Robert redford is the original artist-activist-maverick. fifty years ago, he started leading the charge on environmental causes. thirty years ago, he godfathered indie cinema into existence when he created sundance. and at 81, the double oscar winner is still unstoppable in his day job: making movies. michael hainey sits down with an icon
It’s tempting to see Robert Redford as the golden boy. The guy who never had to sweat for it. The guy who got what he got because it was handed to him, because of his looks. The guy who, as the writer James Salter said of Redford at age 40, after he had carved out his extraordinary success, had the aura of a charmed life: “As if glancing at a menu, he was able to choose his life.”
The reality of Redford’s life, like the reality of anyone’s, is much more complex. The son of a milkman, he grew up in Santa Monica, California. He loved to play baseball and was offered an athletic scholarship to the University of Colorado, but at the end of his first year, just after his mother died, he was kicked off the team and asked to leave school. (“I lost my scholarship pretty quickly after I discovered drinking,” he once said.) Desperate to become a painter, he went to Europe to study but flamed out. He returned to New York and found his way into a theatre company.
It was there, while performing in a staging of The Seagull, that he caught the eye of a Broadway agent. A few bit parts came his way before he broke big in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park — a role he would reprise on screen in 1967 opposite a 30-year-old Jane Fonda.
Two years later, Redford beat out Steve McQueen, among others, to co-star with Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Redford was 33, and the film launched him on a godlike run. Over the next 10 years, he starred in some of the most iconic films of the Seventies (The Candidate, Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, The Sting, The Great Gatsby, Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, The Electric Horseman), and he came to define that decade’s vision of manhood.
By 1980, Redford was at the top of his game. Time to coast, right? Wrong. Instead, at 44 years old, he decided to evolve as an artist, to reinvent himself as a director. He chose a curious property for his first film: a novel about a sensitive teenage boy recovering from a suicide attempt and struggling to earn his parents’ acceptance and forgiveness while falling in love. The movie was Ordinary People. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture and Best Director.
The following year, Redford shifted gears again. He deployed his newfound clout behind the camera to mentor a new generation of talent. “I wanted to give back,” he says. He opened up his Utah property — two acres he had bought in 1961 for $500 and that he’d added onto through the years — and created the Sundance Film Festival and Institute.
Now he’s back with a new Netflix movie, an adaptation of Kent Haruf’s novel Our Souls at Night, about a man (Redford) and a woman (Fonda) finding love in a small town in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies.
I spoke with Redford in a suite in a discreet hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Before I arrived, I had written to an actor who’d worked with him. I told him that my impression of Redford, in studying him, was of a man who was distant. “He’s not so much distant as occupied,” the actor responded. “Occupied with what’s going on in his head, with what he’s seen and sees and what it all looks like to him. His training was as a painter. He listens brilliantly.”
When Redford entered the suite, he smiled and extended his hand. “Hi,” he said. “Bob Redford.” He was dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt that said “I Stand with Standing Rock”. He’s 81 and still trim. His hair is still an enviable thatch but now streaked with some grey. As we stood in the doorway, he turned his gaze toward a room-service cart that had been wheeled in moments before. It was lunch. Redford looked at it quizzically. “Strange, I just ate breakfast.” He shrugged and then guided us toward two couches that faced each other.
Did you have a master vision of your life?
I did. It started with getting out of LA. It started to go off at one point, but then I got it back. I grew up in a situation where you were either gonna drown in it or you were gonna swim out of it. It was a very lower-working-class environment. We weren’t impoverished, but we were on the lower end of things. I decided, “I’m gonna bust out of this and go as far as I can.”
When I was a kid, the one thing I liked to do was draw. But art was considered a trivial pursuit in my family. In class, under the table, I would draw because I was bored. And I got called out in third grade by my teacher, who said, “Mr Redford, why don’t you bring that up and show us what’s more important?” Instead of burning me, she said, “I’ll make a deal with you. We’re gonna put an easel here. Every Wednesday, we’re gonna give you 15 minutes to draw a story, but then you have to promise to pay attention.” That’s what saved me. Had she blown me apart, I don’t know that I could have survived, I was so young. I wasn’t told that it was a hopeless thing. And I realised, I’m gonna go in that direction, which led me to Europe. That’s all I ever wanted. I said, “I just want to get out of this country. I want to get to a new environment, new culture, and try to be an artist in new territory.” That’s when my life really began. I had to live hand-to-mouth. I was hitchhiking everywhere.
