Robert Redford: Out of the past

By Michele Manelis

Robert Redford's reputation as an actor's director is reinforced by his new film's heavyweight cast, writes Michele Manelis

Robert Redford in the movie The Company You Keep. Photo / Supplied
Robert Redford in the movie The Company You Keep. Photo / Supplied

It's unusual, if not refreshing, in a cinema culture dominated by the youth demographic, that a major political thriller such as The Company You Keep - in which the lead actors are quite a few decades into their careers - doesn't serve as a melancholy vehicle for the inevitable aging process.

Robert Redford, 76, takes directorial and starring duties in the film, based on the 2003 novel by Neil Gordon. He has hand-picked heavyweight contemporaries to star alongside him - Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, Richard Jenkins and Brendan Gleeson.

Redford plays a former Weather Underground anti-Vietnam War militant wanted for robbery and murder who's been living under an alias for 30 years. His life spins out of control after one of his cohorts (Sarandon) is incarcerated, leading a young investigative journalist (played by Shia LeBeouf) to his door. A cat-and-mouse game of intrigue and moral dilemma ensues.

In New York to promote the movie, Redford talks about why he was drawn to a political story concerning issues which might not seem relevant today.

"Well, to simplify it, some films are made not to make you think - they're like eating cotton candy. You have a wonderful ride and then it's over. Other films are designed to at least make you ask a question afterwards, or think about what's happened and maybe start a dialogue. That's the kind of film I would prefer to make.

"But also, another motivating factor was that I have a lot of criticism about my own country. I don't think we are very good at looking at history as a lesson to be learned so that we don't repeat a negative historical experience. We are not good at looking back in time and saying, 'This happened. What can we learn from that?' It's an American tradition to be so busy pushing forward and doing, doing, doing," he says. "And that's what interested me. I wanted to tell that story. Not then, but now."

Despite the cachet that surrounds "a Robert Redford film", obtaining financing was no mean feat. "'I don't know that my name carries much weight, actually. If we were in the 1970s there would be a budget for this kind of character-driven stuff, but the business has changed so much. All the money these days is being spent on tent pole or franchise films like James Bond or Harry Potter."

It would come as no surprise if he was feeling a little nostalgic for old Hollywood, in which character-driven movies were mainstream fare. "Well, I think you'd be nostalgic if you'd missed that era and couldn't make those films. I can make those films but it makes me sad there's not more support or flexibility for them to make them easier to be made. But at least I'm able to make them at all."

Not one to rest on his laurels as "the Brad Pitt of his day", there are no signs of the revered actor-director-producer slowing down.

"I can only tell you that I don't see any point in stopping or retiring so long as you can keep going forward," he says. "I also think a career requires a certain amount of reinvention. If you get caught in one track it can be dangerous because success has a dark side to it. You want to be careful not try and follow it by just duplicating what you've done in the past, but you should use that to launch you in a different direction."

Redford's company founded the Sundance Film Festival in 1978 with the intent of championing independent cinema. An actor's director, finding a cast to work with him, even for scale salaries, isn't difficult.

Case in point: Stanley Tucci jumped on board without hesitation. "When Bob invites you to be a part of his film, you do it," he smiles. "You can't make money on every movie you do, so you augment doing these kinds of smaller movies with films I've done recently, such as Jack the Giant Slayer and The Hunger Games," he explains. "And you have to remember, Bob created a lot of opportunities for many actors when he started the Sundance Film Festival. That means something to actors."

Tucci's role as an editor appealed to him. "He's a dying breed in an industry going out of control in this age of the internet," he says.

The production was filmed for a very low US$25 million ($29 million). Although LeBeouf isn't present today to promote the movie, it's arguably one of the best roles of his career. Tucci's veteran news man, who has an adversarial relationship with this upstart reporter, provides some interesting friction. "Shia has this incredible energy and he absolutely became obsessive like the character he plays," says Tucci. "He delivers every take differently, and that's what I really love. Otherwise acting can become a little tedious."

This isn't Redford's first foray into the world of journalism. Notable others are the Oscar-winning movie All The President's Men, in 1976, and again twenty years later in Up Close and Personal.

"Journalism is now threatened by changing times and politics and I almost take that personally so I wanted to show it in a film," he says. "If I wasn't interested in journalism, I wouldn't have done this film. The internet has changed this profession drastically," he says passionately. "Everyone is a journalist now, anyone can tweet. What happened? Where are the qualified people?"

Despite his empathy for the profession, Redford never entertained the thought of being a journalist. He laughs. "Oh no... but I like the idea of journalism. I see my job as an artist to show things, to draw a picture." This prompts him to take pen to paper and he casually draws a figure of a woman with long hair. "I started as an artist. To me, film is about drawing a picture with different layers."

In keeping with his modus operandi of reinventing himself, we will next see him in an unlikely role in one of those tent pole films he talked about. "I'm doing Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Yes, it's a totally different direction for me," he smiles. "I'm going to be a senior leader in the secret government agency of S.H.I.E.L.D." He laughs. "I think it's pleasing the grandkids quite a bit."

Who: Robert Redford, actor and director
What: The Company You Keep
When and where: Opens at cinema Thursday

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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