Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oscar nominee Robert Duvall: On losing control in The Judge, taking charge in Wild Horses

In the unlikely event you’ve ever doubted Robert Duvall’s fearlessness as an actor, take another look at that scene in The Judge where his character – Joseph Palmer, an aging magistrate who’s suffering through the side effects of chemotherapy -- is embarrassingly incontinent.

Clad only in his undershorts, Duvall looks every minute of his 80-plus years as Joseph struggles, and fails, to regain his footing after collapsing while upchucking into the toilet of his upstairs bathroom. At first, he pridefully pushes aside an offer of assistance from Hank (Robert Downey Jr.), his hot-shot lawyer son. But he relents – reluctantly – and manages to get to his feet, just as he starts to soil himself. Awkwardly, Hank and his father gravitate toward the shower, where Joseph – alarmingly pale and frail, sadly resigned to his humiliation – must rely on his son’s help to wash away the mess.

It’s an impressively powerful scene in a criminally under-rated film, one that reveals both the weakness and resilience of Duvall’s character – who, not incidentally, can’t remember whether he’s actually guilty of a murder he stands accused of committing – and the forging of something like a nonaggression pact between Hank, who’s serving as Joseph’s defense attorney, and his long-estranged father.

And it’s the scene that caused Duvall to very nearly pass on The Judge.

“Yeah,” Duvall told me over lunch last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, “I turned it down. “I said, ’A guy who shits himself? I don’t want to do that.’ But my agent, Nigel Meiojas -- he talked me into doing it, Nigel did. If it weren’t for him, I probably would be saying, ‘I don’t want to do it’ to this day. “But once I decided to do it, I had to really jump in and just do it.”

Indeed, Duvall did it so well that he earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor – and could score an upset Sunday evening during the Academy Awards presentation. (That would make Duvall a two-time Oscar winner, after his Best Actor prize for Tender Mercies.)

But was there another reason for his initial reluctance to play the title role in The Judge? Specifically: Did he view the ailing and incontinent Joseph Palmer as a worst-case-scenario future version of Robert Duvall?

“I gave that a fleeting thought, maybe,” Duvall conceded. “But, look: My wife looks after me, and I try to keep in shape. My younger brother died of cancer, got a disease, and I know that’s a pretty terrible thing. But I try to, each day, face the day in a positive way, hopefully.”

During our long lunch break, Duvall repeatedly praised co-star Robert Downey Jr. – “I really like him. A good man, a good man.” – and expressed gratitude for the rehearsal time the cast was granted by director David Dobkin.

“Actually,” he recalled, “we sat down one afternoon at a hotel, and we started an improvisation. And we did it for an hour and fifteen minutes, all of us -- Downey, too -- talking about different subjects as the characters. It really worked out, helping us unify ourselves, and meld, you know? Dobkin was willing to sit back and watch that, to see how that formed. It was nice, to form friendships as actors and as the characters, too, so that really helped.

“Sometimes, during rehearsal period, you just keep going over the lines. ‘What does that mean? What does this mean?’ You try different things. But that one improvisation was a great, great thing to do.

“I think that some of the modern-day directors are a little more appreciative of the actor, rather than trying to control them. Some of the old guys – well, I still tell the story about Henry Hathaway, I worked with him on True Grit, and he said to [Glen Campbell], ‘When I say action, tense up, goddamnit!’ It’s not a good thing to do.

“But you know,” Duvall added with a soft bark of a laugh, “even now, it’s still the same: They say action, and they say cut – and you’ve got to come up with something in between, right? It’s kind of like playing house. Kids play house. We play house as adults for money. It’s the same thing: make-believe. You play the father, I play the son – you know? And now I’m the judge, you’re my son. But it’s the same as when you were a kid.”

Now 84, Duvall maintains his youthful enthusiasm for acting – and continues to extend his resume with credits on both sides of the cameras. In fact, he almost didn’t make it Toronto to publicize The Judge because, at the time, he was working as director on another project: Wild Horses, a small-budget drama in which he appears alongside his wife, Luciana Duvall, and co-stars James Franco and Josh Hartnett.

“Warner Bros. wound up paying for an extra day of shooting [on Wild Horses],” Duvall said, “and they offered to fly me up here on their private jet. I figured that would be as close as I’d ever come to their private jet, so I said OK.”

For all his complimentary words about The Judge in general, and Downey and Dobkin in particular, it’s obvious that Wild Horses – which is slated to have its world premiere next month at the SXSW Film Festival – is a film much closer to Duvall’s heart.

“We had a wonderful cast, but we only had $2 million to do it, and 23 days. But we did it, and I think it worked. It is kind of a complex story about a guy who has a ranch, and he runs his son off the ranch, at gunpoint, 15 years ago, because his son is gay. The son comes back, 15 years later, for the reading of the will. We got Franco to play that part. That was a quirky part.”

So what is James Franco really like?

“A bit of a whacko,” Duvall replied without hesitation – and with, it should be noted, a wide grin. “But you ought to see him ride a horse. Terrific. And he can do many things, like take a page of dialogue and know it in six minutes. He is very, very, very, very quick. We only had him for five days. We couldn’t get him for six or seven. So we really had to hustle.”

Duvall reportedly is set to reunite with Franco and Judge co-star Vincent D’Onofrio for In Dubious Battle, a drama (directed by Franco) based on the John Steinbeck novel of the same title. After that? There had been talk – lots of talk, actually – that he would star in Terry Gilliam’s long-delayed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Now, however, it appears that project is going in a different direction, with a different actor. But never mind: Duvall doesn’t seem to be a man who spends many sleepless nights in dread of long-term unemployment.

“Sometimes things are planned,” he said, “and then something will come around the corner and be better than what you’re planning. Like a surprise, you know?”

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