The Conspirator is the first in a roster of historically based films to be produced by The American Film Company, launched by Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs. Redford insists that his first objective as an actor and filmmaker is to entertain. Yet his works have compelled audiences, sometimes uncomfortably, to examine the American experience — personally and politically. In films such as The Natural and The Horse Whisperer he explored the complexity of relationships; in The Milagro Beanfield War and Quiz Show he tackled inequality and injustice. The stories he tells have roots in his own experience.
Charles Robert Redford Jr., of English, Scottish, and Irish ancestry, grew up as an only child in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood in Santa Monica, where his father, Charles Sr., worked as a milkman. One of his earliest memories is from third grade, at the end of World War II. "This dark current started running through our school about Jews," Redford recalls. "I didn't know what a Jew was. But suddenly people were whispering about who was a Jew and who wasn't. One day, Lois Levinson — she was a pal, really smart — stands up in class and says, 'My name is Lois Levinson. I am a Jew, and I'm very proud of it.' The class gasped."
That night at dinner, Redford told his father about Lois and asked: "What am I? If she's a Jew, what am I?"
"You're a Jew — and be proud of it," Redford Sr. said.
The boy ran to his room, bawling. "I thought, 'I'm screwed,' " Redford laughs. "I heard my mom say, 'Charlie, go explain.' My dad came in and gave me a lecture about how what happened was unfair. He said, 'We're all alike.' "
It was an early turning point. "Any time I saw people treated unfairly because of race, creed, whatever — it struck a nerve," Redford says. A natural athlete, he often captained his school football and baseball squads. "The look on the face of the kid who was uncoordinated broke my heart," he says. "I would choose him. " He was empathetic but also driven, sometimes to a fault. "Then I'd get angry when he couldn't perform," he ruefully admits.
Redford was guided as much by frustration as compassion. "I was never a good student," he says. "I had to be dragged into kindergarten. It was hard to sit and listen to somebody talk. I wanted to be out, educated by experience and adventure, and I didn't know how to express that."
He finished high school but flirted with trouble. "Messing around with friends, pushing the envelope, stealing Cadillac hubcaps for $16, was a release," Redford says. "I was seen in earlier years by family members and people of authority as somebody wasting his time. I had trouble with the restrictions of conformity. It made me edgy."
Redford won a baseball scholarship to the University of Colorado but soon lost it, reportedly due to drinking. "There was a lot of that," he concedes. After a year the school asked him not to return. About the same time, Redford's mother, Martha, died at age 40. "She had a hemorrhage tied to a blood disorder she got after losing twin girls at birth 10 years after I was born," he says quietly. His own birth was difficult, and doctors had advised his mother to stop having children. "She wanted a family so badly she got pregnant again," Redford says. Her death was a shock. "It seemed so unfair. But, in an odd way, it freed me to go off on my own, which I'd wanted to do for a long time."
By then Redford's father had landed a job in the accounting department at the Standard Oil refinery in El Segundo. Redford went to work there in the shipping yard, driving a forklift and cleaning tanks. The experience planted the seeds for his environmental activism years later. "I saw the oil seeping into the sand dunes. Now all that [oil] sits underneath the big buildings they've built there."
When he had saved enough money, Redford hitchhiked to New York and made his way to France. He had always enjoyed sketching, so he decided to be an artist. "In Europe he'd draw with chalk on the sidewalks, and people would give him money," says Duane Byrge, a Hollywood Reporter film critic who has followed Redford's career for decades. "He has an artist's eye." Byrge once met up with Redford at the unpretentious cabin he keeps as an office outside Park City, Utah, and found him shoving an old-style movie camera he had on display on the porch, like an artwork, into the rain and snow. "He wanted to weather it, so it wouldn't look so shiny," Byrge says. "That's the kind of thing he does."
Redford spent 18 months in Europe, where, he says, "I gained most of my maturity." He arrived in Paris in the mid-1950s, not knowing the language or culture, and lived among a group of politically active art and medical students. "They challenged me about my politics, which didn't exist. They were always running in the streets to protest, so I joined them. It broadened my view of country. When I went back, I questioned things, which led me into a certain amount of activism."
Barely 20, Redford returned briefly to Los Angeles, where he met a 17-year-old college student from Utah named Lola Van Wagenen. They married in 1958 and moved to New York City — he would never live in Los Angeles again, disillusioned by its conspicuous affluence and sprawl — where he enrolled in art school at the Pratt Institute. On the recommendation of a teacher, he transferred to The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. "I never imagined being an actor," he says. "I wanted to get a formal education in art so I could go back to Europe and paint." But at the Academy, where Redford played Konstantin Treplev in a production of Chekhov's The Seagull, the trajectory of his life shifted dramatically. "Something clicked," he says. "It was the beginning of everything coming into focus with me."
He landed small stage and television roles, but soon he faced another personal hardship. He and Van Wagenen had a son in 1959 who, at five months, died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). "It was really hard," Redford says. "We were very young. I had my first theater job, which didn't pay much. We didn't know anything about SIDS, so the only thing you think is that you've done something wrong. As a parent, you tend to blame yourself. That creates a scar that probably never completely heals."
