From director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), The Judge tells the story of big city defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.), who returns to his hometown only to find that his estranged father, the town’s esteemed judge (Robert Duvall), is suspected of murder. Hanks sets out to discover the truth and help his family, but no one in town wants to make it easy for him. The film also stars Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Balthazar Getty and David Krumholtz.
During a conference at the film’s press day, co-stars Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall talked about putting together this cast, why this was the first Team Downey film, finding the highs and lows of character, what it was like on their first day together, what surprised them about working with each other, why Billy Bob Thornton is the real deal, adding humor to the intense drama, and the talk come awards season. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
ROBERT DOWNEY JR: Basically, when we were developing this, I kept thinking about characters. I was thinking that we had to have a guy that the Judge wants instead of Hank. We thought of CP Kennedy, and we got Dax [Shepard]. And there had to be this gal that was his first love and his conscious. There had to be a struggle and a twist in there, and it had to be funny and heart-breaking. She had to be able to read his beats. And (director) David Dobkin came in and said, “The Judge has to be a mountain that Hank can’t climb, and he doesn’t want to.” But if he doesn’t, his soul is at stake.” And Bobby Duvall is a mountain. So, that’s how that worked. When I do the superhero movies, I say, “You’re only as good as your bad guy.” In this one, who would you really not want to go up against, if they were prosecuting the case, and that’s that Billy Bob. And then, we thought, “What if there’s someone in the film who is really taking the emotional hits for all this conflict? We have to find someone who is a gifted actor that can do next to nothing and communicate everything.” And that was Jeremy Strong. Hank’s whole journey has to do with the people he has to contend with, who help him tackle his challenges.
As an actor playing a lawyer, do you find that lawyers do a little bit of acting, too?
DOWNEY: Yeah, I suppose the great lawyers are showman who demand respect, everywhere they go. They also know how important the jury is.
DOWNEY: I knew this movie was going to be a trial, in and of itself, and it would be really rewarding. I remember the first scene, Bobby and I were sitting there, and Dax was CP and he had a three-page monologue. We just had to sit there, me looking like I don’t like him and the Judge does. I remember, before doing my coverage, my heart was just pounding in my chest, and I think it was because there was so much on the line. I had high hopes for the film turning out as well as the script did.
What do you remember about the first time you met him?
DOWNEY: I’d been trying to meet Bobby for some time. But when you approach an icon in a restaurant, he’s eating and doesn’t really want to meet you.
ROBERT DUVALL: I didn’t know who he was
DOWNEY: And he doesn’t know who you are. That makes it even more difficult.
Mr. Duvall, you have been friends with Billy Bob Thornton for a long time and have worked together before. What was it like working together in this film, and having that great courtroom scene together where he’s really grilling you?
DUVALL: It’s great working with him. I call him the hillbilly Orson Welles. I’ve been saying that for 18 years. It’s interesting because, many years ago, the great Russian director, Nikita Mikhalkov, came and I told him I wanted him to meet someone. I got Billy Bob from Arkansas and Nikita Mikhalkov from Moscow together. Two great talents met. We sat for two or three hours and talked. He’s the real deal, that guy.
This is the first Team Downey movie. Is it just happenstance that it is a father son movie, or does it have some person reflection in your own life?
DOWNEY: You could say it’s a courtroom drama, or a father-son story. There are all of these touchstones whereby you can have the audience be a cast member. Warners read the script and called us and said, “This is great! We want to make it.” And then, we’ve been having these screenings and people are saying, “I know it’s called The Judge, but that’s my mom.” The great thing for me is the dialogue with people who have just seen the movie. That has been the best part of making the movie.
What surprised you about working with each other?
DOWNEY: I can over-complicate things, and it’s exhausting. There’s an efficiency for him getting to these extremely difficult places. He doesn’t use tricks, and that’s something that I hope to take onboard, as I move forward.
DUVALL: He’s a perfect guy and a wonderful person. He and his wife are wonderful producers. It was tough privilege, but a great privilege. We only had 60 days to shoot this, and sometimes it felt like we were doing it in 30 days. We got it done and it was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun, at times.
DUVALL: We just did it. I initially turned the script down because of that scene. It didn’t appeal to me. After talking with David Dobkin and my wife and everybody, once I decided to do it, you just have to jump in and do it. We didn’t talk about it, we just did it. Like any good scene, it has to find its own zone and identity, so to speak. And you always need to find a bit of humor in a scene like that. It is very important in movies to off-set scenes with humor.
DOWNEY: You never really want to be part of a movie that’s morbid and graphic and cheesy, pulling at needy heartstrings. Speaking to that scene, it starts with incontinence and ends with a knock-knock joke. That was our thought for this film. We want it to be entertaining, but we don’t want it to switch gears too often. We want it to mirror how life is, in the midst of this extreme sense of being vulnerable.
Mr. Downey, was it refreshing to do something so character-driven?
DOWNEY: It was great. To do this just to do it wouldn’t have worked. It wound up being about all these relationships. I feel that, no matter what I do, it is a character study. It’s just that sometimes there are more robots than others.
You play a lot of characters that have a transformation and get a heart. Why do you decide to do roles like that?
DOWNEY: I don’t know why. Susan started developing this movie, so I said, “I don’t want to make you feel bad, so let’s give it read.” Then, I read it and said, “Nobody else is doing this movie.” The fact that it’s lawyer and takes place in a small town didn’t matter. All I care about is, “Is what I’m doing entertaining? And do I get to spend time with people I care about?” There is nobody I’d rather spend time with on a set that Billy Bob Thornton. He might do a Burt Reynolds impersonation.
Mr. Duvall, people are definitely going to be thinking about your performance during awards season. Are you ready for that?
DUVALL: Who knows. You never know. I’ve seen people win who deserve it, many, many times, and some have won that did not deserve it. This whole town is built on the Oscars, but I have no idea.
The Judge opens in theaters on October 10th.