We catch up with one of our all-time favorites as he goes south of the border in Bill Wittliff’s A Night in Old Mexico.

Think of it as a labor of love that took an exceptionally long time to gestate.

At some point before the 1988 production of Lonesome Dove — both men admit they’re a bit fuzzy when it comes to recalling the precise date — Oscar-winning actor Robert Duvall and producer-screenwriter Bill Wittliff discussed the possibility of filming A Night in Old Mexico, Wittiff’s original script about an aging Texas rancher who opts to enjoy one last blast south of the border.

The subject popped up again during a conversation they had shortly after the 1989 telecast of Lonesome Dove was a ratings smash. Looking back, Duvall says he liked the script — a lot — but thought it was “too soon” for him to play a character he viewed as “a descendant, in spirit, of the guys in Lonesome Dove.” (Besides, how was he going to top the role he’s called his Hamlet?) So Wittliff agreed that he and Duvall should wait “a little while” before collaborating again.

That “little while” stretched into 25 years.

This past March, at long last after several false starts, Duvall and Wittliff — along with director Emilio Aragón and Colombian costar Angie Cepeda — were finally able to present the world premiere of A Night in Old Mexico at the SXSW film festival in Austin, Texas. Audiences greeted it with full-throated roars of approval.

Making the absolute most of a vividly written role that fits him like a well-worn pair of boots, Duvall moseys through the movie at a deliberate but determined gait as Red, an irascible old coot who’s seriously peeved because the bank has seized his property and plans to divide it into “ranchettes.” Indeed, when we first meet him, Red is so irritated by what he sees as God’s indifference to his predicament that he threatens to play Russian roulette with the Almighty. (Fortunately, Red is aiming the gun at a wall, not his head, when he fires a live round.)

His agitation only increases when he takes his first look at the trailer park where he’s supposed to spend his twilight years. As far as he’s concerned, that simply won’t be an option: “I ain’t livin’ in no damn tin can.” And don’t even try to suggest that he check in to a nursing home. “I’m more scared of somebody spoon-feeding me oatmeal than anything else in this world,” Red rages.

So Red more or less takes his cue from the Dylan Thomas poem quoted during the opening credits and decides he won’t go gentle into that good night. Instead, he takes the wheel of his Cadillac, puts the pedal to the metal, and heads to Mexico for what likely will be a final vacation.

Fortunately, Red does not have to make the journey alone. Gally (Jeremy Irvine of War Horse), the early twentysomething offspring of Red’s long-estranged son, shows up to pay an unannounced visit to the grandfather he’s never known. He arrives just in time to accompany Red on his road trip and to help the old man maneuver through a loose-knit story line — involving hit men, stolen money, and a lovely young singer named Patty Wafers (Angie Cepeda) — that owes more to Elmore Leonard than Larry McMurtry.

Filmed primarily in and around the border town of Brownsville, Texas, A Night in Old Mexico offers Duvall a welcome opportunity to tear into a juicy lead role like a famished ranch hand devouring a heaping helping of chicken-fried steak. But there’s more than just crowd-pleasing excess to his richly amusing, Oscar-worthy performance. Duvall is just as effective, and arguably more endearing, during those quieter moments when Red suggests regrets, behaves honorably, and, when dealing with ladies of all ages, conveys courtliness.

In short, A Night in Old Mexicowhich receives a limited theater and video-on-demand release beginning in May —showcases Duvall’s finest performance in his best film since Get Low, the 2010 indie drama in which the acclaimed actor memorably plays Felix Bush, a Depression era hermit who rejoins society only to plan his own funeral. It was shortly before the release of Get Low that Duvall last sat down for an extended chat with Cowboys & Indians. So when we met him again at the SXSW film festival, two days before the launch of A Night in Old Mexico, we thought we’d do some catching up before we settled down to the topic at hand.

Photography: W. Ben Glass
Photography: W. Ben Glass

Cowboys & Indians: So what have you been up to lately?
Robert Duvall:
I just worked with Robert Downey Jr. in a big movie — really big — called The Judge [slated for this fall]. Maybe the biggest movie I’ve done since Apocalypse Now. But you know, you do smaller films, and television, too, and it’s all the same: “Action!” and “Cut!” You just try to find where the interesting parts are.

I always say you can plan certain things. But then other times, certain surprises come around the corner. So then you put what you planned on hold. You say, “I’m going to do the surprise.” [Laughs.] Of course, this one, A Night in Old Mexico, has been coming around the corner for years.

C&I: You and Bill Wittliff really have been talking about this project for a long time, haven’t you?
Duvall:
Yeah, for more than 25 years, we’ve talked about it. And Bill was working on it way before that. Through the years, Dennis Hopper was going to direct it at one point. And then a few years ago, there was a French guy here in Austin that was going to direct it. And my crazy friend Danny Davis, as he got into the car with [the French director], he threw a pistol onto the seat, and the director sat on the pistol. He yelled, “Danny is a gangster!” And then [that director] disappeared. Finally, [Emilio Aragón] came along — a Spanish guy. He had the money. And he loved the script. So I guess that shows the story has a universal appeal.

