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The Rolling Stone Interview: Robert Redford

The actor, director, and founder of the Sundance Film Festival looks back on his movie career

Robert RedfordRobert Redford

Robert Redford poses for a picture at a press conference for the film 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' in Salt Lake City, Utah, January 21st, 1994.

Tom Smart/Liaison/Getty

Robert Redford aspires to be casual but doesn’t quite get there. Whether seated on a conference-room couch or behind a desk in the Manhattan office of his production company, Wildwood Enterprises, he strikes the postures of relaxation — putting his feet up on a coffee table, leaning back into the couch with his hands behind his head — but they never ring physically true. Apart from the looks, you would never believe that Redford was an actor — which is, of course, why he’s so effective onscreen. Being with him in a room, in fact, oddly produces the same effect as watching him act: It’s tempting to assume the handsome exterior and affable manner tell the whole story, but his edgy grace signals that he’s holding something back. He is more earnest than publicly introspective — more is going on than he is willing, or able, to reveal. He is the literal definition of reserved.

Redford is dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, the shirt’s dark blue just happening to provide a splendid foil to the sky-blue gleam of his eyes and the rich glow of his blond hair. At 57, he no longer looks perfect — his weathered features attest that he has lived an actual life, not a movie-star life — but he looks perfectly himself. Married to Lola Van Wagenen in 1958 (they divorced in 1985) and the father of three children, Redford does not own a home in his native Los Angeles and essentially divides his time between Utah and New York City.

”I always distrusted California quite a bit because I grew up there,” he says. ”It was not a place you went to, because I was there already. It had no magic for me. I was born at the end of the rainbow, so I didn’t see the rainbow. Whatever was wonderful about California for me was slipping away with freeways and concrete and pollution. For me it was a place to leave.”

Redford has acted in nearly 30 films since his screen debut in 1962. Appearing opposite Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park (1967) — a reprise of the role he had successfully played on the Broadway stage — made him a star, and then two years later, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid propelled him into the stratosphere. But instead of walking through an endless series of charm-’em-till-they-drop roles, Redford began portraying darker, more troubled American heroes in movies like Downhill Racer (1969), The Candidate (1972) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972). If The Sting and The Way We Were, both from 1973 — not to mention last year’s Indecent Proposal — demonstrated Redford’s daunting appeal as a handsome leading man, his roles in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), The Great Gatsby (1974) and All the President’s Men (for which he was also executive producer; 1976) indicated that he had far more on his mind than that tousled head of hair.

Anyone doubting the seriousness of Redford’s artistic intent has had those doubts dispelled by his career as a director. He made his debut behind the camera in 1980 with Ordinary People, a sympathetic but staunchly unsentimental portrait of the psychological dissolution of an upper-middle-class Midwestern family. The film won him an Academy Award for Best Director and was also named Best Picture. Instead of instantly cashing in on that success, Redford spent the better part of four years finding practical applications for his aesthetic and political convictions. He established the Sundance Institute, in Utah, to encourage the development of quality independent films, and at the same time he founded the Institute for Resource Management to advance research in the field of environmental protection, a passion of his since the late ’60s.

In 1988 came Redford’s second effort as a director, The Milagro Beanfield War, a sweet film that drew on the literary techniques of magic realism to tell the story of the battle between a small Mexican-American community in the Southwest and avaricious developers. A River Runs Through It (1992) continued Redford’s exploration of humanity’s relationship with nature. In that film, which is set in the early decades of the 20th century, flyfishing becomes a kind of emotional language that the members of a Montana family can speak when little else seems able to hold them together.

Now, Redford has directed Quiz Show, a gripping look at the quiz-show scandals that rocked the television industry in the 1950s, shaking the country’s confidence in the newly prominent medium. Redford centers his film on the story of Charles Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes), a hypereducated, upper-crust WASP who became a national hero — the anti-Elvis, proof that not all young people had been corrupted by rock & roll — through his rise on the brainy quiz show Twenty-One.

It turned out that the show had rigged Van Doren’s ascent so that he could replace the reigning champion Herbie Stempel (played with nervous brilliance by John Turturro), a clearly ethnic working-class Jew from Queens, N.Y. Rob Morrow plays Richard Goodwin, the congressional investigator who is determined to get to the bottom of the scandals for his own complex and not entirely idealistic reasons.

