There are moments while talking with Robert Redford when you can see that 1970s sex symbol peeking through from a weathered 77-year-old face — starting when he rises from a couch in a New York publicist’s office, looking amazingly fit in jeans, white T-shirt and cordovan cowboy boots. Settling in for a brief interview, one’s tempted to lean across the coffee table and tuck back a lock of his thick, only slightly graying hair, just like Barbra Streisand did in “The Way We Were.” This smile is still straight out of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The voice as seductive as it was in “All the President’s Men” or “Three Days of the Condor.”
In case it isn’t obvious, in other words, Redford’s still got it. And anyone needing proof of that fact will be convinced by his newest movie, a man-against-nature thriller called “All Is Lost” in which he plays a nameless character whose sailboat runs afoul of a shipping container in the Indian Ocean. The film, written and directed by J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”) chronicles his week-long attempt to keep his boat afloat and stay alive. And Redford thoroughly dominates the drama, in which he’s the sole star and in which he utters just a few words of dialogue, putting his body through moments of watery peril, hopelessness and existential terror.
For the 106-minute running time of “All Is Lost,” Redford delivers something of a master class in the art of screen acting, using his prime instrument — his body — to deliver a galvanizing, physically grueling, deeply emotional performance that would be electrifying coming from someone half his age. The fact that it’s Redford up there, battling the elements, refusing to go gently, embodying the hopes, fears, desires and recriminations of the generation of which he’s been so emblematic, makes “All Is Lost” not just thrilling, but profound.
On this rainy day in New York, Redford bears not a trace of the stresses he went through making “All Is Lost,” which was filmed in the same Baja, Calif., water tanks as “Titanic.” He’s even getting used to the idea that the movie is a success — a fact that first dawned on him at the Cannes Film Festival, where he saw it for the first time at a gala black-tie premiere. “I had not seen anything,” he says. “I had not looked at the monitor between takes, I didn’t go to dailies, I took myself out of that. So when the lights came down I didn’t know what to expect.” He was prepared for the worst, he recalls. “And when it went the other way, I just didn’t know what to do with it. I did not know how to behave.”
It’s entirely in keeping with Redford’s wary, often ambivalent relationship with success that he didn’t quite know what to make of his latest one. This is a man who came to New York in the 1950s in order to be a painter, and instead found himself drawn — despite his inborn shyness and California-bred contempt for shallow movie culture — to acting. A man who, when stardom began to find him in the 1960s, responded by buying up land in Utah, the better to retreat from it. The man who, when he saw the studio culture changing in the 1980s, didn’t “lean in,” but built his own nonprofit institute, where he could nurture filmmakers interested in making the small, independent, often subversive films he himself produced whenever the system would let him. This is the man whose watchwords have always been: At the height of your greatest success, always go back to zero.
“That’s right,” Redford says today. “Be careful of success, it has a dark side.” In a way, “All Is Lost” is a product of the success of the Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival, which Redford spent most of the 1980s and 1990s building and protecting, at the expense of his own acting and directing career. “Yeah, I got off my stride a bit with my own work,” he admits. “I kind of woke up and said, wait a second, I need to go back to what it is that I do.”
Now he’s restoring the balance. Last spring, he directed and starred in the political thriller “The Company You Keep.” He has revived longstanding plans to direct and star in the adaptation of Bill Bryson’s book “A Walk in the Woods,” and next year he’ll appear in the comic-book action-adventure “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” With “All Is Lost,” however, he has tackled something deeper and more challenging on any level, aesthetic or physical.
“Its purity is what attracted me,” he says of Chandor’s script. “It was very bold, I was attracted by that. There’s no dialogue, I was attracted by that. It was not going to have a lot of special effects. Even though we were going to be filming in tanks, it was going to be real rain and wind. It was a very pure experience that I felt had gone missing [in movies]. It was a chance for me to be a part of going back to that.”
It was also a chance for Redford finally to work with one of the hundreds of promising young filmmakers who got their start at Sundance, a roll call that includes names like Soderbergh, Linklater and Tarantino. When Chandor’s film “Margin Call” made its debut at the festival in 2011, he handed Redford the script for “All Is Lost” (which, with no dialogue, amounted to 30-some pages). “J.C. is the first and only filmmaker of all the ones I’ve supported who’s ever asked me to be in a film!” Redford says, adding that the reason for the reticence is “anybody’s guess.” (He has since agreed to star in “The Old Man and the Gun,” with Sundance alum David Lowery at the helm.)
It took the actor 10 minutes to say yes to “All Is Lost.” At that point, he says, he wanted to put himself entirely in the service of a director, with no second guessing or kibitzing. “I just want to be an actor,” he recalls telling Chandor. “I’ll put myself in your hands, and let’s go. There was not one moment where I thought about directing. I never gave him any pointers, we never discussed it, because I trusted him.”
Chandor notes that Redford had just finished post-production work on “The Company You Keep” when he showed up on the “All Is Lost” set. The minute he arrived, that last project — as well as Sundance and environmental causes and Redford’s activism in the arts — melted away. “I think he really enjoyed, after all those years of trying to wear all those different hats, just absolutely closing off and becoming a pure actor again,” Chandor says.
The word “pure” comes up a lot when discussing “All Is Lost,” and rightfully so: It is pure visual storytelling at its most compelling and an example of pure screen acting at its most physical and expressive. Redford did as many of his own stunts as possible, and when it became clear that he could handle them, Chandor began to see how far he could push his leading man, who in turn rose to nearly every challenge. Aching, wet, cold and bone-tired every night, the actor resorted to a time-honored cure: “Tequila,” he says with a laugh. “I’m proud of [the movie] because it’s a total performance. But it did take its toll.”
“All Is Lost” represents another kind of purity for Redford, one that he thought he left behind when he gave up painting for acting, one that he re-discovered when he began directing in the 1980s, but that he rarely found as an ambivalent actor-for-hire for studios that just wanted him to look good and little else. For the first time in decades, the movie star Redford was never comfortable being and the artist he thought he’d left behind have fused, in a film that works as vehicle and spectacle, but that’s also risky, rigorous and deeply meaningful.
“I don’t know how to express it, I don’t know how to describe it, but I agree with you,” he says softly. “Something seems to be coming together.”