C&I: What kept you fascinated with the project for so long?
Duvall:
Well, it was always hanging there, always in the background. And then it didn’t work out with Dennis Hopper; it didn’t work out with the French director. But, I don’t know, Red is just a wonderful character. And it’s a sweet movie. No gratuitous sex, no gratuitous violence. It’s a nice tale with humanity and humor. A tale that needed to be told. And it finally came into being.

But, you know, we only had 23 days of shooting. Twenty-three. On the thing I did with Downey, we had 60. At least. And now they’re doing re-shoots. The money they’re spending on the additional shots for [The Judge] is more than our budget [for A Night in Old Mexico]. It’s crazy. But we had to do it in 23 days, so we did it. It was kind of like, now or never.

C&I: You play a rancher in A Night in Old Mexico. But I think some of our readers will be disappointed not to see you on horseback again. Do you get to ride much these days?
Duvall:
Not really. Once I’m up there, I’m OK. I’ve been riding horses in Virginia recently — bombproof horses — but I do need a stool to get on them now. Once I’m up there, I do pretty good, as long as the horse is OK. But, you know, they’re not machines. I’ve had broken ribs, everything, over the years when I’ve fallen off horses.

Photography: courtesy Phase 4 Films
Photography: courtesy Phase 4 Films

C&I: You still seem pretty hale and hearty at 83. And it’s obvious you haven’t lost your enthusiasm for acting.

Duvall: It’s like I told [legendary acting coach] Sanford Meisner way back when: I always wanted to think of myself as having the potential of trying to get a little better. Trying to learn, you know? But when you get a little older, and you lose a little energy — well, you need naps. My father, a military man, said a nap is an equal strain on all parts. My wife, when she first came to this country, she’d say, “Bobby, let’s take some snaps.” And I’d say, “No, naps.” You try to compensate when you start to lose things in some areas.

Photography: Courtesy Phase 4 Films
Photography: Courtesy Phase 4 Films

C&I: You’re justly famous for getting inside the skin of your characters, to the point where it seems like you’re just being, not acting. How do you prepare for a role?
Duvall:
You always have to find the contradictions. You always have to find the vulnerability within a guy. Like, the final speech I have in Get Low, with Sissy [Spacek], we did it in one take. I improvised a little bit within the given script, to touch things off so to speak. But when I first got ready for the film, we were in northern Argentina, my wife and I. And what I did was, I looked at the Andes — just looked at those Andes — and let them work on me. The loneliness of those mountains just worked on my mind.

So there are different ways to prepare for different roles. And sometimes, you don’t really need to work. With Lonesome Dove, all I did was just look at the script, and I went with it. Each part is different. What you always try to do is find what’s in you, legitimately, that parallels what the script calls for. That’s got to be something in you, not something that’s out there.

C&I: After The Judge, what’s next on your agenda?
Duvall:
There’s nothing looming now, but you never know. I was supposed to do The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with Terry Gilliam. He came to my farm in Virginia to talk with me about it. He’d seen me play a Cuban barber in Wrestling Ernest Hemingway. I’d worked very hard on that part, and I guess he remembered it. But once again, it’s a question of money. I did tell him, “Terry, if we do it, I don’t want too many dwarfs running around me.” [Laughs.] He always seems to have dwarfs running around in all his movies.

C&I: Anything else?
Duvall:
Well, I hope the Don Quixote project will get done. But you never know. I’m also working on a project of my own I’m trying to get going. A family project with some Texas Rangers — they’re helping me. But, you know, these days in the movie business, it’s easier to raise $100 million than $5 million. And you know, you send something to some of these young actors [and] they never get back to you. Some of them don’t have manners.

C&I: When you’re not working, where do you and your wife like to spend your vacation time?
Duvall:
We don’t go for many vacations. But last year, we spent three months in Wellington, Florida, where they have the big show jumping tournaments. I love show jumping. Show jumping and American football are my two favorite sports. Wellington is interesting. That Breakers hotel down there is wonderful. A beautiful world-class place, right by the beach.

C&I: Where else do you like to travel?
Duvall:
I love Texas. Let me tell you my favorite Texas story. My wife and I were driving from Austin to the Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap. We’ve done it twice. And twice, she made the wrong turn. So now we’re going down the highway, headed toward Waco. And I tell her, “You’re going the wrong way.” And she comes from a family of race car drivers in northern Argentina, so she’s going about 90 miles an hour. It looks like there’s nobody else around. And then, all of a sudden, here comes a state trooper. He pulls us over. And he starts to say, “Ma’am, do you know how fast ... .” And then he sees me, and he goes: “I don’t believe it! Lonesome Dove! Follow me!”

So we follow him back to where we should have turned. He gets on the phone, calls his wife and kids, and they come out to meet us. We talk, we take pictures, this and that. And then he tells me, “OK, this is the way you should go.” And before we left, I made a joke. I said, “If we cross that double line, you’re not going to give me a ticket, are you?” And without losing a beat, his wife said, “Well, if he does, he won’t be allowed in my bed tonight.”


From the July 2014 issue.

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