Barbequing with Legends: Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek on Cinema, Cinephilia and Good-Looking Shoes

Coal Miner’s Daughter. In the Bedroom. Badlands. Carrie. 3 Women. Crimes of the Heart.

These are among some of the key films that would shape my future as a writer, each in its own way emblematic of my overall experience as a cinephile, and each in possession of a separate quality that would eventually inspire me to study gender and film. Their common denominator, the glue that holds them together, so to speak, is that each features a singular performance by Sissy Spacek.

When I saw the trailer for Aaron Schneider’s new film Get Low I dared to dream a little and fantasized about how Spacek might make the ideal subject for PopMatters‘ first Performer Spotlight Series. Knowing that the actress lived far outside of the conventional industry circles and didn’t do many interviews, I didn’t take into consideration that if I could, by some small miracle arrange an interview, that I would actually have to meet her or at least talk to her.

Film: Get Low

Year: 2009

Director: Aaron Schneider

Cast: Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs



Image: me, Spacek is a powerhouse of talent not unlike another hero of mine, a woman who is one of her few true contemporaries: Jessica Lange. These are the kinds of artists who are elusive, elegant, gifted and versatile; steering a career, a family and a body of work in a business that is so often preoccupied with looking forward that it often cruelly overlooks its past. Like Lange, Spacek has remained distinctly herself in a business that often asks women to hide themselves, successfully integrating her own magnetic personality into a blisteringly extensive range of unforgettable characters for four decades. “It is a fact, and not hyperbole, to state that she is without doubt one of the greatest screen actors of all time,” said director Todd Field via email.

Once the interview was confirmed, I lived in sheer terror, revisiting these films and reliving these wonderful formative movie-watching experiences and anticipating the meeting. To me, Spacek’s performances in the films we have looked at all week in this series, and in such wonderful depth, were an integral part of my own first memories of loving movies. I remember watching Spacek opposite Lange and Diane Keaton in Crimes of the Heart and right on the spot falling in love with actresses in a profound, Pedro Almodovar kind of way.

Somehow, I now find myself interviewing the people I admire most in life, and I seem to stumble into these anxiety-inducing situations more and more frequently, coming face to face with these legends, and trying to just not hyperventilate. Inside, I am screaming “Oh my God, you know David Lynch!” like a total movie geek.

Spacek, who won the Oscar for her iconic performance as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter is a six-time Academy Award nominee (Carrie, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Missing, The River, Crimes of the Heart and In the Bedroom) and was most recently seen (justifiably, hysterically) calling Bill Paxton a “douche bag” during her electric stint on HBO’s Big Love, for which she deserves to win the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series.

To add extra schein to this already impossibly fever-dream like day would be an added twist: I would be simultaneously talking with Robert Duvall, Spacek’s Get Low co-star and a living legend in his own right. In case you haven’t been to the movies in the last 50 years, Duvall has appeared in such pictures as Francis Ford Coppola’s classics Apocalypse Now and The Godfather (Parts I and II), Sidney Lumet’s Network and The Apostle in 1997 where he directed himself to one of the most galvanic filmed performances of the entire decade. Duvall, also a six time Oscar nominee (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Great Santini, The Apostle and A Civil Action), won the Best Actor Oscar for his work in 1983’s Tender Mercies as Mac Sledge, a broken country crooner. The actor was most recently was seen supporting another performer playing a country singer, Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, to another iconic Oscar win.

No pressure!

So, I schlepped from the woods of Western Massachusetts to the Upper East Side of New York to see what was happening with two of America’s finest living actors. Walking into the suite where we are to meet, the familiarly lilting quality of both actors’ voices put me at ease before I even saw their faces. Then, almost immediately, we began an introspective conversation about how the film industry has evolved since they started working, what Oscars really mean, and ended with what it was like for them acting with supernovas like Anne Bancroft and Marlon Brando.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they also both sang a little. As is my custom when doing interviews, I was ridiculously over-prepared with questions, themes, and seriousness, but instead found myself just kind of laughing and shooting the breeze about cinephilia with two of the foremost authorities on the subject. Duvall and Spacek have a lot to say about movies, so why should something like prepped questions stand in the way of such effortless chemistry that is present both on and off screen?

