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Southern Man

Robert Duvall on his new film Get Low

Since he capped his glory decade of the 1970s with Apocalypse Now and The Great Santini, Robert Duvall has averaged one iconic starring performance per decade, shoehorned in among supporting roles in films of wildly varying quality. (I hope he got paid a lot for Four Christmases and Kicking and Screaming.) In 1983 there was Tender Mercies. In 1997, The Apostle. To that list you can add Get Low.

Based on a true story that took place in the 1930s in Tennessee, Get Low stars Duvall as Felix Bush, a recluse who retreated to his cabin in the woods 40 years ago. He has outlived most everyone who ever knew him, and he is known to the residents of the nearby town only through stories made up by kids he chased off his land.

One day he comes into town with an odd request. He wants to arrange for his funeral. But not any ordinary funeral: He wants to hold it now, while he is still alive. He wants everyone who has any kind of a story to tell about him to come. And to entice as many people as possible, he offers to raffle off his land holdings, a large tract of valuable timber land.

The plot of Get Low is not surprising: Bush is a man with a guilty conscience and a secret he wants to get off his chest before he dies, to make his peace as best he can. The beauty of the film comes in Duvall’s performance, in conjunction with co-stars Sissy Spacek (as an old beau), Bill Murray (as the funeral director), and Bill Cobbs (as the preacher who knows his secret). As directed by Aaron Schneider, it’s a gorgeous mood piece, capturing the uncertain candlelit light of an era when electricity was still a luxury. (Schneider is a former cinematographer making his feature debut after winning an Oscar for his short film, the William Faulkner adaptation “Two Soldiers.”)

Discussing Get Low during the film’s press conference at the Toronto Film Festival last September, Duvall offered his interpretation of the film’s title. “I think it means, ‘Get down to your savior, to your beliefs,’” he said. “Before you have to answer to wherever you’re going to go, you have to get down to the basics. Before you get under the earth, you’re still above the earth, although you’re down low in a humble way.”

Duvall praised the script as an original idea with a unique character, and one that brought to his mind the work of a writer who looms large in his career.

“It reminds you a lot of our deceased great writer Horton Foote,” he said. “I’ll tell you a very interesting story. The day we [filmed] the funeral service, my real wife was off to one side. When they brought the casket on the movie set, as the camera was rolling and I was getting ready to give a speech, she got a phone call about Horton Foote’s death at that moment. It was very spooky, almost like full circle, because my first part in a movie was in To Kill a Mockingbird [which Foote scripted]. It was almost like he was there witnessing it. It was very, very spiritually unique, that moment.”

Even though he was born in San Diego, Duvall clearly has the South in his blood. (Literally: He’s a descendant of General Robert E. Lee.) The film’s value to him seems to be in the authenticity of its Southernness.

In development for nearly a decade, Get Low started to come together, Duvall said, when the producers “went out and found Charlie Mitchell from Alabama. He’s a true Southern writer, which is very important to this whole project—somebody from the South, not from Minnesota or Montana or Ontario. Charlie Mitchell put the final fringes and touches on it that were so wonderful and necessary as well.”

Regarding his young co-star Lucas Black, who plays Bill Murray’s assistant, Duvall said, “He’s a very natural actor. Other people tried out [for that role] were good, but he was very unique and special for this because he’s from the Deep South, and has that wild accent—I never heard an accent quite like that, except maybe one of the drivers had it. He’s very suited for this kind of material—it’s part of the way he was bred.”

And on a proposed film about the Hatfields and the McCoys (“the definitive American tragedy”) which he may appear in, Duvall said, “The director [Crazy Heart’s Scott Cooper] said no New York actors will be allowed to be in it. Below the Mason-Dixon line, you better understand what’s below there, to be specifically from that region first.”

Duvall may have cut his teeth acting on the New York stage—he studied under Sanford Meisner along with Dustin Hoffman—but he has no complicated theories of his craft. “It’s all about talking and listening, listening and talking,” he explained. “That’s the beginning and the end of acting. Like we’re doing right now. You put that in an imaginary set of circumstances, which sometimes appears easy, but it’s not necessarily easy to be simple, is it? But that’s the beginning and end of it all, I think: to be simple and real and from yourself as the character—yourself turned a certain way.”

Like all independent films, Get Low had trouble raising a budget in a climate where all the money goes to retreads and remakes. Duvall shrugged that off as a fact of life, though one particular such film on the horizon bemuses him. “Now I hear they’re going to do a remake of True Grit. That’s quite an undertaking, to fill John Wayne’s shoes.”

Watch the trailer for Get Low

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