Robert Redford is perched up on the inside window ledge of his 12th-floor Manhattan office, fiddling with the blinds. And since his tan cowboy boots weren't exactly designed for climbing, he looks as if he's about to tumble right out the window.

"Want me to jump?" he asks, peering down at the street below. "That'd give your piece a big finish, wouldn't it?"

Asked if the interview could be finished first, he smiles his famous smile, makes a few adjustments in the climate ("Get ready for some heat!") and then, settling himself at the far end of the sofa, slaps his palms together. "Okay, let's talk about something substantive. Let's talk about me."

His excitement isn't convincing. If given the choice, Redford would almost rather leap to his death than sit down for an interview. This is a scrupulously private man, notoriously loath to open himself up to public scrutiny, a man who has struggled fiercely against the combined efforts of the media and fan appreciation to turn him into some distortion of himself, into an object. If there weren't so many inaccuracies and misconceptions floating around about him he probably wouldn't bother talking to the press at all. Even now, with his latest movie, "Havana," coming out, he's not sure it's the wise thing to do.

"You're a target," he says, looking small and surprisingly vulnerable at the end of the sofa. The teeth are headlight bright, even from a distance. And the hair, which is the color of spun gold, falls over his forehead in feathery layers, same as always, but around the eyes there's an intricate network of lines that weren't visible even four years ago, when he last appeared onscreen in "Legal Eagles." "You've chosen an industry that puts you out in front of the public in a very naked way. Okay, that's what you've chosen, but then you have to live with what comes with it. Every now and then it gets a little too distorted and you're out there very raw."

Putting the record straight is something of a mission with Redford. In his personal life and in his public statements, he is as careful as a politician. He talks a lot about consequences, responsibilities, choices, focus. Whether the subject is his movies, his life, his involvement with the Sundance Institute, a Utah community for artists that he founded in 1981, or his devotion to social causes, he despises sloppy half-truths and vague assumptions.

All of this cuts against his onscreen impression of patented ease. As the fledgling writer in "The Way We Were," he wrote an autobiographical short story that began, "In a way he was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easily to him." But it can't be easy being Robert Redford. In an interview, every question is diligently addressed, every answer meticulously thought out. He talks not just in complete sentences but in complete conversational arcs, moving forward methodically to his point.

He's careful, in fact, even about the description of himself as careful. "I'm selective, yes," he says, "but careful? I don't work in a careful way but I'm careful in what I choose to do. I'm careful, inasmuch as it's possible, to design my own way, to do what I want to do and not live somebody else's life or do what somebody else thinks I should do. In that sense I'm careful, but there's not a lot of calculation to it. It's just having a pretty strong idea of the things you want to do and doing them. It's being careful not to get off the track."

You can't help but play reality-vs.-perception games with Redford. In the public mind, his image is that of an elusive ideal; he's the embodiment of cool WASP reserve, of high-minded intelligence and denim-shirt liberalism, a principled idealist with an acute social conscience and a strict sense of personal morality. He'd argue with almost all of it, adding shading to each description, calibrating and balancing. It's the public's natural inclination to mythologize its stars. Some stars acquiesce to this process and come to some peace with it; some stars merely ignore it. Redford agonizes over it, fighting to separate himself from the image on screen, to remain life-size and real.

"I'm uneasy about the word 'myth' when it's applied to me," he confesses, rustling his fingers through his hair. "I mean you're struggling enough as it is to try to do your work without that getting in the way, without being turned into some kind of icon or myth. I've always felt for me -- I mean other people have their own ways of dealing with it -- for me, the best was to try to separate it out."

At 53, Robert Redford is at a watershed in his career, as an actor, an activist and a public personality. "Havana," which reunites him with his favorite director, Sydney Pollack, with whom he has made seven films, is only his fourth movie as an actor since 1980. Seeing him now is something of a shock. The years have gouged deep corrugations in his famously handsome face. No longer is he the tawny ingenue of "Inside Daisy Clover" or "Barefoot in the Park," the all-American golden boy of "The Great Gatsby" or "The Way We Were." He has aged, and no efforts have been made to hide it.

The actor's release from his pretty-boy image may be a welcome one. Redford has always struggled with his movie star status, with the notion that he is merely another flashing set of teeth. It was never something he sought. "I had to work through a lot of feelings about being an actor in the first place," he recalls. "I had a lot of ambivalence about it. As a kid in Los Angeles, I grew up in a film industry community, and it didn't have that Holy Grail appeal that it has for some people. I was there and I was not impressed."

Los Angeles, he felt, was a dead end for him. "I had grown impatient in Los Angeles," he remembers. "There was something seething in me to get out. It was a combination of just wanting to be somewhere else and being lower-middle-class and not having many opportunities or options except for in athletics. So when I went out, I really went out."

