Robert Duvall made his screen debut in 1962’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, playing the reclusive and creepy Boo Radley. He has gone on to enjoy an eclectic career being nominated for numerous Academy Awards for The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Great Santini and The Apostle, winning the Oscar for his performance in <>Tender Mercies.
In his new movie Get Low, which is based on a true story that happened in 1938, Duvall portrays Felix ‘Bush’ Breazeale, a reclusive backwoodsman who incites fear in the local townsfolk. After dozens of years in isolation, many stories have surrounded Felix; that he killed someone in cold blood, that he was in league with the Devil; and the locals have avoided him like the plague. That is until he appears at Quinn’s Funeral Home, and makes a deal with its owner, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), to handle his funeral, a living funeral that Felix wants to attend in order hear what is said about him – before he gets to tells his story to the people.
When did you first hear of this story?
It was a true story, but this is mainly fictionalized. When I first heard about it I liked it, I liked the idea of a guy that sets up and goes to his own funeral. It was probably something I would never do. It has good characters.
The writing of this script reminded me of my friend, Horton Foote, who recently passed away. There are wonderful things to this script, things like you find in a Horton Foote script – just with more of an edge. This movie offers a deep slice of humanity, and with the great actors we have, we’ve tried to make it as real as possible.
Some Russian ballet master said, ‘There’s no culture in America.’ If you look, you can find interesting stuff in this country. Very interesting stuff, even though we’re young.
What was it about the role of Felix that attracted you?
I thought Felix was a very important part and a wonderful character to do at this point in my career. Felix has been maybe not such a great guy at various points in his life, but now he’s moved to ask for certain forgiveness at the end.
This film feels like a companion piece to To Kill a Mockingbird.
I disagree. Many people say that. They are both hermitic guys but this guy could have been a lawyer, a teacher, a doctor. The guy in To Kill a Mockingbird (Boo) was a little off mentally. This guy’s hermitic life isn’t an arbitrary thing, he chooses it.
How do you prepare as an actor for a movie?
It depends on the part. When I did Lonesome Dove, I rode horses day and night for four months and that got me ready for that. When I did Tender Mercies I got up and sang with the local bands.
With this, we spent Christmas in northern Argentina with my wife’s parents and their family, so I would just sit in this little hotel, studying the part and looking at the beautiful Andes Mountains, and it gave me a sense of solitude and peace.
It was inspired casting to hire Bill Murray to play the funeral director – what was it like working with him?
It was good working with him. He added a lot of stuff and in between takes he’d play music on the set, crazy, different types of music and he was always present, in a pretty good way I think. He came on a little bit later, he’d heard about the project, he doesn’t have an agent or anything; but they finally got it to him. And he responded. He really wanted to do it. I think he approached them as much as they approached him.
Looking over your film career, you’ve done many films with first time directors, including this one with Aaron Schneider, is there something about that that appeals to you?
Mainly it’s the script or the story, and it just so happens that the director might be a first time director, which is okay. There’s always a time where no matter how much experience they’ve had you kind of stake out your ground. It should be a collaborative thing, and it can be, and sometimes if there are differences and there is conflict that can be better than if it’s a thousand percent harmonious. That can end up dull sometimes.
To Kill a Mockingbird was your first movie – you’ve almost had a 50 year career, can you reflect on your career a little bit?
I’ve had a wonderful career. Had I only worked with Horton Foote, who made the adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Francis Ford Coppola I would have had a wonderful mini career. I’ve had many other opportunities as well. It’s been a good career, it’s been varied.
I haven’t done theatre in quite awhile, since I did American Buffalo on Broadway, but I like film. I figure certain film projects you can do on stage anyway, but I don’t like to do things eight times a week. It’s like eating steak every night, you get tired of it. I always like to think of myself in the potential, there’s stuff left even as we speak – but the most difficult thing is raising the money for a project.