Like any good fairy tale, our story begins and ends with the power of good shoes.

Spacek, looking smart, tailored and wearing chic little round black sunglasses throughout the interview (“I’m not dressed for uptown” she joked), immediately noticed my black and white boots when I walked in. They complemented her own black and white shoes perfectly. As she grabbed my hand firmly, greeting me with a warm smile, Spacek put her comparatively tiny foot next to mine to highlight the similarities of our footwear and to trade compliments. A shoe moment with Sissy Spacek is a pretty damned fantastic ice-breaker.

And then we were off, and I felt caught in a thrilling whirlwind of cinema history.

Robert Duvall: (shaking my hand) Where are you from?

Matt Mazur / PopMatters: Detroit originally, but I live out in the woods in Western Massachusetts.

Sissy Spacek: Oh, isn’t it just great living out in the woods? That must be so good for your writing!

PM: It is, but it’s also great to come to the city and wear nice shoes.

RD: Bobby Bare! (enthusiastically, singing) “Last night I went to sleep in Detroit city…” You know that country song?

PM: (nods)

SS: Michigan is the happening state [for film production]. They’ve got all the good tax benefits there. Like, number one.

RD: Texas is terrible.

SS: It used to be good.

RD: No! It used to be five cents on the dollar and now it’s eighteen cents! You have to go to New Mexico to work.

SS: Or Michigan. Or Georgia. It used to be you made films where they were set and they became a character. But what filmmakers don’t realize, until they’ve finished the film, is what the cost of making a state appear to be like the state that it’s set in uses up all the extra money. (Mischievously laughing) But of course, what do I know?

RD: You might go to the governor of the state, let’s say Virginia, and they might let you do one [film] as an example, with rebates and then maybe that will set a precedent or maybe not. Maybe they would do one. Somebody brought that up and I thought it was worth a try.

SS: Virginia is trying. I think all states are starting to go ‘Oh, wait a minute. I want a piece of that pie.’ Michigan is smart.

RD: Rather than film it in Canada, do it here.

PM: Have either of you filmed here in New York? I couldn’t imagine how difficult that must be.

SS: My husband [production designer extraordinaire Jack Fisk] has. It’s hard! It’s not hard for the actors, because you just show up!

RD: I did one a couple of years ago here and then years ago, of course, The Godfather was done here.

PM: (laughing) Of course!

SS: It’s very hard for the production designers. It’s hard getting around. It’s hard to make them in Los Angeles, too.

RD: Then you have Toronto as New York and that kind of doesn’t [work]… Chicago and Toronto kind of look alike. But New York is New York.

SS: Well, that’s out of the realm of my expertise. My husband knows all about that.

RD: I’m sure he does, big time! Even though he wouldn’t do this one! We tried to get him, but I think we have a good look.

PM: Well, that’s funny, because there was something about the movie that reminded me of Raggedy Man [Fisk’s 1981 directorial debut starring Spacek]. Maybe it was the fairy-tale tone.

SS: Really?! It could have been the 1930s. I’m so glad you saw Raggedy Man.

PM: It’s one of my favorite performances of yours.

RD: (with a Czechoslovakian accent) The great Sissy Spa-check! How long ago was that, Sissy?

SS: Well, I had no children, so it must have been about 28 years ago.

RD: Was that the only one your husband directed?

SS: He directed two [the second is Violets are Blue, which is unavailable on DVD].

RD: Does he want to do more?

SS: You know, he loves doing production design because he doesn’t have the headache. When he comes on, there’s already a film, it’s a go. He loves working with really awesome directors who let him do what he wants to do and he doesn’t have to deal with all the you-know-what. I won’t say it!

PM: So this is kind of a particular treat for me because you’re both Oscar winners for playing country singers.

SS: That’s right! We should get a bus and go on tour!

PM: I was wondering if maybe each of you could recall a favorite moment from the other’s film?

SS: Yes! (to Duvall) In Tender Mercies where you’re standing in the window with your back to the camera, talking. That to me is one of the great scenes, ever. I go back to that image of you at the window all the time.

RD: With her, she’s so much like Loretta Lynn. It was wonderful.

SS: She’s an amazing person.

RD: And she was around as an informal adviser on the film?

SS: She basically cast me.

