You could hear tango music blasting in the background when Robert Duvall picked up the phone to chat with me from his ranch in rural Virginia. The acclaimed actor, whose love of the Argentine dance adds to his colorful, easygoing disposition, knows how to balance his career as a prolific movie star with his personal interests as a lover of barbecue, horses and the comforts of country living.
Duvall is the featured guest at a Brilliant Lecture Series event on Thursday at Wortham Theater Center, where he'll engage in a lively conversation with CultureMap's own doyenne of all things Houston society, the always classy and quick-witted Shelby Hodge.
Who knows where the tête-à-tête will go. Duvall is the type of man that goes with the flow while sharing intimate details from his entertaining past and plans for the future.
Ahead of his appearance, CultureMap chewed the fat with Duvall to learn what was on his mind. Think of this teaser convo as a light appetizer of deviled eggs before a hearty meal of ribs, brisket and any meat that becomes succulent in a southern style smoker.
CultureMap: I'd say you live a glamorous life. You have a gorgeous wife and you've starred in some of the most iconic roles in movie history. But everyone has to start somewhere. What are some of the most unglamorous jobs you've had?
Robert Duvall: I've had more than a few. One play I did in New York when I first started, I got such a bad review that I had to get off the bus — it made me sick. Those things happen and you have to remember it's all relative. I usually don't read either pro or con reviews much. You have to forget those moments and move on. I've had some pitfalls, you know, but overall things are going well. Partly because I've gotten good advice along the way.
I have one film coming out in the fall that's going to be the biggest film I've been in since Apocalypse Now. With Robert Downey Jr., who I consider one of the biggest earners in the motion picture industry, the film is called The Judge. I play the judge. The story is set in a town west of San Antonio, a modern day western family drama. I have a thing for westerns.
CultureMap: You like Texas, don't you?
RD: I love Texas because all you get in Texas is hot air. And good barbecue. And terrific people. We'll probably gather around all our redneck friends and go shooting — my wife (Luciana Pedraza) loves to shoot and she's very good at it.
"When the director says act, I'd better come out with something."
CM: What projects are you looking forward to in the future?
RD: I've got a few left for sure. On the back burner, which probably may never happen, I am supposed to play Don Quixote with Terry Gilliam in a European production. Sometimes it's easier to raise $100 million than $5 million for a film project.
CM: What do you do in your down time?
RD: Traveling for sure. Fun with friends, and I have lots of good friends in Texas, probably more than here in Virginia. My wife — she's from Argentina — she's the center of many things for me. I call her a general with a heart. She runs things and she's great at it. She loves Virginia. She says it's the last station before heaven. We have a nice place.
CM: Favorite sports?
RD: American football and horse show jumping. My wife has taken up jujitsu because she's getting ready to play a lady Texas Ranger in my next movie. She's terrific at it. I look over she's choking a guy with some complicated move. Impressive, don't you think?
CM: Very much so. Of course we all know about your penchant for tango.
RD: That's exactly what I was doing before you called — I had to turn the music down. It's a good hobby. It's a social dance in the same way Texas folks dance the two-step. In Argentina it's the milongas, which they've done for many years, much different from what you see on television. Many cultures around the world have their own form of social dancing.
A young actor once asked me what I do to keep myself from going nuts. My answer: Hobbies, hobbies and more hobbies.
CM: What's your best advice for an actor who's just getting started?
"In any part you do, you have to draw from within. You can't become someone else without starting with yourself."
RD: If you are just getting started, I'd say get with a group. You can't do things individually. You have to do it with a group that's very personalized and begin to do little projects and invite people to see them.
It's a tough business. It's who you know — in a good way, in a legitimate way.
CM: How do you prepare for your roles?
RD: I go with my instincts and I let the script do the talking. If I have to do research to complement the script, that I will do.
For The Judge, I didn't do research as far as legal things go. I tried to research what I would do emotionally in a given situation. I did go to one judge's chamber hearing in Virginia. It was very inspirational the moment he said, "All rise." Everyone rose and gave honor to this man.
Rather than reading law books, I have to inform my acting — I am an actor. When the director says act, I'd better come out with something. You go to the source of the information for that.
When I played a Cuban barber in a film with Richard Harries (Wrestling Ernest Hemingway), I went to Miami, I only ate Cuban food, I hung out only with Cuban people, I put on tape Cuban-American people talking and listened to the recordings for three months prior to the filming so I could recreate the accent.
CM: Has there been a role that more closely matches your personality?
RD: You know, I think each role adds to your personality somehow.
Maybe Mr. (Larry) McMurtry might disagree as he wanted me to play the other part in Lonesome Dove. My ex-wife, thank God, said to me, "Don't let them talk you into that part, you must play the part of Gus." My ex-wife said that because she saw something in me that fit that part and vice versa. Maybe there's something in me that's like that guy.
But I think in any part you do, you have to draw from within. You can't become someone else without starting with yourself.
The Brilliant Lecture Series presents Robert Duvall in conversation with CultureMap's Shelby Hodge on Thursday, 7 p.m., at Wortham Theater Center. Tickets start at $65 and may be purchased online or by calling 832-487-7041.