In case you haven’t been paying attention to limited release movies aimed at an older audience, “Get Low” is one of the year’s real success stories. My pretty negative review, notwithstanding, I’m surprised but not upset that the movie is doing as well as it is, both commercially and critically. These days, it’s nice to see a movie with a coherent story, at least, doing well. As for its star, Robert Duvall, being an apparent lock for an Oscar nomination, I can hardly complain. This may not be even close to being his best performance, but it’s a very good one and he’s a national treasure at this point. That’s how these things work sometimes.
“Get Low” stars Duvall as Felix Bush, an irascible and sometimes frightening hermit who contracts with the mildly rapacious local mortician (Bill Murray) to stage his funeral while he’s still alive. Though Bush says the funeral is to hear what people think of him while he’s still alive, it’s clear something in his past is disturbing him. Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek) is a former girlfriend who may hold the key to some of that.
Arriving right on time for the press conference, I saw that things weren’t quite ready and decided to grab a quick (and free) beverage. Looking over the soft drink selection in the hospitality area, however, I turned around and saw a serenely patient Sissy Spacek beaming at me and, before long, talking to me as if I were an actual human being while looking so good I was slightly stunned. As her assistant smoothly parried my lame request to turn on my digital recorder for a brief impromptu interview, she asked that I inform the public that she, at least, had showed up on time for the event. I was too charmed to do anything else but comply with the wishes of the luminous star of “Carrie” and “In the Bedroom.”
Mr. Duvall, it turned out, was only a couple of minutes late and the event started before I could make a proper drink selection. It was immediately apparent that Spacek and Duvall get along quite well and enjoyed joshing each other in front of reporters. (They last appeared together in 2008’s “Four Christmases.”)
The first questioner asked about what preparations there were beforehand to arrive at the onscreen chemistry he saw between Duvall and Spacek.
“We really didn’t have any rehearsal,” Spacek said. “I think Bill and, Aaron [Schneider], the director, and I read through the script together. We ran lines on set, occasionally, just so we’d remember things, but we didn’t really rehearse. This man comes in prepared.”
“No, no. If you’re not prepared,” Duvall replied, “take one is a rehearsal…I don’t think you have to rehearse necessarily. Take one is the rehearsal, but sometimes take one is the one they use, too. Different strokes, I think.”
“I came thinking, ‘I’m going to watch Bobby and see his process,'” Spacek said, “but you can’t see it. It’s invisible.”
“Well, especially with writing like this. It helps to make it invisible. The writing is so good in this. The structure, the script, the myth, the tale. The Southern tale is so beautifully written, you just go along with it,” Duvall said.
The next question asked about the characters and how they resonated with the actors. You might expect actors to focus on the characters they themselves played, but Spacek went in a different direction.
“I really loved Felix Bush. He’s a peculiar character. He’s funny and he’s deep. I’ve often felt like Felix Bush, wanting to what I call ‘go to ground’ and just get away from the maddening crowd. Not for 40 years…”
“Not even 40 days,” added Duvall.
“Well, 40 days would be good,” Spacek said. “The thing I loved about [the screenplay] is that I didn’t think ‘Oh, Mattie is this character I have to play,’ it was the piece really that pulled me in. It’s a very lyrical story. When I was reading it I just never knew from page to page what was going to happen. I guessed a couple of times, and I guessed wrong. I’ve known people like that. I grew up in a rural area and I live in a rural area now and there are people that their personas are very expansive, like Felix Bush’s character.”
“Somebody said today that there was kind of a mysticism to some of the way things went,” Duvall said.
The next questioner suggested that in some ways Felix Bush was a “companion piece” of sorts to Duvall’s famed film debut as Boo Radley in the classic film version of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“I disagree. Many people say that — they’re both hermetic guys, but this guy [Felix Bush] could have been a lawyer, a teacher, a doctor and that guy [Radley] was a little off mentally. [Bush’s] hermetic life is an arbitrary thing he chooses. I think the writing is a little bit like Horton Foote, who made the adaptation of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ They’re both hermit guys but very different.”
After more praise for “Get Low,” it was time to discuss newer projects for Duvall and Spacek.
