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The Globe and Mail

Robert Redford: The last of the Hollywood good guys

Robert Redford arrives at Ford's Theatre in Washington last month for the premiere of his film "The Conspirator."

Alex Brandon/AP

The face is a touch jowly, the blue eyes framed by horn-rimmed glasses, the hair a rather suspicious thatch of reddish-blond with a touch of grey at the temples. But at 74 Robert Redford still has that killer smile - an even set of room-illuminating pearlies that, in The Way We Were and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, made for the very definition of movie-star handsome.

He's trim, too. Or at least seems to be: The long-sleeved black shirt he's wearing this sunny Saturday morning is untucked over a pair of jeans, effectively mitigating the presence of whatever paunch there may be. Still, as he takes to the couch in his Toronto hotel room, you're willing to suspend a rigorous investigation into the ravages of time because … well, because he's Robert Redford, liberal do-gooder, environmentalist, indie-film supporter par excellence, Oscar winner and just generally the Last of the Hollywood Good Guys.

Even all this didn't mean a slam dunk when he brought his latest film, The Conspirator, for its world premiere at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. The movie, which Redford directed and co-produced, arrived at the festival without benefit of distribution - a "failing" Redford was keen to remedy even as he pointed out "we're in a terrible business climate right now and the industry has changed drastically," since his seventies and early eighties heyday. That Redford succeeded, eventually, is quite amazing - not because it's a bad movie poorly directed (it's not) but because it's an earnest courtroom drama (always a tough sell) that doesn't stint on drawing uncomfortable parallels between the "confusion, anxiety and fear" the United States felt in the wake of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865 and the resurfacing of those feelings in the wake of 9/11.

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Redford asserted these "tremendous parallels" weren't something he determinedly pushed to the fore in the script, the first draft of which screenwriter James Solomon prepared almost 18 years ago. "That was just sort of an interesting byproduct," he explained. "I wouldn't have done the film just for the politics. That was the part that was going to take care of itself [since]the parallels were just there."

More compelling was "the little-known personal story that sat at the heart of these outer levels" - namely, the relationship between Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the Confederacy-supporting widow whose boarding house in Washington was a prominent meeting place for anti-Lincoln conspirators, her son included, and Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a decorated Union officer who, as a rookie lawyer, is assigned to defend Surratt before a military tribunal after she's implicated in the Lincoln murder. Reluctant at first, Aiken slowly warms to Surratt, and vice versa, and becomes convinced the tribunal is more a hanging party than a forum for justice.

"There were a lot of challenges in this film," Redford acknowledged, including its $25-million (U.S.) budget - "extremely small" for a costume drama. This necessitated "a tight shooting schedule," mostly in Savannah, Ga., and "not a lot of time to prepare." Yet perhaps Redford's biggest fear was what he called "proclamation talk" - the tendency for actors in a period piece to "talk like they're reading off a piece of parchment." As a result, he and Solomon worked hard to strike a balance between the idiomatic and the formal.

Would Redford like to do another historical drama? "Not specifically," he replied. Indeed, since its release in the United States in mid-April, The Conspirator has earned less than $9-million, hardly the best incentive. "I'm kinda loose; I just like a really good story that can be well told. I think what I am interested in is my own country, whether it's yesterday or today … the story beneath the story we're being told. And it all stems from one childhood moment: I grew up in sports, in a lower-class area of Los Angeles … and I remember being given slogans like, 'It doesn't matter whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.' Well, I realized that was a lie: I was in a country where everything mattered. … So I've wanted to tell the truth about my country, as opposed to the slogans we're sometimes given."

The Conspirator opens in Montreal and Vancouver on Friday and opened last week in Toronto.

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