Robert Duvall takes us deep inside the mind of a seasoned police officer

Oscar Watch 2008 Interview #4: Actor Robert Duvall

Out of five Oscar nominations and one win, Robert Duvall has never been considered for his work as a member of the police force. Even though he has stepped behind the badge numerous times on screen, the accolades have come mostly from his portrayal of a more pedestrian-like character. That will likely change this upcoming award season, when Duvall will surely be considered for his work as deputy chief of police Burt Grusinsky in We Own the Night.

In the film, Duvall brings a solid, understated hand to a complex family drama that needs a run base of perfect performances to work. Here, he plays the father of two brothers on opposite sides of the law. Mark Walberg plays Duvall's good son, an upstanding member of the New York Police Department and an all around nice guy. Joaquin Phoenix, on the other hand, plays the black sheep of the family. A young upstart who has bucked a career in crime fighting for a more dipterous lifestyle. Amidst fulfilling a destiny addled with partying and drugs, Phoenix suddenly finds himself working for the NYPD in order to capture a gang of Russian Mobsters that have put a hit out on his entire family.

This ensemble cast brings a good amount of fist-wallop to the screen, making for the first possible sweep come Oscar night. We recently caught up with Robert in a private suite at the Four Seasons to talk about his experiences making the film.

He seemed more interested in talking about food and the American Western. Here is our candid conversation with the iconic actor:

Robert Duvall: Do you live here?

Yeah, I live in Los Angeles. Just down the street. Do you still live here?

Robert Duvall: Never did, actually. I lived here in spurts. I live in Virginia. My wife and I live there. Funny thing is, I've only ever done one movie there. Gods and Generals. It was a while back. I played Robert E. Lee. I figured they murdered it when they did it on TV. So I decided I was going to do it in a movie. They did the first one as a trilogy. Ron Maxwell did it. My dad was from Virginia, so all I ever did was talk like my dad. Put an "out" in house. And use that soft "r". It is a beautiful way to speak, and I was able to use that in my portrayal of Lee.

That's actually one of the few states I've yet to visit. Virginia.

Robert Duvall: From Virginia down to South Carolina is some of the most beautiful languages that is spoken, I think, in the world. It is very nice.

You never felt like leaving that area?

Robert Duvall: No, I lived in Los Angeles sporadically. And my wife is from Argentina, so we spend time there. Buenos Aires is my favorite city in the world. It is so beautiful. I met Giuliani recently and he asked me if New York was my favorite city in the world. I told him, "No." He said, "What is?" I told him, "Buenos Aires." (Laughs)

Do you drink a lot of Quilmes while you are down there?

Robert Duvall: What is Quilmes?

Its Argentina's national beer.

Robert Duvall: I'm not much of a drinker, but Malbag wine is very good. It comes from there. I'm not a big beer drinker. Is Corona any good? The beer from Mexico?

I'm not a big fan of it, but I'll drink it. When I went to England, the bartenders would tell me that it was a girly beer. They told me never to drink that stuff.

Robert Duvall: Yeah, but they heat their beer up, there, in England. They drink it out of big wooden crates at room temperature. It's never cold, and its flat. The British are crazy. But I like them, though.

With this movie, the first thing I want to ask you about is the car scene. You guys have one of the most amazing and inventive car chase scenes that I've seen in awhile. That takes place in the rain. How involved were you in the shooting of that?

Robert Duvall: You mean when I get shot at the end? Not a lot. I thought I would be in that scene more. I'm really just in the background, even though I am the focal point of death. I'm what Joaquin needs to relate to in that scene. I was there some. But we did more of that car chase that you don't actually see. My character was more involved than what you actually get to see on screen.

Joaquin Phoenix said that, because this wasn't such a big movie, they could only rope the streets off so much. And that there was a fairly large group of spectators screaming at the actors while you were actually shooting.

Robert Duvall: You mean negative yelling?

No, like they were trying to get your attention. He said that they were mostly screaming at Eva Mendes.

Robert Duvall: I'm sure he wishes that they were yelling for him.

He said they were yelling at him to go away.

Robert Duvall: I don't remember that too much. That doesn't usually happen. Why back when I was doing episodes of Naked City in New York, some people would scream at us. Some people were positive and some people were negative. But I don't get too much of that. I'm sure Tom Cruise and those guys get it all the time. It's probably a bigger problem for them.

Now, you've played quite a few cops in your career.

Robert Duvall: Some.

And guys who were in the military.

Robert Duvall: And don't forget the Westerns.