“I’m leaving this weekend to do, ‘The Help,'” Spacek said. Duvall hadn’t heard of the project, but it’s an adaptation of the bestselling novel that will also feature Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard and Alison Janney.
“I’m leaving tomorrow to go to Texas to make a film called “Seven Days in Utopia” with Lucas Black, who’s pretty much a scratch golfer,” said Duvall. “Usually, golf movies — I haven’t seen too many of them but I don’t think [the actors] can really hit the ball [usually]. This kid is a legitimate golfer.”
Another question asked Duvall about his ability to make very simple lines resonate in a way that other actors might not be able to do.
“You just go with it. It’s very specifically written that way by the two authors and especially Charlie Mitchell came in later from Alabama to put the final touches — embellishments, and also in the structure. You just went with it, you know… The writing just kind of takes you. You think about the character and you daydream about the character — day and night. You just kind of let it happen. The writing is beautiful but there’s nothing that makes you feel foreign. It just takes you.”
The next question was about the fact that, as with “Get Low,” Duvall has sometimes worked with first time directors. “It’s okay [to work with a first time director] — it might not be okay if it’s the 50th time he’s directed,” he said.
Duvall went on to describe how films often have a certain amount of disagreement as the film nears completion. “You kind of stake out your ground. It should be a collaborative thing, and it can be. Sometimes if there are differences and there’s conflict, that can be better, sometimes, than if it’s 1,000 percent harmonious. That can end up dull, sometimes.”
Then, finally someone asked about working with Bill Murray. Much of the press chatter as the film opened derived from Murray’s characteristically quirky/impolite approach to promoting “Get Low.” Apparently without explanation, he had failed to appear at the press day held the day before this press conference. (Coincidentally, I was present at a later roundtable interview with actor Luke Wilson in which the topic of Murray’s odd approach to promoting “Get Low” came up, an exchange picked up by Time Magazine.)
Duvall was positive but direct. “It was good working with him. He added a lot of stuff and between takes he would play music on the set. Crazy, different types of music. He was always on the present, in a pretty good way, I think… I think he came on a little bit later, but he heard about the project. He doesn’t have an agent or anything and they finally got it to him. He responded, he really wanted to do it… I don’t know where he is today. He never showed up in L.A.”
So, 50 years after “To Kill a Mockingbird,” what does Robert Duvall think about this whole business of being a movie actor?
“I’ve had a wonderful career. Had I only worked with Horton Foote and Francis Ford Coppola, I would have had a wonderful mini-career, but I’ve had many other opportunities as well. Horton was a friend — how many friends do you have for 50 years and stay friends? I have two or three. It’s been a good career, it’s been varied.
“I haven’t done theater since I did ‘American Buffalo’ on Broadway. I like film. I figure certain film projects you could do on stage anyway. I don’t like to do things eight times a week. It’s like eating steak every night. You get tired of it. I always like to think of myself in the potential. There’s stuff left. Even as we speak there’s stuff left.”
What about preparing for roles?
“It depends on the part,” said Duvall. “Sometimes, you don’t prepare much. When I did ‘Lonesome Dove’ way back, I rode horses day and night for like three or four months. This part, we spent Christmas in Northern Argentina with my wife’s parents and her family. I would just sit in this little hotel studying the part, looking at these beautiful Andes mountains and it gave me a sense of solitude and a kind of peace, a kind of rumination. There are many ways to approach it. Some simpler than others.”
“Exactly like Bobby said, it depends on the role,” Spacek said. “For ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ I went to Nashville and worked with Loretta [Lynn] and her producer and her band. One movie, they set up a real kitchen for me in a location. I was playing a farm wife and I baked pies and bread all day and the crew — I had ’em eating out of my hand. I could say when we were shooting, ‘Could you move that light?’ ‘Oh, you made that good cherry pie. Sure I will.’ On a film that Tommy Lee Jones directed I learned to ride side-saddle.”
“She [sings] better than I do, but when I did ‘Tender Mercies’ down in Italy, Texas and all those towns. Waxahachie… ‘Waxa-by God-hachie’ we called it. I got up and sang with the local bands and see the people two-steppin’ by you and everything. Hopefully there’s not a fight breaking out in the back. You do that as your homework too, you know,” Duvall said.
