“A truly independent visionary, Robert Redford has transformed the landscape of American cinema,” says writer and critic Amy Taubin in her introduction to the November 12, 2016, Walker Dialogue with Robert Redford. In their extensive conversation, shared here for the first time, the duo discusses Redford’s many roles—actor, director, producer, environmental and political activist, family man, and—through his founding of the Sundance Film Festival and Sundance Institute—a ceaseless champion of independent voices in cinema. Below, a sampling of Redford’s words from this wide-ranging and engrossing conversation.
On the rise of independent films
We would see all kinds of issues that came up: women’s films, LBGT films, [films in] all kinds of categories were suddenly being made by people in those categories. I felt that was a pretty healthy thing because it would broaden the landscape of film. For a while we suffered because … I think I was considered an insurgent, like somebody in the mountains ready to come down and attack the film industry. It was never meant to be that. It was meant to broaden the category and say, “Look, it’s not just studio films. There are other films to be seen out there, other stories to be told, in different ways.”
On his inspiration for The Candidate
Suddenly we were electing people not for substance, but for cosmetics. So I wanted to make a movie that showed you could succeed if you were just cosmetically attractive, as opposed to having substance. My character had gotten taken over by the system, but suddenly he forgot how he got there and forgot why he was there.
On film and politics
Films are always made of their time, and whatever the topic is, whether it’s the Vietnam war or Watergate or whatever it is, there will be films made about events that are taking place at that time, that have impact on society. Now, I would just guess, you’ll see films made about disillusionment, surprise—the shock of thinking you have things going this way and suddenly they go that way and there doesn’t seem to be any good reason why.
I remember, years ago, how good it felt and how different it was. I had been in theater and early television, and suddenly something shifted after Butch Cassidy and I began to get noticed. So I remember thinking, “Uh oh, there’s danger here, and I’d better watch out. I don’t want to buy into this. I don’t want to let this affect me.” So I made three notes to myself, and it all had to do with the word “object.” The first thing is you begin to be treated like an object, and it feels different and it feels good. Then if you’re not careful, you’ll begin to behave like an object. And if you’re not careful with that, you become an object. So I put that up for myself to be careful.
On coming of age during World War II
I grew up with a lot of propaganda as a kid. There was a lot of red, white, and blue going on, and I bought into it. Then, as time went on and I grew up, I started to become an artist, and I went out in the world and experienced life outside of Los Angeles. I realized that it was far more complicated than the propaganda during the Second World War [suggested]. There was a big gray area out there, where life was much more complicated … I was really fascinated by that territory because there was a new kind of truth from the one I had [grown] up with. Then eventually, when I was an artist and I was going to be able to make film, I said, “I think I’d like to make films that are about that, that gray zone.”
On becoming an actor
I didn’t start out to be an actor, and it took me a while to accept that I was an actor. It had a lot to do with the way I grew up. I grew up in kind of a rough neighborhood, and we would go to a matinee and make fun of the screen. We thought that was kind of cool. If there was a love scene, we would go, “Oh, you tell ’em lover” or stuff like that. So the idea that I would eventually be one of those characters was just impossible for me to imagine. So I was very self-conscious, in the beginning, about being an actor. It was very hard for me to accept the fact that I would be an actor.
On becoming his characters
For me, acting was all about inhabiting a character: you had to be in that character’s skin. You had to think the way the character would be; you had to act the way the character would. Even though it may not be somebody like yourself, the challenge and the excitement was stepping into another role, another character, and being totally believable. That was exciting. And that’s finally when acting hit a nerve with me, that made it finally comfortable.
On Paul Newman
Paul and I became very, very dear friends. It started on Butch Cassidy. He was a very, very generous man. He was a pleasure to work with because he was all about craft. The fact that he would take a chance on me, not being as well known, that’s how it started, and then as we worked together, I realized he was so serious about his work and so was I. The work we did together was really about the professional part of it and the obligation to be professional about it; that drew us even closer together. From that point on, we decided, “Well, that was sure fun, so let’s do something else together.”
It came to me that whatever created nature was something that I could believe in. Whatever the force was that created this phenomenal world, if left alone, could be quite amazing. But we weren’t going to do that. We were going to develop because we are a development-oriented society. I thought, at some point, if there isn’t some kind of preservation to keep a balance, we’ll wake up one day and there’ll be nothing left to develop. We might be poisoned, and if we’re interested in having a family, or interested in bringing children into the world and hope that they’ll bring more children into the world, then you have to give them something to work with. That’s what hit me hard. I thought: well, I’ll just commit to that.
Advice for filmmakers
To me, it’s all about story. Sometimes I feel the story’s been lost in favor of special effects. You’ll see somebody that’s really a dazzling filmmaker, who can just dazzle you with the special effects and explosions and this and that and the other thing. But you come away from [their work] and it’s like cotton candy. Where was the story? Second question is: who are the characters that embody the story? The third and most important is: where’s the emotion? If it doesn’t have all three, then I probably would not be attracted to it.