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May 23rd, 2019

Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jr Interview, The Judge

TheRobert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. share the screen for the first time as father and son in “The Judge,” a riveting story of two men – Joseph Palmer (Duvall), a powerhouse judge in a small Indiana town, and his estranged son, Hank Palmer (Downey), a big city defense attorney. The two collide and reconnect when Hank returns to his childhood home for his mother’s funeral and finds himself defending his father against murder charges. Opening October 10th, the family drama features a stellar ensemble cast that includes Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, and Dax Shepard.

At the film’s recent press day, Downey, Duvall, Thornton, Farmiga, Strong and Shepard talked about their collaboration on the first Team Downey film, the powerful scenes Downey, Duvall and Thornton shared together, why Duvall fondly refers to Thornton as the hillbilly Orson Welles, the casting of great actors to play the complex roles, the humanity Strong brought to his portrayal of Hank’s younger brother Dale, how Farmiga’s character was the heart and conscience of the film, Dax’s approach to playing a small town lawyer, what Downey learned from Duvall, and how vulnerability and humor in the serious scenes helped the film mirror life.

Here’s what they had to say:

QUESTION: Mr. Downey, how does it feel right now with this amazing cast?

ROBERT DOWNEY JR: It’s really nice. The only thing more fun than making a movie with Bobby Duvall is promoting a movie with him. It’s been great to see folks welcoming him up on the stage.

Q: For Mr. Duvall and Mr. Thornton, you guys have been friends for a long time and worked together many times before. What was it like being able to work together in this film and having that great courtroom scene together?

BILLY BOB THORNTON: (Joking) I had 111 scenes in the movie and now there’s only like 3 left. No, it’s all there. Well, it was great. It’s always great working with Bobby. He’s been my friend and mentor for many, many years, and this is the first time I’ve had to prosecute him. So, I think probably the hardest part was overcoming. One of the big things for an actor to get over in a movie is when you know somebody very well. You’ve got to forget who that person is. I knew that I was going to have to get in his face and that kind of thing, so it was a real challenge, it really was, just to forget who was sitting there. At the end of the day, I think I just put my own father there and did it that way.

ROBERT DUVALL: He was great to work with. I won’t tell him what I call him because it gets repetitious, but he’s terrific.

DOWNEY JR: What do you call him, Bobby?

DUVALL: (Laughs) The hillbilly Orson Welles. I won’t say it anymore, but I’ve been saying that for 18 years. It suits him because way back many years ago when Nikita Mikhalkov, the great Russian director, came, I said, “I want you to meet somebody.” So I get Billy Bob from Malvern, Arkansas and Nikita Mikhalkov from Moscow. It’s just two big talents meet. We sat for two or three hours and talked. It was great. He’s the real deal, this guy.

Q: Mr. Downey, there’s a real complexity to this character as far as emotional ups and downs. Can you talk about finding all those highs and lows? Also, do you think that maybe lawyers need a little bit of actor to them, too?

DOWNEY JR: Yes, I suppose. I’ve always heard the great lawyers, and Bobby was telling me about some of those he knows, they’re showmen. They’re these really dynamic, powerful women who command respect wherever they go, but they also know how important the jury is. Basically, when we were developing this, I just kept thinking about the characters. I was thinking about we have to have a guy that the judge wants instead of Hank, and we thought of C.P. Kennedy, and then we got Dax. I thought there has to be this gal that was his first love who’s still kind of his conscience and represents the heart of the movie. That has to be a struggle and there has to be a twist in there that’s kind of funny and heartbreaking, and she has to be able to read his beads. Dobkin always said that the Judge has to be a mountain that Hank can’t climb, and he doesn’t want to, but if he can’t climb it, his soul is at stake. Bobby Duvall is a mountain and Joseph Palmer is a mountain and that’s how that worked. And then, it’s like in a superhero movie, you’re only as good as your bad guy, and I was thinking, “Who’s the person I really would not want to go up against if they were prosecuting a case?” (looking at Billy Bob Thornton) And he’s right there. And then, we thought about if there was someone in the film who’s really taking the emotional hits for all of this conflict, we have to find someone who is such a gifted actor that they can do next to nothing and communicate everything that’s unsaid in the film. And that’s this guy we’ll be getting to see a lot of and expect great things from, Jeremy Strong. So really, Hank’s whole journey has to do with the people that he has to contest with, and who helps and who challenges him.

Q: Speaking of Jeremy Strong, how do you feel up here with this cast?

