NEW YORK — Robert Duvall has "wanted to play a preacher" since a long-ago trip to an Arkansas town, where he spent a few days researching a stage role. The town's most interesting feature was its church, and the church's most interesting feature was the high-energy minister.
Duvall has realized his ambition in "The Apostle," which opens this month after acclaimed showings at the New York and Toronto Film Festivals, and a one-week December run to qualify for the Academy Awards.
He directed the movie from his own screenplay, and he plays the riveting title role: Sonny Dewey, a Pentecostal preacher who flees his Texas town after his volatile temper flares in a sudden burst of violence. Rebuilding his life in rural Louisiana, he starts a new church - knowing his "One Way Road to Heaven" ministry will turn in a less happy direction if the law ever catches up to him.
Of all the roles Duvall has played in the past, perhaps the most beloved is the down-but-not-out country singer of "Tender Mercies," scripted by Horton Foote, who has served Duvall as a mentor and confidant. While that movie also touched on Southern fundamentalism, Foote considered the religious material a sidelight rather than a compelling topic in its own right.
By contrast, Duvall wanted to create a nuanced portrait of the evangelical community, capturing its full complexity without lapsing into Hollywood-type corn, condescension, or cynicism. "We were representing what these people really are," he said in a recent interview, "without making fun or caricaturing them."
This meant staying true to his own vision of the subject - developed through careful research in Southern and Northern churches - despite temptations to stylize or overdramatize it. Audiences have grown so accustomed to media-shaped versions of life, Duvall notes, that artificial scenes often look more "real" than material drawn from actual experience.
"It's funny," he says with a smile, "but a lot of real cowboys would rather see a John Wayne movie than an actual, good documentary about guys like them." Bucking this trend toward formulas and stereotypes, he sought an authenticity for his independently made movie that few studio pictures could equal.
One device for reaching this authenticity was to supplement his expert cast - Farrah Fawcett, Billy Bob Thornton, Miranda Richardson - with nonprofessional performers from the localities where the movie was filmed.
"If you just work with [nonactors] on their own terms," Duvall says about this technique, "it'll turn out fine. It's like improvisation in a good sense, without self-indulgence. You have to put limits around them, then give them freedom within that.... I'd get together with people sometimes before a scene, but we didn't rehearse much. I'd say, 'This has nothing to do with acting, just do like you do every day....' "
With both professionals and nonprofessionals, Duvall's goal was a spontaneous acting style that grows from the feeling of the moment rather than the planning sessions and story conferences of most commercial productions.
"I tried to keep the camera back a ways," he explains, "and shoot a little more offhandedly than you'd have for other kinds of movies.... I had ideas about how the [final version] should be, but I didn't worry about it.... If something was happening - like when a guy was really feeling the spirit in a [church] tent - I'd say to the cameraman, 'Don't just look at it, go shoot it! I know we can use it somewhere!' "
Duvall has directed two films before: the acclaimed documentary "We're Not the Jet Set," about a farming family, and the superb "Angelo, My Love," about a Gypsy community. In them he developed a distinctive style by melding real-life material with flexible cinematic structures. "The Apostle" continues his unique approach.
It also contains what may be the most indelible performance of Duvall's rich career, which includes landmark roles like the consigliari in "The Godfather" and the Vietnam officer of "Apocalypse Now." He says his acting experience laid the ground for his behind-the-camera activities.
"Writing and directing are like an extension of myself as an actor," he explains. "The beginning and end of it all should be behavior, within movie time and fiction form.... I try to have the camera accommodate the actor more than the actor accommodating the camera. "
This Man Can Tango, Too!
What's coming up on Robert Duvall's busy slate? Sports and dancing, but not necessarily in that order.
For his next outdoorsy role, Duvall hopes to appear as "an over-the-hill soccer player" working as a coach in northern England or Scotland - a man who's seen better times, like the country singer in "Tender Mercies," and whom Duvall would surely play with the same mixture of acute observation and quiet compassion.
Duvall is also itching to make a movie on his current passion: the tango. "My girlfriend is a tango dancer," he says, "and I've gotten to really love that music." He has already written a screenplay that moves between North and South America. Locales include the underworld domains of New York and Buenos Aires, where much of the action takes place - with tango scenes to tie the story together and provide propulsive rhythms.
Duvall will direct this picture as well as kicking up his heels on screen. He may start the project as soon as "The Apostle" is properly launched. Let the dancing begin!