In Quiz Show, Redford unravels the densely interwoven issues of class, ethnic identity and the media’s manipulation of reality in post-World War II America. And he makes a case for the quiz-show scandals as the beginning of a slide into moral indifference that our country has yet to stall.

”Van Doren’s fall from grace had a lot to do with shame,” Redford says. ”That he would come forward and say, in effect, ‘I am ashamed,’ had great power. And shame doesn’t exist anymore — except maybe some cosmetic company will come up with a product called Shame.

”We could look back and say, ‘Oh, my God, we’ve come that far in that short a time?”’ he adds. ”If you just look at this subject on the face of it, you say, ‘Big deal, what’s so special about that?’ But in the context of what’s going on today, it has a lot of significance to me.”

Do you have memories of watching the quiz shows on television?

Yeah, I do. I arrived in New York when all this was hitting. I was 19 years old. I guess you could say the country was still enjoying its age of innocence. I remember being absolutely caught up in the mass hypnosis of these shows. It was irresistible. And the reason you knew it was irresistible was that you found yourself resenting the fact that it was irresistible. You hated that you were watching something that there was something bogus about, but you didn’t know what it was, and you watched it anyway.

That feeling persists, unfortunately.

Now it’s a fact of life. But I remember my feeling was, I don’t believe Van Doren. I believe this is a performance. Like most young actors, I looked at other performances with an extremely critical eye. I remember thinking, ”This guy’s giving a bad performance. But he is giving a performance.” The paradox was that I never doubted the show. I should have gone all the way and said, ”Well, then the show is rigged.” I just couldn’t bring myself to that point. I couldn’t go that far.

It was probably just inconceivable.

If it were to happen now, that would be your first assumption, and you would shrug it off. But in those days the combination of our innocence, the new technology of television, the fact that the merchants of our business hadn’t quite gotten the grip on it that they now do, I had this odd reaction. I didn’t believe Van Doren, but I didn’t doubt the show.

But I didn’t get involved with Quiz Show for any of these reasons. I got involved with it because it gave me some opportunities I was looking for as a director. I wanted the next thing I directed to be urban in nature because I had done rural pieces. I wanted it to be edgy and fast paced because what I had done had been slower, more lyrical. And Quiz Show also had elements I had been wanting to touch for quite a while: greed, the manipulation of truth and the fact that our lives are controlled by merchants. The merchant mentality dominates my industry, and I’ve wanted for some time to get at something that would illustrate that.

When you say that you wanted to make an urban picture, was that simply for a new challenge?

That as much as anything. The Milagro Beanfield War and A River Runs Through It, the rhythms of those films were tied very much to nature — the rhythm of the river, the flow of the river. The Milagro Beanfield War had to do with the rhythms of a culture that had no information access, that had no television or radio. They just lived as they had for 400 years.

I enjoyed making those films, but I thought I’d like a change of pace. I wanted to do something that relates more to my experience living in New York. I have two halves in my life. I live out west, in the mountains, but I also love living in New York. That energy is part of my life, and I wanted to be able to work with it.

Were you concerned about the commercial prospects for Quiz Show at all?

This is dangerous, I guess, in a commercial sense, because we’re living in a time when action runs the show. It’s not a time for subtlety or shading or even thought for the most part. Still, I was attracted to it. I’m not that far gone that I would do something knowing it wasn’t commercial. It’s just that it’s my own arrogance to think, ”Yeah, this is offbeat, but I’m going to try to make it work for people.” The challenge here is to convert this into something dramatic enough, emotional enough, that it is almost like watching an action film. What the film tries to illustrate is simply that this was the beginning of a loss of innocence.

The movie does depict the quiz-show scandals as a cultural watershed, the first time it became clear that we couldn’t accept what was right before our eyes at face value.

The quiz-show scandal was the beginning of that — it shocked the public. People could not believe they had been ripped off that bad. The effect was shattering. Then, historically, we go right down the line with the deaths of J.F.K., Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and then Watergate, Irangate, BCCI and S&L, and then [Sen. Robert] Packwood and O.J. Simpson — it just keeps going. Each one gets a little worse, and we get a little number each time. And now we’re in a place where we just sort of shrug.

