Robert Redford: More Than Just a Pretty Face

In a rare interview, one of America's most popular stars talks about why he directed 'Ordinary People,' starred in the grim 'Brubaker' and still hates Hollywood

Robert Redford, 1980 Credit: Michael Ward/Getty

Late last summer I called Robert Redford in Malibu. He was getting close to finishing the technical work on Ordinary People, his debut as a director, and he was anxious to get away from Hollywood. Although born and raised in Southern California, Redford intensely dislikes living in Los Angeles. I asked if his opinion had improved during this stay.

"Not at all," Redford said. "Merely confirmed. It's always been red alert: smog, sulfur content, people coughing and wheezing and going into air-conditioned rooms to lie down."

How about the film community? Had it changed?

"No. Hollywood only changes for one reason—fear. The entire town is built on fear. You always have a lot of people punting on third down."

The first time we met was over two years ago, in Utah, on location for The Electric Horseman, and the first thing I wrote in my notebook was that even without makeup, Redford's face had settled into an image of healthy middle-age that should let him play the same kinds of youthful roles for at least another decade.

What is intriguing about Redford, however, is that he probably won't continue to play those same roles. He says he never even considered appearing in Ordinary People, and has not decided on his next project. Indeed, the question remains, how long will he continue to play the role of actor ? And the answer, in part, lies in the reception of Ordinary People.

The desire to direct is not exactly a novel idea for midcareer performers with money in the bank. But Redford may be able to pull it off. His taste in film properties has been impeccable thus far. Always a political enthusiast, he suggested the investigative focus for All the President's Men when Woodward and Bernstein were still thinking of centering their book on the five burglars' point of view. Two years later, Redford optioned Judith Guest's Ordinary People while the book was still in galleys, long before it showed signs of becoming a critically acclaimed best seller.

Work on Ordinary People has kept Redford in New York and Los Angeles longer than usual. In 1961, he and his wife, Lola, bought two acres of isolated land in Utah from a sheepherder. Two years later, they designed and built their first house. They now own most of the mountain, on which they've constructed a showcase passive-solar home, complete with a solar-heated pool efficient enough to allow swimming at 8,000 feet, from spring until November. Redford also branched into ranching and farming. He now has 7,000 acres devoted to quarter horses, alfalfa, corn, wheat and barley, as well as a garden, greenhouse and trout pond.

His life in New York City is very different. "I like New York," he says. "It's a tough, honest, dirty city that doesn't pretend to be anything else. It's a place where cops or cabbies say, 'Hey, Rahbert!' and then leave you alone. People don't goon out the way they do in some cities." Redford guards his privacy with great care. He has, for example, done only a few TV talk shows in more than a decade. And when he does agree to a magazine interview, it is usually only because it involves an environmental issue he believes in.

His interest in the environment is not, however, that of a dilettante. He won't bring up any subject—be it early-twentieth-century impressionism, an off-off-Broadway playwright or a solar energy expert—unless he knows exactly what he's talking about. Redford, 42, returned this year to an active acting career after three years of seclusion in Utah. Electric Horseman, which brought him out of semi-retirement, offered the romantic pairing of Redford and Jane Fonda, and its commercial success proved that despite his long hiatus, Redford had lost no box-office appeal: he is among the three or four most highly paid actors in the world (although for his directing debut, he earned Guild minimum, $106,000 for twenty-six weeks). He jokingly refers to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) as his "overnight success"; in fact, Redford started acting a decade earlier, in New York stage productions, notably Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park in 1963. The subsequent screen version sparked Redford's career.

Immediately after completing Electric Horseman, Redford played a reform-minded warden in the grim prison film Brubaker. Released in June, it surprised everyone by becoming one of the more successful pictures of the summer. And only days after Brubaker wrapped. Redford launched into Ordinary People, starring Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch and Donald Sutherland, and due to be released around October 1st.

Most of the following conversation took place last spring in Redford's Fifth Avenue apartment across from Central Park. Redford's is probably one of the most western co-ops on the East Side; although an attempt to transplant sagebrush failed, there are numerous other plants, rustic wood on the walls, and an elaborate, spotlighted collection of kachina dolls and other native-American art.


Did you enjoy directing?
More than I expected. I've been moving in that direction anyway, getting more involved in different areas. The more I get into it, the more I realize that it's important to do it all yourself. But in the end, you are still sharing with someone. Not that I mind it—many of the people I work with are enormously talented. But I still want the experience of doing it myself.

