IAR INTERVIEW: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, and Billy Bob Thornton Talk 'The Judge'

Thursday, 09 October 2014 08:27 Written by  iamrogue
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IAR INTERVIEW: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, and Billy Bob Thornton Talk 'The Judge'

The Judge isn't on trial, but if it were, there's one thing it might be guilty of: stacking the deck.

The film, hitting theaters this Friday, has something for anyone and everyone, combining high-stakes courtroom drama, layered family portrait, estranged father-son conflict, delicate true-to-life comedy, and even earnest coming of age growth.

The cast, similarly, is an irresistible ensemble of heavyweight thespians, from Robert Downey Jr. (The Avengers) to Robert Duvall (The Godfather), Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade), Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel), Vincent D'Onofrio (Marvel's upcoming Daredevil series), Jeremy Strong (Zero Dark Thirty), Dax Shepard (This Is Where I Leave You), Leighton Meester (That's My Boy), and David Krumholtz (This Is the End).

Current king of the superhero movie Downey Jr. stars in The Judge as Hank Palmer, a slick big city lawyer who returns home to his small town when his estranged father (Duvall), who suffers from Alzheimer's, is accused of murder. 

The wrinkle is that his father is, in fact, a notoriously inflexible local judge.  After decades of issuing stern justice, the judge may very well have run down a criminal with his car.  While grappling with their loaded relationship, Hank volunteers to defend his father from a zealous prosecutor, setting the stage for legal maneuvering and emotional catharsis.

At the Los Angeles press day for The Judge, IAR Managing Editor Jami Philbrick participated in a Q&A with Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, and Billy Bob Thornton, three Oscar-caliber actors who enthusiastically discussed their latest performances in director David Dobkin's drama.

For Downey Jr., the film arrives between two of his Marvel Studios blockbusters, last year's Iron Man Three and next year's Avengers: Age of Ultron, but the actor playfully resists the idea that The Judge and his Tony Stark adventures are categorically different.

"I feel like no matter what I do, it is a character study. It is just that sometimes there is more robots than others," he commented.

While there are many moving parts in the machinery of The Judge, the film obviously hinges on the relationship between Hank and Joseph Palmer.  As such, it was imperative that the director and Downey Jr., who produces the movie alongside his wife and partner Susan Downey, find the right actor to play the title character.

"Dobkin always said that the judge has to be a mountain that Hank cannot climb and does not want to, but if he does not climb his soul is at stake. Bobby Duvall is a mountain and Joseph Palmer is a mountain, and that is how that worked," Downey explained. "It is like in a super hero movie where you are only as good as your last bad guy. And I was thinking who do I really not want to go up against if they were prosecuting the case, and he is right there. And then we thought about if there is someone in the film who is really taking the emotional hits for all of this conflict. We have to find someone that is such a gifted actor that they can do next to nothing and communicate everything that is unsaid in the film."

Academy Award-winning screen legend Duvall was emphatic in his praise of his co-star, saying of Downey Jr., "Terrific guy. Wonderful actor. He and his wife are wonderful producers. It was a tough privilege, but a privilege. We had sixty days to shoot this, but sometimes it seemed like we only had 30 days. We got it done. A lot of work, but there were good, honest hard workers who were a lot of fun at times. These guys were great to work with.

"It is really nice. The only thing more fun than making a movie with Robert Duvall is promoting a movie with him," quipped Downey. "It has been great."

Another Oscar-winner, Thornton, provides the requisite gravitas on the other side of the courtroom, playing prosecutor Dwight Dickham.  Though they're adversaries in The Judge, Thornton and Duvall are, in fact, longtime friends. 

"I had 111 scenes in the movie, and now there is only like three left. It was great," Thornton joked when Philbrick inquired about their dynamic here. "It is always great working with Bobby. He has been my friend and mentor for many many years. This is the first time I have had to prosecute him. That is one of the biggest things for an actor to get over in a movie. If you know somebody very well, you have to forgot who that person is. I knew that I was going to have to get in his face and that kind of thing. It was a real challenge just to forget who was sitting there. At the end of the day I think I just put my own father there.

"He was great to work with," Duvall agreed. "I will not tell him what I call him because it gets repetitious, but he is terrific."

Despite that attempt at tact, Duvall playfully admitted the he refers to Thornton as, "Hillbilly Orson Welles. I have been saying that for eighteen years. So he is the real deal, this guy."

All the talent involved also meant more pressure for each individual member of the cast.  "I knew this movie was going to be a bit of a trial in and of itself and it would be very rewarding," Downey Jr. recalled. "I remember on the first day Bobby and I are sitting there, and Dax Shepard has a three-page monologue, and we just have to look like him and the judge does. But I remember before doing my coverage, my heart was just pounding out of my chest, and I think it is because there was so much on the line, I had high hopes for the film turning out as well as the script did."

There's no shortage of gripping drama in The Judge, but the film also leavens its heaviness with doses of relatable humor, most notably in a bathroom scene between Joseph and Hank, a scene that finds the elder Palmer grappling with his physical limitations.

Though it is one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Duvall said, "I initially turned the script down because of that scene. It did not appeal to me. After talking with David Dobkin and my wife and everybody, once I decided to do it, then you have just have to jump in there and do it. We did not talk about it. We just did it. Like any good scene, you kind of just do it and let it find it’s own rhythm and own identity so to speak. And I always try to find a bit of humor to offset it. Either vulnerability or humor is very important in movies I think to offset serious scenes."

"There was that idea that you never want to be part of a movie that is really maudlin and graphic and indulgent and cheesy and all that. Really kind of pulling at those needy, desperate heartstrings of what you think a drama is," said Downey Jr. "Speaking of this scene, it starts with incontinence, and it ends with a knock-knock joke. That was kind of our thought for this film. We want it to be entertaining. We do not want it to try to switch gears too often. We want it to mirror how life is. We are in the midst of this extreme sense of being kind of exposed and vulnerable. And thank God."

The Judge balances several different tones and nimbly steps between genres, but Downey Jr. explained that the recognizable family dynamics allow the film to connect across the board.

"Well you can say it is a courtroom drama or a father/son story and this and that. To me the audience is the cast member in the judge," he said. "And that is the transcendent thing when people were reading the script or when Warner called us and said, 'We think this is really special. We want to make it.' As we have been having these screenings, people are saying, 'I know it is called The Judge, but that is my mom.'"

The great thing to me is the dialogue that is going on with people who have just seen the movie. That to me has been the big reward," he continued. "As far as working with you, Bobby, I can over complicate things, and it is exhausting. There is an efficiency with which you get to these extremely difficult places and it is not that you make it look easy. You do not use tricks, and that is something I hope to really take more aboard as I move forward."

The Judge opens nationwide this Friday, October 10th.

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