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Mentor and Apprentice
The heart and soul of SEVEN DAYS IN UTOPIA is the character of Johnny, who despite the look of things is no ordinary Texas rancher. As soon as he finds young athlete Luke Chisholm in a heap on his property, he begins to take him on a galvanizing journey that will change both Luke's game and his whole definition of what it means to be winner.

The filmmakers always knew they would need an actor of considerable subtlety and humanity to bring Johnny to life but they were blown away when Academy Award® winning legend Robert Duvall, one of America's most diverse and adored actors, expressed interest. No one could imagine a better Johnny.

Known for his portraits of complicated men trying to turn their lives around, here Duvall had a chance to play the very opposite: a man who has been through his own ups and downs and is now itching to share the bedrock of understanding and faith that have resulted. His performance as Johnny is very much in the cinematic tradition of enchanted strangers who uplift a lost man's life – except that Johnny's power is rooted in a gritty, hard-won wisdom rather than magical realism.

Johnny's influence on Luke doesn't come in straightforward ways. He takes Luke on one high-flying adventure after another – piloting his first airplane, galloping on spirited stallions, learning to paint the beauty around him and even entering a rodeo – but all along he's got something more serious in mind. With the sly patience of an old fox, Johnny knows that the biggest personal revelations will only come when you let life unfold in its own time and way.

"Johnny is a true mentor,” says Producer Jason Michael Berman. "He takes Luke where he needs to go without him realizing it. All these different experiences help build his character, and introduce him to something larger than himself. Johnny is priming Luke all along, step by step.”

"I think everybody needs a Johnny in their life at some point,” adds Berman. "He's someone who has been through it all and has accumulated the wisdom of all his experiences. In playing him, I think Robert Duvall really gets to the relationship that can happen between a man of real stature and someone who still hasn't realized his dreams.”

Duvall has always been moved by the kinds of stories and characters that speak to the hard work of changing one's direction in life. This film fit right into that category. "I was attracted to this because it's a great tale about a man's journey, and about how you survive life's unexpected curve balls,” he says.

One such curve ball brings Luke into Johnny's back yard and he simply can't turn away from someone he recognizes as in need. It was important to Duvall to show the character's generosity, but also that Johnny also had to dig himself out from a dark place to become the man he is now. "I really wanted to get to Johnny's past demons,” explains Duvall. "Matt Russell agreed with me that we needed to show the human frailties of this guy.”

As much as the film touches on transcendence, Duvall put his focus on keeping his performance grounded, organic and subtle, with the restraint and edge that give his characters an honest humanity. "I don't think you can telegraph to people what to take away from a story like this,” Duvall explains of his approach. "Everyone has to take away what they get from it, personally.”

He got a kick out of the variety of creative ways that Johnny teaches Luke to ferret out his own answers. "He teaches in symbols and parallels,” Duvall says. "By doing all these other things, he shows Luke the power of just getting back to the basics, of ridding himself of fear and just being in the moment. He approaches him as a human being first and a golfer second.”

Still, as a long-time lover of golf, Duvall was thrilled by the way the filmmakers strived to depict the game with a groundbreaking realism. "I think it's one of the most legitimate golf movies ever,” Duvall says. "I've played for many years, Lucas Black is a scratch golfer as well as being a terrific actor, and having so many professional golfers on the set was just terrific.”

Shooting in Utopia, Texas was another inspiration for Duvall, who fell for the tiny town. "There's something so special about Utopia,” he observes. "It had a personal impact on all of us. There are many great towns in Texas, each with its own country band and barbeque, but Utopia was an entity unto itself. It's the people who make it so wonderful and hopefully the movie captures that.”

Duvall soaked up the laid-back but caring atmosphere and added that Utopia touch to his performance. For the author David Cook, the actor got it just right, and then some. "Duvall has always been terrific at playing redeemed characters and he was able to show how Johnny had some bad stuff in his past but now is a man of grace and wisdom. He plays him with that little bit of an edge that you might expect from an older cowboy and brings more to the performance than I ever could have seen. It's true to the book but it's a vintage Duvall performance.”

For first-time director Matt Russell, working with Duvall was full of revelations. "He is so sharp and calculated,” he observes. "He wanted to know every little detail so he could process it all before we started shooting. He had an opinion on everything from how Johnny would speak to what his shoes should look like, so he moved us all to another level.”

Russell goes on: "At the same time, he's just a normal guy, so down to earth that you forget who you're talking to sometimes and then he'll drop a Brando story on you from the GODFATHER movies and it just puts it all into perspective that this guy has done it all.”

In the end, it wasn't Duvall's star-studded history but his everyday elegance that made him so beloved on the set. "Of course he's professional and deeply engaged, but there's also something purely genuine about him,” sums up Producer Mark G. Mathis. "He can produce a great performance, while at the same time helping everybody to feel calm and relaxed. He was a tremendous boon to the entire production.”

Duvall's impact on the production was multiplied when he was paired with an actor who has starred with him twice before: Lucas Black, known for his acclaimed roles opposite Duvall in SLING BLADE and GET LOW, as well as in such films as JARHEAD, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT and ALL THE PRETTY HORSES.

For Duvall, the chance to work so closely with Black once again was a thrill. "He's a very talented young man, a fine actor, a wonderful scratch golfer and he's got a great sense of humor. I think he's very special,” he summarizes.

A combination of special gifts was exactly what was needed to portray Luke Chisholm, who comes to Utopia thinking he needs a better grip on his golf clubs, but departs with a better grip on himself and who he can be. It was a role that would require equal parts golf acumen and acting chops as Luke begins to have not only an athletic turnabout but an awakening of the spirit.

Black seemed tailor-made for both sides of the role. A double threat of an unusual kind, he was such a talented golfer growing up that he was torn between pursuing acting or golf, both of which he continues to love. Born in Alabama, he still lives in Missouri, cultivating a quiet Southern lifestyle that also gave him a unique insight into what Luke finds in Utopia's wide-open spaces.

"Lucas really loves golf and I think that's why this script resonated with him so deeply,” says Russell. "From start to finish, he was fantastic to work with. I felt like our relationship personified that perfect actor-director connection

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