Well, I'll get to the Westerns in a minute.

Robert Duvall: That's my favorite. That is truly my favorite.

But, when you are playing these authority figures and these men of the badge, did you try to ascend with their careers as you ascended up your own personal acting ladder. Especially with the older you got?

Robert Duvall: I never thought of that. No. As you get older, you better be the top guy or you are out.

In Colors, you are an older guy but you are still a patrol officer.

Robert Duvall: When I did Colors, that was some twenty years ago. When we did that, and we had a reading, someone said, "You've been in this profession so long, how do you keep it fresh?" That was then. This is twenty years later. So, I am still going at it. I still enjoy it.

You've never gotten bored with these types of roles?

Robert Duvall: No so much. I mean, I get bored within certain projects. I'm always looking forward to new things. Maybe to direct a little bit. I'm always looking for something new.

Have you ever felt yourself get trapped in a role midway through. Like, you wanted to quit but you couldn't get out of it?

Robert Duvall: I try not to do that. It's more about being trapped with the people you are working with more than being trapped by the part itself. But, you know, if you do get that feeling, you try to find a way out of it. At the very least, you try to stay positive. If I felt that at the beginning, I would never take the part. But if I feel that way while I'm in it, I try to find a way for me to do it. Sometimes it's more successful than other times.

When you come back, and you do another cop role, are you able to look at your previous experiences and utilize the knowledge you've gained there?

Robert Duvall: Yeah, I do that. I also try to find something new. Each thing has a new element to it.

You spoke about directing. Are you planning on directing another film soon?

Robert Duvall: We have something in development right now. Its either going to be a miniseries or a feature of some type. You can get more into a miniseries than you can a feature. And so many people are doing them right now. A lot of people are migrating to television. And the stuff I see on the television screen is just as good as a lot of these features that are being made. Although, there is always a delineation between TV and movies. But, com on, its all the same. You say action and cut, and then you put it together.

Other than Deadwood, there hasn't really been a weekly Western series on TV in a long while. Is that something you've ever considered doing?

Robert Duvall: I wouldn't call Deadwood a Western. I didn't care for it.

You didn't like Deadwood?

Robert Duvall: I didn't even watch all of it. I didn't like it. Look, I spent a lot of time on my uncle's ranch. I've been around these people. We just made a deal with A&E to create a continuous series like Deadwood. It will revolve around the Pony Express. It is very fascinating. It is just in the beginning stages. The guy that did Band of Brothers is the coordinator. So it could be very interesting.

Something like that hasn't ever been done before.

Robert Duvall: No. And they would like to make it a continuing series if it catches on. It is all up to the pilot. It was a wonderful thing that happened. The Pony Express is very American. It is patriotic. It is a kind of bringing the country together that we always need. So, I would be in on that as one of the producers.

You don't think you'd star in it?

Robert Duvall: I think I would do something on it. I'm sort of like a rural Alec Guinness. I can do different parts. My company wants to get into television, but everything we get into, I'm not going to star in. They would like that, but I'm not going to do that. I'll produce. That's a source of income. And I am going to try and do quality stuff. There's this thing called Cracker. It's from England. We are also going to try and do that. So, as you see, my little company is trying to get into TV. But with the Pony Express, they always said, "Riders under twenty-one wanted. Orphans preferred." It was really amazing, these stories that came out of that. It only lasted eighteen months, though. And then the telegraph came about. The series will take a while to get off the ground. It's interesting, a prestigious film can be done. And six people see it. Then it goes to DVD. When we did Broken Trail, so many people watched it. Did you see it?

No, I never did.

Robert Duvall: That was one of my favorites that I've ever been in. Lonesome Dove is my all time favorite. But, they said, "We are looking for three million people to watch this thing." Then we got ten million the first night. Over thirty million people saw it after its initial run. If it were a feature, how many people would see it? And it was shot like a feature. So, Westerns are always here to stay. It's a sporadic thing. But they will always be here. People abroad love them. The Russians have Checkov, the Argentines have the tango, and we have the Western. They are very American. I always say, "The Western is ours. From Alberta down."

On that same line of thought, with We Own the Night being a cop film, they do have a lot of the same esthetics.

Robert Duvall: Well, we are big into Urban films in this country, right? The rural films go the other way. I was fortunate enough to be in the two biggest hits in American cinema of the last century. The Godfather I and II. And Lonesome Dove on television. One of them was a cop film. It was cops and robbers. The other was a Western. If I'd just done those two things, what a great feeling alone.