But again, what drove me with the film was not the historical event — as it wasn’t with All the President’s Men, either. All the President’s Men for me was about investigative journalism and what it took to get that particular job done. I just didn’t think it had ever been touched before. We’d seen Front Page and movies like that, but there had never been, to my knowledge, a film that said, ”This is about hard work.” What those guys did is they just worked harder — and that that still has a payoff in our society. All the President’s Men also was a character-driven piece from the standpoint that these two guys were so different. One guy was a Jew, the other guy was a WASP. One guy was a liberal, the other was a conservative. They were so totally light and dark — that’s good stuff dramatically. So it wasn’t about Nixon — history took care of that one.

As the man who made All the President’s Men, how did you feel when Nixon died?

I had no remorse. I did not think he deserved the kudos he got in death — there was this weird revisionism that went on. You feel for the family. There’s some sympathy for that. But for me it was not the passing of a great man. He was a man who dealt us some pretty undignified blows. He did not symbolize the better part of ourselves at all. Look, I admit to some prejudice here because I grew up in California with him as my senator, and I remember at close hand some of the dirty tricks he was doing even back then. He had such a disregard for other human beings.

Watergate is often seen as the source of the contemporary disillusionment with politics; disillusionment has been an important theme in your movies for a long time.

The first picture I produced was in 1969, Downhill Racer. It was meant to be the first part of a trilogy that would deal with the same theme — the Pyrrhic victory at the end of someone’s ambition in the fields of sports, politics and business. Three subjects with the same theme: What price the victory? I wanted to take on those subjects because they influence our lives so much.

I only got two parts. I tried for 10 years, but I couldn’t get a script on the business picture that was like Downhill Racer or The Candidate. In a way, Quiz Show is maybe a version of it. My fascination with these subjects through the years connects to the so-called American dream and how it was presented to us and how much of it was true, how much of it was possible, as opposed to how much of it was fantasy perpetrated by advertising agencies to sell things to us. Television was the conduit that pumped this juice into our veins, and what greater example than the quiz shows?

The Candidate seems remarkably contemporary in that regard also.

That movie was about my anger and my cynical view of our system. I thought I’d make a very dark film about how we get people elected in this country — it’s all about cosmetics, purely about image and cosmetics. And that was 1971. I had no idea it would have that kind of carrying power — to be here in 1994, and nothing has changed. That you’d end up with Dan Quayle.

Quiz Show essentially has three main characters. Do you see yourself in any of them?

A little bit of Goodwin. And something of Van Doren. Goodwin is the part of you that senses you’re being bullshitted, and you want to cut through it, get to the core of the truth. There’s something very chauvinistic about me and this country, about the strengths of this country, because that’s what I was given as a kid I grew up trusting that until I realized that it wasn’t quite so true, and the anger that comes from being disillusioned gets played out in my work. Goodwin represents the embodiment of that disillusionment.

With Van Doren, it’s simply what celebrity can do to someone, the threats of celebrity on your soul. The temptations that come your way. The struggles with moral ambiguity, the struggle within yourself. Are you going to continue on this path, where things are irresistibly tied to wealth and fame and privilege? Or can you stop, reorient yourself and redirect yourself for the sake of your own soul?

Also, what it feels like to have iconography become part of your own life, where you’re treated differently than you were before just by virtue of who you are. What does that feel like? What pressures does that put on you? So in that regard, there’s some connection to the Van Doren character.

How hard was that for you to sort out in your own life?

Well, it’s an ongoing struggle that maybe, never will be fully resolved. I mean it’s resolved enough for me to go on with my life, but it continues. It takes different shapes as you get older. If you stay in the public eye, if you remain a celebrity, it’s always there. So that’s an ongoing thing.

On the other hand, I’m pretty comfortable going about my business and doing what I’m meant to do. I’m not going to adjust my life for fashion. I’m just going to go forward as an artist and a citizen, and if it gets approval, fine. If not, that’s OK, too. The only part I can’t control is that persona that’s created by some mix of media and the public that becomes like having another person walking around with you, a shadow self. That’s tough because I don’t control that.

