Robert Redford: always moving forward

Suzy Maloy / 23 August 2016

Robert Redford turned 80 on August 18. But the Academy Award winner and star of Pete's Dragon feels like he’s just hitting his stride as an actor.

“I’m in a period of my life where I like to act,” he explains during a recent interview, dressed casually in a black pullover and jeans and a light jacket, his blondish-grey hair tousled like he just wandered in from the ranch.

Redford, best known for his iconic roles in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Way We Were, The Natural and more, has even joined the Hollywood superhero bandwagon playing the main antagonist Alexander Pierce in 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier

The native Southern Californian was a heartthrob in the 1960s and 1970s, but also proved to be more than just a pretty face. He tackled a range of roles as an actor before adding director and producer to his list of substantial accomplishments.

One of his main legacies is founding the Sundance Film Festival, now a mainstay of the indie film business, and the Sundance Institute, which helps burgeoning filmmakers realize their dreams. While widely respected now in the Hollywood community, its beginnings were considered subversive. How dare he open a center for filmmakers outside of Hollywood, and in Utah, no less? Budgetary considerations, he explains.

Redford appears in Disney’s effects-laden remake of the 1977 fantasy adventure Pete’s Dragon, as a wizened old wood carver named Meacham, who loves to tell tall tales about flying dragons in the woods to the local children in the rural Northwest.  He co-stars alongside Bryce Dallas Howard, Karl Urban, Wes Bentley and pre-teenagers Oona Laurence and Oakes Fegley as Pete.

Aside from the two main characters, the boy and the dragon, the film is an all-new story about an orphan boy who is discovered living in the woods by a thoughtful park ranger, who brings him home to her family, and discovers that he has been protected for six years by a remarkable dragon.  The live-action adventure is directed by David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) from a screenplay he wrote with Toby Halbrooks.

In addition to promoting the family-friendly film, the iconic actor and filmmaker spoke about his legacy and how he risked his reputation in the less enlightened ‘60s when he played a bisexual character in a film early in his career.

Q: What was the appeal of this role for you?

Redford: It was very diverse from anything I had done up to that point and have subsequently done, and I’ve done some very dark films. The idea of going back to my own childhood, which was based on storytelling, because I grew up very near here in a very lower working class neighborhood (in Santa Monica, Calif.) where there was not much to do. Storytelling became something to keep you alive, and also storytelling was a way to see a world bigger than the one you were living in, and that had great appeal for me.

Q: Storytelling as part of your childhood?

Redford: Yes, since that was part of my upbringing it became part of me and I wanted to pass it on to my kids and my grandkids. I thought, "If you can ever do a project that really has magic in it and justifiable magic, you should do it," and this was it. I didn't see the other iterations of Pete's Dragon. I had never read or I didn't see the others, so to me it was brand new.

Q: Your storytelling character is like the Disney films of the '70s, where they had a great, folksy character telling what appears to be an apocryphal story. Were you going to be that narrator?

Redford: Oh. I never thought of myself that way. I know that when we did the film (director) David Lowery was very welcoming in terms of, "Look, if you want to add something, here's the character. Do you want to embroider it? Do you want to add something? Do you want to shift? I'd like your input."

He allowed me to enter the character and sort of have my own way with him about how he tells the story, how he sees the world and so forth. He was very considerate that way. That threw me even further in to it, to be able to sort of design my own character a little bit, in addition to what was written.

Q: How did that go? What were some of the things where you can say those were little things that I shaped, in a way?

Redford: Small things like, he's a wood carver and to illustrate, he seems to be a man totally alone in this very small sphere of operating in this room that's sort of dark, and he's carving wood. Suddenly he hears something outside and it's children. He decides to play a joke and he bursts out at them. I love that moment. I love that. Being able to, be able to explode out of it and scare them and then pull them together to tell them a story, and then make up a story that no one really believed but they liked hearing it, anyway. Then they find out, guess what? It's true. I love that angle on it. I just thought it was fun.

Q: Do you have plans to direct again? Do you have anything in the works?

Redford: Two things in the works that would be next spring. I’m in a period of my life where I like to act.

Q: You're a busy guy. Are you feeling a new vitality? You turned 80 on August 18

Redford: I think you keep going. I think I've been that way my whole life—always moving forward, trying new things. It helped that I was in athletics, because I could always do new sports and keep very physically active. I think that just passed on to my life in general, that I wanted to always be trying new things because it was exciting and it kept you active and alive. I think that's just the way it is.

