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Robert Duvall: Hollywood’s Tanguero

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Robert Duvall press shot

Robert Duvall has fallen in love with all things Argentine, especially his wife, Luciana Pedraza, who he married in 2005. The actor, most famous for his roles in ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’, first came to Argentina to learn and explore the ins-and-outs of Argentine tango. He has made several films in Argentina, most notably, ‘The Man Who Captured Eichmann’ for TNT, and ‘Assassination Tango’ which he wrote, directed and starred in with his Saltean wife. In this exclusive interview with The Argentina Independent, he shares his opinions on the evolution of tango, the Argentine film industry and where to get the best gnocchi in Buenos Aires.

The reason you came down the first time was that you saw a production of the Broadway show ‘Tango Argentina’, is that correct?

Yeah. I got to know the guys there and their characters and I started coming down. My ex-wife was a dancer and she danced with one of the guys in ‘Tango Argentina’ professionally in New York. I liked tango, I liked the music and then began to like the city and the food and everything. Buenos Aires and London are probably my two favourite cities. I know most of the tango people and I saw the tango evolve down there.

How so?

From the club dancers that were put on stage in Tango Argentina, a very ethnic thing, to now, where it’s a much more sophisticated. I am not saying better, but less of a club and more professional stage performances. Salon tango is more like how the guys did it in the old days I saw in the clubs, dancing counter clockwise and ripping each other, criticising each other, you know. It’s an interesting culture. That’s why I went down because I like to tango. Eventually, I made a movie about it.

When my wife lived up in Jujuy as a young girl, she used to be enamored and intoxicated with trips to the big city of Buenos Aires with her sisters to stay with her grandmother. It was quite an event to go to the city. She was born in Salta, but grew up mainly in Jujuy in the north.

Have you visited up there?

Oh yeah. We had a hotel up there. We bought it, and my wife fixed it up – The House of Jasmine. We had it for three to four years. I loved going up there, but we haven’t been back in two years. She has her mother and family up there and I have quite a few friends in Buenos Aries.

When I think of you, I always think of a guy who is very comfortable in the country, but it seems like Buenos Aires as a city that calls to you.

I feel pretty good in cities. I like small towns in America better, but I do like Argentina. Maybe it’s because I am always a visitor. I almost feel like I belong because people are so nice to me and call out to me: “Ey gringo! Ey amigo! Ey I like your movies!” I like Buenos Aires because I move around a lot, I walk, I go to the restaurants.

Carlos Copello has a tango school right down the street from Carlos Gardel in Abasto. So we go out and hang out with him and have fun. The dancer Geraldin Rojas, she is one of the greatest. When she was six years old I used to go behind one of the doors of the Milonga Sin Rumbo and I’d practise with her. If I was up on stage, it’s all choreographed, but in the clubs, the choreography is immediate, in the moment.

I know that for your movie, ‘Assassination Tango’, your wife took lessons for a year in order to be able to dance. Were you her teacher?

No. I introduced her to Pablo Veron who’s great and in the movie. And I took her to a guy in Rosario, who’s since passed away, but had a wonderful style and I said :“Help get this girl ready,” and he did.

Assassination tango

What can tango offer the North-American man?

Well, for me it’s a hobby. I didn’t grow up with it, but on a good day, I can do a pretty good tango. There’s always a learning process, but it’s just something I felt a kinship to when I got into it. ‘El principio es caminar‘ – the walk is everything. You can learn a figure in five minutes, but it takes ten years to learn how to walk well.

Do you have a favourite milonga?

I haven’t gone in a long time so, I don’t know. I used to go to Sin Rumbo, which was really nice. I liked to go down and dance at Copello’s place. Canning is good. I used to go a lot – constantly, constantly. There are so many good young dancers now. There was a guy from Italy who got eighth in the world championship, who said, “let me tell you something, you coming down here and wining the tango championships is like somebody going into Texas and trying to win the Cutting Horse Championships. It’s going to be very difficult to do.” Although a couple of guys from Japan and Columbia have done very well, the best are still Argentines. I really enjoy watching the world championships. Four years ago there was a couple from St Petersburg who where just terrific. They should have scored a lot higher than they did. They were great. Elegant in the salon tango, but then when they tried to do the choreographed tango, it got too slick.