RD: (in disbelief) What?!

SS: She was going on every talk show and saying I was going to be in the movie and I was like [balling her hands into fists and shaking them in the air, in a determined tone] ‘I am not going to do that movie! I haven’t said yes to that.’ But she was saying I was going to do it, and I hadn’t even met her. She picked my picture out of a stack of 8”x 10” glossies. I don’t know if she had ever seen my work. So I said ‘OK, I’ll go meet her.’ The day before I met her, they hired a director who told her all the reasons why I should not do the film. Because I didn’t look like her!

RD: Who said that?! The director?

SS: The director who they’d hired, who will remain nameless.

RD: He didn’t direct it?

SS: He did not end up directing it.

RD: Then why should he be nameless?

SS: (laughing) Because I can’t remember his name!

RD: You can tell me later!

SS: (laughing) But anyway… He was a good guy and he had a point. In fact, I met with him a few days later and he threw down a Time magazine with Loretta’s picture on the cover and said ‘this is what we’re up against.’ And I said ‘You’re right, I shouldn’t do this. Absolutely!’ And when I walked out of the room, all the executives were outside asking ‘Well?’ and I’m like ‘He’s right, I can’t do it.’ And they were like ‘nooooooooo!’ (laughing)

RD: Well who did he want, her?

SS: He wanted someone who is a fabulous actor

RD: Who?

SS: I won’t say.

RD: Why?!

SS: I’ll tell you later! She looked just like her. She was a wonderful actress, a very talented performer.

RD: Well, why didn’t they take her then?

SS: (laughing) I don’t know! They wanted me! I have no idea! They wanted me and I didn’t want to do it.

RD: (teasing slyly) I’ve never had any parts like that. ‘Oh, I don’t want to do it’/’Well, please do it!’ I’ve turned down some things, but you know…

SS: There was another film that I wanted to do that had the same start date. A Nicolas Roeg film that Theresa Russell, a fabulous actress, did. I said to my mother-in-law ‘What do I do?’ She said ‘Well, ask the man upstairs.’ I said ‘Jack, let’s go for a drive…’ I didn’t know what to do. She said ‘Ask for a sign’ and I said (looking up to the heavens) ‘OK, you hear this?! I need a sign, give me a sign!’ She lived in a high rise in Washington D.C. and we go down to the basement, and we get in her big white Cadillac. She did not like country music, but she had left her radio on a classical station that at night was a country station. So we’re in the car and the garage gate goes up – and I swear to God this is the truth – we pull out and on the radio was Loretta Lynn singing (Spacek sings in her Lynn voice) ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter…’ And I went ‘stop the car! I got the sign!’ (laughing) And then I called and said ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’ Is that crazy? I haven’t gotten any signs since then, it was the last sign I got. We’ve got to ask for signs more often.

PM: Speaking of signs, one of the most definitive moments of cinephilia happened for me while watching Crimes of the Heart at a young age. The film was an integral part of what made me want to seriously study gender and film. How does working with a predominantly female cast differ from working with a predominantly male cast like on Get Low?

SS: You know, it was great because we had all of our babies there; Jessica [Lange] and Diane [Keaton] and me, (to Duvall) and your friend Tess Harper [Duvall’s Tender Mercies co-star], who played cousin Chick.

RD: My friend? I haven’t seen her since, darling.

SS: (without skipping a beat) We had a main house, where we shot the film and they bought the house next door and made it into our dressing room. So, it was a beautiful thing because we were all together and we had our children there and it was really fabulous. But I loved working with these guys. I mean, Robert Duvall and Bill Murray? You never would think of these two together.

RD: It’s kind of what made the movie work, though.

SS: It’s just so amazing! They were like the anchors in the film. It was great, I loved it. Its fun being the only woman. The answer to your question is they are very different, yet equally wonderful.

RD: Don’t forget that young man from Alabama, Lucas Black!

SS: Oh, yes, Lucas Black! He’s just a darling young man.

RD: (laughing) He’s got such an accent you need subtitles for it!

SS: Is that where he’s from, Alabama? I’ve worked in Birmingham [on The Long Walk Home in 1990]. They have a lot of Southern etiquette, you know?

PM: And great barbeque!

RD: I like Texas barbeque better but I hear it’s good there, too!

