That Robert Duvall is one of America's most distinguished and honored film actors is practically an understatement. Duvall, who has won an Oscar (for "Tender Mercies"), an Emmy ("Broken Trail") and a Golden Globe ("Lonesome Dove"), has been a reassuring, and welcome, presence on the big screen since he broke in as Boo Radley in 1962's "To Kill a Mockingbird."
At the age of 79, he's not slowing down. Opening Friday is "Get Low," in which the actor gives one of his strongest performances, as a Tennessee recluse who throws his own funeral party. Lewis Beale caught up with Duvall by phone near his Virginia home.
"Get Low" is based on the true story of a 1930s hermit who paid for his own funeral party while he was still alive. What attracted you to the project?
It's a Southern tale, the kind of film that's very unique, and they won't make a sequel or remake. I liked the idea of a guy who does his own funeral. It's storytelling. There are certain kinds of storytelling in the South and, once that was set in the ink, I knew I wanted to do this project. It's the juxtaposition of the two races, the music, the whole kind of thing of the South. And this is also a love story.
The film does a good job of moving from wacky comedy to outright pathos without missing a beat. How did they accomplish that?
We got Bill Murray to be there , and he said this was a funny movie, but the humor comes out of the behavior, not "I'll hit you with all these jokes." If the pathos is there at the end, then it makes the film more poignant. It shows humor and pathos not weighing people down.
You come from a military family. Your dad was a Navy admiral, and your mom was related to Robert E. Lee. How did they feel when you decided to pursue an acting career?
They pushed me into acting. They figured I was fumbling around at the end of the Korean War, I wasn't doing well at school. They figured it might be something that might work for me, especially in the school I was going to, which had a good theater department. It was my parents who nurtured me into it, as an expedient thing.
You broke into TV in the late '50s and have been making films since the early '60s. What kinds of changes have you seen in the business over the years?
I think young actors overall are better than they used to be. It's an evolution, the young people have access to more - the Internet - there's a lot of information that helps fuel young people to be more sophisticated at a young age. As far as directors go, the old guys controlled things, there was no improvisation, and the good directors today allow more to come from the actor.
You have a special affinity for Westerns. You've said "Lonesome Dove" was your favorite film role, and you've also done great work in "True Grit" and "Open Range." What is it about the genre that appeals to you?
The English have Shakespeare, the French have Molière. The Western is our genre. It's part of our lore. From a movie point of view, it's a romantic aspect of our past.
You've also done great work on the stage. You won an Obie for "A View From the Bridge," and received raves for "American Buffalo." Yet, you haven't been on the boards for 30 years. Why?
I was offered to go back in the Horton Foote plays ; they're absolutely brilliant. There was a character in one of them I played in a movie. But I'm not interested in doing eight performances a week. I like films. You go on location, you meet people.
You've been married to Luciana Pedraza, an Argentinian woman, since 2005. The two of you are supporters of ProMujer, a charity active in Latin America. What kind of programs do you support?
We're helping with autism, we're rebuilding schools and hospitals. Also, we're helping in certain individual cases, helping families to build homes.
So how's your Spanish?
My Spanish should be a lot better than it is. I'm better on certain days than others. But when they start talking too fast ...