How is the bi-cultural lifestyle, with your wife being Argentine in the United States and you being American and coming down here?

I fit in alright. I think because I’m an actor it helps. My wife goes down to visit her people in the north and in Buenos Aires and her grandmother’s from there and her four sisters. Her father jumps off the Andes and hang-glides with Condors – he’s a character this guy. She’s younger than I am so when I met him he said: “Well, I don’t know whether to call you father or son.” Her grandmother, Susana Ferrari Billinghurst, was the first female licensed pilot in Argentina. Her grandfather flew the first flight from there to Australia. He flew the president before Perón. So, they’re kind of an interesting family that moved from Buenos Aires up north.

You and your wife met in Buenos Aires?

Yeah, we met on the street. If the flower shop had been open, I wouldn’t have met her. I was going to the bakery, but everything closes on Saturday afternoon and I came out and we started talking and we met there. I was down there working on [a role as Adolf] Eichmann. I came back a couple of weeks later to visit her and she didn’t think I came back to see her, which I did. It was the sole reason I went back.

Was it love at first sight?

There was a definite attraction, she’s a very sharp woman. I put her in a movie, and [Francis Ford] Coppola wanted to know why she hadn’t acted before. Acting students stop her on the street and say: “My acting teachers said I should go see you to study acting, see what you did in that movie.” We did a lot of improvising because she couldn’t learn an English script. And her two-year-old niece played her daughter, which was like an emotional cementing for her. It was nice seeing her in the movie. The crews are very good. The cameraman, Félix Monti, he’s so fast, when you say, “Okay, set this scene”, by the time you grab your tea, he’s ready, he’s with it. It’s unbelievable.

Robert Duvall in Apocalypse now

What do you see are some of the differences between the Argentine film industry and American film industry?

Some would say that they’re more subtle, which they’re not. The good films here are subtle and the good films there are subtle. It’s good to be so far away from us to have to get their own style. Like in Australia. If you’re too close to Hollywood, you begin to emulate it, so they’re far enough away that they find their own expression. And they have some really good actors down there. You know Darín is great.

Is there anything that you find frustrating about Argentina?

All I will say is that you do need a good lawyer down there when you do business. But, I really enjoy it down there and I am accepted on whatever level. I do prefer the corn-fed beef that we have up here, whereas they have the grass-fed beef. They do like their barbeques a lot.

Do you prefer asado or barbeque?

I like both. I do favour some of the asados on the ranches down there. I like how they only put salt on the meat, no marinade. And great salads. When you go to Mirasol, they have that complete salad, which is so good. The Italian food is alright, it’s not as good as in Italy, but the pizza’s terrific. And what I really like better than any other is the gnocchi. If you go over to Filo they have good pizza and the best three-cheese gnocchi. And La Guitarrita is a really good pizza place too. Good Spanish food too.

Where else do you hang out when you are here?

Mainly right there in Recoleta at the hotel near La Biela. That’s my favorite corner in the world. I go there a lot. Tourists go there, but also a lot of locals. Borges used to go there as well.

Before you go, can you talk a little bit about your charity work down here…

Well, that’s really my wife’s doing. She can talk about that better, but we help out the children of northern Argentina, and with Pro Mujer to help local women get going with their small individual businesses. We do it on our own level. When you see the reward of things being done it’s really nice you know, and her father Luciano helps with building homes in Argentina with the money that comes in. He helps refurbishing old buildings for families. There is some pretty amazing poverty up there and we help as best we can.

I don’t ever want to leave the country here, but I enjoy my time in Buenos Aires so much. We almost bought a place in the city. We love to go to the polo championships and visit Adolfo Cambiasso on his ranch. I know him a little bit, he speaks English, is a good guy. Culturally, I love to go there. Anything with tango or polo I love to watch.

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- who has written 830 posts on The Argentina Independent.


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