“Fictional Realities Out of Life’s Realities”: Robert Duvall on “Assassination Tango”
by Andrea Meyer
Everyone loves Robert Duvall, the actor. Whether your favorite is “The Godfather,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Falling Down,” “Tender Mercies,” or his unforgettable debut as Boo Radley in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” most film lovers would agree that Duvall is one of Hollywood’s great actors. For a guy who’s been performing since the ’50s, it’s astounding that Duvall has never slowed down, with almost 100 roles to his credit and parts in more recent films that include “A Civil Action,” “Deep Impact,” “John Q.,” and “Gods and Generals.” The energetic 72-year-old has at least four films coming out in the next year.
More surprising than his prolific work as an actor, though, are Duvall’s writing and directing chops. In 1997, he wrote, directed, and starred in “The Apostle,” a film that earned a place on more than 75 critics’ Top 10 lists and won its maker the best picture, actor, and director prizes at the Independent Sprit Awards, in addition to his fifth Oscar nomination. The gritty story of a Southern preacher who seeks redemption after committing a crime of passion employed a mix of actors and nonprofessionals to give audiences the impression of diving right into the middle of a world they probably never had seen before.
Now the multi-talented Duvall brings another of his scripts to screen with “Assassination Tango,” about a hitman who goes to Argentina to knock off a general and ends up getting seduced by the world of tango. Featuring his real-life girlfriend, 31-year-old Argentine Luciana Pedraza, in her acting debut, this film uses the same ingredients as his previous one — improvisation, non-actors, departing liberally from the script — to create another intriguing foray into a world unknown to most audiences. Duvall created a fascinating character for himself and let him bounce between the streets and dancehalls of New York and the small tango clubs of Buenos Aires, bringing many of his passions to screen.
indieWIRE: “Assassination Tango” is an amazing character study. John J. is extremely complex: He’s so tightly wound you never know when he’s going to spring, yet he’s full of love. How did you conceive of him?
Robert Duvall: A guy who does what he does for a living well and does it well enough so he can have time to do other things. There’s this scene with Ruben Blades, coming in from the airport. I just began to improvise and I built up this whole thing for my character without even thinking about it when I wrote it, how I fought in Korea and how the trade carries on into life and that’s what I do periodically to make extra money. But that’s a guy who wants to find a home after many years and settle down and have a wife and stepdaughter, but yet he has these jobs that he does. And he loves social dancing. When he goes to Argentina, he gets stuck there, much to his chagrin, but in so doing, he falls in love with the tango and wants to bring that knowledge back. It’s just about a guy who does what he does well. He does it well enough to have hobbies on the side.
iW: What was your inspiration for him?
Duvall: It was my interest in the tango that brought me to the whole thing: the music, Buenos Aires. How can I get somebody to Buenos Aires? For what reason? I wanted to connect Buenos Aires to New York through the social dancing. Somebody told me that one of the best mambo dancers they ever saw was a wise guy from Brooklyn. That’s the myth, that to be a better dancer it’s better to be from the underworld, which isn’t necessary. The guy who works at the bank can be a good dancer, but that’s the myth. In New York, too, it’s the guys from the neighborhood who are good swing dancers. So, I tried to connect the two just to see where it went. When I wrote it, I wrote it in a month and put it in a drawer and forgot about it for awhile until the right time was gonna come to work it out and try to sell it.
iW: With all that improvisation going on, I guess what we see on screen is very different from the script you wrote.
Duvall: I’d improvised with Luciana for about a year or more. If I was on a movie set, I’d put her with an actor opposite me, just to practice, to improvise, to learn the game. For instance, she has a two-year-old niece who’s so dear to her. We said, Okay, we’ll fictionalize your part so you have a daughter, we’ll make her real niece her daughter, and if she hadn’t had a niece, we wouldn’t have done that. You’ve got to grab things and use them and make fictional realities out of life’s realities. In the cafe scene, she decided the night before what she might ask me. I didn’t know what she was going to ask me. And she distanced herself from me very much that day, like she didn’t know me, so in that scene it was like a timid thing. It was like, What do we say next? How do I approach this guy? What do I think of her? We rolled two magazines of film and that was it. It wasn’t like coverage for hour over hour, over the shoulder, get the close-up, get the this. We rolled two magazines, went to the edit room, and got an eight-minute scene. We sent it to the powers that be, and they said, ‘Where did this scene come from?’ And I said, ‘This is the way I want to work.’ I don’t know if it was totally appreciated, but that’s the way I like to work.
iW: As a director, you create these amazing, extreme characters who must be so much fun to play. Are there parts of yourself that you identify in John J?
Duvall: He’s a guy obsessed with learning something new, a guy who wants to love a family, who’s never had a chance to love before, to have that sense of family, that sense of friendship and loyalty among friends. Those things are in me, so I just explore them. I’m not a killer, so the actual part of pulling the trigger was play-acting. That’s just play-acting.
iW: Was the entire film shot in Buenos Aires?
Duvall: Yeah, except for one aerial shot. We have a wonderful set director from Italy, and she designed it. It’s $50,000 a day to film there. It’s $100,000 a day here. We didn’t have a budget. We had six and a half million. What did they have for “Gangs of New York”? $110 million? They used 147 gallons of blood, and we used six thimblefuls. Look at that ratio! We only had x amount of dollars, so we had to shoot down there, which is alright with me, because I love it down there.
iW: Where did your love of Argentina and tango come from?
Duvall: It happened a few years back. It’s a wonderful hobby, and I kept going back and back, and I met my lady from there and I developed a script and everything and it’s an ongoing thing. We bought a home in the foothills of the Andes, an old Spanish colonial home, and fixed it up. It’s just a pretty neat city. When you sit down to eat, they serve you, rather than going into a cafeteria line on a movie set. They have a sense of style and very good crews there. The guy was so fast with lighting. We set the scene, we staged it, he said, ‘Okay, we’ll call you when we’re ready,’ and by the time I reached for my tea, he said, ‘We’re ready.’ It’s nice. I like to work fast. You don’t have time to sit around in your trailer, like in so many big movies, you sleep in between, and they knock on your door and say, ‘Okay here we go again’. It’s good to just move.
iW: What’s the difference between directing and acting for you?
Duvall: It’s all the same. It’s an extension of myself as an actor that I wrote it. It’s an extension of myself as an actor when I act. It’s an extension of myself as an actor when I direct. You know, I try to relax everybody like I like to be relaxed if I’m an actor. I try to direct other actors the way that I would like to be directed by a director, saying let’s start from zero without thinking of getting anywhere, in other words without thinking about the result. Let the process bring you to the result within time.
iW: What are some of your favorite moments from your career?
Duvall: I’ve had a long career. “Apocalypse” and then there’s “The Godfather” and when I played the Cuban barber in that movie with Richard Harris [“Wrestling Ernest Hemingway”]. One of my favorite parts was for television when I did “Lonesome Dove.” I just did another western with Kevin Costner, which is almost up there. He gave me a great, great part to play. The western is America’s genre. No one can do it but us. The English do Shakespeare, and we do Westerns. Spaghetti Westerns were okay, but it’s our thing.