His first ambition was to be a painter. After leaving the University of Colorado (which he attended on a baseball scholarship), he went first to New York, then to Paris, then to Florence, searching for the main currents in the art world. "I went to Europe because I thought that was the place you went to develop as an artist. ... I was only 18 years old and that seemed to be where the Grail was for art. I found out it wasn't. There was nothing really going on there, just the idea. The movement had faded."

It was fading in New York too, which is where he moved next. "I didn't know where I was going," he says, recalling his frustration. "I just sort of floated." Uncertain which direction to head, he traveled west and worked odd jobs. "I worked on an oil refinery, as a box boy at Vons supermarket. Paper route, bricklayer, carpenter's apprentice. I did some cartoons for a medical brochure. I took whatever came up, from dishwashing to garden boy to landscaping boy. But they were all labor. They were all jobs that usually involved a shovel or a broom, which I look back on and see as a very valuable thing."

Still, he didn't have much in the way of direction. "The early years were pretty rough for me. I had discipline problems. For a period of time I think a lot of people -- family, friends and myself included -- wondered where I was going to end up, because there was a lot of anger and a lot of feelings that I couldn't find shapes or forms for." He got into his fair share of trouble too. "Nothing extravagant," he says. "Jail a few times, drinking and carrying on and just high times. Higher than most."

When Redford turned to acting, it was almost by accident: A friend suggested that he study set design as a way of improving his painting. "Acting seemed to give me a channel, a focus that I needed, and that felt great. It was ... my salvation."

Redford has said in the past that he went into the theater to find relief from his chronic shyness. Today he says that was only part of it. "There's a part of me that is shy, but there's also a part of me that's a total exhibitionist. I mean, I've done a lot of exhibitionistic things. ... I was never nervous onstage. I welcomed that moment when the curtain went up and the noise stopped and you went out there and you had it to all to yourself."

While still studying art at the Pratt Institute in New York, Redford auditioned at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. By then he was married, to Lola Van Wegenen, whom he'd met in Los Angeles, and who worked in a bank to pay the rent and help him through school. (The couple, who have three children, have been separated for several years.) What he learned at the academy, he says, was "how not to fall off the stage" and not much more.

"I had never been on a stage in my life. I had no sense of the technical part of it. So it gave me that. It gave me the chance to put myself out there in front of the people." He won his first part, in the Broadway production of "Tall Story," even before graduating. He dribbled a basketball and read a single line: "Hey, they're in here." After a couple of other small Broadway parts, he moved over to television, where he says his real training began. He had parts on "Perry Mason," "Naked City," "The Twilight Zone" and "Route 66," among others, and loved it.

"Television was incredible," he remembers. "That was my real training ground. I was in four plays on Broadway, but it was the three intense years of television that really developed me or gave me whatever platform I had to stand on as an actor. It didn't allow you a lot of time to overthink, it didn't allow you time to overrehearse. ... Maybe having been an athlete, I always played better when there was a crowd, if somebody put up a dime. Live theater and TV had that edginess about it that film doesn't quite have."

His most vivid memory is of an episode of "Playhouse 90" -- the last one in the series -- in 1960. In it he got to play a sympathetic young Nazi along with a heavyweight cast. "There were star actors like Oscar Homolka, Arthur Kennedy, Sam Jaffe, Charles Laughton. Great company -- and then me. That was the highest moment of my life. Oh God. That's where my career got its initial big break."

From there he moved into film, beginning in 1962 with the Korean War drama "War Hunt." Since then he's starred in 25 movies, playing a wide variety of roles including an escaped convict (in "The Chase"), a prison warden (in "Brubaker"), a barnstorming flier (in "The Great Waldo Pepper"), and a diamond thief (in "The Hot Rock"). His career is full of misfits and loners, men who stand apart, outlaws, non-joiners, misplaced, cerebral, emotionally reticent and slightly bruised; wounded heroes with dark secrets. As an actor he has remained a model of seamless proficiency; unlike most other actors of his generation, he's never let us see the sweat that's gone into building his characters. And over the years he's come under fire from critics for not extending his range, for wanting too much to be liked, and for not wanting to get his uniform dirty. They remember that he wouldn't cut his hair to play the reform warden who poses as an inmate to get the dirt on the old administration in "Brubaker." Or attempt a British accent to play Denys Finch Hatton in "Out of Africa."

This is partly a matter of approach, and partly one of temperament. By nature he doesn't view acting as an arena for personal questing, in the way that, say, Robert De Niro does. His style is modern and antiheroic, but his precursors seem to come from an earlier era, the time of Spencer Tracy and Gary Cooper, when actors were more self-effacing and played more within themselves. "I like subtlety," he says quietly. "Working with it is just enjoyable, for me personally. But for other actors, subtlety can be missed. They work more overtly to make a point, more frontally than I have. I just prefer the other way."

