Film3Sixty sits down with Robert Redford to discuss 1970s activism, Shia LaBeouf’s motormouth and his new political thriller The Company You Keep
Robert Redford ambles into a Toronto hotel suite, verbose off the bat and keen to be engaged on the substantial themes of his new film The Company You Keep. Ten minutes after settling in, he’s still answering the first question, about the role passion plays in changing history. His response kicked off with musings about a personal hero, the Irish poet Robert E Yeats, before leading Redford into an extended rumination on the historical context for The Company You Keep as it pertains to the Weather Underground, the American radical-left group which conducted a bombing campaign in the early 1970s to protest the Vietnam War. Redford’s latest depicts a group of these once fiery activists 30 years down the line, after they’ve settled into normal lives under assumed identities – including his character Jim Grant, a small-town lawyer forced to go on the run when an aggressive reporter (played by Shia LaBeouf) threatens to expose his past.
Encountering Redford face to face feels like meeting an old friend: he’s warm, affable and looks great for 76, healthy and hearty in jeans and an unbuttoned black shirt over a salmon pink V-neck. As the founder of the Sundance Film Festival (and driving force behind brand offshoots like Sundance London, taking place at The O2 for a second year running this weekend), he’s the de facto godfather of modern American independent cinema. Reassuringly, he continues to practice what he preaches, keeping his filmmaking energies focused on complex, adult-orientated dramas like The Company You Keep. It’s his ninth film as a director, although only the third in which he also stars, joining The Horse Whisperer (1998) and Lions For Lambs (2007). But, like the man himself, it abounds with integrity and intelligence.
History is made with passion, you seem to be saying in The Company You Keep. Is that still true in today’s world?
Well, this film deals with passion but it deals with passion that was spent in youth, and with young people who were involved at a point in history where change was happening and the change looked exciting. I’m fascinated by this time in American history but I don’t think it would have been possible to make this film in the 1970s because when that protest movement was finished, it left too much resentment in the country. But I was interested in those people 30 years later and where their lives had taken them.
As portrayed by Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte and Richard Jenkins, they’ve all gone in different directions. Some are still radicals, others have become soccer moms and pillars of society…
That’s what interested me, how lives change, how change affects people. But the one thing that remains is loyalty, that code that they had when they were young. No matter what happened, no matter what you felt, you would always maintain some connection, even if you didn’t want to see that person again. I like that grey zone. My country pretty much reduces things to black and white but I’ve never seen anything that simple.
Did you always want to play the main role yourself?
Yes, and I knew that if I didn’t get this film made fairly soon, I was going to be too old. I don’t particularly enjoy directing myself. I like directing and I like acting but having to direct myself, that’s not comfortable for me. I can do it but it’s not something I enjoy.
Do you still find enjoyment in acting?
Yes, very much so. When I found this project, I thought, That’s a good part for me to play. There’s an irony there in the sense that in this film I play a guy running away from a reporter and in All The President’s Men I am the reporter. But I liked the vulnerability of the character.
Why did you settle on Shia LaBeouf to play the callow young journalist?
He had all the qualities that I thought were right for it so that when you get to the end and he’s written this story that is going to hurt many people, I wanted to leave it open so you don’t know whether he’s going to send it or not. Shia’s arc during the film is, “Will he learn anything about respect for the human heart or not?”
What are the qualities that LaBeouf brought to the role?
Shia has two things that I thought were vital for the character: a quick mind and a fast tongue. His mouth and his mind are very close together, which gives him an exceptional mental energy that I thought was good for the character. I thought he’d be the driving force of the story, and he was. I’m very happy with his performance as an actor because it’s so focused.
Are there less good stories around than in the early days of your career?
Not at all. This is going to sound harsh but there’s no reason for a sequel because there are too many good stories to be told. I would never want to do a sequel. I’ve been asked to do a sequel to The Way We Were, I’ve been asked to do a sequel to Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. I said, “Didn’t you see the end of the film?” I think some filmmakers today feel that they don’t need a script, that they can tell a story with the visuals and they probably can. But that isn’t what interests me. I’ve always been story-oriented and I believe there’s no end to the stories that can be told.