At what point did you first encounter this persona?

It went across a line. The line first showed up probably when I was in Barefoot in the Park in New York, a Broadway play that was hugely successful. That was the first time I moved out of a sphere of my own. And Butch Cassidy was where it went beyond, into an international situation.

What was your reaction to that at the time?

It confused me because it happened so quickly. And so magnificently. There was something so magnificent about it; it was huge, you know? And it was so quick that it was really hard to adjust to it. The only way I remember being able to deal with it was with humor, to make a great, grand game of it. So I remember playing mad games with my new celebrity. Changing my name, saying I was an exchange student from Bogota, wearing disguises to a Knicks game, wearing a disguise on a ski hill, only to have the disguise slide halfway up my head and me not know it and have people look at me like I was from outer space. The humor of all that, using getaway cars and passageways and playing with the public as they came to you, playing back to them. Finally it just got tiring, and I realized I was eating up a lot of my life playing this game. And then I got fearful about the loss, and I had to make a big adjustment.

Fearful about the loss?

Fearful about the loss of yourself, your own self — as opposed to your persona. Your persona begins to take over, and you begin to fear the loss of yourself.

Did you begin to feel entrapped by the particular brand of celebrity that came to you — the movie star, the matinee idol, the dashing leading man?

Well, it was a mixture of feelings. On the one hand, you’re only human. Who wouldn’t, at least in the initial stages of something like that, be flattered? How could you not be? I didn’t grow up being told I was good-looking. I was a freckle-faced, kind of redheaded kid that people made fun of because my hair had so many cowlicks. I was out of control as a kid, and people would always tell me, ”Slow down,” or, ”Sit down,” or ”Stop.” Or, ”Where have you been?”

And then, suddenly, you’re referred to as a glamorous figure, and it’s flattering. Then shortly after that, you begin to realize that what’s also coming with that is reduction, that you’re then going to be seen in only one light. So, Redford’s a movie star, and therefore that’s all he can be. I mean, you feel like there’s more of yourself to play with, to work with. It begins to unnerve you that you see yourself actually reduced, that you are this, therefore you can’t be that. Then another kind of struggle begins.

Was there a point at which you felt that you had to actively combat that?

Yes. All the President’s Men was one effort. Producing that movie took a long time; it was not easy. It was a three-year effort and a real commitment — it went way beyond just being an actor. Actually, it started before that with Downhill Racer and The Candidate, but somehow it never quite sunk in with people that I was producing those movies. I was just ”the actor.” All the President’s Men was the first real shift, and I suspect a lot of All the President’s Men had to do with fighting for the more serious side of myself.

The first movie you directed, Ordinary People, seemed like a really ambitious project to take on — attempting to dramatize issues like suicide, divorce, psychoanalysis.

The movie was about a character who could not get in touch with her feelings and the consequences of that to her family. I had never seen that character on film, but I’d seen that character in life a lot — the person who shuts down rather than ride the emotional roller coaster that needs to be ridden. And it dealt with youth, that painful place of not being understood. It was a little bit like Catcher in the Rye — I loved that book as a kid. Then there was the look, an area of the Midwest where a strong ethic still exists but that really is most interested in money and comfort and breeding. Those are the things that attracted me to Ordinary People.

That movie was a turning point in my life. I was about to turn 40, so there was that decade coming to a close as well as a full decade of work as an actor and producer. There was a confluence of those two things. I thought, ”Now I want to direct.”

I was beginning to get frustrated with having to put so much body English on the films I was doing. I thought, ”I wish I could have total control of this situation. Why not just do it?” I remember talking to a person who worked for me and saying, ”I’d like to direct something now, and I’m looking for something that has to do with behavior and feelings.” That person then sent me Ordinary People. I got it and said, ”This is it.”

But Ordinary People was turned down by a lot of people. Then, Barry Diller, who was at Paramount, said, ”Do it.” He was very stand-up about it. So I was left alone. It was a little movie, only $6 million. No one gave a shit. And then it was out.

What was directing like the first time?