No doubt. That's what I always say. If you are in one movie that is a true classic, do you ever really need to do another one?

Robert Duvall: Yeah, The Godfather is that movie for me. But the part I want to be remembered most for is Lonesome Dove. Oh, I have played some great parts in some great movies. There was Apocalypse Now and a ton of smaller movies. There are parts that I relish in my memory that most people have never seen. Like The Stars Fell on Henrietta.Then I did a film, where I punched the director, in Argentina. It was about the plague. It was a great French novel that they South Americanized. There was a great little character that I played in that. I have all of these great little characters that most people have never seen.

Are you ever going to go back to Argentina and film there again?

Robert Duvall: We were going to do one down there, but now they tell me I have to go to Europe. Because its gotten a little expensive in Buenos Aries. I heard that Francis Ford Coppola was held up down there the other day. His company got robbed. Did you hear about that?

Yeah, they stole his computer.

Robert Duvall: There in Argentina.

He was working on a script, and that computer contained the only draft of it. Those crooks just took it right out the window. It was a script for a movie called Tetro that he was working on.

Robert Duvall: Are you talking about the one he is going to do now, or another one? The script for that?

It was for a film that is currently in pre-production.

Robert Duvall: That's the script that was stolen? The one that he is going to do now?

I'm pretty sure that's how it went down. He had the full first draft of the script, but it was still in a rough stage. Now its gone.

Robert Duvall: That's unusual. Buenos Aires is usually a pretty safe city.

Didn't everything change over there, as far as the structure of the government? When I was over there it was 1998. Soon after I left, the currency changed.

Robert Duvall: Yeah, you could take thirty-seven dollars out of your bank. And that was it. It was crazy. There was this wonderful actor, I forget his name but I know him. He had to move to Spain because the bank took all of his money. He is a very bitter guy. That is a crazy country down there. But I think they are back on their feet to a point. I don't know how the people eat down there. There's fifty million heads of cattle, so I guess there's always a little meat for everybody. The have the most cattle in the world. Though, I like our steaks up here better. They cook it longer down there. They cure it too long. My wife agrees. They have wonderful food down there. I like their pizza better than I do the stuff you get in New York.

They also have that stuff you can put on top of your pizza. What's it called? Thiena?

Robert Duvall: Yeah, they do that. There are a lot of Italians. And their bar-b-que is great. They cook their meat in these igloo-like things, and they only use sea salts. We have a little hotel up near Salta, which is two hours north of Buenos Aries that has a world ranking, and everything. We have seven suites, and good native food. We have this boiled beef that has carrots and cabbage on it. You put this thick green mustard on it. It's great.

Can I ask you one last quick question?

Robert Duvall: Yes, of course.

These young actors always say that they've learned a lot from working with you. Have you ever learned anything about your craft from working with these young actors?

Robert Duvall: You bet. Oh, yeah. I saw Sean Penn's movie last night. Wonderful movie. Did you see it?

Yeah, I did.

Robert Duvall: It's a wonderful movie. The direction? That kid is good. Then there is the Jesse James movie. I just told Joaquin that his brother-in-law, I didn't want to get him paranoid, but his brother-in-law plays Bob Ford, and he's terrific.

I'm note sure who Joaquin's brother-in-law is.

Robert Duvall: Casey Affleck. I just saw his brother in the elevator here. I didn't want to say, "Your brother is great in the movie." But Casey is married to Joaquin's sister. I call Joaquin "Wacko" Phoenix. Because that kid is wacko. But I learned a lot from those guys. They are very good. I think overall, the bar has been raised. And you will find more young actors that are better than before. Some people disagree with me. But go to different countries. You will find people who are better than ever before. I think more is asked of them. I know there are still bad actors, and bad movies, and bad work being done. But I think overall the young actors are better than us. The actors of my generation.

That's interesting to hear that viewpoint.

Robert Duvall: Some people may disagree. I will argue the point. Take Javier Bardem in Spain. So many black actors now get work. Back in the day, which was supposed to be better than ever, there were no black actors. Now we have that. A lot of Latin actors are coming into the fold. So, the acting is better than ever. There is still good acting and bad acting. But, you know. They learn from us. And I like to hang out with young people. You can definitely learn from them, too. People have got to open their eyes. Just look at that kid in Sean Penn's movie.

He's great.

Robert Duvall: In the movie he's great. Better than I thought he could do, especially with Sean. Maybe Sean is a better director than he is an actor.

We Own the Night opens this Friday, October 12th, 2007.