JEREMY STRONG: It’s an honor to be up here with this cast. This was a mountain. This is like the Matterhorn for me. I have such reverence for all these people and it was such a tremendous joy to get into the ring with everybody. It was a master class for me. Everyone here approaches the work so differently and it was such a great learning experience for me. I learned so much from each of them and we became like a family.

Q: Mr. Downey, do you still get nervous working with someone like Mr. Duvall and what was that first day like?

DOWNEY JR: I knew this movie was going to be a bit of a trial in and of itself and it would be really rewarding. I remember on the first day, Bobby and I were sitting there and Dax’s C.P. has a three-page monologue, and we just have to look like I don’t like him and the Judge does. But I remember before doing my coverage, my heart was pounding in my chest, and I think it was because there was so much on the line. I had such high hopes for the film turning out as well as the script that Bill Dubuque had turned in and we’d been working on all this time.

Q: Do you remember the first time you ever met Robert Duvall years ago?

DOWNEY JR: I’ve been trying to meet Bobby for some time, but when you approach an icon at a restaurant and he’s eating, he’s not really interested.

DUVALL: I didn’t know who he was. My wife said, “Do you know who he is?”

Q: Mr. Strong, you bring such humanity and honesty to your portrayal of Dale Palmer, which is a complicated role. Could you talk a little about how you approached your character?

STRONG: Thank you. Well, I think I knew I had to go really far out on some limb in terms of the characterization, but none of us knew what that limb was going to be. There were so many options in terms of behavior and what his struggle was and how that manifested itself. And so, it was really a process of trial and error and I did a lot of research. I spent a lot of time with different kids. I went to a lot of schools. And then, all of that got pared away and it became about, with David Dobkin’s help, finding and unearthing in me an innocence. I think he’s the innocent in the film. He’s kind of a purity in the film. And so, I just tried to show up at work every day in that spirit and with an open heart and hoped that that served the story in an honest and authentic way.

Q: Ms. Farmiga, Robert calls you the heart and the conscience of this film. Did you see your role like that?

VERA FARMIGA: I did. I found Sam’s spiritual frequency really alluring in this sweaty Turkish bath of really unsettled and frenetic males. She is a ballast and she has a serenity to her spirit. Her heart is elastic. She’s like a rubber band until this guy comes and snaps it too hard. There was this wonderful romantic investigation of her, but also I really did see her as a guide of sorts that ushers him, this prodigal son. On his journey of reconciliation, she gives him apple pie, food, encouragement, analysis, romance if he was up for it, and friendship. So I did see her in a very spiritual way.

Q: Mr. Shepard, was there a lot of research that went into playing a small town lawyer?

DAX SHEPARD: Yeah. I tried a few cases in southern Indiana and they did not turn out well, so I thought yeah, I’m made for this because I’m a terrible lawyer. It was a real natural transition for me. I’m just happy my name is spelled right. Lastly, Jeremy, I just want to point out the bravest role in the movie as he said is trying to find an approach. Ninety-nine of the approaches would have been the wrong one and he found the right one, and it’s such a mind blowing thing that he was able to do in a non-embarrassing, truthful way. So, that’s what I’m in awe of.

Q: Mr. Downey, this is the first Team Downey movie and I wonder if it’s just happenstance that it’s a father-son movie? Do you see it having some personal reflection for your own life?

DOWNEY JR: You could say it’s a courtroom drama, a father-son story, and this and that. For some reason or other, I just see it as it’s almost like there are all these touchstones whereby which you can… To me, the audience is a cast member in “The Judge.” And that’s the thing that I think is the transcendent thing when people were reading the script, or when Warners called us and said, “We think this is really special and we want to make it.” As we’ve been having these screenings, people are saying, “Look, I know it’s called “The Judge,” but that’s my mom. By the way, I have to tell you about my brother. My older brother, he would talk to me about a parking spot for twenty minutes. And I was like, “Do you understand this is a heavy day for all of us?” And so, the great thing to me is the kind of dialogue that’s been going on with people who have just seen the movie. That to me has been the big reward.

Q: Mr. Downey, what surprised you about working with Robert Duvall?

DOWNEY JR: As far as working with you, Bobby, I can overcomplicate things and it’s exhausting. There’s an efficiency with which you get to these extremely difficult places. It’s not that you make it look easy. It’s that you don’t use tricks. And that’s something that I hope to take more on board as I move forward.

Q: Mr. Duvall, was there anything that surprised you about working with Robert Downey, Jr.?

