NEW YORK -- There is a moment in “All Is Lost” when Robert Redford, playing a veteran sailor whose solo ocean voyage runs into all kinds of trouble, struggles to put on raingear during a mammoth storm. The tiny boat lurches. Redford is knocked off his feet, and in one of the few times that he utters so much as a sound during this ultra-minimalist, 107-minute film (opening Friday), he lets his sturdy jaw give in to a slight smile, brightens his eyes, and exhales a bemused, half-formed “huh.”
For the character, known only as Our Man, the moment is a reminder that the sea is in charge. For viewers, it’s a reminder of every Redford performance that has come before, from the Sundance Kid to the Horse Whisperer and beyond. At 77, with ash-colored sideburns and a face as pocked and dried as the Bonneville Salt Flats, he still shows flashes of the lovable conman in “The Sting,” the dogged reporter of “All the President’s Men,” the Great Gatsby . . . even the preppy hunk who tamed Barbra Streisand in “The Way We Were.” He’s still Robert Redford, movie star (no less than “Bob” Redford, filmmaker, activist, Sundance Institute founder and mentor), and these days he just seems happy when someone notices.
“That’s me,” he says of the “All Is Lost” storm scene, beaming at the observation offered during an interview in Manhattan. “That’s me being the character, recognizing the irony, saying: ‘On top of everything else, this? I can’t even get up to put on my raingear?’ ”
If you know anything about Redford’s reputation off camera, you know that he can be tough. People in Hollywood still talk about his many standoffs with director-friend Sydney Pollack. When he tells a reporter that he’s a Red Sox fan who worshiped Ted Williams (Redford’s father was from Connecticut; the family tree has branches all over New England), it’s no surprise that he acknowledges Williams’s disdain for journalists and admits, “I was always sympathetic to that.”
But in this interview, at least, everything seems good-humored and age-appropriately mellowed. “All Is Lost” director J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”) says in a separate interview that the veteran actor was positively deferential on set, refraining from offering any tips or feedback. “We maybe would have liked a little more advice from him on the directing front,” Chandor remarks, with a laugh. “He’s been in some pretty good movies and worked with some pretty good directors, himself being one of them. But I think he just really found it emotionally freeing having nothing to do except the acting.”
There’s talk already that “the acting” may earn Redford an Oscar nomination, which could lead to his first win as a performer (he’s won for directing 1980’s “Ordinary People” and for reaching “lifetime achievement” status, in 2002). All of which leads to inevitable questions about his last chapter and legacy. Chandor uses words like “icon” and “superhero.” But Our Man Redford would prefer to let his work do the talking.
Q. You’re sent a 30-page script with no dialogue and no supporting characters. What makes you want to do that movie?
A. At this point in my life, I was looking for something that was getting harder and harder to find. It was a more pure cinematic experience without special effects. The business seemed to be changing in a way that made that less and less likely. And then, suddenly, I get this script from a guy who had made a movie called “Margin Call,” which we premiered at our festival at Sundance, and this script is 30 pages — that was the first thing that got me excited. There was something about the construct of this movie and script that told me this guy really knows what he’s doing, he has a vision. One: [Chandor] was an avid sailor, so clearly he was drawing on his own experience. Two: his attention to detail. And, three: no dialogue. As an actor, that’s appealing because it removes a filter or barrier between you and the audience — you’re going to be internalizing a lot of things and an audience is going to have to read your behavior. So, I thought, I’m inclined to want to do this, I just have to find out if the guy’s nuts.
Q. Of all the filmmakers you’ve helped get started, he’s really the first to ask you to star in a film?
A. It’s true. First time. In 30 years of sponsoring and supporting new artists, no one’s ever asked me to be in a film. He did.
Q. What makes you so nurturing of young, independent-minded filmmakers? Do you see yourself in them?
A. I think probably you do personalize these things. There is something in me that recognizes myself in them. When I went into the business, I came into it thinking I would be an artist and I found myself on the performance side of it kind of unexpectedly. It took off, so my career shifted. But I could always remember how I felt, early on.
