NEW YORK — Robert Duvall is sitting alert and slightly leaned forward with his hands clasping his knees.
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That's how a reporter finds him in a Manhattan hotel room, but the setting feels more like a country porch. A conversation with the veteran actor is a little like kicking back with Gus McCrae, the rancher he played in the beloved 1989 miniseries "Lonesome Dove," a part that has been deeply stuck in his bones ever since.
"People are doing all these remakes now," he says, "but there's original stories to be told."
Duvall, 79, has no shortage of stories. He was, as he often says, a "late bloomer," finding his way after a stint in the Army as a young actor in '50s New York, famously chasing parts (and girls) with his then-unknown friends Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman.
Since then, he has amassed a revered body of work as a character actor and occasional leading man with physical, sturdy performances in films including "The Godfather," parts I and II, "Network," "Apocalypse Now," "Tender Mercies" (for which he won an Oscar) and the 1997 film he wrote and directed, "The Apostle."
His latest is "Get Low," which will be released in limited theaters July 30. In it, he plays Felix Bush, a bearded backwoods hermit in Depression-era Tennessee who convinces the town undertaker (Bill Murray) to throw him a funeral before he dies.
For Duvall, it's a fitting role, a cantankerous loner living by his own modest code.
Duvall let the character, tailored for him in rewrites, take shape while studying the part in northern Argentina. He spends much of his time in Buenos Aires, where he met his fourth and current wife, Luciana Pedraza, who starred in his 2002 film "Assassination Tango."
"Some parts — like this one — I just sat there and watched the Andes," says Duvall. "You mull it over in your imagination. Someone said, 'Play the parts that are most prominent in your day dreams.'"
Duvall sometimes pulls a character's gestures from different places. Many of those for McCrae, for example, he got from Texan and former Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh, whom he met randomly. For "Get Low," Duvall thought of his uncles in Virginia, where he owns a farm.
Working towards truth
Acting, Duvall believes, should always work toward a "bare minimal truth."
"I try to work just from talking and listening, to go from there, let it build," he says, his hand rising. "You've got be careful saying, 'I become the character,' because then it becomes something out here. You only have one set of emotions, one psyche. So it's got to be this: Always you doing it. The best of the actors that I watch, it's: 'Oh, wow. He's really in touch with himself.'"
Director Aaron Schneider, a former cinematographer whose 2004 short "Two Soldiers" won an Oscar, says Duvall's "genius" is in "fully embodying a character and then just sort of behaving." He credits "the power that Duvall has to attract his fellow actors to his side" for a cast that also includes Sissy Spacek. The film was shot over 24 days last year in Georgia.
"A lot of the reactions to the movie are, 'The movie's great, but Duvall's fantastic' — and that's exactly what we wanted," says Schneider. "We wanted to tell a story about an interesting person."
Last year, Duvall enlivened two films with brief appearances: as the friendly bartender in "Crazy Heart" and as the old man in the financially unsuccessful independent "The Road," which the actor said went "down the drain."
The state of independent film is something on Duvall's mind, not just because "Get Low" took years to find financing and secure a release from Sony Pictures Classics. Earlier this year, he joined as an adviser to OpenFilm.com, a website launched by James Caan to help develop independent film.
Of the 2006 AMC miniseries "Broken Trail," which won four Emmys including one for Duvall, the actor says if it had been done as a movie, "Six people would have seen it." Instead, some 30 million saw it — "interior of the United States," he says proudly.
Duvall is lining up work in several films including as Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam's "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" and a role in a possible adaptation of "The Hatfield and the McCoys" — "if Brad Pitt will say yes," says Duvall.
"I don't work as much as I want," says Duvall, still chasing parts at nearly 80-years-old. "My career is still going great, maybe as good as ever."
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