When Robert Redford was courting Julie Christie – professionally – to be in his new political drama, The Company You Keep, which he directed and stars in, he asked for advice from someone who'd been there: Sarah Polley.
"Until I saw Away from Her, which I was very taken with, I thought Julie had retired," Redford said in an interview in Toronto some months ago. But he felt Christie would be perfect to play Mimi, a former member of the 1960s revolutionary group the Weather Underground, who's spent decades on the lam after a protest action resulted in a fatality. He knew his and Christie's status as real-life sixties icons would add a frisson. (Their circle in the film includes Nick Nolte, and Susan Sarandon; Shia LeBouef plays their Javert-like pursuer.)
Christie resisted, "which I totally understood," Redford continues. "She and I had gotten similar attention as actors; we'd been on a lot of magazine covers. There's a dark, scary side to that. We both tried to pull back from it. So I felt this kinship." But when she kept resisting, he phoned Polley for support. She reassured him that Christie "does this, she fights."
Eventually, of course, Redford won Christie over. How could he not? At 76, he remains a titan of cinema, as well as a revered philanthropist and environmentalist. His face may look weathered, but his voice is still creamy as a cheesecake, he has a hay bale of hair on his head, and he knows how to charm a roomful of women. During a group interview, two other female journalists and I array ourselves around him while he holds court. "I had resisted The Way We Were the same way," he says. "I didn't want to be a model, I didn't want to be a Ken doll to Barbra Streisand."
The Company You Keep, which opened in Toronto last week and continues to expand, is only Redford's ninth film as a director, after 50 years on screen. It probes America's soft moral underbelly the way many of the films he's directed or starred in have done, including The Candidate, All the President's Men, Quiz Show and Lions for Lambs.
"I like to have the audience play more of a role, so when the film ends, they're left with something to think about," he says. "My whole life, I had a slight outlaw sensibility. A teacher telling me I had to do this thing this way, show up at this time, something in me rebelled against that." Born and raised just outside L.A., he stole hubcaps while attending Van Nuys High School and lost a basketball scholarship at the University of Colorado due to drunkenness. His first marriage, to his college sweetheart, ended in divorce in 1985; his second is ongoing. He's father to three grown children (another son died in infancy), and a grandfather of five.
"I favoured people who were more independent in their thinking, that didn't adhere to conventional lines," he continues. "What interested me was the complexity, the grey areas." But films that go there are hard to find. "I've always been selective about what I do, which in this business is more and more curious. A lot of people think I've retired. My agents, for one thing." He pauses while we all laugh adoringly. "Some people think I'm only involved in Sundance, which is not true."
Sundance – first the institute, then the festival – started with two acres in the shadow of Mount Timpanogos in Utah, which Redford fell in love with early in his career and bought for $500. Over the years, as he added more land, he also hatched the idea of creating a place where his kind of films could be developed and shown. "It was a fool's errand, but I had to do it," he says. "There was no indication it would get as big as it has." Though the festival has grown into a major launch pad for independent film, and taken more money and time than he'd ever imagined, he sticks with it: "Seeing the films, and having someone say, 'Thank you for giving me my start'– that's the reward."
In The Company You Keep, Redford saw a chance to teach a little history to a jaded generation who has the desire to effect change, if not always a plan or a belief in the possibility. "One of the things I've been critical of about my country is that we don't learn from our mistakes," he says. "This film is not about then," the 1960s. "It's about now. How many people resent what they did, or still believe in it? I think that the generation just before this one, which started in the 1980s, the Silicone Valley fortunes, didn't feel they needed any life lessons. They could make money. As a result we ended up with wealthy, one-dimensional people. Now I think a different generation is starting to emerge that's qualified to do something politically, and wants to. They're saying, 'You haven't left me much to work with, so don't baby-boom me. Just give me the reins.'"
Redford learned a long time ago not to expect that a film will change anything. "Maybe fashion," he says. (Too bad I didn't have the time to ask what he thinks about The Great Gatsby coming around on film again.) "But as to changing people's points of view, you can only sort of hope."
Redford revisited another piece of history this year, and he had to be wooed into that one, too: The Discovery Channel asked him to produce and appear in a documentary timed to Watergate's 40th anniversary. "My first reaction was no, don't go back, you've done that, don't repeat it," he says. "Then I thought about it and said, 'Wait a minute. I made that film at a high point in journalism's history, and how lucky was I to stumble into that story in that moment.'" The resulting doc, All the President's Men Revisited, aired April 21. Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, at 90, appears in it, along with Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Dustin Hoffman, "and all these characters of today, Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, who are continuing that tradition," Redford says. "There has got to be journalists, there has to be."
Then he adds something that makes everyone in the room glance at one another, all too aware of the passage of time. "But you have to look at that story [Watergate] more as a museum piece," he says. "It can never happen again, because of the Internet and all the other changes that occurred. It's not possible to have now what you had then." The way we were, indeed.