PM: You’ve both worked with Robert Altman, one of my favorite directors.

SS: (to Duvall) What did you do with Robert Altman?

RD: Well, M*A*S*H* and I did that astronaut movie [Countdown, in 1968]. He’s very loose, gives you a lot of freedom.

SS: Everybody has a mic [on an Altman set]. I loved working with him.

RD: What did you do with him?

SS: I did two films with him, one he produced called Welcome to L.A. [1977, directed by Alan Rudolph] and I did 3 Women that he directed and I just adored working with him.

RD: Who were the other two women?

SS: Janice Rule and Shelley Duvall. And that was a really interesting film to work on. He was lovely.

RD: Duvall? She was in that movie around the time you did the one up north, Badlands, and she did one down south with Altman, which was a very good movie. Thieves Like Us.

SS: It was wonderful.

RD: (laughing) I liked Badlands, too!

SS: At the same time, Steven Speilberg did the film with Goldie Hawn, The Sugarland Express. All three of those movies were about couples on the run.

RD: That woman, she didn’t like that one, either. Pauline Kael, she didn’t like Badlands. She ripped Tender Mercies, just ripped it. City people, city people. I didn’t read it, but I heard about it. She didn’t like Raging Bull, either. Come on!

PM: That’s just plain crazy.

SS: You know, art is subjective. I remember that. You know, I’ve always thought – and please correct me if you think I’m wrong and take it with a grain of salt – but I think a film is a film is a film is a film. You know? It is, to each person, something different depending on their life. And if you read reviewers, which I like to read reviewers through the years, you really learn more about the reviewer. If you see the film, you have your own idea about it but you start to learn about the reviewer and that to me is the most interesting thing when you are reading reviewers who are really astute and intelligent. I think she was a really great writer but some of the films she loved, I thought were really bizarre, so it is only natural that the ones she didn’t like would be bizarre, too.

RD: I remember for The Godfather we had a party at the St. Regis the first time we came out. (Looks at Spacek) I won’t mention the name (laughs) but a famous director with a cigar came over and said ‘You boys were wonderful in this movie but I don’t know about the movie.’ And this guy never made a movie that even approached Godfather one or two. It’s about subjectivity and envy.

PM: And criticism today gets even more complicated, I think, with the intensely competitive blogs and websites, because everybody is so desperate to be first to get the information out there that often they don’t care about getting the facts straight.

SS: Well, it’s hard to make a name for yourself. We were just talking about, as far as for actors, about all of these new cable stations, its so much better for actors with all the things you can do. I would imagine for a writer, on one hand, there are more venues, there are more things that you can write for, but it’s like this mad race, its like there are so many people writing just like there are so many people acting. It’s hard, now.

RD: Going into the 21st Century, young people don’t want to be writers or novelists, they want to be filmmakers, actors, directors. It’s like the in medium. You go to every country, like Iran is wonderful. You ever see that movie The Apple by the 17-year-old girl from Iran, Samira Makhmalbaf?

PM: Yes!

SS: Was it a feature?

RD: Yes! They mixed reality with fiction and we were supposed to meet several years ago and talk but the Iranian government said ‘No, you can’t.’ Her second film, Blackboards, was about people walking around with blackboards, roving teachers, who do their lessons walking around with these blackboards. She’s a very talented girl. When we showed Get Low at San Sebastian last year, they put me into a room and said ‘This is an Iranian director and she’s on the jury’ and she must have thought I was trying to score points (laughing). I said ‘Yeah, there’s a great film called The Apple.

SS: And it was her?!

RD: (nodding) And she said ‘That was me!’ I said ‘where’s my wife, I want you to meet her!’ She must have thought I was nuts!

SS: Well, you are.

RD: So, each country has good filmmakers. We were in Cuba recently and I said ‘Anybody who picks up a camera can make a movie’. You don’t have to be from Hollywood! A producer said ‘We have the best directors, the best actors and the best of everything.’ And I said ‘Whoa! Wait a minute!’ Name me one director in Hollywood, in the history of Hollywood, who has made a movie like My Life as a Dog! Name me one! And he couldn’t. I saw that twice in two days, that movie. I saw The Hurt Locker twice in one week. Did I love that movie. This is a lady director [Kathryn Bigelow], who went over there and used three cameras, running constantly, 16mm, filming constantly. And the young kid in it, Jeremy Renner, was terrific. What a movie. It’s easily up there with Apocalypse Now. Maybe not as grand, but it’s my favorite movie of the decade.