Q. Right now there’s this trend, as you must be aware, of movies with a “marooned” theme. One person’s struggle: “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips,” your movie. . .
A. I haven’t seen those other movies, so I wasn’t aware of it until recently. When we started this film there was just nothing close to it. And then suddenly you make it and you find out that there are other things out there, because I just think something gets in the air and it creates a kind of momentary trend. There must be something in the psyche about survival.
Q. You’re very politically aware. On some level does this trend reflect a collision of art and politics?
A. I’ve tried to put art and politics together — “The Candidate,” “All the President’s Men.” . . . But I went at this movie without any awareness of outside conditions. You can certainly draw parallels. In a way we are kind of on our own — considering the breakdown of government; our governing bodies are in such default that there’s nothing there for us — we’re all in a bit of a survival mode. There was one other film I made many, many years ago that carried the same situation, which is: At what point do people in their endeavors encounter impossibility — the odds are against you, all is lost, you can’t go any further so maybe you just don’t — but others just keep going, maybe for no other reason than it’s all they know to do. The film I made years ago, [1972’s] “Jeremiah Johnson,” had the same theme. He keeps going because that’s all there is to do. It’s just trying to continue as best you can.
Q. There’s also a natural comparison between “All Is Lost” and Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”
A. He took it to an arch place, though. Hemingway took things to an extreme to make a point about himself. On the other hand, I think this could have been an overacted piece.
Q. When it’s 107 minutes of film and you’re the only thing in it, how do you not overact?
A. The fact that there’s very little described, very little about his personal history, and no dialogue — it stripped a lot of things away. The artist Georgia O’Keeffe said it is only by selection, elimination, and emphasis that you get to the true meaning of something. This film had that. This character is not a superhero sailor; he’s a good sailor but he’s not one of Larry Ellison’s crew [winning the America’s Cup]. He encounters something so far beyond the norm that it’s going to require something out of him that he maybe hasn’t had to give before. He’s going to have to improvise. That was very appealing to me — that I, as the actor, had to be completely in the moment. It became a very personal journey. And that’s why I asked the director, “Let’s just see what I can do, physically, at my age.” It did take its toll, but I felt better that I was a complete person.
Q. Could you have directed yourself in this movie or would that have been too much?
A. That’s really interesting to think about. I don’t think so . . . because it required me to be completely absorbed. It was really nice not to direct. I liked not having to think.
Q. In this last chapter of your career, however long that is, you’ve got to be thinking of what you want to do — what matters. What do you want your legacy to be?
A. What I’m looking for is projects like this that are just interesting to me, that would be a challenge and would tap into what I’d like to give and haven’t had a chance to. Unique things that are not dependent on cheap thrills or special effects, the more pure cinematic experiences. Legacy? Well, I’ve never thought about my career. This is going to sound weird but I don’t think about my career unless somebody brings it up. I don’t sit here and contemplate what’s gone before. I was just in Telluride, Colo., where I was honored at that festival. It was very disturbing because they ran clips of things I’d done all the way back to 1960 — “The Iceman Cometh,” on black-and-white TV, “Barefoot in the Park,” little pieces of this and that. I didn’t want to see it; I just didn’t want to go there, you know? I was like: done that. You move forward. And what impedes your forward movement is if you start to contemplate what came before. I
just never have. So I probably won’t.
Q. In this film, one of the few times the character speaks is to express regret. What’s your feeling about regrets? Do you have any?
A. I have no regrets because I’ve done everything I could to the best of my ability. I grew up in a lower-working-class [Southern California] neighborhood, mostly Hispanic, we were one of the few Anglo families. Everyone there was fighting to stay alive, and I just said I have to get out, whatever it takes. And finally, when you’re out, you say: OK, now I can see what I can do. I have the freedom to take chances, to say no. I have the freedom to be who I really want to be, rather than have to conform to this or that just to stay alive.
Q. Do you have any sort of bucket list?
A. No buckets.
Q. Are you philosophically against them?
A. Yeah, probably. I don’t think about when it’s going to stop and what you do before it stops. You just keep moving.