This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
“I was born with a hard eye.”
An hour into lunch, ensconced in a corner table at an elegant restaurant inside New York’s Lowell Hotel, Robert Redford catches me by surprise with his words. “[I’ve been] critical, very, very critical,” he admits. “The way I saw things, I would see what was wrong. I could see what could be better. I developed kind of a dark view of life, looking at my own country. When I was a kid, I was told to be a good sport. It wasn’t whether you won or lost; it was how you played the game. I realized that was a lie.”
Dressed in a black sweatshirt and jacket, a youthful scarf tossed to the side while he eats, he seems far younger than his 77 years, both in appearance and manner. He has a natural elegance (and a certain intensity) that age has not diminished, and speaks simply and directly. Maybe it’s getting older, or maybe it’s that he knows he won’t have too many more shots at explaining himself, but the golden boy of American film today is prepared to reveal himself with unexpected candor.
He describes an ingrained impatience that he wishes to change, though it spills out even as we speak — for instance, when he mentions his reaction to the use of “whatever.” “It makes me crazy when somebody says, ‘Oh, whatever.’ I say, ‘Whoa, whoa, no, no, not ‘whatever,’ ” he complains. “Finish your sentence. Finish your thought. That’s an existential dodge.”
And he acknowledges he wants to stop “being so critical. Not letting it anger me when I see something that I think is off, phony behavior — if somebody says, ‘Have a nice day,’ for example. I have to stop myself from being so critical. That wasn’t possible five years ago, 10 years ago. I couldn’t think that way.”
Half a century into a career that has seen him star in such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Way We Were and All the President’s Men; win an Oscar for directing Ordinary People; and launch the great annual rite known as the Sundance Film Festival — not to mention single-handedly carry this awards season’s critical triumph All Is Lost — Redford still is questioning himself, still tilting at the world.
He wants to “shed” some of the trappings that have consumed his life — the endless work, the producing as well as directing, the maintenance of three homes (in Santa Fe, N.M., Utah and Napa Valley, Calif.) — and maybe even Sundance. It’s hard to believe, but after 30 years he may be prepared to move away from the institution that has best defined his independent nature.
“Sometimes you have to change the guard,” he says, “and that includes me.”
What Redford most wants to change is his absence from the screen. After years of appearing largely in films he also directed, he has made a powerful return as an actor with All Is Lost, the $9.7 million drama from Lionsgate about a nameless man who struggles to survive after his boat capsizes. Despite his long history with Sundance, this is the first time Redford has worked with a director who came up through the fest — J.C. Chandor, whose financial thriller Margin Call debuted there in 2011.
Although the two had met at the festival, they didn’t really get to know each other until Chandor sent Redford his 31-page script, which had no dialogue and required an actor willing to work without any other cast and spend weeks immersed in water.
“That was the first thing that I liked,” says Redford of the sparse screenplay. “Wow! I mean, this is really bold. And then once we talked, I said, ‘This is a chance for me to go back to my roots and really be an actor.’ By taking away dialogue, taking away voiceovers, taking away special effects, it was pure cinema the way cinema used to be.”
He had little time to prepare, having just completed The Company You Keep before Lost started shooting in May 2012 at a studio in Baja California and out at sea. Redford was in the water “every day, with the clothes on, sopping wet,” he remembers. “That was the hardest part. And being knocked around, because those storms were really storms. When you have a wave machine and a rain machine and a wind machine all going at the same time, [even in a tank] it’s a storm.”
Chandor, in New York with Redford to attend the New York Film Critics Circle Awards on the day of our lunch, says the crew marveled at Redford’s commitment. When most of them got up each day, they’d look out and see him swimming in the hotel pool. “It was an intense schedule and a short schedule,” explains Redford. “I’d be so exhausted, I would wake up and just be stiff. I had to loosen my body, so I would take a few laps in the pool.”
