Interview: Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek dish on how to ‘Get Low’

By Todd Gilchrist Although he’s just shy of 80, Robert Duvall seems as active as he did when he started his acting career some 50 years ago: from Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird to Felix Bush in Get Low, Duvall has played every variety of cultured, ignorant, aggressive, deferential, poetic, blustery character you can imagine, and shows no signs of slowing down. In Get Low, his latest, he’s commanding the screen as a bearded, eccentric recluse who emerges from self-imposed exile to enlist a funeral director and his assistant for a living funeral – as in one for himself that he wants to attend while he’s still around.

Hollywood News joined a small group of press Wednesday to talk to Duvall and his co-star, Sissy Spacek, about this idiosyncratic little film. In addition to talking about the appeal of Felix Bush, both actors examined their approach to playing various roles, and Duvall reflected on the longevity of his career, which he hopes will continue well into the future.

Hollywood News: Sissy, what was your rehearsal process like, or what did you do to develop the chemistry we saw on screen?

Robert Duvall: There was no –

Sissy Spacek: We really didn’t have any rehearsal. I think Bill [Murray] and Aaron, the director and I read through the script, but we ran lines on set occasionally just so we would remember things, but we didn’t really rehearse. This man comes in prepared.

Duvall: No, no. If you’re not prepared, Take One is a rehearsal, because you can always take Take Two and Take Three – or the rehearsal before Take One is a rehearsal. So I don’t think you have to rehearse necessarily. I think you can, but Take One is a rehearsal. But sometimes Take One is the one they use, too. So it’s different strokes, I think.

Spacek: I came thinking “I’m going to watch Bobby and see how he, you know, see his process, but you can’t see it. It’s invisible.

Duvall: Well, especially with writing like this. It helps to make it invisible, the writing is so good in this. The structure of this script, the myth, the tale, the Southern tale is so beautifully written you just go along with it, really.

Hollywood News: What is it about the characters that resonated with each you?

Spacek: One of the things that I loved was I really loved Felix Bush, and he’s a peculiar character – he’s funny and he’s deep, and I’ve often felt like Felix, wanting to what I call “go to ground” and just get away from the maddening crowd. Not for 40 years, but –

Duvall: Not even 40 days.

Spacek: Not even 40 days. Well, 40 days would be good.

Duvall: 40 hours.

Spacek: You know, the thing I loved about it was that for me, I didn’t think, oh, Maddie is this character I have to play. It was the piece, really, that pulled me in, and it’s a very lyrical story. When I was reading it, I just never knew from page to page what was going to happen. I guessed a couple of times, and I guessed wrong. But they’re also people that I’ve – I’ve known people like that. I grew up in a rural area and I live in a rural area now, and there are people that their personas are very expansive, like Felix Bush’s character, and it was just the overall lyricism, I think, of the film, and kind of the quirkiness of it.

Duvall: There was someone I was talking to today who said there was a kind of mysticism to the way things went.

Spacek: I think it has depth. More than it being about the characters or what the characters do, it’s about what the characters feel and think. It’s a real – I don’t know, you stumped me (laughs). Help me out here.

Duvall: No, you said it. I don’t have to say anything.

Hollywood News: Robert, this seems like almost a companion piece to To Kill a Mockingbird. Do you see parallels with your character here with Boo Radley?

Duvall: No, I disagree. Many people say that and they’re both hermetic guys but this guy could have been a lawyer, a teacher, a doctor, and that guy was off a little bit mentally. This guy, his hermetic life isn’t an arbitrary thing, he chooses [it]. I think the writing and the whole project is a little bit like Horton Foote who made the adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, but they’re both hermit guys but very different.

Hollywood News: How does it feel that this is finally coming out, and what do you have coming up?

Spacek: Well, first of all, it feels great to – we’re tired (laughs). It feels great to have it finally coming out, because we want people to get to see it, and it’s a lovely movie. You know, it’s always nice to have a movie in the can, but this was getting ridiculous. And I am leaving this weekend to do The Help, down in Mississippi.

Duvall: I am leaving tomorrow to go to Texas to do a film called Seven Days in Utopia with Lucas Black, who’s pretty much a scratch golfer. Usually golf movies, I haven’t seen too many of them but I don’t think they can hit the ball, the actors, but this kid’s a legitimate golfer. So I’ll be working with him, it will be nice, and it will be in Utopia, Texas.

Hollywood News: Sissy can you elaborate on your role in The Help?

Spacek: Well, I haven’t really done it yet, so I haven’t really got it figured out. But obviously I play Mrs. Walters, and she’s the mother of one of the lead characters that’s played by Bryce Dallas Howard.

Hollywood News: Robert, can you talk about finding the substance in the dialogue? Because it all seems very simple, but it’s got real resonance as well.