Q: When you were growing up here in the L.A. area, were you an imaginative or realistic child?

Redford: I was forced to be realistic because of the circumstances I was raised in. They were pretty grim. One of the ways that I escaped being depressed about it was you create stories of your own in your head, and then you write them down, or you just imagine them, or you draw them.

I started out to be an artist. As a child I would draw stories that were in my head, and that sort of kept me up.

At the time World War II was winding down, but it was a very dark time. Nobody had anything. It was a way to keep you up. Once you do that when you're young, something gets written in to you and that stays with you.

The idea of storytelling, which sort of helped me, kept me up as a child, carried through, so that I realized that was probably going to be my role in life, as a storyteller.

Q: Though the story is set in America’s Pacific Northwest, you filmed “Pete’s Dragon” in New Zealand. There’s a rumor that you saved a horse you saw there during production. Can you elaborate?

Redford: We were traveling to the location and it was a long haul. It was a long haul. It was really a drag. We came by this one area where there was this horse tied up to a fence and it looked like it was pretty well wasting away. Came by the next day, same thing. The day after that, same thing and I said, somebody's not attending to this horse. It's a horse being left to die. So I got out of the car, undid the horse, gave him something to eat and we went on our way. So I hope he survived.

Q: In asking your young co-star Oakes what he knew of you before you co-starred in this film he said he knows you founded The Sundance Institute.

Redford: Wow. That is shocking. I'm surprised. I think that he would have seen films on television or something. To say the Sundance Institute at his age is kind of a sophisticated thing to say, because I don't know how much that has gone out in the world.

Q: How do you feel about your legacy in that sense? Is the Sundance Institute the most important thing perhaps that you've really accomplished in your career or is it this incredible body of work?

For me, it's just an extension of something I believed in, which is creating a mechanism for new voices to have a place to develop and be heard, and just keep giving them more opportunities and hope that it reaches broader audiences. If so, it's not like you're going against the film industry. You're not going against the Academy. You're just trying to enhance it. You're trying to add more to it.

I think that was misconstrued for a long time, when I started Sundance. First of all it was in Utah, not here. So I was treated like an insurgent in the hills, come down and attack Los Angeles. It was simply because that's the only thing I could afford, the land that I had in Utah. I couldn't afford to do something like that in an urban environment. I also thought what if we do it in nature? It might add something to it. It took a while for that to get through, that I had good intentions.

You know what was weird about that? I'll tell you a short story. When (Sundance) started, because I had the idea of the lab program and that it would be non-profit, I depended on colleagues of mine who were writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, editors, to come up and give two, three weeks of their time. We couldn't pay them anything - to help new artists come in and go through a process where they would have to go through like a drill situation. I'm dependent on the generosity of my colleagues, and that's how I started.

Q: It sounds almost surreal in today’s Hollywood, where money seems to be the be all and end all…

Redford: That is true. Once we realized that we were helping them develop their skills so they could get their films made, suddenly I realized there's nowhere to go, because the mainstream studios had relationships with the theaters and they didn't allow any space. So there was nowhere to go. That led to the idea of a festival and I said, well what if we had a festival where we could bring these people together and they could at least show each other their work? That's how it was intended. I couldn't do it at Sundance. First of all, in those days I didn't have a theater there and the nearest town was Park City and so I said well, and Park City just had one theater, the old Egyptian and maybe four restaurants in town.

Q: Could you imagine if it was still only that? You can fill up the Eccles Theater (in Salt Lake City).

Redford: I never dreamed that that would happen, so when we first started, the idea was it'll never work. No one cares about independent film. You're doing it up in Utah. You're really asking for it. We had the one theater. I would stand outside. We had 30 films; maybe 12 or 14 of them were documentaries. I would stand outside the theater trying to get people in, like some guy outside of a strip joint. That's how it started.

Q: Interesting image, Robert Redford trying to usher people into a theater…

Redford. It took about four to five years before it survived. When globalisation occurred in the '90s, suddenly we were able to bring films from other countries and bring the filmmakers and the whole thing began to grow. Now the combination of Park City, they're in a manic development mode, so the tension now which is going to come down on us is, we have more films. We have 70,000 people who come see these films. The city is shrinking and we're growing.