You struggled. You were failing in your art. From what I read, you had something of a breakdown.
That’s where the break came. I put too much faith in one voice, a teacher. That was a big mistake, until he reminded me. I had all these canvases I was anxious to show him, and his disappointment was devastating. He said, “You’re basically copying me.” I wasn’t aware of that. That was so shattering, because I was only 19. I thought, That’s it. And then I came to New York.
It seems your father cast a shadow and didn’t encourage you to pursue the arts.
It wasn’t his fault. I needed to get out of there. I needed to get to a clean, empty space because that house was occupied by thoughts that I didn’t share. My father grew up in semi-poverty in New England. He was shipped out to California as a teenager because they couldn’t afford to raise two sons. He was scared to death of poverty. He would take a job that was safe. When I came out and looked like somebody who was gonna be
freewheeling, it made him nervous. He thought, “He won’t survive that.” That was the tension. He wanted me to be secure, to go to Stanford. I was lucky to get to Boulder, Colorado.
He was only doing what he thought was right. It took me a while to fully understand that. I thought the best thing was to go to Europe, where there’s nobody tracking me. I love that feeling. When I was in France, then Italy and Spain, I had the comfort — it was also a little scary — of knowing no one knows where I am, nobody knows me here.
I still remember: I was in Cannes and I was hitch-hiking and I couldn’t afford a room. I was sleeping underneath a pier, in a sleeping bag, and in the daytime I’d walk the streets. And I met this older woman; she must have been 20 years older than me. She ran a little shop. Anyway, we became friends, and then we got extremely close, so I lived there for a while. We’d be walking and she’d say to me, “Why are you unhappy? Your head’s always down. Lift your chin up. Look at the sun.” I wasn’t aware of it. When she told me that, I lifted my head up and suddenly everything seemed to change. That’s just a moment in time, a character who came and went in my life. But who she was and what she taught me had a huge impact. “Why are you down?” I’m always asking that.
It’s these chance encounters in life, and you can’t help but think that for some reason, someone just nudged you along the path, and had they never nudged you...
You have to be willing to be nudged. You have to be open and, when you get nudged, be willing to go there. If you lock up, what’s the point?
Do you still hear your father’s negative voice in your head?
I still hear his voice. You don’t outrun those voices. There was a division in my family that left me with a bit of an ache. My mom was from Texas — totally outgoing, full of life, full of laughter, taking risks all the time, encouraging me to do it. My father was more concerned about not taking risks, because that could put you in a terrible spot.
Dad came from a family where vaudeville was in the picture. My grandfather and Eugene O’Neill were very close friends. So there was a lot of poetry, but mainly there was this wicked wit that my dad had and my grandfather had. Even though my dad tended to be conservative, he was very witty, with a dark sense of humour.
I inherited that, but I also inherited my mom’s “Let’s go for it” spirit. My mom felt I could do anything. She was the only one who told me that, the one who really did believe that I was gonna do things. She encouraged me to constantly be opened up. And I took it all for granted as a teenager.
When she died — she died when she was very young, and I was 18 — the regret that I had was that I couldn’t thank her. When I grew up and I realised what had happened, what she had tried to do, I realised, “Oh my God, she really did encourage me to go out there and take chances.” As you go on in life, you think about regrets before you go to sleep at night. I realised too late that she had a very positive role in my life and I couldn’t thank her.
She died at the end of your first year of college?
Yeah. [Sighs.] I think in a way when that happened I was kind of freed up in terms of family responsibilities. I’m sad but I’m free.