Duvall: Just go with it. I mean, it’s very specifically written that way by the two authors, and especially Charlie Mitchell from Alabama came in later and put the final touches, embellishments and also the structure and you just went with it and tried to feel it. You know, just go with it – the writing just kind of takes you. You think about the character and you daydream about the character day and night, and you just kind of let it happen. The writing is beautiful, but it’s nothing that makes you feel foreign when you read the dialogue. It just takes you.

Hollywood News: Robert, is there something that particularly appeals to you about working with younger or first-time directors?

Duvall: No, it’s mainly the script or the story, and then it just so happens that the director might be a first-time director. That’s okay. I mean, it might not be okay if it’s the 50th time he’s directed. You’ve got to say, beware, careful. But it can be fantastic. There’s always a time where you’re kind of parrying, no matter how much experience they have. You try to stake out your ground, and it should be collaborative thing and it can be and sometimes there are differences and there’s conflict, and that can be better sometimes than if it’s 1000 percent harmonious. That can end up dull sometimes.

Hollywood News: When did you first hear of this story and when did it first catch your attention? And can you talk about casting Bill Murray, who’s great in the movie?

Duvall: Yeah, it was good working with him. He added a lot of stuff and in between takes he would play music on set, crazy different types of music, and he was always on the present in a pretty good way, I think. He added a lot, and I think he came on a little bit later but he heard about the project, he doesn’t have an agent but they finally got it to him and he responded, he really wanted to do it. I don’t know where he is today. He never showed up in LA. [But] I think the director and producer thought of him. Way, way, way back they were thinking of other people, I think, and then he kind of got wind of it and he approached them as much as they approached him.

Hollywood News: Can you talk about the first time you heard this story?

Duvall: Yeah, well, it was a true story but it’s all mainly fictionalized so it’s a new thing, even from the reality of the old guy. And it was a when I first heard about it and read about it, I liked it, the idea of a guy who sets up and goes to his own funeral, because it was probably something I would never do. They’re just good characters. It’s like Chekhov or anything. It’s our own. Some Russian ballet master woman said there’s no culture in America, but if you look you can find interesting stuff in this country, don’t you think?

Hollywood News: Robert, can you reflect upon your now 50-year career since debuting with To Kill a Mockingbird and how it’s evolved?

Duvall: Well, I had a wonderful career. Had I only worked with Horton Foote who wrote that adaptation, had I only worked with Horton Foote and Francis Ford Coppola, I would have had a wonderful mini career. But I’ve had many other opportunities as well. And Horton was a friend for – how many friends do you have for 50 years and stay friends? Two or three, you know. But it’s been a good career and it’s been varied and I haven’t done theater in quite a while since I did American Buffalo on Broadway, but I like film. I figured there are certain film projects you can do on stage anyway, but I don’t like to do things seven or eight times a week. It’s like eating steak every night – you get tired. But I’ve had a great career and it’s been varied and there’s I always like to think of myself with potential. There’s stuff left even as we speak, there’s stuff out there.

Hollywood News: So how do you prepare, as an actor, for a movie?

Duvall: Depends on the part. Sometimes you don’t prepare much. I mean, when I did Lonesome Dove way back I rode horses day and night for like three or four months, and that got me ready for that. Different things, you know, but something like this, you just sit. This part, we spent Christmas in northern Argentina with my wife’s parents and her family, so I was just sitting in this little hotel studying the part, looking at the Andes, these beautiful Andes mountains, and it gave me a sense of solitude and peace, rumination. Different way, depends on the project. There are many ways to approach it, some simpler than others.

Spacek: Well, exactly like Bobby said, it depends on the role. In Coal Miner’s Daughter I went to Nashville and worked with Loretta, her producer and her band. One movie, they set up a real kitchen for me in the location, I was playing a farm wife, and I baked pies and bread all day, and the crew just – I had them eating out of my hands. I could say when we were shooting, “Would you move that light?” “Oh, you made that good cherry pie. Sure I will!” It’s a wonderful thing, one film I learned, when I was working with Tommy Lee Jones, on a film he directed, I learned to ride side saddle, The Good Old Boys.

Duvall: She does it better than I do, but when I did Tender Mercies down in Italy, Texas, and all those towns, Waxahachie. I got up and sang with the local bands, and see the people two-stepping by you and everything, hopefully there’s not a fight breaking out in the back, you do that as your homework too.

Spacek: That’s one of the real beautiful perks, you get to do these things you wouldn’t ordinarily get to do, and people help you. It’s great, I learned to make strudel on a table where you rolled it out on the whole table!

Duvall: You get a jack of all trades, master of some. So you try to master those things.

Hollywood News: You both have largely been associated with rural roles, but you’ve also done urban ones, and I was wondering, aside from the accents, do you think there’s any difference between those two kinds of roles when you take them and how you approach them?

Duvall: Oh, they’re different, yeah. I don’t know if it can be explained. Billy Bob Thornton wants to direct The Hatfields and the McCoys, he said, “no New York actors will be allowed below the Mason-Dixon Line.”

