February 2003
Gods and Generals : An Interview with Robert Duvall

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

Gods and Generals: An Interview with Robert Duvall

As the United States and others converge to decide if we go to war or not, we must remind ourselves that all are in danger. This would not be a man vs. machine thing. It would be man vs. nuclear, in which we would all lose. Such wasn’t the case over 100 years ago; man fought against man, and it was brother against brother. It was the Civil War and everyone felt patriotic to one side or another. Robert Duval is one finest actors working today. He’s played legendary characters from Tom Hayden of “The Godfather” to Dwight D. Eisenhower in the miniseries “Ike”. Now he takes on the role of General Robert E. Lee in “Gods and Generals”, the prequel to “Gettysburg”. In an interview with blackfilm.com at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Washington, DC, he spoke about the connection to the famous leader and how Hollywood views war.

WM: Did you feel you were somehow connected to Robert E. Lee?

RD: Yeah, but I find everybody does too. My mother always said that, but the best part of it in helping me with this part is my father’s people who are from Northern, Virginia. My father went to the naval academy when he was 16 years old so when I talk about coming across the Potomac to Arlington House it was like my uncles, my father, their speech patterns and everything was the same. Lee came to Northern Virginia when he was four years old and went to West Point. Without thinking about it too much it was a lot like my father, the accent, everything. I just talked like my Dad. It’s in the blood. You’re not gonna get that out of 150 books.

WM: How doe sthe military today compare to Robert E. Lee?

RD: A lot of military are like that today. Even when Eisenhower got out of the service he wanted to down grade the military because they know what war is about. I guess people fighting, get out in the trenches and get their stripes, war becomes a romantic concept. It is terrible. The Civil War was the worse war we’ve ever faced.

WM: Do you see any parallels of the Civil War to the impending war on Iraq?

RD: Yeah because a year and a half ago we were invaded, five thousand people died the first day of the war here. The only other time we’d been invaded was when Northern troops invaded the South on Southern soil. It’s a sense of being invaded. Whether we’re at a declaration of war, now or not, it was a war here a year and a half ago. It hit New York and we lost a lot of people. When someone invades your country something’s gotta be done.

WM: How do you see movies romancing war?

RD: The opening sequence of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was at real as it got in the history of movie making. I was amazed he could be that good, Spielberg! You tend to romanticize something that’s pretty brutal. The Civil War as I understand it was the most brutal war we’ve ever fought because it was family against family at times. More people died in that war than all the other wars put together in our history. So it may appear romantic when you see battle scenes but underneath it’s pretty brutal.

WM: What still motivates you?

RD: I get up, I eat my breakfast and then I take my nap before I really get up! I just like to keep working and I seem to get offers now more than ever. As long as the parts are different and there’s a challenge I like to keep working. I keep physically fit and I like to work. I like to direct the projects that I develop from the ground up but it’s hard to find those scripts. I still want to find some interesting acting projects. The whole process is nice, the make believe and try to make something come alive out of yourself. I haven’t grown jaded or disillusioned with it so I’ll keep on for a while.

WM: There are still talks of a fourth Godfather Sequel. Would you consider being in the film?

RD: I wasn’t in the third one, I didn’t want to be but obviously they’re doing it for the money. I mean why do more, the first two were terrific.

WM: Each fil you do is a job for a few months. When it's over, do you keep in touch with the other actors?

RD: It’s funny when you’re growing up as young actors, Dustin Hoffman, me, Gene Hackman in New York City and you when you start to make it, I never see those guys. When I did ‘Geronimo’ I hadn’t seen Hackman in a while but it was like every time between action and cut we’d start talking again like where we left off twenty years ago. Once in awhile I see Al Pacino and DeNiro and it’s nice. We have different worlds and different sets but I don’t see many actors. Every once in a while I call my friend Paul Gleason who was in ‘The Breakfast Club’ and we talk about sports, the Super Bowl or the next boxing match so that’s that connection. Once in a while I talk to Wilford (Brimley) and I see Jimmy Caan now and then but he’s one of those guys who changes his number every three months but doesn’t need to! ‘Godfather II’ missed him because he was so much fun. Brando still talks about the joke he told twenty five years ago. I only talked to Brando once in like twenty years. We were talking over the phone. But Jimmy’s just a great guy to work with but I never see him. I wish we did the guys more but I live in Virginia and this one lives there, Hackman lives in New Mexico I think and Dustin Hoffman has five homes all over the world. What’s strange is the heads of the companies get together and talk about putting us together in a movie but we don’t talk about it. Why don’t the actors get together and talk; it’s a funny thing.

WM: What's the spirituality in these times?

RD: Didn’t Rick Bragg, the writer from Alabama say in his book ‘All Over the Shoutin’ that if you talk about Jesus in every day conversation in New York City or the North you’re perceived as a nut, but if you do it in the South or rural America it’s totally acceptable. My lady is doing a documentary on Billy Joe Shavers, a wonderful country singer and his wife died, his only son died, his mother died, a triple bypass all in one year. I asked him how he got through it and he said, ‘Jesus Christ.’ This is not a dumb guy. He’s a very bright poetic guy. In certain parts of the country certain things are accepted more than other parts of the country. If people want to talk about God or whatever that’s their prerogative. I believe in a higher power and that’s my own belief. I don’t necessarily agree with the character that I portrayed in ‘The Apostle’ but yet I had to portray him accurately and broadly.

WM: How does Hollywood view religious people?

RD: These people are melodramatic and have broad strokes. Hollywood tends to patronize those people. I had a driver in New York tell me that when he was in the army in the South in those little back woods, back creeks, in all the hills, all these guys constantly outscored New Yorkers on the aptitude tests. So those people out there, don’t undersell ‘em.

WM: I hear the re-enactors saluted you during the shooting of the film. Can you talk about that?

RD: You can not make these kinds of movies without the re-enactors. They are the heart and soul of these movies. They live and breathe it and it’s an intense, life time hobby. These characters of Robert E. Lee are heroes to ‘em so when they see somebody approximating that and playing the part then they come to attention and salute and call you ‘sir’ so it’s nice. It helps the work situation. It was a mix of treating me as a movie star and also as the character of Lee through their faith and belief of Civil War lore.