Robert Redford is renowned as one of the Hollwood good guys, a matinee idol turned socially conscious filmmaker, ecologist and patron of the arts.
Robert Redford really has some sort of Zen thing going on. Maybe three minutes have passed since he first walked into his London hotel suite with a warm handshake and small enquiries after the well being of yours truly and I already feel as if I’ve spent several days practising transcendental meditation with a Himalayan guru or hitting the Ambien with an unusual enthusiasm.
It’s something of a habit with him. All morning the usual frenetic activity one associates with an international press junket seems to halt around him. Chatty, noisy, busy journalists are, as is the norm, ushered into his presence, only to emerge looking chilled out and at peace with the world.
Okay, so he’s not actually meditating or (my second guess) handing out the herbals, but the guru thing isn’t too far wide off the mark. He is, after all, a man lately come down from his mountain. The peak in question is Park City, Utah where the actor established the Sundance Institute in 1981. It has been his home since 1968. Like everything Robert Redford seems to touch, his involvement with Sundance places him firmly in the ‘Good Guy’ category.
“It’s a choice, you know,” he tells me in his gentle, calming voice. “Life is meant to be lived. If you have a gift or success you should see where it takes you. You should develop it as far as you can. For me that meant acting and that led to directing and that led to producing. You keep moving. But equally, it’s important to give something back.”
See? He even talks like a Zen master.
Giving Something Back has defined Robert Redford since the late 60s. Days before we met he was named alongside Al Gore in Time magazine’s list of ‘green heroes’ for his long time service to environmentalism and Native American rights. As the founder of the Sundance Institute and film festival, he has given a start to such independent spirits as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, John Cameron Mitchell and James Wan.
“As you get older you realise the importance of building something that is capable of sustaining itself,” says Redford. “You want something that will last beyond your time and maybe change something about the world for the better.”
He is, it hardly needs to be said, a Liberal with a capital ‘L’ and a hefty contributor to the coffers of the Democratic Party. Despite this, one is unlikely to confuse him with any sort of Apparatchik. Tellingly, he has on occasion, supported conscientious Republicans such as Gary R. Herbert. Ask him about the increasingly baffling politics of his old friend Bob Woodward and Redford simply smiles his grand, twinkling smile.
“I don’t see Bob so much,” he says. “He got smart after All The President’s Men. He quickly started writing books and making a lot of money out of it. But if you look at his work, he has gone on both sides of the aisle. He writes positive and negative things about Bush. He’s just working. He can’t be labelled.”
Charles Robert Redford was born in sunny Santa Monica in 1937 to Charles Robert Sr., a milkman turned accountant, and Martha Hart.
“I’m Irish and Scottish in equal parts,” he says. “I had to track down my family history myself because no one would tell me. Our tartan is Stuart and my grandfather was a good friend of Eugene O’Neill’s. Of course, he didn’t tell me that himself. If I asked him what his father’s name was he’d say he didn’t remember and if I asked him about my Irish roots he’d just say they were dope addicts and horse thieves. They had a great sense of humour though.”
A good-looking all-American boy who excelled at sports by the age of 17, Young Master Redford had won a baseball scholarship to the University of Colorado. He lost his place during the following year when the premature death of his mother led to a lengthy bout of teenage drinking.
“When I was a kid I had a certain arrogance,” he says. “I had a rebelliousness about authority. I can still identify with it. I had a tough time in my early life finding my place as an artist. I did not know what I was going to be for a while. And the struggle that started when I was around 16 or 17 got worse at that time. So I went off the rails a little bit.”
Like any lost young man, he bummed around spending a year as an oil worker before travelling to Paris to live the life of a painter.