Spacek: That is true, there’s something about Southern characters-

Duvall: Maybe an English actor would be better at it than a guy from New York, playing a Southern guy.

Spacek: Maybe. I wouldn’t sell those New York actors short.

Duvall: When I played Robert E. Lee in Gods and Generals, we brought Bob Easton back, this great dialectitian, he lives out in Texas. They wanted a Virginia accent, he said, “Well, there’s twelve distinct Virginia accents, from the Piedmont to the coast.” Black and white, many different accents. You’ve just gotta hit on a flavor sometime, rather than just going for an all out accent.

Spacek: I think people are people. The human condition is the human condition, and what we try to do is eliminate the human condition. I think people in the north, and the south, and the east and the west, anywhere they come from are just as interesting, and they’re humans. They have the same realm of emotions that we all have. But I’m just more drawn to the Southern character and the different types, and Southern literature is so lyrical and so wonderful. And the music, I’ve been so fascinated with that. But when I first started working as an actress, I thought, “I am going to break the stereotype, the Southern stereotype. We’ve gotten a bad rap.” I don’t think I did it alone, but… (laughs) there’s so many different Southern accents.

Duvall: When I was in the Army, I bunked over a guy that was a Virginia farmer. For some reason, we changed companies a month or so later, I bunked over a guy that was a potato farmer from Maine, and they both were very rural guys. The potato farmer from Maine was almost related to this speech from Old England, but they both were interesting guys, and both rural guys. And if you could capture either one on film, it would be wonderful. But it goes back to the story, a guy drove in a car service in New York, and he says, “You know, when I was in the Deep South in the Army, in the hills, all those hillbillies and those guys in the creeks in the mountains, they constantly outscore the New Yorkers on the aptitude tests.” Interesting.

Spacek: How’d they know that?

Duvall: He was in the Army. I don’t know if that’s a generalization, but it’s specific to him. You know, Hollywood sometimes tends to patronize the interior of the United States. As Horton Foote used to say, the great Texas playwright, that a lot of people from New York don’t know what goes on beyond the South Jersey Shore.

Hollywood News: Do you think there’s any different in their body language?

Duvall: I don’t know if you can break it down, maybe. Somebody did some research recently about if you bump people in a school room, guys in the South were quicker to fist fight than guys from the North.

Spacek: Well, probably because people from the North are used to getting bumped. It’s crowded where they are. I think maybe part of the thing is that the South is so hot, that people are pushed to their limits.

Duvall: Yeah, but the hottest I’ve ever felt in my life is Chicago, IL. Sixteen year, when all those people died in a heatwave. I’ve been in Houston, and the Philippines, and that’s the hottest I’ve ever felt. I don’t know why.

Spacek: Maybe because they weren’t serving sweet tea.

Hollywood News: Sort of along the same lines, having played a lot of Southern or Midwestern characters, what is the key to playing one authentically? Because if it’s not right, it’s absolutely wrong. You guys have consistently done a great job of playing characters that seem fully authentic, rather than somebody, like a New York actor trying to affect a twang.

Duvall: It’s a pleasant challenge.

Spacek: It’s a pleasant challenge, I think for me it’s what I know. I’m just attracted. Also, maybe we can choose better Southern scripts, because we’re familiar with that genre, and we’ve lived that, and we see beyond the stereotypes.

Duvall: Yeah. When I played Robert E. Lee, I’d seen it done before, and I didn’t agree with it, but my father was from Alexandria, Virginia, and he went to the Naval Academy when he was 16 years old, off the farm from a one-room country school, he went to high school at 11, and he talked probably just like Robert E. Lee talked, who spent most of his growing-up years near Alexandria, VA. “Out” and “house,” that soft r, so I just talk like my father and my uncles when I played that part. Because that’s the way Lee must’ve talked. I once was in – where they played golf, in eastern Scotland, and some people were talking, and I said, “I don’t mean to interrupt you, but do you happen to come from near the South Carolina border?” They said, “Yes, we do.” And I think the most beautiful English spoken is from Virginia, down to the South Carolina border. More than England or anyplace. Beautiful English. Soft, cultivated, yeah. “Our area.” They’d talk about “our area.” There’s so many different ones, black and white. There’s accents all over the South. Parts of Georgia, they’ll say “furst,” and New Orleans too, almost like New York somewhat. And Texas has so many.

Spacek: Down in Texas we say, “hurri-kin”, and “forrid,” not “forehead”, my girls laugh at me.

Duvall: But there’s so many different accents, I think, in Texas too.

Hollywood News: Robert, who’d you prefer as a leading lady? The mule, or Sissy?

Duvall: If she’d give me a little hoot, I’d prefer the leading lady over the mule. I can’t answer that one! (laughs) That was an improvised scene we did! When I introduced you to the mule, that was improvised! That wasn’t in there.

Spacek: He only likes me because I held my gloved hand out, with that mule.

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