His newest role as John J. Anderson, a hit man in Assassination Tango (opening April 11), is one in a long line of Duvall's eccentric, road-worn subjects in a career that encompasses more than 90 roles. He wrote, directed and stars in the story of a paid killer from Brooklyn who travels to Argentina to whack an upper-level politician. Once there, his employers keep changing the mission, and J.J. flounders, arranging rendezvous with a local prostitute and whiling away his time in the smoky, tango parlors where he eventually meets dancer Manuela (Luciana Pedraza).
The 72-year-old actor was recently in Atlanta to promote Assassination Tango, a film that addresses his two principal preoccupations: acting and tango.
Duvall has been dancing "on and off for 15 years," he says, though he's had a hard time finding partners deep in the heart of the Virginia horse country where he lives.
"I would like to do it more. I'd like to have about four or five women that I could practice [with]," he laughs. "... Maybe if I put an ad in the paper or something ..."
Seated next to him on a loveseat is Duvall's comely main filly, Luciana Pedraza, 30, the sultry tango dancer in Assassination. Despite her poise, Pedraza had never acted before, and she confesses that she's not too anxious to do it again. While Duvall contemplates taking another trip to Argentina to make a documentary and watch more tango, Pedraza is enthusiastically consumed by two documentaries she is directing with Southern themes. One is about the writer Horton Foote and the other is about hard-luck Texan country singer Billy Joe Shaver, both longtime friends of her husband's.
It's no surprise that Pedraza is so consumed by these two exemplars of ragged, individualistic Southern masculinity. Duvall is a longtime fan of Southern individuality and also a huge documentary fan. The actor says he finds a wealth of inspiration in documentary filmmakers like Ken Loach, who he says "has a good truth gauge."
But it's not just Duvall's directing work that takes a cue from nonfiction film. He uses documentary as a kind of preparation for his acting work, too. It's not an unprecedented influence in acting circles, he says.
"I think Brando used to watch 'Candid Camera' for behavior," he notes.
Duvall has something in common, philosophically, with documentarians' desire to show the real people whom Hollywood has marginalized in its quest for the blatantly heroic, the outsized, the grandiose.
Duvall speaks passionately about his connection to the Southerners he's played so often, from his film debut in To Kill A Mockingbird, to Tender Mercies, Rambling Rose, A Family Thing, Sling Blade and The Apostle.
"Culturally they're rich," Duvall says of Southerners. "And I feel like people miss the point, and I want to try and do it right if it comes my way.
"'Fly over territory' they call it," sneers Duvall, of the Hollywood condescension for the stretch of America between New York and Los Angeles.
Duvall illustrates his point about the intrinsic differences in the South by using the example of Billy Joe Shaver, who he says experienced a run of nightmarish bad luck to rival even the darkest country lament.
"Billy Joe's mother, his wife [whom he married three times] and his only son ... a brilliant guitarist -- all died the same year. And he's 63 now and he had triple bypass. And the guy got through it," Duvall marvels.
"I said to Billy Joe, 'How did you get through this?'"
"He said, 'Jesus Christ.'"
"That, in a nutshell is what separates the North and the South," says Duvall.
Duvall says Southerners still stop him in airports to praise his portrait of Pentecostal preacher Euliss "Sonny" Dewey in The Apostle. He recalls a man who told him, "My uncle is a Pentecostal preacher in West Virginia. He has services every Sunday in his garage. You nailed it."
Southern characters are at the center of two film projects Duvall's currently considering -- one on Tennessee boxer Billy Collins and another on North Carolina moonshine revenue agent Garland Bunting. He'd also like to appear in Billy Bob Thornton's "definitive American tragedy on the Hatfields and McCoys" if it ever gets off the ground. There's just one rule Thornton has established, Duvall says.
"No New York actor will be allowed to be in it."
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