“I grew up in California and everything was fine,” he recalls. “Even growing up in a lower class community the sun was always shining. My education really began when I came to Europe when I was 18. Living in France and Italy and the Celtic areas, I saw a point of view that I didn’t know existed before. When I came here I was only interested in art and ladies. We went to a few pubs, but I was only interested in adventure. Being in France during the Algerian crisis started the path I would eventually get on. At the time I did not know or care about politics. To me, politicians were boring people wearing suits and talking about boring things. So when I encountered students of my own age in the bohemian sections of Paris it challenged me. And they challenged me about my country and my politics. And I didn’t have it. I was humiliated and embarrassed. So I began to pay attention to what was going on in my country and the rest of the world.”
Upon returning to the US, the young artist settled in New York to pursue an acting career. He did okay, working in Broadway productions, TV spots and such forgotten films as This Property Is Condemned. In 1967 he landed a role alongside Jane Fonda in the Hollywood adaptation of Barefoot In The Park, a part that would make him ladies’ choice for the next decade. Two years later, he became a screen legend proper as Paul Newman’s cohort in the hit revisionist western Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid.
Ask him about this time in the limelight and he smiles and shrugs with an, “Oh, we were just doing our jobs” or an, “Oh, yes”. The truth is that Robert Redford has never been terribly comfortable with celebrity. After Barefoot In The Park he passed on Rosemary’s Baby and The Graduate in favour of a few months holidaying in Spain. In 1974, he was voted Hollywood’s top box-office draw on the back of The Way We Were and The Sting only to follow these smash hits with The Great Waldo Pepper.
His political interests led him to the thrillers Three Days Of The Condor and All The President’s Men, but it soon became apparent that he was happier behind the camera. In 1980 he pipped Martin Scorsese at the Oscar post with Ordinary People, his melodramatic directorial debut.
Since then he has got behind the lens for The Milagro Beanfield War, Quiz Show and The Horse Whisperer amongst other titles, but he has rarely made himself available for interview. Lions For Lambs, his latest film as director and star, has changed all that.
As the story hops between two unfortunate US soldiers in Afghanistan (Derek Luke and Michael Pena), a disillusioned college student (Andrew Garfield) and his old-school liberal lecturer (Redford) and a senator (Tom Cruise) and journalist (Meryl Streep) at loggerheads, we get the full sweep of arguments pertaining to the War On Terror, the Bush administration and the whole shebang.
“Yeah,” he nods. “It’s not a film about the Iraq war though plenty of people who haven’t seen it are characterising it that way. It’s a broader look at my country and how the public feels about its country right now. The issues are fodder for a deeper look at things. How did we get here? How did journalism become so trapped and compromised? I intended a feeling. I intended to provoke. But I purposely did not provide any answers.”
The film is, to borrow a Marxist concept, neatly dialectical in its presentation. But even-handed or not, it’s quite clear that beneath Redford’s soothing tones, he’s pretty angry about the state of his nation.
“At my age I have lived through many events,” he says. “I was a kid during the Second World War. I can remember McCarthy and Korea and Watergate and Iran. And now we have this. There are obvious parallels with Watergate. Both Houses are controlled by one party. The Supreme Court, the bully pulpit, is also controlled by that party. You find that same sensibility behind the power. But this time they’re getting away with it. Unlike Vietnam there’s no draft so there is nothing to activate young people except their own sense of responsibility. So I wanted to make a film that asks people to look at themselves and get involved.”
Given that Lions For Lambs will surely be labelled as pinko propaganda by the usual right-wing nuts who seem to control the American media, shouldn’t he just have gone for broke and put the boot in?
“I know,” he nods. “It’s an unfortunate thing that we’re so polarised. It’s disappointing that the extreme right wing is so narrow and angry. It’s ironic that the extreme right is where the Christian right sits. You wonder how Christians can get away with such mean behaviour. I wanted the film to be a conundrum. I know that’s enough for bloggers to call me a lefty. But I’m not afraid of being labelled. I used to be disappointed, now I just expect it. And I want dialogue. I don’t want to be Michael Moore.”
He says it softly with a wink, like he’s talking about a kitten or baby bird. The world may have gone to hell, but not around Robert Redford it hasn’t.
Lions For Lambs is released November 9
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