Do you remember where you were when she died? Sometimes you know things. There was no reason for me to think that she was going to die. I was in the dorm alone and they only had a phone at the end of the hall. It was ringing and I was the only guy around, so I thought, “Well, I guess I should go answer it.” As I was walking down the hall, I said, “This is going to be for me.” And it was. It was my dad telling me that my mom had died. I had that vibe — it was so weird. I’ve thought about that periodically.
When did your father die?
I was doing A River Runs Through It. 1992. [Sighs.] Anyway.
In Our Souls at Night, your character is a guy with a code. Did you bring any of your own value system to that?
I saw him as a character who was submerged, who had made mistakes in his life. To avoid making any more, he went into retreat. He thought, “I’m safer alone. I’m just gonna retreat and live out my life in solitude.” And then he gets awakened by Addie [Jane Fonda]. What I liked was that there would be some awkwardness as he found himself coming alive. I think that’s what inspired me — the character who was gonna get awakened at a point in his life when he didn’t think that was gonna happen again. You call that a second chance or whatever. I just like the idea that this story had that. That line, “You could sink below or you could come across.” What helps the coming across is the strength of the woman, because she’s willing to take a risk.
What attracted you to this book?
It was beautifully written and it touched some of the areas I’m very familiar with; Colorado, small town. But the main thing was it focused on second chances, in terms of love. How just when you didn’t think it was possible, something happens and you get revitalised, re-energised, and you find love again.
Jane Fonda’s line, “I’ve worried my whole life what everyone else thinks” — that’s a prison we all put ourselves in. She activates him, and that’s one of the things I liked: It was a strong woman’s story. She takes the risk. She makes it happen.
‘The only advice I will give is to pay attention. I don’t mean to the screen in your hand’
Did you set out to work with Jane on this?
Oh, yeah. Jane and I have had a very special relationship going back to The Chase . It just clicks. Whatever her life was — which was all over the place — whatever my life was, when we came together, those things were forgotten. We were just she and I working together. It didn’t require a lot of analysis. It just fell into place. So when this came, I thought, “This could be something for both of us.” I knew Jane to be a very strong woman. She’s a force. She takes risks. I’ve always admired that. And so I thought, “This character drives the story; that’s perfect for Jane. She would force me to take a risk as a character.” So I sent her the book. She sent it right back. “I’m in.”
You play a guy who, like you, longed to be a painter.
Yeah. There were some scenes and lines I contributed. When I was young, I said to myself, “You’ve got to make the most of your life.” It’s all about taking risks. Push yourself to do as much exploration as possible. Find yourself. Because sometimes we think we’ve found ourselves, but it’s only part of ourselves we’ve found. We haven’t pushed ourselves far out there where we make mistakes and things don’t work out, but at least we’ve discovered something. I felt that’s what my life had to be.
Do people ask you for advice?
I try to avoid giving advice. The only advice I will give is to pay attention. I don’t mean to the screen in your hand. I’m talking about the natural world. I spent a lot of time educating my children about nature by putting them in nature. I said, “I want you to listen; I want you to look.” There’s so much technology coming into our lives that takes us away from the natural stuff, so I’m pushing the other way.
You did All the President’s Men, the landmark 1976 film on Watergate and Nixon. We hear Trump compared to Nixon. How do you see them?
I don’t know if you can compare them. They’re so different. Whatever Nixon was, whatever his dark side, he was an accomplished politician. He was a guy who’d been through the mix, knew the rules. I think on the other side, there’s more ignorance. I just don’t think there’s enough awareness of what’s going on. I can’t compare the two.
Right now, I am working on something that’s pretty important to me. It has to do with my own history in politics. I’d done All the President’s Men, and the history of how that came about is a story unto itself. It began with The Candidate .No one knows about that connection. I was on a train, and I was promoting The Candidate, going from Jacksonville, Florida, down to Miami to duplicate what candidates in 1972 did. On that train ride, the press was gossiping about the break-in that had just happened at the Democratic headquarters one week before. I said, “What happened with that story? It just went away so fast.” And they said, “Yeah, it’s gonna stay away.” Then they told me why: Nixon was gonna win in a landslide. He had a switchblade mentality. You didn’t want to be on the wrong side of the guy, so nobody was gonna touch him.