It’s going to sound funny, but it came naturally. There were no great surprises. It’s a lot of work, but I enjoy being able to control the whole scene, all the parts. What was difficult was that I didn’t have the language of a director. As an actor, I had purposely blocked out learning about the technical parts of my industry. I thought it would get in the way of my performing. I thought that what I owed a film was a performance completely inhabiting the space I was in. If I was splitting my head and being calculating, thinking, ”They’ve got a 50 on this lens now, where are they cutting me?” — I just didn’t want any part of that. I said, ”The director will shape all that.” So I had purposely stayed away from learning the vocabulary of the camera.

So, suddenly, I’m directing, and I found myself asked these questions — ”Do you want us to put a 25 on it or a 50?” I thought, ”Shit, what the hell’s that?” And I got into trouble, because I had to try to express myself, and I didn’t have the language. So, in frustration on Ordinary People, I whipped out a piece of paper and sketched what I had in mind, and the director of photography understood. I ended up doing a whole storyboard because that’s how I could communicate with him. By the end of the film, you damn well know I learned a lot. And each time out has gotten easier.

What about working with actors?

That was one thing I felt almost arrogant about — I knew I could communicate to the actors. I knew I would know a good performance and could work with an actor to get one. There’s probably very, very little I wouldn’t endure from an actor simply because I am one, and I know what the inside feels like.

Are any types of actors hard for you to work with?

The hardest thing for me are actors who think they know but don’t. Like an actor who thinks, ”Let me do this because this is funny,” and it isn’t. You have to let them play it out — meanwhile, the meter’s ticking, you don’t really have the time. So that’s one thing. Maybe an actor who has no sense of rhythm.

What do you mean by rhythm?

Timing. There’s a sense of timing some actors have, mostly actors who have been involved with music or athletics. They know when to say the line. They know when to get off it. They know when to move to the next thing. Actors who are not coordinated that way, you have to guide them. They’ll take forever to say the line and have no concept if the scene is going down the tubes because they’re taking forever. That’s frustrating.

Oh, and the actor who won’t listen. To me that’s one of the most important things an actor can have — the ability to listen. I felt that very strongly from the time I first became an actor, that listening was as important as speaking. An actor who doesn’t listen either to the rhythms of life or to direction just does nothing for me.

Were there, among the directors you’d worked with, people who served as models for you?

I’ve had different relationships, the oldest one with Sydney Pollack — he and I go back to being actors together. That was a very collaborative relationship. I was always comfortable with Sydney being the director and my being the actor because he knew what he was doing. I mean, I never paid much attention to what he was doing with the camera — unless we’d be somewhere, and he’d have the camera pointed, and I’d say, ”How come you have the camera pointed over there? Isn’t this a better view?” And he’d say, ”Would you mind? Go have a coffee. Go sit in the woods for a while.” [Laughs.]

George Roy Hill I learned something from. He really understood the importance of telling a story visually. He wouldn’t allow any fat anywhere. He told me he had been influenced by comic strips because there were only four or five panels to tell the story. Punch and payoff — he took that approach in his film work. His storytelling was related to simple editing rather than a lot of meandering, self-indulgent stuff that was very much in vogue in the ’60s. I was impressed by that.

Has directing affected your own acting?

I’m much more patient with directors, because now I know what it’s like to juggle so many balls, make so many decisions. I always was very impatient with directors who took too many takes because to me it was a sign of insecurity — ”You’re doing 25 takes when you got it on the fourth one. Are you that insecure?” I would be very arrogant — in my head, you know. Now I’m much more tolerant of that because I know what it’s like when you’re really looking for something, and you’re going to stick there until you get it. So, that’s changed. Directing has probably made me a better actor technically. Directors used to complain about my inability to match, particularly Sydney Pollack. He’d say, ”Jesus, you’re driving me crazy. You’ve got a peach in your hand in the first part of the scene — what happened to it?” I’d say, ”I’d be more concerned if I didn’t have a peach in my hand in the beginning of the scene and I suddenly had one.” [Laughs.]

How do you square your political activism with your acting and directing?

I’ve always felt if you look at the work, it’s there. It’s there in Jeremiah Johnson. It’s there in The Milagro Beanfield War. But I’ve never believed in agitprop because I don’t think it works. People don’t like to be preached to, treated like children. I do believe in working politically in film, but I also believe that it has to be entertaining, because that’s your medium. We’re not in politics here.

