Whatever is that indefinable quality that makes a star, Robert Redford has always had it in spades.
It is not just about looking the part, either. For as devastating as those blue eyes and classically handsome features were in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969), The Way We Were (1973), All The President’s Men (1976) and Out Of Africa (1985) – movies which have made him one of the biggest screen icons of the 20th century – the actor has long since moved beyond that to become a respected director and, through his Sundance Institute and Film Festival, a champion of independent cinema.
At 80, he still has that star quality, with the kind of presence and soft-spoken charm that instantly hushes a room and has everyone eating from his hand, as reporters in Los Angeles discover when they quiz him about his new movie, Pete’s Dragon.
But what is one of the most esteemed dramatic actors of his generation doing in a children’s fantasy adventure, where his main co-star is a big, fluffy, computer- generated dragon?
The answer, in a word, is magic, says Redford, who was drawn to this old-fashioned family film, an earnest reimagining of Disney’s 1977 animated musical of the same name, because it is about the magical power of storytelling.
Redford plays Mr Meacham, a man famous for telling tall tales about meeting a dragon in the woods, which no one believes until an orphan boy found in the forest, Pete, starts talking about his mystery friend Elliot.
“I grew up with that word, magic, being paramount. Because when you are a kid and the world is bigger than you are, any time you see that word, it means you are touching something larger than your life, and I loved that idea. And then you outgrow it. Pretty soon, you’re living a life where there’s no magic anymore and you kind of regret losing that. As you get older, the world gets darker, things get more cynical, so I liked the idea that I could play a part in a project that really has to do with magic and keeping that alive,” Redford says.
Written and directed by David Lowery, Pete’s Dragon also shows storytelling as a way to emotionally connect with loved ones, something that Pete (Oakes Fegley), Mr Meacham’s daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the dragon all experience. This struck a chord with Redford, who bonded with his own family this way.
“I was raised by being told stories, mostly to calm me down at night so I’d go to sleep. To me, there’s nothing greater than ‘Once upon a time…’ That meant a lot to me as a kid, so I decided to do the same for my children and grandchildren,” says the star, who has three children aged 45 to 55 with ex-wife Lola Van Wagenen, 77, and seven grandchildren aged seven to 24.
“I encouraged them to tell stories all the time,” says Redford, now married to German painter Sibylle Szaggars, 58. “When we sat down to eat, we’d go around the table and everyone would have to make up a story or tell something that had happened to them during the day.
“Now, I don’t put the kids to bed any more, we just sit around and talk and sometimes I’ll purposefully create a fantasy situation for us to talk about, just to keep that alive. I think it’s sad that our culture has lost a lot of magic in favour of getting too real about what’s going on.”
He has strived to preserve storytelling traditions within the film industry as well, particularly the humanistic narratives that he says began to fall out of favour in Hollywood in the early 1980s.
This is why he founded the Sundance Institute and Film Festival near his home in Utah in 1981, says the star, who that year also took home the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for the character drama Ordinary People (1980), his directorial debut.
“I wanted to keep storytelling alive in terms of film, because I saw a lot of changes happening around 1979 and 1980: cable television and video on demand were on the rise and, at the same time, Hollywood as an industry was shrinking – it was following the money and making films where it could be assured of a profit.
“That meant films for young people and new technology that created the ability to have more explosions and blasts and all kinds of exciting things. Hollywood began to no longer focus on the kinds of films that I liked, which were more human stories,” he says. “So I decided I’d try and create a place where new filmmakers with new ideas could come and develop, and not be lost.”
The Sundance Institute and Film Festival – which provide fellowships, workshops, financing and exposure for up-and-coming indie film-makers – has been instrumental in the success of famed directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh and David O. Russell. This led Time magazine to dub Redford “the godfather of indie film” in its 2014 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
A passionate environmentalist and nature-lover, Redford also warmed to the conservation themes in Pete’s Dragon, where Elliot the dragon is discovered because his forest home is being gradually destroyed by logging. Making the film in New Zealand was therefore a treat, and not just because of its natural beauty, but also its people and culture, which reminded him of a bygone time in America.
“I grew up in America when it was very different from what it is now. We’ve become hard-edged and I’ve watched my country lose some of its innocence. Then you look to New Zealand and remember that’s the way we once were – we were friendly, we had beautiful land that wasn’t overdeveloped, and people were friendly. It was a very positive atmosphere. So to go there and make this film was just a joy.”
But as nostalgic as he is for simpler times and good old-fashioned storytelling, he is hungry for new professional challenges. Pete’s Dragon was appealing in part because he had never done a children’s movie and is drawn to “anything I haven’t done before”.
“You keep moving, you keep trying new things – that keeps you active,” says Redford, who is still winning accolades for his more recent roles, including the one in 2013 survival drama All Is Lost, where he is the only actor and carries the entire film.
Even his small role in the 2014 superhero flick Captain America: The Winter Soldier was rewarding, he says, because he got to play the bad guy for once.
“I loved that. What I learnt from that film was how to be a villain and that was just fun. I got to really be a bad***, and I thought it could be fun if I could make this bad person interesting and give him a point of view that makes you think, even though he’s a bad guy.”
He has begun work on a Netflix movie with Jane Fonda, Our Souls At Night, about the bittersweet romance between a widow and widower in their twilight years.
“This year is an acting year,” he says. “I will follow that with another film with David Lowery, called The Old Man And The Gun, a very light, upbeat film,” he says of the project on the true story of a lifelong bank robber. Then after the new year, I have two projects that I will direct,” adds the star, whose directing credits include the well-received dramas The Horse Whisperer (1998) and Quiz Show (1994).
The only concession to his age seems to be that he is infinitely more careful about when to step behind the camera these days.
“Directing takes a year out of my life. And when you get to my age, you don’t have a lot of time to spare.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network/Alison De Souza