Passion led Duvall to make tango film

April 30, 2003|By Roger Moore | Roger Moore,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MIAMI BEACH - You'd never know it to look at the work - often quiet, introverted, built on small moments. But Robert Duvall is an actor ruled by his passions.

It doesn't reveal itself in every job. He's still a sucker for anything with a horse. He's related to Robert E. Lee, so he ignored doubts he had about playing Lee in the flop Gods and Generals. For every Tender Mercies, combining his love of country music with his favorite screenwriter, Horton Foote, Duvall will have to play a cop (Falling Down) or icon of evil (Adolf Eichmann, Josef Stalin).

At 72, the dean of American screen actors has become something of a late-in-life Olivier, taking work in films such as John Q, Gone in Sixty Seconds and The Sixth Day, just to act and collect a check.

But when he signs his name to something, you can be sure it is because he's wrapped up in it, heart and soul. Duvall carried the idea for his Oscar-nominated film The Apostle around for 30 years before filming it. He met a rodeo family in Nebraska and taught himself to direct because he wanted to tell their story in We're Not the Jet Set.

And now, he's found a way to put tango, his abiding passion of the last 15 years, on the screen. Assassination Tango is "about a loner, a killer, but a man who falls in love with the tango," Duvall says. The movie (which has not opened yet in the Baltimore area) taps into Duvall's obsession with the stylized Argentine dance, folded into a routine story of a New York hit man who shows up to kill a retired Argentine general.

"I just like the grace of the dance, the whole setting," he says during lunch at Miami Beach's National Hotel. Looking more like a 50-something movie star than your typical Florida retiree, Duvall is shy, soft-spoken, modest, a little hard of hearing and gracious when a patron or a restaurant manager interrupts his meal.

Tango "has been an ongoing thing for me," he says. "I've had to go back to Argentina to feed this thing, 38 times!

"You go down to Buenos Aires, my favorite city in the world, and this guy will show you something. And some other old guy will come up and go, `He doesn't know anything about tango. Here's the way it really goes!' They argue the dance, they debate it. They're passionate about it. I love that."

Duvall can relate to that passion. It took him years and a lot of his own money to bring the $6 million Tango to the screen. He indulges himself with the movie. Though he is credited with the script, much of the dialogue is improvised. He cast Luciana Pedraza, his live-in love, as his co-star. She found herself sharing the stage with the man routinely described by critics such as Leonard Maltin as "the most gifted actor to grace the screen."

Acting legend

Duvall is that rare star character actor, someone not necessarily seen as leading-man material, but a character lead. The quiet, efficient and coldhearted family lawyer in The Godfather, the bullying military father in The Great Santini, the unforgettable Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now - the roles weren't just career-builders, they were pieces of acting legend.

He was a bitingly cynical reporter in The Natural, the blustering but kindly father in Rambling Rose and, most interesting, an aged Miami Cuban in Wrestling Ernest Hemingway. In his Oscar-winning turn in 1983's Tender Mercies, he was an alcoholic country singer finding his way back to the light.

Duvall pursues the small moment, the telling bit of business - a thoughtful stare out a window in True Confessions, a baleful glare into a side mirror on a pickup in A Family Thing.

Pedraza knew a little of Duvall's reputation before going up to him and introducing herself in Argentina in 1996. She was 24, beautiful, confident, "but I didn't know who many movie stars were. I grew up in northern Argentina. That helped our relationship, because I wasn't that impressed with his fame."

Pedraza says she fell for Duvall's "charisma. You can feel it, even on the screen. That really got to me, when I first became a fan of his. I wanted to be a part of that world, that imaginary world."

"Once nonprofessional actors get to a certain level, where they're comfortable and forget about the camera, I think they're good enough to put professional actors on notice," Duvall says. "They don't have the bad habits, the egos. If they come from the world you're trying to depict on film, they give an authenticity to the film. You know they're real. You can feel it."

One scene in Assassination Tango illustrates Duvall's approach. It's at a restaurant where the tango is danced.

"It's a mix of professional actors and just real tango dancers," Duvall says. "Tango puts them in front of an audience, so they've always been in front of people. They're just natural on camera."

"He doesn't patronize people," Pedraza says of Duvall. "He doesn't insult them. He tells them what he wants, and there it is. Even untrained actors want to give it to him, because of who he is."

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