As screen legend Robert Redford turns 80, retiresavvy presents an exclusive interview looking back on his career and his work with Sundance
Redford has been a leading man with roles spanning six decades, including a star-making turn in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as Washing Post journalist Bob Woodward in 1976’s Watergate thriller All the President’s Men, and alongside Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal (1993).
The screen legend and two-time Academy Award winner (one for directing "Ordinary People" and a Lifetime Achievement Award) turned 80 on 18 August 2016.
Most recently, he has played a corrupt politician in Marvel’s Captain America: Winter Soldier and Meacham, a wizened old wood carver, in the Disney movie Pete’s Dragon. Redford says he jumped at the chance to play Meacham as the role was “very diverse from anything I had done up to that point and have subsequently done, and I've done some very dark films.”
Growing up in a deprived neighbourhood in Santa Monica, California, Redford says “there was not much to do … storytelling became something to keep you alive.”
“The circumstances I was raised in were pretty grim. World War II was winding down, but it was a very dark time. Nobody had anything. One of the ways that I escaped being depressed about it was to 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. I would draw stories that were in my head, and that sort of kept me up. Once you do that when you're young, something gets in to you and that stays with you. The idea of storytelling carried through, so that I realised that was probably going to be my role in life, as a storyteller.”
From Daisy Clover to the Washington Post to Sundance
But as one of the most iconic actors in Hollywood history, it’s strange to think that Redford’s career could have been over before it began.
One of his first roles was as a closeted bisexual Hollywood actor in Inside Daisy Clover (1965); a role he was assured would mark the end of his career and at that time – perhaps even if the film were made today – took considerable professional courage to take on.
I don't believe in bucket lists. Just keep doing things that you want to do if you can.
“I did it because it was different and it was a great role,” he says. “[The character Wade Lewis] was really was a total narcissist - he could attract anything, that was his thing. I remember talking to the filmmakers about that, because he had been written as gay.
“I said, ‘I'm not interested in that, but I'm interested in playing somebody that's more complicated’ and producer and director liked that idea, so that's the direction we went in.”
After Inside Daisy Clover, Redford appeared as “a rough edged convict” in The Chase, alongside Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando, then with Sidney Poitier in This Property Is Condemned.
These diverse roles showed there was more to the young Redford and prevented Hollywood from typecasting him.
“There was not enough time for me to be seen as that character,” he says.
While the southern Californian native was seen by many as a little more than a Hollywood heartthrob in the 1960s and 1970s, Redford pushed himself creatively and artistically.
He bought the rights to make the film of All The President’s Men – which was nominated for eight Oscars and has been included as one of the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Films.
But possibly his biggest contribution to cinema is the Sundance Institute and film festivals.
Creating the Sundance Film Festival
Redford co-founded the Sundance Institute, initially based in Utah, which offers financial and creative support to help develop the next generation of filmmakers.
“It's just an extension of something I believed in,” says Redford. “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.”
“When I started Sundance, I was treated like an insurgent in the hills, coming down to attack Los Angeles. It was simply because the land that I had in Utah was the only thing I could afford. I also thought, what if we do it in nature? It might add something to it. It took a while for the message to get through, that I had good intentions.”
When Sundance started, Redford intended that its ‘Lab’ program would be non profit. Colleagues in the film industry would “come up and give two, three weeks of their time to help new artists come in and go through a process like a boot camp”.
“We couldn't pay them anything – I was dependent on the generosity of my colleagues, and that's how it started.”
But with a new generation of filmmakers coming through outside the established Hollywood system, Redford realised there were few opportunities for their films to be shown.
“The mainstream studios had relationships with the theatres and they didn't allow any space. So there was nowhere to go.”
The result was the creation of the Sundance Film Festival – the annual ten day celebration of independent cinema that takes place in Utah. These days, it’s seen as a ‘shop window’ for the ‘next big thing’ in cinema and has helped launch the careers of filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh. But it had much more humble beginnings.
“When we first started, people said it would never work: ‘no one cares about independent film, you're doing it up in Utah, you just got the one theatre - you're really asking for it’. We had 30 films; maybe 12 or 14 of them were documentaries.
“I would stand outside the theatre trying to get people in, like some guy outside of a strip joint. Now we have 70,000 people who come see these films.”
His 80th birthday and beyond
Turning 80, Redford is just as busy as ever and shows few, if any, signs of slowing down, with two films due for release in spring 2017. “I'm in a period of my life where I like to act,” he says. “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.”
Celebrating such a milestone, what, if anything, is left for Redford to achieve? “I don't believe in bucket lists. Just keep doing things that you want to do if you can. And you don't think much else. You just say, ‘Oh I like to do this’. Then I'm going to see if I can do it and you keep moving forward.
“As long as you keep having new ideas to keep you going that's all that matters to me.”
Retiresavvy is brought to you by Skipton Building Society. The interview in this article was supplied by InterviewHub. This article has been commissioned by retiresavvy and any opinions voiced are the author's own.