You wait, you'll see some real tension coming up in the next year because Park City is very much like the mentality that's about development at any cost: profit, development. Park City is developing itself almost to death and there are very few spaces for us. We can't move around.

Q: Do you think you may move out of Park City?

Redford: I think that's a problem because for whatever reason people associate the festival with Park City. In fact, a lot of people think Sundance is in Park City. It's not. It's 40 miles away. But, I think we move it to Heber (Utah) or someplace like that, it's going to be a problem.

Q: Do you have to think like a developer or think as a city planner to make some sense out of what happens next, because obviously you want to see your Institute grow, but as somebody who's interested in preserving natural habitats and so forth, how do you balance that?

Redford: I don't worry about Sundance, because we have control of that land there and we have a fine balance, because the institute develops there. It exhibits in Park City, so I'm dependent on Park City. I'm not dependent on anything at Sundance because I can control that. I think Park City realizes that we bring a lot to that city in a short amount of time and we bring not only multitudes of people from all over, it's kind of put it on the map, but also make a lot of money, bring around $60-80 million dollars into the economy. That's a lot, because money speaks in Utah. The question is, “How are they going to accommodate us?” They're going to have to create some space for us. They're going to have to do something that allows us to stay. I think they realize this. I think the mayor certainly does, so stay tuned.

Q: There's been such a huge sea change in gay and lesbian acceptance and representation. At the start of your career, when you did Inside Daisy Clover in 1965 you played this closeted gay Hollywood actor. Didn't people tell you that you're crazy? You're going to destroy your career.

Redford: Yes, they did. They did.

Q: Back then, if people thought a leading man was gay, it would ruin their career.

Redford: You're absolutely right. I did it because it was different and it was a great role. I thought, this is just a terrific acting role and it will be surprising to some people. They see me a certain way and I can play this. I didn't play him as absolutely gay. I played him as bisexual. What he was really was a total narcissist. That he could attract anything. That was it. That was his thing. I remember talking to the filmmakers about that, because he had been written as gay. I said, well I'm not that interested in just that sort of one-dimensional. I said, “I’m not interested in that, but I'm interested in playing somebody that's more complicated.” (Producer Alan J.) Pakula and (director Robert) Mulligan, who were making it liked that idea, so that's the direction we went in. I loved the role. I thought it was a terrific role and also I got to work with Natalie (Wood).

Q: Was there any fallout from that?

Redford: No, I think what happened was, I wasn't sure I was going to continue a career. I went to Hollywood from Broadway to do Inside Daisy Clover, so I did Inside Daisy Clover, and then the next film was The Chase, with Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando. That was a totally different character. He was a convict, rough edged, and then after that was This Property is Condemned with Sidney Poitier and Natalie Wood, again. Those were three different characters and they were all jammed together.

I then decided I wasn't sure I wanted to be in this business, and so I went to Spain for a year and rented a small place in a little, tiny town in the south of Spain, because I thought I might want to go back to being an artist. I left the business. But those films came, boom, boom, boom. There was not enough time for Inside Daisy Clover for me to be seen as that character.

Q: Speaking of Sundance, David Lowery premiered his film there, Ain't Them Bodies Saints. Is that how he got on your radar and can you talk a little bit about him as a director from the actor's standpoint or the director's standpoint?

Redford: Well we love that film. It was in our festival and I really liked it. I thought it was well done. It was a very intimate story. When this came up, I thought well this is interesting. It's got a weird sense of intimacy but not like, how do I say it? This is going, whoa, taking on a whole other thing. What's that about? What kind of a guy ... I was kind of curious about it and we spent some time. One of the things that helped was the part was narrower in the beginning and not totally flushed out. It didn't need to be, because it was about the dragon, about the boy. He allowed me to have a say in the character. I could help develop the character further, so that he was more of an anchor to the story. He was very collaborative; he was very open to that. That allowed me to get to know him more. As a result, we're doing a film in the fall called Old Man With a Gun. It's a true story (that was reported on) in the New Yorker. It’s about a guy that kept robbing banks and he kept getting caught. The reason he did that was because what he really loved was escaping. He did it maybe 17 times.

Q: Where does it take place?

Redford: Texas and Florida. It's just a terrific story and it's true. 

Interview by Suzy Maloy for The Interview People

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