There are also some critics who feel that Redford's social consciousness has limited his choice of parts to liberal heroes, good guys and role models. The screenwriter William Goldman, who was credited with the script for "All the President's Men," has said Redford turned down the lead role in "The Verdict" because the man was a boozer and a womanizer.

"He's wrong," Redford fires back. "That's just bull. Absolute bull. This is a perfect example of what happens when you don't straighten the record out. I didn't do 'The Verdict' because the script wasn't really there. There's nothing wrong with playing somebody who redeems himself or who is an honorable character. ... There's nothing wrong with playing a heroic figure. But it would be boring if that's all you played."

Getting to the crux of it -- does he feel underrated as an actor?

"Sometimes, yeah," he admits. "But that's my own personal feeling, it's not something you go in a public forum with. 'Oh, poor me, I'm misunderstood as an actor.' Your work is either going to connect or it isn't."

In fact, old feelings about the unworthiness of his profession still linger. A few years back, he said he wouldn't continue acting beyond 50, that it wasn't a dignified way to make a living.

"Um, yeah, acting is a dignified way to make a living," he says, acknowledging he has changed his mind. "I've passed that one. I've passed that abyss. I've decided it's an absolutely terrific occupation, particularly if you can be any good at it. Because the idea of pleasing people is pretty great."

Two things, he says, keep him interested.

"This is the kind of thing that can't be explained too well," he says, struggling for the words. "It's just a feeling. There's something about the intimacy of film that I find very appealing. ... There's a privacy to the connection with another actor. It's a pretty wonderful thing to be that connected to another human being.

"Second, if you're bothered by something in your society -- which I usually am, always -- you get to exorcise that anger in a character or a film."

Still, Robert Redford movies were in very short supply in the '80s. In 1980 he debuted as a director with "Ordinary People," which won him the Oscar for Best Director. And in 1988 he directed his second film, "The Milagro Beanfield Wars," which stirred rumors that he was phasing out his career as an actor in favor of a role behind the camera.

Not true, he says. " 'Havana' is like a return to work in a sense. And it feels good. I didn't get back to the career until just recently. It's what I want to do."

The bulk of the '80s, he says, had a different emphasis. For almost a decade, most of his energy has been devoted to constructing a power base to deal with social and environmental problems, searching out and supporting candidates and establishing a solid operating base for Sundance. Recent news stories have reported that the institute was in dire financial straits, that employees had to be laid off and budgets drastically cut back. Redford says the present troubles are no worse than at any other time.

"It's a terrific place to work," he says proudly. "It's taken more of my time than I had planned or allowed. But the struggle now is to get free of it enough to do my other work."

He's cutting back, too, on his political involvement, including his support for individual candidates. But this doesn't mean he'll be stepping out of the arena entirely. "This next decade, which I think is the crucial decade for the environment, I'm going to be committing to a more singular purpose again, putting my body out there, like in the earlier years, to work in a way that affects voting on the environment. I think that's the only thing that's going to do it. Get people in office who are sensitive. Get people out of office who are not."

Where does he get the energy for all this?

"At the moment, I've gone through every room and I can't find it," he says, laughing. "It's not available to me these days. I tell you, I'm wiped out. Also, it sounds like a lot more going on than there actually is. This next period of time is going to be much more about work."

And what would he like to accomplish with the work?

"What I want to get done in the work is to just continue to etch out dramatically or theatrically the way I see things," he says. "It's really that simple. I mean, I see things a certain way. ... It's not unlike an editorial. I want to do smaller films, by the way. Mixing with the larger ones. But the ones that I would do or have control over would be smaller ones that are like film editorials on our social condition."

Somewhere along the line he mentioned having fun. It was a passing reference, an indication that amid all these other considerations there might be a place for it. So what about it, he is asked. And in answering, Redford is just as concentrated, just as serious and diligent as he has been in responding to all the other questions.

"Yes ... fun," he says. "Fun if you can find it. Fun is an absolutely viable word. Depending on how you grew up. You know, I grew up thinking fun was a word you weren't supposed to use, much less something you were supposed to have. It's part of an old Catholic upbringing. But the idea of fun I think is absolutely okay. When I'm able to do what I want to do, there's great enjoyment and great fun in that. It's a great country, and it can be a great life. The trouble with it is if you feel that strongly about your own country -- and I think this is the best place to live -- you take it very personally when they seem to be throwing it away. Or selling it away, as the case may be. Why not make films about how you feel about it?"