The other nice thing about doing Ordinary People was that it brought in my art background. I was so remorseful about giving up art that for years it made it hard to function happily as an actor. But now it's come full circle. The best way I could translate what was in my head for Ordinary People was to draw pictures. I resisted the excessively verbal film-school attitude—too much analysis, not enough visceral performance. I could say, "Light this scene however you have to light it to get this effect." Or "I don't know from lenses, but this is the look I want," rather than saying, "Put a fifty on it, then switch to a seventy-five, do a wide this, a wide that. . . . "

I liked working on things like looping; having the privilege of getting something the way you want it is really exciting. It's tough and exhausting and painstaking and all that, but I'm fascinated with the entire process.

Were you nervous?
Not with the actors. I like actors, so we got along well. The other technical stuff I hadn't done before Also, I didn't really have time to be nervous. Electric Horseman had gone over schedule and so had Brubaker. Between the two, the time lost was sixteen weeks—the equivalent of one whole movie. And so I went straight into Ordinary People. I had no time to think about doing it; I had to go with my instincts, and I liked that.

Could you direct yourself?
I wouldn't want to. I don't like the idea.

Yet several actors recently have.
I've never seen it work all that well, but it's just a matter of preference. I like being able to move behind the camera freely—never having to cross the line.

Is 'Ordinary People' going to be a "Robert Redford Film"?
No. I resist the idea of billing a "so-and-so" film. The only way you could say that is if the person were acting in it alone, had written and directed himself and somehow shot it himself, too. Otherwise, I think a "so-and-so" film is bullshit, pure ego, agenting.

When you were in the middle of editing 'Ordinary People,' did you get tired of seeing the same footage over and over again? Writers sometimes say that when you can't bear to read a passage one more time, it might be right.
No. For me, I know it's right when I feel this twinge behind my nose, somewhere behind my sinuses [laughs]. I mean, when you've looked at a scene over and over again, and you still like it. There's a scene with Mary Tyler Moore that has some of the finest, most subtle acting I've ever seen. I never get tired of it. It's like driving up to my place in Utah. There's never any time, when I'm driving up the canyon, that I tire of it. And so I know it's good.

What kinds of writers do you like?
I guess I respond most to work that is original and American. I like Sam Shepard, Ray Mungo, Tom McGuane, Rudi Wurlitzer. I guess I'm a chauvinist, really. I'm not interested in foreign work, but I sure am interested in what's going on in, say, the streets of Chicago. That's why I like Texas writers. They have a real love-hate relationship with their own soil. Almost all of them—Gary Cartwright, Larry King, Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake, Larry McMurtry—leave Texas to write, and then end up writing about Texas. I like that. It's very American. They can't not write about Texas.

How about favorite actors?
That's hard. I never really had any role models. I admire Marlon Brando's work. I admire Jimmy Cagney. Cagney is an incredible talent. The one kind of actor who never interests me is the type who chews the scenery. They don't allow you time to do work of your own. It's funny, there are some actors who are their best when they're alone. They're at their worst when they have to share space with another actor.

Have you ever worked with anybody you couldn't stand?
Not really. I've worked with people who were difficult, who had different rhythms, who were impossible, but nobody I couldn't stand. Which I guess is a testimonial to how much I like actors. I don't like to be on the screen alone. It's not as gratifying.

Are you interested in just producing films?
No. I need to get involved. Too many filmmakers know everything about celluloid and lenses and not enough about human behavior. Actually, considering the years I've spent acting, I'm not really as technically proficient as I should be. I'm not good at matching or hitting marks.

I remember the director, Sydney Pollack, said during the filming of Electric Horseman: "One way or another, Bob's going to wreck the continuity on this film."
[Laughs] I guess I'm interested in certain kinds of continuity and not others.

These days in Hollywood, sometimes it's a disadvantage for an actor to be too good looking, because he's not taken seriously.
I've heard that said a lot lately about myself. I never used to hear it when I was young and out of work, when I could have used it. Your looks can suggest that everything is all right, even when it's not. But I think if you're a good actor, that will finally come through. Looks don't get you parts. There are just too many good-looking people who are also shallow and vapid and who don't succeed.

The character you play in 'Brubaker' is hardly the classic hero.
That's right. He is a controversial figure—not your hero type, although he has heroic proportions of a different order. He fails on one hand, due to his black-and-white sensibilities, but he wins a moral victory. Brubaker is a complex character with complex relationships. I wouldn't have taken the picture if it had been just another prison film.

