Ever wonder what people will say at your funeral? That's pretty much the premise of Get Low, a new film releasing this week and starring Robert Duvall as an eccentric recluse living in the hills—while all the townsfolk share wild (and mostly untrue) stories about him.
A Southern folk tale based in the 1930s—and based on a true story of a Tennessee man who lived at that time—the film features Duvall as Felix Bush, a loner who decides to hold a "living funeral" so he can hear what the people are really saying about him. It's a stellar film, with themes of forgiveness and redemption, and features a dazzling cast, including Oscar winners Duvall and Sissy Spacek and Oscar nominee Bill Murray.
Duvall, who will be 80 in January, tells CT that Get Low is one of his favorite movies that he's made. He compares the story with the Horton Foote-written films in which he's starred, including To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies (for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor).
Duvall, who likes to play flawed men because they bring more "drama" to the story, also talked about his role in 1997's The Apostle, a tale rife with moral complexity in which he plays a feisty Southern preacher in need of some anger management. The actor got a little feisty himself when we asked him whether that movie was subtly mocking Pentecostals and charismatics.
You have a history of playing flawed, complicated, broken men. What attracts you to these roles?
Well, they present themselves to me, and those characters make good drama. If people don't have conflicts, contradictions, and faults, then there is no drama there. My favorite part of all time was probably Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove; I also played Josef Stalin in a TV movie. I also always try to find the vulnerable side and the positive side of the character.
Are you attracted to stories that depict faith and spiritual things?
I could be, but I don't go looking for something with a "message," so to speak. If it's there, it's there. When I did The Apostle, that was a personal kind of thing for me to do that.
You wrote, directed, acted in, and financed The Apostle. Why was it so important to you to make that movie?
Years ago [in the 1960s], I was in a little town in Hughes, Arkansas, to do some research on a play. I wandered out one night and I saw this little Pentecostal church, and a woman preacher. I said, "I gotta put this on film someday. I've never seen this." It was a part of Americana—spiritual but also a cultural thing. It took me years and years to get it done, all with my own money and everything.
You observed a lot of preachers while doing your research, didn't you?
All over America. And mostly in black churches. I love going to black churches, and I love some of these black preachers. The best preacher I ever saw in my life was a 93-year-old in a black church in Hamilton, Virginia. What a preacher! He'd make Mahatma Gandhi look like a Nazi. He was so spiritual, this man. A wonderful man.
Some people thought The Apostle was mocking Southern holiness or Pentecostal preachers …
Who said that?
Oh, some Christians wished it had been a more positive portrayal of a preacher rather than a man with all these …
Let me straighten these people out. And you can put it in print. My guy [Rev. Euliss "Sonny" Dewey, the title character] killed a guy out of anger, right? But he wasn't one half as bad as King David in the Psalms, who sent a man off to be killed so he could be with his wife. Every time I read the Psalms I think of that. But on the other hand, I heard that Billy Graham liked the movie, and many, many preachers did. Rev. James Robison of Fort Worth said I could use anything from any of his services to put in the film. So I'm not mocking.