Talking and Listening

Photo: Steve Pyke

’Sit down,” says Robert Duvall, “we’re talking about homicide.” That is, Duvall is talking about homicide with his publicist (who soon leaves). I’m just trying to keep up as anecdotes about folksy southern lawyers transition to a story about a recent trial in Waco that Duvall and Willie Nelson attended on behalf of their friend, 70-year-old country singer Billy Joe Shaver, who shot a man in the face in 2007. And soon we are discussing not homicide but Sissy Spacek, who is due to join us at BLT Steak, and Virginia, where they both live, and in particular the Virginia-area subject of the New Yorker article “Peter Chang: The Disappearing Chef,” whom Duvall is determined to find. “He’s at a restaurant two weeks, and he just leaves!” he says. “My wife and I went to Charlottesville, where he was supposed to be, and he was gone. I don’t know how to track him down. I love Chinese food.” Duvall asks me to recommend a Chinese restaurant. “Someone told us to try Grand Sichuan. Eh. You know what? It’s no better than P. F. Chang’s! The best stir-fry I’ve had is in Vancouver. The worst was Hamilton, Montana. Hamilton, Montana!” He looks up, grins. No pause. “Get over here!”

Spacek has arrived. “Hi! How are you?!” she says in her sweet Texas lilt, tenderly clutching Duvall’s arm. He brings her up to pace: “We’re talking about that Chinese chef in Virginia.” “I know. We’re gonna find him,” says Spacek, clearly familiar with the subject. They make quite a pair: Spacek, 60, tiny and sparrowlike, and Duvall, 79, with his slicked-back hair and penguin’s breast of gravitas. She calls him Bobby, and the two deliver mind-bogglingly fast, overlapping volleys of remark and response. “Talking and listening, what we’re doing right now,” says Duvall. “That’s acting.”

Last winter, Spacek and Duvall spent 24 days “talking and listening,” as such, in the woods of Georgia—albeit with costumes and scripts and the warming presence of Bill Murray—while filming Get Low. The title is southern slang for getting buried, and the plot is based on the true story of an angry Tennessee hermit named Felix “Bush” Breazeale who decided to throw himself a giant “funeral party” in 1938. Murray’s character, a harmless but shady funeral director, and Spacek’s, a widow from Felix’s past, are both made up. (Murray and Spacek’s budding romance, unfortunately, was cut in editing.) The movie is wonderfully understated, but the important sales pitch is that it stars Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, and Sissy Spacek, none of whom is indiscriminate in picking film roles. Duvall is already sparking Oscar talk. “I do my own dancing, my own horseback riding, my own singing, and my own chopping of wood in all my movies,” he says proudly. “In this one, I drove my own mule.”

Duvall and Spacek, who have never worked together before, met in 2003, when they presented an award to Julianne Moore (Duvall: “Who’s that?”) at the Film Independent’s Spirit Awards (Duvall: “We did?”). They’re not politically aligned—he’s a staunch conservative—but they live 80 miles from each other and share a love for the South, Texas, and Horton Foote. As actors, they came into their own in the seventies, Spacek with 1976’s Carrie, and Duvall in The Godfather, in 1972. They each spent early years in New York. Spacek sang folk songs in clubs like the Bitter End; Duvall, who famously palled around with Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman, worked as a postal clerk and a dishwasher. “We all had aspirations,” he says. “I never see these guys who had aspirations, Hackman and Hoffman. I never see anybody I used to know.”

Conversation turns to Bill (Murray)—discussed by first name, like Sam (Shepard), Jessica (Lange), and Jimmy (Caan, Duvall’s closest remaining friend from “those days”). Spacek and Murray met back in 1977, when she hosted SNL. Duvall only knew Murray’s work: “I loved him in Coppola’s daughter’s movie.” On set and off, Bill was reliably Murray-esque, playing loud music during emotional scenes, for example. “Rap or something,” says Spacek. What kind of rap music? “I don’t know! It was horrible. The man is just crazy,” she says with affection.

The waiter approaches and we realize we haven’t thought about food. We’re in a steakhouse, per Duvall. “This guy, he is a meat-eater extraordinaire,” Spacek declares. She describes a dish she had at Pure Food and Wine the night before: “It’s a vegan restaurant.” “What kind?” he asks. “Vegan. No meat.“ “No meat? Sissy! You’re turning into a hippie on me!” “Too late,” Spacek replies.

Get Low
Opening July 30.
Sony Pictures Classics.

Talking and Listening