A lot of the characters I've played have been perceived as shallow heroes. Something a critic wrote about Electric Horseman really bothered me. He asked, "Why do Redford and Fonda, these big social crusaders, keep giving themselves the roles of the good guys in their films?" First of all, Electric Horseman wasn't supposed to be political; it was designed to be good entertainment. Second, I have played less than heroic figures. The character in The Downhill Racer was certainly not likable. Fauss, in Little Fauss and Big Halsy, was an outrageous shit. I don't think people will see Brubaker as a total hero.

'Brubaker' ended up doing very well at the box office.
I was surprised; I had been dubious as to how it would work as a summer film. But I've had more feedback from the general audience on this picture than with most films. That's interesting.

The one thing that bothered me was that the film was immediately tainted by the press as a failure. The studio had designed a release pattern of opening slowly, then building. But the press was so hyped on the "what's happened to the business" story that they lumped it in with other films as being unsuccessful, tying it to some thesis about superstars. And then that story was picked up by lazier journalists all over the country. So I was very happy when the audiences still responded.

Why did 'Brubaker' work?
It may have something to do with audiences wanting stuff of substance—who knows? The film business runs through cycles, and maybe this summer was the end of the disaster-horror cycle. Audiences are tiring of that and want something else. We might also be at the end of, oh, a certain kind of comedy.

Poor-taste, youth-oriented comedy didn't do that well this summer.
Good-taste comedy is always hard to come by. But at any rate, we could be at the end of a cycle. When I was a kid, it seemed like all the movies had to do with the Bible. They were stretching screens to accommodate where movies were going. That was followed by small black-and-white movies, made out of New York, about people who lived in the Bronx and had nothing to do on Saturday night. So it kind of goes back and forth.

How do you choose film projects?
I resist, perhaps to my detriment, trying to calculate public opinion. There are filmmakers who actually use pollsters and the like; Warren Beatty is very calculating when it comes to audience opinion. I think that's probably a very responsible position for a filmmaker to take. I just have a hard time with it myself.

How has the film industry changed in the years you've been involved?
In the late Sixties, the big studios passed from the hands of the old moguls to corporate giants—say, General Foods, or some auto-parts manufacturer. The people who took over assumed you could run an art form like a business, with a computerized, businesslike approach. But then a lot of multimillion-dollar films, with big, big budgets, went right on their ass. There's something very natural about the film business that makes it impossible to calculate entirely. I once heard somebody say, "Hey, guys, I think we have a chance here to make an Academy Award film," and I had to leave the room. I couldn't take that.

So the corporate guys went under, and there was a new wave—agents, say, as heads of studios. And we saw what kind of corruption that led to. Now, I think, somebody has finally gotten the idea of letting filmmakers make the films. Try to keep some control over their budgets and their impulses, but, essentially, let them make the film.

After you finished location shooting for Ordinary People in Lake Forest, Illinois, you took out a newspaper ad apologizing for any inconveniences. How do you feel about going into other people's lives for your films?
I feel a bit like a reporter, I guess, because I like to mix research with the story. Bob Woodward once told me that the most dangerous thing about reporting is that you come into people's lives when they are at their most intense and exciting. And in making every film, there's somebody who's out of joint, who thinks you've violated his life.

After The Candidate came out, a political media guy thought he'd been ripped off as one of the characters. In truth, he'd set himself up for it—establishing himself as a personality in a field of personalities. But we didn't do a caricature or do an out-and-out carbon copy. It made me very uncomfortable. I like to think that the films I do are real. But that also carries a special responsibility when it comes to real people.

So I was very careful about shooting in Lake Forest. These days, you can't even shoot a western in the West—too many power lines. You've got to go to Spain to shoot Texas. So Lake Forest was a find—like finding the elements for a Norman Rockwell painting. But too often film companies sweep through communities like the blitz. They figure, "We've got what we want, let's move on." It's like a boomtown mentality.

What was your first acting role?
[Long pause] Tall Story, on Broadway in 1959. I had one line. Actually, it was a life-saving deal. My wife was supporting us on fifty-five dollars a week, working in a bank down on Wall Street. But she was pregnant, and—talk about sexism—the bank had a four-month cutoff point for pregnant women, and she had about two more weeks to go. And we had nothing in savings.

I'd been up for parts before, unsuccessfully. I remember auditioning for a Newport cigarette commercial and being told I wasn't the right type. In fact, I had this early image of myself as not being acceptable, in terms of looks and personality. So I was really desperate for this one-line job in a Broadway comedy.

