentor and hero to me ever since. So, if I was ever going to be an actor, that’s the kind of actor I want to be.
Bridges: He was so brilliant in the Lonesome Dove series. I really enjoyed reading the book, and I was hoping they weren’t going to screw it up. But Tommy Lee and Bob did such wonderful jobs in those parts.
9. He’s a living legend.
Goggins: I think for urban kids, you have Pacino, you have De Niro. Those are your heroes. They weren’t my heroes. My hero was Robert Duvall. I remember the first time my father sat me down and watched Tender Mercies with me. I didn’t know that I wanted to be an actor at that time, but I knew that no matter what I did I wanted to give a performance like that. Whether it was as a lawyer—whatever discipline—I wanted to be that guy.
Keaton: When we were making The Godfather movies, I felt like I was outside of the loop, but he seemed to me, from a distance, to be somebody who was concerned about his acting. I didn’t know him; I just knew what a legendary honor it was for me to be in his presence, in any way shape or form.
10. His work changes us.
Grant: His spirit is so vibrant! His work is always so beautifully simple and real. He is truly one of the great actors of our time, and I believe his legacy will endure forever.
Close: He’s not in it for fame or for money. He’s in it to use his gifts to inhabit characters that will make a difference to people who see them. I’ve always felt that great art rearranges people. It rearranges you as you stand in front of the Monet, and you never forget it and your molecules, your neural pathways kind of have to realign themselves. And I think with great acting, it’s the same thing. It’s something that you don’t ever forget. And I can say that about Tomorrow, that I can’t tell you the beat by beat story but I can still put myself back in the place of being mesmerized by Duvall and incredibly moved. That performance … I’m sure at that point in my career it informed me deeply. That’s a great gift.
Goggins: My son is named Augustus. It’s Augustus McCrae. My son is Augustus for a reason. That’s the impact that this man has had on my life and on my psyche. When you get those heroes—and we haven’t had as many in rural America as they have in the urban areas—when you get one, you hang on to them. They become mythical. I think for a lot of us in the creative world growing up in the South where you are more often than not an anomaly … when you have a Duvall, or someone like that shining a light saying, “No, this is the way,” then they become so dear to you, whether you know them or not. And in some ways it’s like, well then if you get the opportunity, then you have to do the same for the next generation. That’s what Bobby meant to me, and I saw it in the people that came up to him. I saw the people because we filmed The Apostle in Louisiana, and I saw the community and how they approached him and how they talked to him. I saw how gracious Bobby was with them and how seriously he took that responsibility. It really, really played a large part in how I conduct myself in those instances when I’m approached by people.
When the character that I played [in The Apostle], Sammy, had his spiritual conversion, that was so cathartic for me as an actor. I’d kind of grown up in a southern Baptist church in Georgia and had my own issues with religion. I had a hard time mentally and emotionally with that period in my life and seeing this experience through Sammy’s eyes and watching Bobby but seeing him as the apostle—it fundamentally changed me. I found grace and dignity and really understood that while something may be wrong with the messenger, nothing is wrong with the message. To go through that experience as me, Walton Goggins, with my hero Robert Duvall, well it’s never gotten any better than that. It is one of the defining moments of my life.