Robert Redford: Interview 'Company You Keep'

Film on the Weather Underground fits comfortably in a canon that examines nation from all angles

In Robert Redford’s America, red, white and blue are all just varying shades of gray.

(From the pages of the April 9 issue of Variety.)

“I’m fascinated by the country I grew up in, and what that country really is, not just what it’s been propagandized to be,” says the 76-year-old actor-director, whose latest film “The Company You Keep” debuted this weekend in Los Angeles and New York.

As a younger man, Redford says, “it felt to me like America was always wanting to resolve things too quickly, without thinking through what the costs and consequences would be, and how that affects an individual living in that world. Then as I grew up and went about my life, I think I just got more and more interested in that gray area where things are not so easily quantified.”

Time and again over the course of his now 50-year career, Redford has returned to that no-man’s land between the real America and how America sees itself. The result is a panoramic portrait of a nation at a constant moral and political crossroads, from the Hollywood Blacklist (“The Way We Were”) and the TV gameshow scandals of the 1950s (“Quiz Show”), to the Lincoln assassination (“The Conspirator”), Watergate (“All the President’s Men”) and the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (“Lions for Lambs”).

With “The Company You Keep,” he turns his attention for the first time to the complex legacy of Vietnam-era radicalism, in the story of former members of the Weather Underground on the run from the FBI, from a zealous small-town reporter and — most of all — from their own unresolved pasts.

Like many of his pictures, Redford’s latest is an overtly political film but not a polemical one. The filmmaker is less interested in leveling moral judgments than in showing how personal ideologies evolve over the decades, and how one era’s conscientious objectors may become viewed, through the prism of time, as domestic terrorists.

Redford was never a radical, though in the years before he landed in New York and committed himself to an acting career, the L.A. native and U. of Colorado dropout spent time living in Paris in a kind of student commune, where he found his naive ideas about his homeland challenged by more worldly housemates.

So Redford embarked on a steady diet of European newspapers, resolved to understand America as it was viewed by the rest of the world. By the time he landed back home two years later, “I was filled with experiences of real-life situations and the myths of this country. I guess that’s where it all started.”

Today, Redford is still chipping away at those myths, though the work has gotten steadily harder. In the 1970s and ’80s, when he was at the peak of his stardom, and directors like Sydney Pollack and Alan Pakula were routinely turning out smart, politically astute dramas for grown-up moviegoers, “The Company You Keep” would surely have been a prestige release for a major Hollywood studio.

In today’s tentpole-dominated climate, it took Redford four years to secure independent financing (from Nicolas Chartier’s Voltage Pictures) for the project — resulting in a modest budget that forced the sprawling drama (which takes place in upstate New York, Manhattan and Ann Arbor) to shoot all of its locations in Vancouver.

Together with the independently produced “The Conspirator,” it’s been a crash course for Redford in the kind of no-frills filmmaking his Sundance Institute has been supporting for the past three decades.

“I guess you would call this a classical drama,” he says of “Company,” which Sony Pictures Classics is releasing domestically. “It’s story, character and emotion put in a very clear pattern so the audience can follow it. We’re surrounded by films now that I would call ‘splash filmmaking’ — heavily energized, heavily violent, not so much about story. There are a lot of filmmakers today whose technical skills I admire, but where’s the story? It’s exciting to watch what they do for a few minutes, but it evaporates like cotton candy.”

Curiously, a “splash” movie lies in Redford’s own future: The Marvel sequel “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” in which he will play the head of the galactic protection agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D., and about which he has little to say except that “it’s a film I’m doing because it’s just something different and unexpected.”

He’s keener to talk about another project much closer to his heart, “All the President’s Men Revisited,” a feature-length documentary looking back at the iconic 1976 film and the real events that inspired
it, which will air on the Discovery Channel in April following a gala premiere in Washington, D.C.

“That’s something I’m pretty proud of,” says Redford, who appears in the film and served as an executive producer. “It’s about the media back then, and we leave it to you the audience to think about what the Internet, the pressures of corporate control, and the obsession with money and profit have done to journalism. All we say is, ‘This is the way it was then. Does anyone remember this?’ ”

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