“That’s one of the beautiful perks. You get to do these things that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to do and people help you. It’s great. I learned to make strudel on a table where you rolled it out on the whole table,” Spacek said.
“Jack of all trades, master of some,” Duvall added.
Then it was this humble reporter’s turn to ask a question, and I followed up on the theme of rural roles (though I had a hard time pronouncing the words “rural roles”). Apart from the accents, what was different about portraying the kind of country-based characters Duvall and Spacek have played as opposed to more urban-roles in films like “The Godfather,” “Network” and “Missing”?
“Oh, they’re different,” Duvall begin. “I don’t think that can be explained, but they’re different. Billy Bob Thornton wants to direct ‘The Hatfields and the McCoys.’ He said, ‘no New York actors allowed below the Mason-Dixon line.'”
“That is true,” the Texas-born Spacek added. “There’s something about Southern characters…”
“Maybe an English actor might be better than at it than a guy from New York as a Southern guy,” Duvall interrupted.
Ms. Spacek was somewhat doubtful. “Maybe. I wouldn’t sell those New York actors short.”
“When I played Robert E. Lee in ‘Gods and Generals,’ we brought Bob Easton back, this great dialectician from Texas. They said they wanted a Virginia accent. He said there were 12 distinct Virginia accents from the Piedmont to the coast, black and white. Many different accents. You just kind of have to hit on a flavor sometimes rather than just going for an all-out accent,” Duvall said.
“I think people are people,” Spacek said after a bit more back and forth about the numerous accents of the American South. “The human condition is the human condition, and what we try to do is illuminate the human condition. I think people in the North and the South and the East and West and anywhere they come from are just as interesting. They’re humans, they have the same realm of emotions that we all have. But I’m just more drawn to the Southern character and the different types. Southern literature is so lyrical and so wonderful…”
“And the music too,” Duvall interjected.
“And the music. I’ve been so fascinated with that. When I first started working as an actress, I thought ‘I am going to break the stereotype, the Southern stereotype. We’ve gotten a bad rap. I don’t think I did it alone, but…” she paused, getting a laugh from the room.
“There are so many different Southern accents,” she continued, only to be interrupted again by Duvall — the pair were starting to seem like voluble members of the same Southern family. (Spacek is Texan born and bred; Duvall, however, was born in San Diego — hey, it is Southern California — and grew up largely in Maryland.) “When I was in the army, I bunked over a guy that was a Virginia farmer. Then, for some reason, we changed companies. A month or so later, I bunked over a guy that was a potato farmer from Maine. They both were very rural guys. The potato farmer from Maine was almost related to the speech from old England, but they both were interesting guys and both rural guys. If you could capture either one on film it would be wonderful.”
“It goes back to the story,” Duvall continued, “a guy drove in a car service in New York. He said, ‘You know, when I was in the deep South in the army in the hills, all those guys, the hillbillies in the creeks and the mountains, here and there,’ he said, ‘they constantly outscore the New Yorkers on the aptitude tests.’ Interesting.”
“How did he know that?” Spacek asked.
“He was in the army. I don’t know if it was a generalization or it was specific to him. Hollywood sometimes tends to patronize the interior or the United States. Horton Foote used to say, the great Texas playwright, that a lot of people from New York don’t know what goes on beyond the South Jersey shore.”
Did Duvall and Spacek think there was any difference in the body language?
“I don’t know if you can break it down that way. Maybe. Somebody did some research recently about if you bump people in a schoolroom, guys from the South were quicker to fistfight than guys from the North. Now, I don’t know…”
“Well, part of it is cause people from the North are used to getting bumped,” Spacek interjected. “It’s crowded where they are.”
Then, as the moderator tried to move on to the next question, Spacek had a new idea.
“I think maybe part of it is that the South is so hot that people are pushed to their limits.”
“Yeah, but the hottest I ever felt in my life was Chicago, Illinois — when all those people died in that heat wave… I’ve been in Houston, I’ve been in the Philippines, that’s the hottest I’ve ever felt. I don’t know why.”
“Maybe it’s because they weren’t serving sweet tea.”