I got so depressed at that. I went home, and I started to check the newspapers to find out if that was gonna be true. That’s when I came across these dual bylines that kept popping up: Woodward and Bernstein. Anyway, long story short, that hit big time. When I read the profile about the two guys
— one guy was a Jew, one guy was a Wasp; one was a Republican, one was a liberal; one was a pretty good writer, the other wasn’t so hot; they didn’t like each other, but they had to work together — I thought, I’d like to make a little black-andwhite movie with two unknown actors that I could produce. The upshot [from Hollywood] was, “Yeah, well, we don’t think that’s very interesting. If you’re gonna do this, then you have to be in it.” And that led to me and Dustin [Hoffman] going deep into the world of journalism — how to get stories and get to the truth.
When the movie came out, I always thought history was stationary. I realised, “No, it’s fluid. History does repeat itself.” With what’s going on now with the administration, this is an example of history repeating itself. I was asked to do a documentary about All the President’s Men several years ago and I said, “Well, I’m not sure I wanna do that. Let me look at some archival footage.” In looking at that footage, I saw something amazing, which led me to say, “I will do it.” On that panel questioning John Dean were Democrats and Republicans, joined together, to get to the truth. And I thought, “Wow, there was a time when two sides did work together on behalf of the American public to get to the truth.” Now it’s so polarised. You have these kind of villainous characters like Mitch McConnell who seem to be against anything that’s gonna move us forward in any kind of moral way. I’m gonna make a film called There Was a Time. It’ll be a documentary. A lot of the millennials probably don’t even know about that, so let’s look back in time and say, “Hey, don’t get too discouraged by what’s going on.”
How do you find optimism in this moment in time?
I have faith in the pendulum swinging. Right now, it’s so far against the wall that it can’t go any farther; it’s gonna start to swing back. That’s my optimism. One of the cures is gonna be getting the American people to fully wake up. All the American people, particularly young people, because they’re gonna inherit this Earth; they’re gonna inherit what we’re doing. And if we have any concerns about kids — which I do — what are you gonna do to make sure they have something to work with?
If you found yourself one-on-one with Trump, what would you want to say to him most urgently?
“Quit. For our benefit.” Politics right now is in a very dark place, and I think the only place for me is to do what I do — make films, create art, watch it as it evolves. Right now it’s like Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall, and a great fall is happening. The behaviour seems to be really dumb. That’s another thing that’s depressing: certain attitudes in Congress. They assume that you’re dumb; they can take advantage of you being dumb. I find that offensive. It insults our intelligence. They’re playing us for dumb and they’re being dumb in doing it. For me, that’s one of the reasons the pendulum is against the wall. But I believe that’s gonna change. I think those people, the McConnells, are not helping us at all. They’re taking us backward in time.
Trump is a businessman, but he is such a creature of the entertainment world. It feels that the entertainment industry is more entwined with politics than ever before.
I just think he is who he is. You can’t blame him for being who he is. He’s always been like that. He’s our fault — that’s how I see it. We let him come to where he is. I’m not so interested in blaming him; that’s being done enough by others. I’m more interested in: how did this happen? We’ve lost our moral foundation, which allows us to go this far over. So I don’t blame him. I just think he is what he is. We’re the ones who let that happen. We should be looking at ourselves.
Early on, I had such strong feelings about politics that were related to Nixon. When I was a kid in Los Angeles — I was 13 years old — they had a period of time called Boys’ Week where awards were presented. And when Nixon handed me the award and shook my hand, I got this chill. It was like a vibe. I thought, “Oof. This is darkness here.” As I grew up, it stuck with me. Whenever he showed up, that vibe always reappeared.
I learned early on, depending on the success of the film, suddenly I would be asked to show up with a candidate. And in the beginning, I was flattered. “Gee, they want me?” And then I’d say, “I’m being used as a pawn. I don’t care about this guy.” That’s when I said, “I’m not going to publicly support any candidate on a national stage, ever.”
