Actor Robert Duvall's got many memorable roles, but he's looking forward to more

The Washington Post's Patterson Clark sketches actor Robert Duvall with the iPad.
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2010

Everything Robert Duvall says, whether it's about meeting his wife or doing a play or making a crab cake, tends to turn into a yarn worthy of a Robert Duvall movie.

Ask him about "Get Low," the quiet Depression-era drama opening locally Aug. 13, in which he plays an eccentric recluse who stages his own funeral, and he'll wind up talking about the mule in the movie, a championship animal that hails from Front Royal and can "pray, go to the mailbox and play the piano" (and also rear, the only stunt required of her this time out).

Ask him about working with Sissy Spacek, who plays something of a love interest in the film, and he explains the proper pronunciation of her name ("Spa-check. It's a Texas-Czech thing"), notes that they live not far from each other on farms in Virginia, then ends with a disquisition on the joys of properly cooked meat.

"One thing I like about Argentina, they only cook with salt; that's it."

And that leads to a story about how he met his wife, Luciana Pedraza, on the street in Buenos Aires while filming the TV movie "The Man Who Captured Eichmann" in 1995. "Eichmann got executed in Israel and I got her," Duvall quips mischievously. "She's much younger than I am," he adds. (Duvall will turn 80 in January; Luciana is 38.)

"But we have the same birthday, January 5th. When I met her father he said, 'I don't know whether to call you Father or Son!' " Duvall -- in a natty jacket and blue oxford shirt that makes those familiar eyes even more piercing -- speaks in a self-interrupting, Southern-inflected shorthand that recalls his folksiest characters.

After perusing the menu at Fahrenheit, the Ritz-Carlton restaurant in Georgetown, he orders a Caesar salad and tap water. It's a sweltering day and Duvall has spent the better part of it doing press for "Get Low."

The movie, directed by first-timer Aaron Schneider, takes its inspiration from the real-life story of Felix "Bush" Breazeale, who lived in Tennessee in the 1930s. Duvall plays Felix Bush, an old-timer who, bedeviled by rumors that have swirled about him for years, asks the local funeral directors (played by Bill Murray and Lucas Black) to stage a service so he can hear the stories told about him firsthand.

Duvall, who dons an Old Testament-worthy beard through the first part of the film, delivers a performance that is being praised as Oscar-worthy. And in many ways Felix eerily echoes Duvall's big-screen debut as Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird" nearly 50 years ago. Duvall became close friends with "Mockingbird" screenwriter Horton Foote, and they went on to work together on several films, including "Tender Mercies," for which they both won Oscars.

When Duvall got the "Get Low" script, by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, he told Foote about it. "I kept saying, 'It's a lot like your films, with a little more edge,' " Duvall recalls. In March 2009, while he was filming "Get Low's" climactic scene, word came that Foote had died.

"It was like full circle for me, it was so spooky," the actor says. "But I think he would have liked 'Get Low' a lot."

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