Robert Redford at 77: More Acting, a Possible Exit From Sundance and Poignant Regret

Robert Redford
Robert Redford
 Ruven Afanador

Before starring opposite Newman -- before he even became a star -- Redford took $500 and bought two acres of land in Utah. He would buy more land whenever he got some money until eventually he owned 6,000 acres, which he named Sundance. (He since has given the land to a trust to ensure it never can be developed.)

Preserving the land set him up against the type of entrenched powers he has taken on in his films. "I very often went against the power base of Utah," he says. "Politically, it was very conservative, and the controlling interests were always money interests or corporate interests. There was a coal plant that provided jobs for the locals; it was polluting the air, polluting the lake. The utility companies were robbing people of a chance to have more independent choices, so I would go against it, and that caused a lot of difficulty for many, many years."

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Loving the land, and strongly committed to thoughtful filmmaking, Redford began to invite budding filmmakers to work with established artists at labs held in Utah. The festival grew out of these labs, building on the former U.S. Film Festival.

"Once high technology started to move into the film business in a very aggressive way, it changed things," says Redford. "It changed the climate for audiences, particularly young people, because special effects could create more action and more dazzling visual things, which were great for kids. Suddenly the youth market got stronger and Hollywood followed the youth market, and I saw a gap, an opening, to try to do something. And that's what led to Sundance."

Redford received a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and added $50,000 of his own money to create the nonprofit Sundance Institute in 1981, then launched the festival in Park City three years later. Even Redford's agent at the time, Freddie Fields, thought he was crazy. "I said, 'I want to do this. You're not going to stop me,' " recalls Redford. " 'I'll only give it three years. If it doesn't work, I'm not going to beat a dead horse.' And in the third year, it started to happen."

It was somewhat later, in 1989, that sex, lies, and videotape transformed the festival, which became crucial to the growth of the movie's distributor, Miramax Films, and propelled the rise of its co-founder, Harvey Weinstein. "I love Harvey," says Redford. "He was one of the first guys who supported the festival. Now I'm sure he had his own interest, but he was looking to take a different path than Hollywood. Without Harvey, we wouldn't have had support."

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While continuing to make films (starring in pictures such as 1985's Out of Africa and 1993's Indecent Proposal and directing others like 1992's A River Runs Through It and 1994's Quiz Show), Redford never let go of his commitment to the festival and its workshops. He does not oversee the movie selection but consults regularly with the programmers and remains president of the board. Current executive director Keri Putnam says, even now, Redford will show up to take part in editing sessions and appear at screenings, along with frequent board meetings: "He's with us all the time."

Redford seems ambivalent about his festival's success, however -- hostile to the corporate and marketing forces that have overwhelmed his countercultural creation, while appreciative of everything it has achieved. "How can I not be satisfied about a success?" he asks. "But those earlier years felt best."

Nonetheless, he laments, "They're taking away some of the textures and qualities that were here that gave it a kind of intimacy. It's no longer the place it was. I don't like what's happened."

As he speaks, I notice his hands. They are strong and powerful, evidence of the forcefulness that has pushed him to such heights. He has a wedding band on one finger (from his second wife, Germany-born artist Sibylle Szaggars, more than two decades his junior) and a second ring on another. "It's a very small silver ring that was given to me by Hopi Indians in 1966," he says. "Every film I have done since 1968, I've had that ring on my right-hand ring finger."

These are the hands of a man who has weathered ups and downs, victories and defeats, triumphs and humiliations -- who battled to maintain Sundance when it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy in the early 2000s; faced down large corporations; dealt with critical indifference and even hostility, not least from film critic Pauline Kael, who once compared him to Lassie.

If he somehow has endured and remained a star for more than four decades, it is because he retains a complexity few can fathom. Indeed, as our conversation draws to a close, I'm struck more than anything by his contradictions.

He is one of the most beloved actors in history and yet says there have been times when he has felt "completely alone." He embraces the future and yet doesn't tweet and doesn't use Facebook. He is passionate about politics and yet rarely watches television and gets most of his news from The New York Times.

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Avowedly critical, he also is capable of enormous compassion, and can be moved by the mere sight of a stranger eating alone. For some reason, I find it totally heartbreaking," he says. "It just kills me. It makes me want to go and invite them to my table. I did that once. It drove my kids crazy. We're sitting, having a wonderful meal, and I looked over and saw a gentleman eating alone, and I finally got up and I said, 'Would you care to join us?' So he came over to the table." He laughs. "It was a disaster."

These days, the people who distract him in restaurants are more often young couples absorbed in their cellphones instead of each other. Redford himself uses an old-style clamshell phone and has no computer. "I use my wife's," he says, adding: "I see the deterioration of certain things of quality. It's very depressing to me to go out to dinner and see a young couple having a nice meal and they're both texting. I see it as something dangerous. But then I could be called a Luddite."

It is only recently, he says, that he has begun to see the world with a degree of equanimity, perhaps helped by his relationship with Szaggars, whom he met while skiing at Sundance. ("She had a real sensitivity, a certain European sophistication, which I really liked; an elegance.")

He notes that "unless you're stupid or so narrow-minded you can't see what's happening, as you get older you're almost forced to gain a certain amount of wisdom. You become more philosophical, and when you become more philosophical, it allows you to look back on things and see them with a certain perspective that you didn't have."

Still, the lingering impression he leaves is of a man who remains restless, driven by an internal dissatisfaction that pushes him to achieve ever more. "Whatever anxiety I have is very deep inside, and it comes out through art," he says.

He's promoting All Is Lost even while preparing to co-star with Nick Nolte in a long-in-the-works adaptation of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, the story of two friends hiking the Appalachian trail, due to start shooting late March. And he'll be seen in his first comic book movie, Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in April. (He says he's not allowed to talk about the film.) After that, he hankers to do even more acting.

Rest doesn't figure into his plans. He describes visiting an iridologist who looked in his eyes and said, " 'You were born with tense nerves.' I don't mean nervous tension, that's different. She said: 'Do you like to move? Does movement mean something to you?' I said, 'It's very satisfying.' "

He keeps moving, moving, taking on new commitments even as he says he wants to cut others.

"When I started to direct, I wanted total control of the story," he says. "I didn't want to be dependent on anyone. But then you add producing to that, and then you add Sundance, and pretty soon you're adding all these layers," he adds. "Was all that other stuff worth it? That's an open question."

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