Celebrities can’t get on the stage fast enough — you wonder who’s using who.
I think both have a need. The entertainment person gets a certain credibility, and the politician gets a certain notoriety. I’m against it.
I’m thinking back to what you were saying earlier about your family, and I’m recalling Ordinary People, where there is a mother who is closed down and a father who is trying to love his son. It’s almost your family in reverse.
I had to think afterward about that. There’s a lot in that movie that was probably subconscious. One thing was something that had affected me for much of my life. I really had a hard time with people who shut down their feelings. That went way back. I was constantly coming across people who were more interested in whether their lawns were cut, more interested in whether the house looked nice, and who would not go where their feelings might take them. I wanted to make that a theme in a film: the cost of not being able to get in touch with feelings, the cost on others. That’s what led to Ordinary People.
Mary Tyler Moore’s son died during the filming of that?
He died just after. We’d just finished filming and he took his own life. It was like, “Come on.” It was hard for her to cope. At moments like that, you really say, “Holy...”
You lost your own son, your first child, when you were a young father.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Was that ever part of your — how do you...
How does that show up in my work? I don’t know. I was only 21; my wife was 20. We were just starting our lives; I was just starting my career in New York. Of course it was traumatic, and how that plays out over time, I don’t know. We had to deal with it. You have to move on. And we had other children who came. But something like that doesn’t get completely dismissed. It probably shows up in various small ways you’re not even aware of. I’m sure there’s a lot of this stuff that’s subconscious. But it’s pretty traumatic when it happens, particularly when you’re that young. You’re not equipped to deal with it.
You’ve never done any time on the couch?
Sure I did. But it never worked out. I tried a while back, two or three times. I found myself trying to psychoanalyse the analyst.
Dustin Hoffman told me he has seen a shrink his whole life. Yeah, I know. Still not working. [Laughs.] God, I enjoyed working with him. That was really fun. He decided that to really be effective as [Woodward and Bernstein], considering their differences, we should spend some time together. Because Dustin and I were very different. But there was something fundamental that was alike — both from California, both from Los Angeles.
Both up for the lead in The Graduate.
Yeah. [Laughs.] Spending time together, we just sort of morphed in the best ways and ended up having just a terrific time where we could finish each other’s sentences. We could improvise — which I love to do — and it would just fall into place naturally. Dustin and I ended up in a terrific relationship.
I watched him as time went on, and he went through all these twists and turns in his life, and then we came together and we were doing part of the documentary for All the President’s Men, and he was in such a good place. So mellow, so mature, so wise, so comfortable.
I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve had wonderful relationships with people I’ve worked with. But nothing has sustained like Paul Newman. Nothing has sustained like our connection. It went into movie friendship, into personal friendship. It cut very deep. He changed my life: he agreed to have me in the movie [Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid] that I shouldn’t have been in. He was that generous. The studio wanted Steve McQueen, they wanted Marlon Brando, they wanted big-name people. And I was not that. I had only done Barefoot in the Park. I was 11 years younger than Paul, and [the director] George Roy Hill and I met, and he and I clicked. He wanted me. And then [the screenwriter] William Goldman wanted me, but the studio didn’t: “We can’t put Paul in with a no-name like that.” George said, “Let’s go meet Paul.” And Paul and I spent an evening together, drinking and talking. After, he said to the studio, “I want to go with Redford.” He stood up for me. They didn’t pay me anything. [Laughs.] I almost had to pay my way into the movie. But that generosity really struck me hard, that he could be that generous and have that kind of integrity. And then as the film went on, we both pushed aside our movie personas and just became friends. We developed this relationship that was full of a lot of kidding and tricks played on each other, just great fun. It turned into a longtime friendship that still exists, even though he’s not with us anymore. I think about him. And I will always be grateful for his generosity.
Is there any wisdom he imparted to you?