While Redford had explored orthodoxies ranging from Christian Science to Buddhism to his wife's Mormon faith, in the end he chose a sort of secular humanism: "I believe in the power, the energy, that nature puts in place," he says. It was in part that point of view that allowed him to carry on after the death of his firstborn.
He and Van Wagenen had two more children in quick succession: Shauna, now 50, an artist who is married to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, and James, 48, a screenwriter and director. Eight years later, the couple had Amy, an actress. Now a grandfather to seven (his eldest is in college; his youngest are infant twins), Redford cites his family as among his greatest accomplishments. "I was considered irresponsible as a kid, so I developed a strong sense of proving I could be responsible," he says. "I had that old-fashioned sense of providing for your family."
Robin Wright, whose teenage son was recovering from a life-threatening skateboarding accident during production of The Conspirator, says, "Bob told me how important his family is to him — how it's chosen for you, not by you."
In 1966 a young Jane Fonda co starred with Redford in The Chase. They had first met at Paramount Studios; she remembers following behind him as they walked down a corridor in the administration building. As Redford passed offices, secretaries poked their heads out to catch a glimpse. "I thought, 'Oh gosh, he's going to be a big star,' " Fonda says.
Each time she worked with Redford, Fonda admits, she fell in love with him. " It was hard not to. It was his looks and his manner. There was always a mystery, because he didn't reveal everything. He's got an aura about him."
Redford's acting career lifted off in 1969, with the release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He headlined some 15 films — including The Candidate, All the President's Men, and Out of Africa — between then and 1985, and critics attributed his success not only to his good looks but to his methods. The eminent acting coach Uta Hagen once observed that Redford's strength as an actor lay in his honesty. "With him the showy stuff is not necessary," says James McAvoy. "He finds the honest simplicity in the character."
Redford began directing and producing in 1980 because he yearned "to own" his movie projects. He says he seeks to "cut to the quick of the emotionality of something" in his films. Ordinary People, his Oscar-winning directorial debut, explored in stark terms the dynamics of a family coping with the death of a child.
Though he was comfortable with his pared-down philosophy of filmmaking, Redford was less at ease with the larger-than-life persona that people attached to him. "Bob was a huge movie star," says Patrick Markey, who first worked with Redford as a production assistant on Brubaker — and, thanks to Redford's mentoring, became a successful producer of films, including A River Runs Through It. "But that's a small part of who he is. There's a very smart, more complex person beneath that."
To encourage independent filmmaking and to nurture talent, Redford established the Sundance Institute in 1981; it has since expanded to include a world-famous film festival. "They called it Redford's Folly at first," says critic Byrge, " but the film industry has now embraced it." Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, says, "Robert Redford created a platform for independent work that has literally launched a movement in America."
The success, though, has come at a cost: Utah is no longer Redford's refuge. Jane Fonda says she often imagines her friend sitting on horseback on a hill looking down at Sundance, thinking, "What have I done? This was supposed to be a getaway, and it's turned into work." But, she adds, "Bob is one of those unusual people who feel that service is the rent you pay for life. It's in his core ethics to give back."
These days Redford remains as involved in environmental issues as he is in filmmaking — he recently blogged about his opposition to a coal company that plans to open a mine near Bryce Canyon. He also still manages to escape from it all, sometimes to his Santa Fe home — a traditional adobe situated above a piñon-dotted valley, with an awe-inspiring view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
I ask Robert Redford how he thinks he has handled fame. "I dealt with it the way I wanted to," he answers. "I felt that if you were fortunate enough to have success, you should shadow box with it but never embrace it, because it has a demon side."
"People don't realize that Redford is really shy," Byrge explains. Each year at the Sundance Film Festival, filmmakers attend a luncheon with Redford. Afterward, says Byrge, he'll hit the ski slopes. "He does it to decompress. As extremely gracious as he is at the luncheon, it wears at him to be the center of attention."
Redford says he will always consider "artist" to be a part of his identity, and he shares that with his second wife, German-born painter Sibylle Szaggars, 53, whom he met at Sundance in the late '90s and married in 2009. "She's a very special person," he says, fingering the gold band on his left hand. "She's younger than I am, and European, which I like, so that's a whole new life.
"I ride horses, ski, play pretty hard tennis," Redford goes on. "I still have energy. When that starts to shut down, I might start to think about age." In the meantime, there's so much he still wants to do.
"There are movies I want to make," he begins, talking faster. "For a long time I've wanted to do a thriller. I like being scared, and I like scaring. And I want to keep acting, though I think the business has concluded that I don't want to act anymore."
On Oprah, Streisand reminded Redford of her longtime interest in making a sequel to The Way We Were — something he has resisted for years. She pointed out that their on-screen daughter would have grown up to be a radical. "She'd have gone to Berkeley and gotten in trouble, and we'd have to meet again to get her out of jail," Redford laughs. "You know, that's not a bad idea."
He nibbles a chocolate-chip cookie. "The other movie I want to make is about people who rediscover themselves in older love," he says. "They got together out of passion years earlier, but it flamed out and they went their separate ways. They get to be older and somehow come back into each other's lives and regain their relationship with a more mature love."
He smiles. "That's an interesting story — and I'm qualified to write it!"