Written, directed by and starring Robert Duvall, The Apostle (1997) is one of the Hollywood legend’s most personal films. The renowned actor reflects on the film with STACK ahead of its Special Edition release on Blu-ray.

With films like The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and Falling Down to his name, Robert Duvall is arguably one of the most highly regarded actors in Hollywood. When his extensive filmography is broken down, the common theme throughout is religion. Whether it be his performance as Major Frank Burns in MASH, Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove, or his Oscar-winning turn as Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, faith clearly plays an important part in his life.

The one film that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor – and continues to resonate some 24 years since its release – is The Apostle, the story of a Pentecostal preacher from Texas whose life takes a dramatic turn after he kills a man in a fit of rage. Settling into a small Louisiana community, he assumes a new name and sets up a new church.

Speaking exclusively with STACK, Duvall reflects on the initial release of The Apostle and what it meant for him to not only star in the film, but to also direct it.

“I didn’t know [initially] how it was going to be. You know it’s hard enough to just be an actor, but I found it not difficult at all doing both. I kind of liked doing both, you know, because I had control and it was my vision – and my money, actually. I went forth that way and it worked out okay.”

As for the concept of a preacher being on the run for murder, Duvall contemplates where that particularly powerful motif came from.

“I don’t know how I came up with that. It was my imagination and, you know, piecing [the script] all together. I came up with that because no matter what you do, I guess in that form of religion, for the sins you exhibit or do, there’s always forgiveness.”

Perhaps The Apostle’s pivotal moment is when Duvall’s character performs a full conversion on a local racist redneck, played impeccably by Billy Bob Thornton, who appeared in the film out of gratitude for Duvall playing his father in Sling Blade the previous year.

Billy Bob Thornton in The Apostle

While already charming, Duvall’s demeanour lifts even more at the mere mention of Thornton.

“We are buddies from a distance,” he says. “I have a great respect for him. Billy Bob; yeah, he’s a great guy. Great guy! Very gifted. They call him the hillbilly Orson Welles,” he adds with a smirk. “You can put Tennessee Williams in the back seat.”

The sheer scope of Duvall’s filmography is flabbergasting, from his debut in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), to George Lucas’s own debut feature THX 1138 (1971), all the way to the urban warfare of Colors (1988) and high-octane action of Days of Thunder (1990). But of all that he has accomplished, he regards The Apostle to be amongst his best and most personal films.

“If I think about it, that would come to my mind. Yeah, if I really thought about it, it would be up with my important ones.”

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When asked what he regards to be his favourite work, Robert Duvall reveals it’s the sprawling 1989 western melodrama Lonesome Dove.

“It’s my number one,” he says with considerable enthusiasm. “As far as character goes. You know they made me an honorary Texas Ranger [in 2011], which are still in existence down there.

“At the award, some woman came up to me and said, ‘We watch Lonesome Dove every year in Texas as a family unit, and I would not allow my daughter’s fiancé to marry into the family until he’d seen Lonesome Dove,” he recalls with much amusement.

And with a sense of pride and spirit in his voice, he adds, “You know I was in two of the biggest film phenomena of the twentieth century, and I was fortunate. The Godfather 1 & 2 and Lonesome Dove. I went to the dressing room [during Lonesome Dove] one day and said, ‘Boys, we’re making The Godfather of Westerns!”

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