An actor's dance with directing

Robert Duvall has had a long love affair with the tango.

When he hosts parties at his farm in Virginia, a live band will play everything from country and western to swing and salsa. But when the band sits down, the tango records come out.

So it's perhaps fitting that Mr. Duvall embraced a new movie with the tango as the subplot. "Assassination Tango," opening in theaters today, tells the story of an American hit man who travels to Argentina to kill a military leader. In the process, he meets a beautiful dancer (played by Duvall's longtime girlfriend, Luciana Pedraza) who teaches him the tango.

Why the sensual dance from Argentina?

"It's a nice pastime," Duvall says, with Ms. Pedraza at his side in a recent sit-down interview. "Old people can do it. Young people can do it."

What intrigues him, he elaborates, is that most forms of partnered dancing are "mirror forms," where one partner copies the steps of the other partner in reverse.

That isn't so with the tango, which can be a steamy expression between two lovers, a pleasant dance between a parent and child, or an introduction between strangers. In the film, Pedraza's character says she'd rather dance with a slovenly person who knew the tango than someone immaculate who did not.

Duvall has a distinguished career as a film actor stretching back from "To Kill A Mockingbird" and the "Godfather" films to his Oscar-winning role as a down-and-out country singer in "Tender Mercies." But less noted is his small but distinguished body of work as a director.

After Duvall's directorial debut in 1977, a documentary about a rodeo family called "We're Not the Jet Set," he was approached by John Cassavetes with a script for Duvall to direct. Duvall turned it down, telling him, "I don't know how to do that."

For Duvall, directing is about building a project from the ground up and immersing himself in the world the film will explore. His 1983 feature, "Angelo, My Love," was a drama set among New York's Romany community.

"You've got to get to know the culture," says Duvall of his directorial efforts. "When I did the gypsy film, I stayed with them, slept on the floor."

His third effort, "The Apostle," starred Duvall as a wayward evangelical minister trying to redeem his life. The film received strong reviews and several awards, including the Independent Spirit Awards in 1997 for Best Picture, Actor, and Director.

It took his interest in the tango to spark his latest filmmaking venture. He is not only the director and star of the film, he also wrote and produced it.

A frequent visitor to Argentina, Duvall was able to shoot much of the film on location in spite of the story involving a hit man killing a former general. "They always say the tango is connected with the underworld," says Duvall, who describes his hit man as "just a guy who's got a job."

When his character's "job" is delayed, he becomes immersed in the tango culture, with several of the characters played by real-life dancers. "It's the same people I would use in a documentary," he says.

Duvall said it was a pleasure filming in Argentina before the current economic difficulties. He hired mostly local people in his film crew there.

While his cast includes professionals like Ruben Blades and Kathy Baker, many of the performers were not veteran movie actors. As a director, Duvall encourages improvisation. In one scene, a character speaks with great love about the meaning of the tango. Says Duvall, "I didn't write those words. They came from her."

For Pedraza, working with Duvall was "fantastic," since he allowed her to find the part through rehearsals and improvisations.

"You're always looking for accidents to happen," says Duvall, meaning actors discovering some aspect of their character that isn't on the page. That includes letting an actor underplay as well as going for a "big moment."

"He's open to that emptiness," says Pedraza, who recently turned down a chance to appear in a film for a major Argentine director. "Just for the sake of being in front of a camera, I have no interest," she says.

What if Duvall had a new project going and asked her to be in it?

"In a second," she says.

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