“Talk and Listen, Listen and Talk”: Acting Tips From Robert Duvall’s SXSW Panel

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AUSTIN, TX: Robert Duvall, as you might expect, is a man of few words. He’s in Austin this week for the North American premiere of A Night in Old Mexico, a film that his Lonesome Dove screenwriter William D. Witliff had been trying to make for something like 35 years, so he joined film critic Leonard Maltin for an hour-long “Conversation with Robert Duvall” on Tuesday afternoon. And Duvall, while endlessly fascinating and full of kind words for his previous collaborators, wasn’t always forthcoming; most of his answers were short and simple, leaving Maltin to coax as many words of wisdom as he could from the 83-year-old actor. But he did occasionally get the legendary thespian to impart a few thoughts on his life’s work.

What’s most remarkable about the his late-period performances is how effortless they seem — when you watch him in something like Open Range or Get Low, it seems less a matter of acting than merely existing, harnessing a presence rather than just a performance. He told Maltin that this is the main thing he’s learned: “When you’re young, it’s harder to make things as offhand as you can do when you’re a little older. I think the best part of filmmaking is seeing a performance that you respect where somebody’s off-handed, even in the emotional scenes. They don’t punch it in an obvious way. So you try to learn that through the years.” It’s an ongoing process for him, since “I always wanted to think of myself in the potential of always trying to get a little better, trying to learn. Sometimes you learn, you lose some energy, so you need naps!”

Photo Credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire

In terms of maintaining that energy on the set, he likes to keep things simple. He recently acted in Billy Bob Thornton’s film Jayne Mansfield’s Car, their fifth collaboration in interchanging roles of director, writer, and actor, and with Thornton, “I love his theory: rehearsal’s for pussies, two takes, that’s it. Had to do that on this film too, we had to shoot the rehearsal, the lower the budget, you have to compact things.” But he prefers that to the endless takes on angles on big-budget productions: “Angles, this, this, it’s just… you can only use so much!”

But they key to acting, he says, is simple: “Just prepare yourself as best you can, and by the time you start, you’ve just gotta throw all that out the window. Just talk and listen, and listen and talk, just like we’re doing right now. Because for me, that’s the beginning and the end of it, acting is talking and listening. Very simple, but if you do it purely, if you do it purely and don’t cheat it, it’ll lead you to good surprises emotionally.”

Robert Duvall with Leonard Maltin. Photo Credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire

He also likes to work with non-actors whenever possible, “because once the non-actor steps across the line, they can put the professional actor on notice, if they have talent but no bad habits.” He used several non-actors in his acclaimed 1997 film The Apostle, which he both directed and acted in. It’s an experience he’d like to try again, “but it’s tough. You know, it’s easier to raise $100 million than $5 million.”

It’s sad but true — even for the actor who appeared in such acclaimed films as The Godfather, The Great Santini, and Apocalypse Now. And yes, he says, people come up to him all the time and quote the latter’s “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” line. But sometimes they fool him. “One time I was in a club in Dallas,” he recalled, “and I get recognized in Texas, a lot. So, I’m standing there, and a guy across the room catches my eye and walks towards me — as if he recognized me, and he’s the only guy in the place that recognized me, but he’s not gonna give it away. So he gets closer, closer, closer, he walks by, and he goes, ‘Terry Bradshaw!’”