Well, he was a pretty big deal, and he was always humble. That impressed me. I never felt like it was going to his head. He developed a way to behave in public, and a way to be in private. Friendship was very important to him, and being able to be a real person was very important to him, to be an authentic person rather than to behave like a star. In his private life, he was just a real person. Very, very humble. I think I benefited from that friendship in that respect. He was just a down-home guy.
When you reunited for The Sting, did that idea come from both of you?
That script came to me first. What was really fascinating was that when we did Butch Cassidy, the studio didn’t want me. After the success of that, my name rose. Paul hadn’t done so well in his last few films, so when we came to The Sting, the studio wanted me but they weren’t willing to pay Paul the amount that he was requiring. I was able to give over some of my points to him so he could come in the movie. Because what remained was just the friendship.
How do you want to be remembered?
For the work. What really matters is the work. And what matters to me is doing the work. I’m not looking at the back end: “What am I going to get out of this? What’s going to be the reward?” I’m just looking at the work, the pleasure of being able to do the work. And that’s what the fun is: to climb up the mountain is the fun, not standing at the top. There’s nowhere to go. But climbing up, that struggle, that to me is where the fun is. That to me is the thrill. But once that’s over, that’s kind of it. I don’t look too much beyond that.
Very quickly, can I ask your impressions of some other actors? Meryl Streep.
Top of the line. Meryl is about as accomplished as you can
‘I’ve had wonderful relationships with people. But nothing has sustained like Paul Newman. I think about him’
get because she’s made it her business to be accomplished. First of all, she starts with a fundamental talent. And what I admire about Meryl is that she stayed focused on that. And she’s developed that to perfection. She’s made it her business to be really, really good at her craft. And she is.
Multi-faceted; he is so multi-talented. When I saw La La Land, I didn’t know he could play the piano. I knew he could do all these other things. He’s a terrific actor. I enjoy watching him. He’s really great.
There’s a personal friendship there that began a long time ago, when I brought him into A River Runs Through It .He wasn’t known then. Working with him at that point and then watching him go on his own, watching him go through all the twists and turns that follow success. I’ve lost touch with Brad. But every now and then I’ll see him, and it’s always great. And there’s this mutual respect that goes all the way back to the beginning. But whenever I see Brad, whatever has happened in between doesn’t exist. It’s just like I remember from the very beginning.
What did you see in him when you cast him?
The character I would have played if I was younger. Being seen as the golden boy but having a dark side. I felt we needed somebody who appeared to be a golden character and then we would find out that there was a flaw that would lead to his demise. He had that. When he first came in, he had a look about him. I said, “Yeah, you’re looking at it. He’s going to succeed.”
I’m grateful to have spent time with you.
I guess there are different ways to handle success. You can multiply it financially and use it to multiply your net worth. That’s always been very appealing to me — the fact that when I started having enough success, I could start something like Sundance. It was non-profit, so I was never going to benefit from it, but it was an organisation that, if it got developed right, would create opportunities for new film-makers whose voices couldn’t be heard. Because independent film wasn’t considered viable back in 1979. The major studios controlled the marketplace. All these stories that weren’t getting told by these new people out there needed development.
Think of the talent, from PT Anderson to Quentin Tarantino to Wes Anderson, whom you mentored through Sundance. Who knew? I remember when it started, I needed colleagues to be mentors and I had to go to them and say, “Look, there’s no money in this. The only thing I can offer here is the idea and a place.” I said, “It really is just remembering when you started.” It’s giving back.
It’s what Newman did with you.
Exactly. So I felt that was very… not so much virtuous as valuable. It just felt good. But I needed someone else to feel the same way. So whether it was Oliver Stone, or George Roy Hill, or Waldo Salt, whoever came up, I would say, “I think you’ll get something out of this. Because these young people will challenge you and then we’ll go through this process.” That’s how it started and I didn’t know how it was gonna go, but I knew that I couldn’t do it without my own colleagues being willing to give them their time, and they were. That’s why it worked.
Paul Newman, centre, and Redford, right, playing table tennis between takes on the set
of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Durango, Mexico, 1968
Redford working in an edit suite on the documentary Incident at Oglala, 1992