Right. So A River Runs Through It is not about cleaning up a river —

But we couldn’t shoot on the river where it took place, because it’s polluted. So there’s a point to be made. I look at that film and realize that in my own history, rivers flowed like that, clean and fresh and pure. Now it’s hard to find one that’s not polluted. It’s worth thinking about. So there’s a kind of subtextual point you’re making by saying, ”Look how beautiful this was. How is it now?”

Has directing affected what you look for in acting roles?

No. When I first started as an actor, I selfishly only thought of my part. I seldom thought of the movie, the larger context. Then when I started to produce, I saw how a role fit into the film. I began to play parts that sometimes were sacrificial to the theme of the film, as in The Candidate. Purely as an actor, I would rather have played the campaign manager. It’s a better part. But it was better for me to play the candidate because it was more suitable — I could help the film by being the candidate. So I sacrificed an impulse as an actor for a better film.

Then there began to be more and more of those parts. I didn’t want to be in All the President’s Men, but because the bidding got so high on it, I had to be in it. Ostensibly that was not a very exciting part, because the character had a bland exterior. Actually, Bob Woodward used that as a ploy to get information out of people by appearing to be bland, almost boring. I began to think about it and said, ”That’s actually a pretty good character to play, because underneath that is a kind of killer instinct.” Then it became something else. But that was for the sake of the film.

So, I guess I changed. But now, I’ve gone back to the other way. As I’ve gotten older, I think more about character. For me to spend that kind of energy and time on something, you want to be rewarded, and the reward is not just the sheer commercial success of it. That matters but not that much. What’s more interesting is to be satisfied that you’ve gotten ahold of somebody to put on the screen, that you have a chance to deliver a profile of someone rather than just running around with a gun in your hand.

Any lessons you’ve learned along the way?

Just two, really: follow your instincts and recognize that this is a business.

What do you mean by that?

Don’t expect art to have much currency. It’s a business, and that’s foremost what it’s all about. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that art plays that major a role. Art only plays a role insofar as it helps the business. A small film that might be perceived as an art film really only matters if it makes money. That’s the business world. I don’t think anything profit oriented is easy to change because that’s the kind of society we are. It just helps you personally to understand it and not delude yourself.

So that you don’t confuse artistic success and commercial success?

No, I try to. I’m a producer, a director. I have Sundance, and we try to help filmmakers get product into the marketplace that has quality. So I try very much to achieve that balance. But finally in the end, the great satisfaction I get … I mean, Milagro Beanfield War didn’t do very well at all. I got tremendous pleasure out of making that film. So, finally, that’s a big factor. What kind of pleasure do you get out of your experience?

So what do you want people to take away from their experience of Quiz Show?

I guess my own arrogance is that I would hope I could entertain in a way that’s also provocative in terms of the lives we’re living in our society. That would come in the form of questions the audience would ask themselves. Maybe out of Ordinary People someone may ask questions about whether they’re really in touch with their feelings, particularly involving people they love. For Quiz Show: Is this moral ambiguity that we’re in going to lead to no morality at all? Is the issue of ethics going out of our culture? Are we going to find some way to express our outrage, or are we just going to continue being numb?

I don’t know. Those are issues I can’t do a whole lot about, but I can put them out there. You know, the quiz-show scandal in the ’50s, that’s not what this is about. It’s about that scandal being the genesis of where we are now. That’s the scandal. So that would be a hope, that we just look at where we are now. I couldn’t ask for more than that.

What about where you are now?

I’m doing OK. I don’t have any regrets — possibly a few as an actor. It’s clear to me that as the business moves toward high tech, toward formula, less toward literacy and more toward visual action, I will have to myself develop stuff that I would want to do as an actor.

But I have no regrets about my career. I’m doing the pictures I want to do — even though they might not be in the mainstream of things. As long as I can continue to do films like the ones I’ve been doing, I will be happy. I’ve been doing it for 25 years, and I have no desire to change it. And there’s enough subjects out there for me as a director — God knows, five lifetimes couldn’t cover all the stories to be told. So, I’m fine.

In This Article: Coverwall, Robert Redford


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