DUVALL: Nice. Terrific. A terrific guy. A wonderful actor. He and his wife are wonderful producers. It was a tough privilege, but a privilege. We had 60 days to do the tough privilege. Sometimes it seemed like it was only 30 days, but we got it done. It was a lot of work, but it was good, hard, honest work and a lot of fun at times. It was a lot of fun in between. (referring to all the actors on stage) These guys are great to work with.

Q: For the two Roberts, can you talk about complicated scenes like the one you shared in the bathroom? What did you discuss as far as the characteristic or the nuance that each character should have in that scene?

DUVALL: We just did it. I initially turned the script down because of that scene. It didn’t appeal to me the whole thing, but then after talking with everybody, with David Dobkin, my wife and everybody, once I decided to do it, then you got to just jump in and do it. We didn’t talk about it. We just did it. Like any good scene, you just do it and let it find its own rhythm and its own identity so to speak, and always try to find a bit of humor to offset. Either vulnerability or humor is very important. They’re very important in movies, I think, to offset serious scenes.

DOWNEY JR: There’s this idea that you never want to be part of a movie that’s really maudlin, graphic, indulgent, cheesy and all that, and that’s really pulling at needy, desperate heart strings of what you think a drama is. In essence, if you look at all of the central scenes, whether it’s with the brothers, or Dwight, or Sam and Hank, or Hank and C.P., there’s this thing where…and speaking of that scene, it starts with incontinence and it ends with a knock-knock joke. That was our thought for this film. We want it to be entertaining. We don’t want it to try to switch gears too often. We want it to mirror how life is. We’re in the midst of this kind of extreme sense of being exposed and vulnerable, and then thank God. It’s not like Lauren’s (Hank Palmer’s daughter played by Emma Tremblay) always knocking on the door when we were in the bathroom before. She just happened to need to come in right then. And that’s how kids are, too. They sense something, so they come and try to help. And she does help us. It’s the first time they actually smile simultaneously.

Q: The movie seems to be about redemption. Did any of you draw on something personal from your own life?

SHEPARD: That’s completely wrong. You got it wrong. That’s not exactly what the film’s about.

DOWNEY JR: What’s C.P.’s redemption?

SHEPARD: We had some moments. We had more moments, but when we filmed, I did an objection that was spot on, if you recall. Right, Downey? I really nailed it and I said it authoritatively. It was sustained, not overruled. And then, I got to really share a glance with you. It didn’t make it [into the final film], but I had that moment.

Q: For Mr. Downey, can you talk a little bit about how refreshing it was to do something very character driven?

DOWNEY JR: It was great. And again though, to do it just to do it would have been like I don’t know… It just wound up being again about all these different relationships. I love that we have this secret that’s not the secret you think it is. I love how the audience thinks they know something that Sam doesn’t know. To me, just to do some character study, I feel like no matter what I do, it’s a character study. It’s just sometimes there are more robots than others.

DUVALL: Exactly. Hey, everything is a character.

Q: Can you talk about why you decided to do this particular role?

DOWNEY JR: Look, here’s what happened. Susan and David started developing this movie. I thought I don’t want to make them feel bad. We’ll see how the script turns out. I said, “I don’t want you to tell them I’ll do this if the script’s no good.” Then I read the script and I said, “Nobody’s doing this movie except me.” The fact that it’s a lawyer in a small town and all this other stuff, to me, all I care about is, is what I’m doing entertaining? And do I get to work with people that I enjoy? I get to spend a lot of time with these people. There is nobody I would rather spend time on the set with than Billy Bob Thornton. He might do a Burt Reynolds’ impersonation for you.

DUVALL: He does a great impersonation.

DOWNEY JR: Here’s what you might get. (turning to Billy Bob Thornton) Can I just ask you, “Mr. Reynolds, what’s it like being a part of this cast for this great film? It’s great to see you here, Mr. Reynolds.” (Laughter as Billy Bob Thornton does his impression of Burt Reynolds) It could happen at any time.

Q: There are so many great performances in this film. Are you ready for awards season, Mr. Duvall? Do you think you’ll be nominated for another Oscar?

DUVALL: I have no idea. Could be. Who knows? You never know. I’ve seen people that really deserve it – many, many. And then, some who do not deserve it win. This whole town is built on the anticipation of the Oscars. Everything is built on that it seems. I have no idea though.

Q: Mr. Duvall, I know you used to tango. Are you still dancing?

DUVALL: Oh yes. It’s a hobby. It’s a social dance. Yes, ma’am.

Q: Robert Downey Jr., any last words?

DOWNEY JR: Thank you for enjoying our little picture and thank you for coming.


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