My favourite living movie star is looking at me. We shake hands. His gaze is direct. His voice familiar. Five decades on from his role as the Sundance Kid, he may have aged, but those eyes and that voice are exactly the same. Robert Redford is in the room. The attraction of a movie star is about distance; it’s in the name. True stars are stratospheric, unreal, impossible. When they clap eyes on you, and shake your hand, it crosses the circuits in your brain. Redford, with his black long-sleeved shirt and dark jeans, that famous head of light, strawberry blonde hair, is now taking a seat next to David Lowery, the director of The Old Man & the Gun.
A few months ago, in the run-up to the film’s release, Redford announced his retirement from acting. He’s now 82, with an Academy Award for Best Director and the creation of the Sundance Film Festival among his achievements – in addition to a half-century career on the silver screen. It was Redford who first discovered the true story of septuagenarian bank robber Forrest Tucker while flipping through the New Yorker. Tucker was a man with dozens of prison breaks to his name and a penchant for bloodless heists all over Texas in the ’80s. That it caught the attention of a lifelong player of movie outlaws seems like serendipity. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was not Redford’s first movie, but it was the one that planted him in the collective consciousness and made him a superstar.
“I’ve always loved the idea of the outlaw, since I was a kid,” he says. “I think I grew up with that sensibility. I wasn’t out to break the law, but I was not wanting to live within the law too much, so that was always in my head. When I was very young, I got into trouble that way – not horrible trouble, but just enough trouble. I outgrew that, but what I didn’t outgrow was [the idea] that there was something to be said about the outlaw. Something that was really American about it. I didn’t put that into that perspective then, but it was something I was drawn to.”
Redford’s appeal has always had a hint of mythic Americana to it. From The Sting to The Way We Were, his commercial films have often been crowd-pleasing glamour vehicles, and The Old Man & the Gun cleaves to that formula without too much dissent. “One of the things I liked about The Old Man & the Gun was that it reminded me of something in the past. I didn’t know what. Just a vibe that I got that made it so much fun. And also the idea that you had fellow actors who were your accomplices. It made it all the better because you had people who were in it for the same reasons you were.”
Lowery, who worked with Redford on the 2016 family film Pete’s Dragon, seemed to be an ideal fit for this material, so Redford corralled him into writing the screenplay. Asked what drew him to Lowery, he says, “I thought he had a unique profile. He came through our filmmakers’ lab at Sundance, and that’s when I first became aware of him. He had a unique POV about film and that’s always pretty important to me. We premiered Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and I thought his work was really interesting.”
Lowery is equally in awe of ‘Bob’. “He loves the craft of acting and creating characters. For him, it’s always a balance of giving the public what they want when they go to see a Robert Redford movie, and doing something that is artistically satisfying. He likes to thwart expectations while also honouring them, and to use a cliché, to march to the beat of his own drum.”
Over the years, Redford has been a love object and foil to a raft of incredible women: Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand among them. Hollywood has changed since those women first struggled through the deeply sexist industry of the ’60s and ’70s. Redford acknowledges that things were harder then. “Jane, especially, played a role in jarring things loose. I have a long history with Jane which I’m very happy about. She’s been a joy to work with. She’s an actress where we didn’t have to discuss much – things just fell into place.
“She certainly played a role in rearranging the role of women in film. And I think that’s now progressing rapidly. I think it’s all very healthy. Now we have the #MeToo movement, which is kind of jarring things around a bit. So you have women playing a bigger role, which I think is great – I’m all for that – and giving them more of a voice. It’s a process right now that will develop over time and we’ll see how it continues to grow.”
Then, Redford asks me a question. “What’s your… background? Your heritage? I’m curious.” I say I’m half-Greek. Inwardly, I revert to a minor panic at being asked a personal question. I suddenly recall that this is the man who once made Sissy Spacek so giddy when they met that she accidentally called him ‘Bobert’. Jane Fonda, at the height of her bombshell days, admitted that when they acted together she sometimes forgot her lines.
Meanwhile, Redford is greeting me in Greek. “I love Greece. I spent time with my family there years ago, in Heraklion. I did fall a bit too much in love with retsina, though,” he says. We all three launch into a conversation about ouzo – that’s how I ended up talking about varieties of Greek booze with Robert Redford.
Decades of stardom have given Redford a certain expertise in soothing flustered people. He seems to extend himself to make me feel comfortable; it’s a kindness that’s probably second-nature, but feels immediately special. Before I leave, I ask to snap a photo, and Redford obliges. I wonder if I might be able to express something, but decide against it. How can you tell someone that you frequently turn to their movies in need of uplift; that they personify the idea of stardom to you? You can’t. So you leave, feeling cosmically rewarded that movie stars are sometimes kind to young journalists, and that even if they forget all about this brief interaction, they know you won’t.
The Old Man & the Gun is released 7 December. Read the LWLies Recommends review.
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