Inside the theater, the director, producer and writer all looked bored and impatient, standing there saying nothing but "next," "next," I went in, grabbed a basketball and just went crazy onstage. I was dribbling and hook-shooting off the wall and doing setups while I babbled some incoherent high-school chant I remembered, just jiving and generally doing a gorilla number onstage. The director finally put up his hands and said, "All right, fine, hire him, as long as he'll get off the stage." It was eighty-two dollars a week, and I couldn't believe my good luck. It was such a big deal, I took my wife to the Copacabana and we had our picture taken. If you looked at that picture now, you'd throw up, such a dope sitting there. But it was very important at the time.

Anyway, that show carried me through to the summer season, when I started summer stock in Bucks County. They didn't have a costume for me, so they tore up an old sheet to make a toga. My hair was too straight, so they curled it. Louise Fletcher played Helen of Troy, and we survived by commiserating with each other about what a load of shit it seemed to be.

You'd been studying acting at the time?
I actually had come back from studying painting in Europe, and I wanted some practical experience to get a job, whether it was painting a car or the set or the side of a building. I was at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and ended up studying set design at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. That quickly evaporated in favor of actually performing.

I didn't really like studying acting, but the head of the school was very decent to me and gave me a scholarship. I studied for about a year, and looking back, I'm grateful for the basics I learned: what was stage right, how not to walk off the apron, how to project your voice. But the real core of acting can't be taught in school. If I was to give advice to a young actor, it would be two things. One, want it more than anything else in the world, because it's just too tough a road unless you feel that way. And two, spend at least two years just living, in the country and in the streets, seeing how people behave. Feel life through other people so you have something other than your own personality to transmit.

You've said you were a bad student, and you never finished college. But you are a big reader. What was wrong with school?
No real contact. I never worked well in institutions. My eyes and ears were always out the window, looking at people on the street. I remember in junior high school, there was a bus stop outside the window, and I watched the way people waited for buses. Then they started to put up a building, and I watched the way things went up, the way the workmen wasted time. All I could think about was how to get myself out, once I was in, without relying on a bell ringing. Having to go to the bathroom, having a stomachache, forgetting to call home—I used them all. Then usually all I'd do is walk around the yard a little and go back in.

So did you start to think you were dumb?
I was convinced of it. The only tests I'd ever pass were the visual ones that asked, "What's wrong with this picture?" The kind where it turns out the lady only has one sock on. It's funny. That's become sort of an integral part of the way I work. I'm interested in what's wrong in what appears to be perfect. That was the focus in All the President's Men. And in Ordinary People, it's the apparently perfect order of a family that actually has a great deal wrong with it.

You once told me that you started out being too hard-line on environmental issues, that you were alienating people too much to be effective.

Yes. Your initial impulse, especially when you're young, is emotional. You get emotional when you see them strip-mining land and you remember how beautiful it was, or when you see the air gray with fumes. But later you start to see the full picture. People need work, and if they depend on jobs that produce pollution, they can't afford to see the pollution. Finally you have to ask," What's going to work here?" You can yell and pound your fist, but pretty soon you're a predictable radical and easy to ignore—"There he goes again," that sort of thing. Or, you can take a more pragmatic, behind-the-scenes approach.

I haven't heard much about your proposal to set up an Institute for Natural Resources.
It's stuck in the bureaucracy. But that's because I felt it needed some governmental affiliation. The point is to train resource managers in both economic development and environmental protection. We're not saying don't develop coal, for example, but if you do, develop it in an area that makes sense. Stay away from the national parks, because there should be space preserved for the human spirit, otherwise we're suffocating ourselves. But there are great areas where we could develop coal. People ask, "Are we talking about clean air versus development and jobs?" But that's precisely the point of the institute. We're not talking about "versus"; the point is to train people to make decisions we won't regret twenty-five years from now. I want teachers from different walks of life, not just some environmental university. I think the only way we're going to move forward is to bring industry and environmentalists together.

Are you optimistic about the institute?
I don't know. If we get the kind of administration that, say, Ronald Reagan represents—indiscriminate use of resources, big business on the boom, a Fifties approach of business as usual—then something like the institute will have no appeal at all.

One of the reasons I've kept my name away from it for the past two years is my fear that, since I'm tagged as a straight environmentalist, it would lose credibility. But even so, it's moving slowly.

