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Robert Redford's Broadway Beginnings and His Latest Film, The Company You Keep

The Kennedy Center honoree and Theatre World Award winner talks about his newest film.

Robert Redford in The Company You Keep
© Sony Pictures Classics
After an absence onscreen for six years and as director for three years, two-time Oscar winner and Kennedy Center honoree Robert Redford returns with a powerful punch and edge-of-your-seat storytelling with the political potboiler The Company You Keep (Sony Pictures Classics). He hasn't exactly been loafing, as he's very involved with the ever-expanding Sundance Institute, which he founded in 1980 to develop the work of aspiring filmmakers.

Following the deep complexity of his last outing, the strange Lions for Lambs (2003) — which, even with Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep starring, was like diving into murky waters — in The Company You Keep he gets down to gritty storytelling about issues that were and are relevant to him.

Redford plays Jim Grant, a widowed father and former Weather Underground militant, reestablished under another name and living his own underground life as a public-interest attorney in the Albany, NY suburbs. Interestingly, as he pointed out recently, the role combines several genres with which the actor is well-associated: political agendas, dirty goings-on at high government levels, journalism, and family.

He describes the film, adapted from Neil Gordon's 2003 novel, as a cat-and-mouse game between two men: a fugitive in hiding and an aggressive but idealist investigative reporter — both attempting to expose the truth to redefine their lives.

To be director and star, says Redford, "You have to be schizophrenic and a bit nuts. Schizophrenic in a controlled way. To act and direct isn't something I'm particularly drawn to. When I act, I like to be free to act; when I direct, I want to be free to look at the situation the way a symphony conductor would: making everything come together to tell a coherent story. Stepping in and out of both roles doesn't come easy."

Redford made his Broadway debut in 1959 as a replacement in the featured cast of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's college comedy Tall Story. He alternated between TV, film, and theater. In 1961, he made a splash in Norman Krasna's Sunday in New York — receiving the Theatre World Award. Stardom followed in 1963, opposite Elizabeth Ashley, in Neil Simon's Tony-nominated Barefoot in the Park, directed by Mike Nichols. He left the play about a year later for TV series work. His first major screen lead was opposite Natalie Wood in 1965's Hollywood drama Inside Daisy Clover. He appeared opposite Jane Fonda in the 1967 film adaptation of Barefoot. The following year his stardom was assured, co-starring with Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

"The Company You Keep is a story about a group of people in the time of the Vietnam morass who were underground-politically very close," explains Redford. "They were bonded by the passions of their time. As time passed, they took different paths. Some believed in it at the time, but spent the rest of their lives paying for what they did. Others felt it was a just cause and is still one for today. How they interacted is what I found interesting."

He notes the story has parallels with today's Occupy Wall Street movement. "It's an opportunity to look inside an event that's a piece of our history. I had a social reason for doing the film, not a political one. What's important to me are stories about American life that sit just below what we're being told. We have a great country, but we should always look at the gray area. I know. I lived through it."

Redford, who says he was against the Vietnam War and many policies of that era, states, "We're not good at looking at our failures and learning from them so we don't repeat the past. I was empathetic with the Weather Underground in spirit, not necessarily with some of things they did [bank heists, massive protests]. However, I was just starting a career and family and obligated to those tasks."

When Redford read Gordon's novel, he explains that he found the story quite compelling in the way he found one of the favorite novels of his youth, Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. "People were living their lives for thirty years under a false identity, very much like Jean Valjean, sentenced to nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread; then, after he broke parole, building a good life. But the pain of that time haunted him. Plus, he had Javert in constant pursuit."

The Company You Keep premiered last September at the Venice International Film Festival and was an entry at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.