SS: It’s about something real.

PM: What is most intimidating about having to act opposite somebody like Marlon Brando or Anne Bancroft? How did you get over your nerves when you had to do a scene with these legendary actors?

SS: I loved working with Anne. When we met, we knew we were working together, so she was just so warm and gracious. We became very close on ‘Night Mother. I was very nervous going into it but the instant I met her, because of the great artist that she was and the great lady that she was, any fear or trepidation fell away. We were great friends and one of her dearest friends moved to Virginia, and she introduced us and now she is one of my dearest friends now, so she gave me her best friend and that was a great gift.

RD: Well, with Brando, on The Chase, I went into his dressing room and we talked and it was nice. And then we talked on the set. But that was it, he would never say ‘Good morning’, he’d walk by, knowing you would want to meet and he was like… a bit of a prick (laughing). He knew what you wanted! It was great! Gene Hackman and Dustin [Hoffman] and I used to go to Cromwell’s Drug Store – I don’t know if it’s still here – every day, practically and if we mentioned his name once, we mentioned it twenty five times! This was years ago, because, you know, he was the godfather to the actors. Afterward, when I did The Apostle, I sent him a copy and he sent me a letter back and I have it on my wall.

PM: What did the letter say?

RD: It said a lot of nice things. I almost like it better than my Oscar.

SS: I heard a story about him once, that in his later years he wore a little earpiece and he had somebody telling him the lines over it.

RD: Absolutely!

SS: And that one day he was going over the lines with somebody, his assistant, we’ll say her name was Louise, and he said ‘Don’t act it Louise! Just say it!’ Can you imagine? Acting the lines for Marlon Brando?

RD: (laughing) Once he tried to remember a joke Jimmy Caan had told him twenty five years ago! Working with Jimmy Caan on that set was so much fun, you never knew what was going to happen. So, it was great working with Brando because we respected him. He’s gone but not forgotten. Well, almost forgotten.

SS: (emphatically) Oh no!

RD: Well, you never hear people mention him anymore. I’m telling you, once you’re gone, it’s like ‘what’s next?’ That’s what I find.

SS: Well, the movie-going audience is very young. And they’re the ones who support cinema.

RD: I thought Steven Hill was great in the studio, a terrific actor. He came out of the movie theater and he was walking down the street and he saw Brando and said ‘I just saw you in Viva Zapata and you gotta do a helluva lot better than that for me!’ That’s what he told Brandooooooo! (cracking up)

SS: (screaming with laughter) No!

RD: I’m serious! He was a terrific actor, too. He was Lee Strasberg’s favorite. He put a rope around his property so his kids wouldn’t wander off from the house and became a Hasidic Jew (laughing). He was in Horton Foote’s play, the one that’s off-Broadway now. There was a movie called On Valentine’s Day and he was terrific in it! He played a wacko. He was terrific.

SS: (to Mazur) Have you ever had an interview like this?

PM: No!

SS: (to Duvall) You should write a book.

RD: I don’t know, about the best barbeque?

SS: (cracking up) Yes! Where to get the best barbeque! You could have that as a chapter.

RD: Better steaks here [in New York City] than in Argentina! Oh yes…

SS: He’s got stories. I could listen to him forever.

RD: And I met the greatest cowboy in the world, possibly. Trevor Brazile. I said to an Argentine once, he was saying ‘we have the best everything,’ ‘do you have anyone in your country that can rope and tie a calf in seven and a half seconds?’ And the guy thought for a second and said ‘well, we don’t need a clock to measure our manhood.’

(laughter all around as I say my goodbyes and begin to exit)

RD: (As I am walking out of the hotel suite, loudly, to Spacek) I don’t know whose shoes I hate more, yours or his.

PM: Hey! I can still hear you!

RD & SS: (uproarious laughter)

SS: Well, I love your shoes. And I love mine, too!


Sony Pictures Classics’ Get Low, starring these two amazing performers, opens 30 July in limited release throughout the US.