You were cited for illegal helicopter skiing on wilderness land a few months ago.
[Shaking his head] How to get publicity. Here's how I put it in perspective. Over the past few years, I've helped make this eight-minute film on solar energy. Saul Bass is the director, and the breakthrough is that this is the first time a film dealing with alternative energy is being put into the entertainment market. As you know, I'm not much on publicity, but this was one thing I wanted to attract attention to. So we had a series of press conferences, and there was hardly any coverage. I get more coverage trying to sneak in and out of a restaurant.

Then, a few weeks later, I'm helicopter skiing—they dump us off at the top of the mountain so we can ski down 4,000 feet. At the bottom, there are a couple of Smokey the Bears saying, "Mr. Redford, we're sure sorry about this, but you're operating a motorized vehicle on government property without a permit." I said, "Aw, Jesus, I could take this a lot easier if the Forest Service stopped taking a double standard on what it regulates. You're making an issue of this, and on the other side of the mountain you have this massive development that is going to rip apart the whole Wasatch front, and is a total boondoggle."

I bet that helped a lot.
[Shrugs] They were correct, of course. But I guess that hassle led them to leak something to the press, and the next thing, it was all over the country. It's sort of ironic. That made all the papers; the solar film made hardly any. I'm finally coming to realize that going around making speeches has little or no effect. People are more interested in whether my teeth are capped or whether I dye my hair. I was at Yale recently to pick up an award. There was a little press conference, and the resulting article, first thing, reported I was wearing tailor-made jeans. That's bullshit. I buy most of my stuff out at Wolfe's Sporting Goods in Orem [Utah].

So far you haven't taken much part in the presidential campaign.
I'm not sure I can support either of the two main choices. It says a lot about our political system that we could end up with two choices who, if you believe the polls, more than half the country isn't happy with. I wish there had been some way to put Carter, Kennedy, Reagan, Bush and Anderson all in one arena to debate during the primaries. I think a separation would have occurred a lot sooner, with less waste in time, money, paperwork.

The first time we talked, a year ago, you were very interested in native-American culture—especially the Southwestern Indians. You sounded almost spiritual about it. It sounded like a movie was starting there, somewhere.
There are some important elements there that should be pulled into a greater whole. I already spent time looking at ruins and exploring, but I want to do more. I want to go to Egypt to look at some connections I sense there. I guess I'm most interested in having the Indians speak their own language. Until now, Indians have always been spoken for by white people. There's been little or no activity involving Indians in film, and I'm looking forward to that. Their art has always been very visual. And more important, it deals so specifically with nature as a sacred thing. I trust that, because I trust nature more than anything.

Earlier you mentioned wanting to make a trip into the Superstition Mountains, that you remembered a childhood neighbor who went prospecting there and came back crazy. What's the attraction?
I guess it's a question of age and place that intrigues me. Going to Santa Fe is like going to Greece. It's not that special compared to other areas. The piñon pines are no different than piñon pines elsewhere. But there has been culture there longer than in most places, and you feel it. They say the reason the grass is so green at Sparta is that so much blood was spilled in the soil, over so long a period of time. Mystical or not, there's a point there.

When I was a kid, all I knew was that I felt more comfortable sitting in one chair than in another. And now I realize it was because one chair was older. I still respond directly to the age of things.

What about your future in acting?
[Long silence] I really do miss being able to go through life a little less noticed. It would be horseshit to say I don't respond to flattery and attention. Clearly, there's something in the psyche that makes you want to be an actor in the first place. But I feel a sense of loss at not being able to enjoy the give and take of life a little more.

I guess I don't like the fact that my life is becoming less and less my own—the prevailing attitude that you have an obligation to deliver yourself to the public. Actually, you're delivered to the public whether you like it or not. I guess if you don't like it, you should stop doing what provokes it. In my case, that's acting.

Do you plan to start preparing another project to direct?
Yes, right away.

What happens if you go to a studio with a project and they say, "Great, as long as you'll star"?
[Shrugs] A lot depends on Ordinary People [long pause]. You know, it's kind of hard to talk about the things that don't work for me. Like, my life is hard on relationships, and I'm trying to change that. But it seems to me that success is really tied to the ability to change. What's hard is when you've got something that's working—like acting, for me—and you know in advance it can't stay that way. You have to lose a part of yourself that seems to be working well. Because of my own insecurities—about education, not being sure of myself—I want to hang onto things that work. Moving away from an acting career is tough. But I know I can't do it forever.