Robert Duvall's Cinematic Take On Faith Robert Duvall has often made faith a character in his films -- whether as the driving force in The Apostle or more subtly in Tender Mercies. His new film, Get Low, is not religious per se, but many see it as highly spiritual.
NPR logo

Robert Duvall's Cinematic Take On Faith

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Robert Duvall's Cinematic Take On Faith

Robert Duvall's Cinematic Take On Faith

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Some call Robert Duvall's upcoming movie a mystery; some, a love story. For many, "Get Low" is about mortality, sin and redemption. The Oscar-winning actor seems drawn to stories about faith, but not to Hollywood's stereotypes.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty explains.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Robert Duvall's character looks ancient when he walks into a funeral parlor in a small town in Tennessee in the 1930s. Felix Bush has a long beard, weary face and wary eyes. He's a hermit, but in this scene in "Get Low," he ventures out to tell the funeral director, played by Bill Murray, that he wants a party.

(Soundbite of movie, "Get Low")

Mr. ROBERT DUVALL (Actor): (as Felix Bush) A funeral party.

Mr. BILL MURRAY (Actor): (as Frank Quinn) We can do that.

Mr. DUVALL: (as Felix Bush) And I want to be there.

Mr. MURRAY: (as Frank Quinn) You will be. I guarantee it.

Mr. DUVALL: (as Felix Bush) I want to be there now.

HAGERTY: Turns out, Felix Bush has a secret, one that has driven him away from his family, cost him his friendships, sent him into virtual exile for 40 years.

Mr. DUVALL: You know, when I prepared for the part, I tried to find a sense of solitude.

HAGERTY: I spoke with Duvall at his farm in Virginia.

Mr. DUVALL: And within that solitude, I'm sure he thought about powers that be, beyond us, and what's to come and so forth. But you don't set out to make a movie about that. You just let those things off-handedly lay there within the character.

HAGERTY: Duvall's character wants absolution. But unlike everyone else in town, Felix won't ask it of Jesus. As he puts it: I never did nothing to him. When he pleads with his old friend, a black minister, to speak at his party, Felix is rejected because he's shunned the traditional religious route.

Mr. BILL COBBS (Actor): (as Reverend Charlie Jackson) Youve come a long way for nothing.

Mr. DUVALL: (as Felix Bush) You self-righteous - you listen to me. I built my own jail and put myself in it, and I stayed in it for 40 damn years. No wife. No kids. No family. No nothing.

HAGERTY: That defiance matches Duvall's own philosophy.

Mr. DUVALL: Why does - on this side of the grave, why does a certain man or a preacher have that power to send me to heaven or hell? I don't buy that. So I think if there is a Judgment Day - if - it will be on the other side of the grave.

HAGERTY: Duvall pioneered this more understated approach to faith in his 1983 film "Tender Mercies." His performance earned him an Oscar and the enthusiasm of Christian moviegoers. His character, Mac Sledge, is a once-famous country music star who is broken by drink. He finds redemption - not in a fiery, born-again experience, but gradually through his love for the Christian woman who befriends him. Still, his newfound faith is tested by tragedy.

(Soundbite of movie, "Tender Mercies")

Mr. DUVALL: (as Mac Sledge) I dont know why I wandered out to this part of Texas drunk and you took me in and pitied me, and helped me to straighten out, married me. My daughter killed in an automobile accident. Why? You see, I don't trust happiness. I never did; I never will.

HAGERTY: His faith survives, but the movie never tells us why. That complexity shows up again in a character of Duvall's creation, a Pentecostal preacher named Sonny Dewey, in the film "The Apostle."

Here's Sonny when he discovers his wife is having an affair.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Apostle")

Mr. DUVALL: (as Sonny Dewey) Give her to me tonight, Lord. God-Jehovah, if you won't give me back my wife, give me peace. Give it to me. Give it to me. Give it to me. Give me peace. I dont know who's been fooling with me, you or the devil. But I'm confused. I'm mad. I love you, Lord. I love you, but I am mad at you. I am mad at you.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Duvall captured Sonny's passion and intimacy with God when he wrote the script for "The Apostle." He tried to sell it for 13 years and found no takers. So, he put up $5 million of his own money, and made the movie he wanted. Duvall says the big studios would have insisted on their stereotype of a Christian white male: judgmental, hypocritical.

Mr. DUVALL: And I felt that if I'd done "The Apostle" in Hollywood, they would have paid me a healthy salary to do something that would have patronized - and not really done it accurately.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Sonny is flawed. He's prone to adultery and violence. He kills his wife's lover with a baseball bat, and flees to rural Louisiana. But Sonny is also hugely gifted, passionate about God, likable.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Apostle")

Mr. DUVALL: (as Sonny Dewey) Now, listen to me now. There are angels, even in this automobile at this precise moment.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: In the opening scene, Sonny happens on a car accident. He grabs his Bible, runs to the car, and urges a young couple to accept Jesus. Then Sonny walks back to his car, where his mother is waiting.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Apostle")

Mr. DUVALL: (as Sonny Dewey) Pray with me, mama. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for my own witness.

Mr. DUVALL: I know that he got led astray at times, but always - basically, I wanted him to have - totally believed in his beliefs, always.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Sonny believes in angels, holy ghost power and for believers, a direct flight to heaven.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Apostle")

Mr. DUVALL: (as Sonny Dewey) I'm going yonder to heaven. I'm going to get up there and say, get out of the way, boon dog, get out of the way, sergeant. I'm on my way to heaven.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: I asked Duvall where he learned the Pentecostal style. After all, he was raised a Christian Scientist, where services are about as flamboyant as a toaster oven. Answer: Duvall visited black churches all over America, to the puzzlement of his wife, Luciana.

Mr. DUVALL: She finally said to me one day, Bobby, do you think we'll ever go to a white church - 'cause I love the black preachers so much. They're like the surrogate father for their community.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Race is at the center of one of the most powerful scenes, one that portrays the cost of faith. An angry, racist young man, played by Billy Bob Thornton, arrives at Sonny's church planning to mow it down because it's interracial. Sonny puts a Bible on the ground in front of the bulldozer. When Thornton jumps down to snatch it up, Sonny puts his hand on his shoulder, and the young man begins to cry.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Apostle")

Mr. BILLY BOB THORNTON (Actor): I feel embarrassed by it.

Mr. DUVALL: (as Sonny Dewey) Go ahead, brother, cry. I'll cry with you. I'll cry with you. Could somebody say, the holy ghost is here right now?

CROWD: The holy ghost is here right now.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The young man's tears, Duvall says, come from humiliation but also fear. What now of his world view, his tough guy image? The conversion has upended his life.

Mr. DUVALL: Yeah, because he was going against everything he ever believed in.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Duvall is reluctant to talk about his own faith. It's a personal thing, he says. But as he nears 80, he seems to be reflecting on death and life. He mentions his friend Horton Foote, the writer who gave Duvall his first major role - as Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird." He desperately wanted his friend to see "Get Low," but Foote was ailing. Then, something happened while shooting the pivotal scene when the old hermit is asking the people at his funeral party for forgiveness.

Mr. DUVALL: When I'm giving that speech, my wife, Luciana, is off camera. And she gets a phone call, a message saying that Horton Foote just passed away - during that scene. It was like full cycle from "To Kill a Mockingbird" 'til that point. He never got to see the film, but it was like he was there.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: It's an authentic, spiritual moment for him, and maybe it will find its way into a Robert Duvall movie someday.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.