Redford insisted on performing his own stunts, including a nine-foot jump that worried Chandor. “I had to have a little talk with him,” says the director, pointing out there would be no movie without the star. ” ‘If you go down, this whole thing does.’ “
In fact, the actor did go down, literally. “The boat sank at one point with all of us in it,” says Chandor. “We were inside the boat, and water started coming in through an open window.” For a few moments, nobody realized Redford still was on the boat. “We got him off. Later he said: ‘Stop apologizing. This is the way making movies is. This is what I do.’ “
Another time, Redford was hurt after being knocked “by a hose that kept hitting the same spot. I lost part of my hearing.” (Indeed, during our interview, he sometimes has trouble making out the occasional word, craning slightly forward as I speak.)
But the results clearly were worth it: All Is Lost (which has earned $6.1 million in limited release) is Redford’s most acclaimed work in years; in addition to the New York critics best actor award, he has been nominated for an Independent Spirit nod and — as of press time, in advance of the Jan. 16 announcements — remained a strong contender to receive his second Academy Award nom for acting, 40 years after he got one for The Sting. (He received an honorary Oscar in 2002.) Lost also has given him a newfound hunger to act, which perhaps waned during the years when he turned to directing, fought for the environment and supported Sundance.
“Right now,” he says, “I prefer to act because I really enjoyed All Is Lost, going back to my roots.”
In fact, acting was a relatively late love, and Redford struggled to find himself as a youth.
Born in 1936, he grew up the son of a milkman and a homemaker living in a poor, heavily immigrant community, just off Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles, where his family was among the few Caucasians.
His father, Charles, “worked brutal hours,” says Redford, an only child. “I didn’t see much of him when I was a kid. [Mother Martha] was the strong member of the family. She was very outgoing. She always had a smile; she was very, very adventurous. Risk was not a big issue for her. She came from Texas, and she carried that kind of robust, jocular goodwill. She saw things in a positive light. She also felt that I could do anything, and she was very supportive of anything I might try.”
By contrast, “My dad was always worried; taking chances was for him a death call. ‘You don’t risk anything, you play it safe.’ And I just couldn’t do that.”
In the days before Los Angeles’ freeway culture and explosive development, Redford grew up loving the city’s open spaces and clean air. By the time the family moved to the San Fernando Valley, that had changed and he started to rebel.
“I was always about breaking the rules,” he says, adding that he felt an increasing urge to leave. “I wanted to be away from Los Angeles because I felt it was going to the dogs. I was just getting more and more anxious about wanting out. I didn’t want to be wherever I was. And I felt a certain suffocation. I felt things were closing in around me, and it made me anxious. I wanted to be free.”
He attended the University of Colorado and, following his mother’s death in his late teens, hitchhiked across the country, traveling to Europe and dreaming of becoming a painter. His experiences in Spain, Italy and France were transformative, especially politically. “It was the first time I developed any kind of a political view,” he says, “because I couldn’t care less about politics when I was growing up.” (Curiously, he had met Richard Nixon when he won a sports award as a teenager and got a terrible vibe: “It was creepy.”)
Redford returned to the U.S. in his early 20s, moving to New York, where he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts before finding work in theater and television. He was married early to his first wife, Lola Van Wagenen, the mother of his four children, and with her faced the death of his baby son, Scott, from sudden infant death syndrome.
“It was very traumatic and hard to deal with because it was so unexpected,” he says. “You didn’t know enough about it, so you felt guilty. It took a long time to find out that wasn’t the case.” (Redford and Van Wagenen divorced in the mid-1980s.)
Success as an actor came quickly, with films such as 1965’s Inside Daisy Clover and 1967’s Barefoot in the Park. Then, in 1969, Redford became a superstar when he appeared alongside Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The actors formed a friendship that would span decades, until Newman died in 2008.
“The studio didn’t want me,” recalls Redford. “It all depended on Paul, and I met him and he was very generous and said, ‘Let’s go for this.’ He knew I was serious about the craft. That’s what brought us together, and we became friends and our friendship turned out to be very similar to our relationship in both Butch Cassidy and The Sting. I really do miss him because he was an extraordinary human being.” Such relationships have been rare for Redford. “I have been too busy to have many close friends. It’s my fault, the lack of maintenance.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”