Robert Redford directs and also stars in the political suspense thriller, “The Company You Keep,” his first starring role since “An Unfinished Life” in 2005. Last Monday, Redford, Jackie Evancho, Stanley Tucci and Brit Marling, appeared at a press conference at the Parker Meridien Hotel to talk about their new film.
Redford, now 76, still has his signature golden thatch and ice blue eyes. He looks great, and he still feels passionate about making films.
Annette Insdorf, from the film school at Columbia University, moderated the 45-minute press session that started very late; Redford gave at least 30 interviews that day.
Before the 45-minute press conference began, Redford requested coffee and asked his co-stars what they wanted. “Just a martini,” Tucci chimed.
Redford portrays a former member of the 1970’s radical anti-war group the Weather Underground, a fugitive wanted for murder for a crime he has not committed. He’s lived underground for more than 30 years under an assumed name (Jim Grant), is now a lawyer and single widowed father, who has a young daughter (Jackie Evancho) to whom he’s devoted. Shia LaBeouf plays an ambitious rookie reporter, who uncovers Grant’s past.
Shia LaBeouf, who co-stars with Robert Redford, was not at the press conference. Earlier in the month it was announced he would participate but a few days before the event he dropped off the list as did Sam Elliott and Terrence Howard.
( Later LaBeouf was on David Letterman where he Letterman hammered LaBeouf about getting fired from the Broadway production of “Orphans” and the actor’s conflicts with Alec Baldwin. LaBeouf handled it well.)
After Letterman LaBeouf appeared at the premiere of “The Company You Keep” at the Museum of Modern Art, where he bypassed reporters and hobbled down the red carpet wearing a medical boot.
The rest of the prestigious cast of “The Company You Keep” includes Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Nick Nolte, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Susan Sarandon and Chris Cooper.
There were the usual sometimes long-winded and meandering questions from the press, which Redford always answered with aplomb and grace. To a journalist who went on at length about Redford’s films over the past half-century, and how they related to this film, Redford responded, “That’s such a great question I’ve forgotten it. Go back.”
Here are some highlights from the press conference:
Redford on what attracted him to the project, and if it was the book by Neil Gordon or the script by Lem Dobbs:
I was drawn to the book because it was a wide-ranging. It had a lot of plotlines. It had a lot of e-mail stuff going on…there was something in the core that kept my attention, so the next 4 or 5 years was shaping that material in what could be a film.
Brit Marling (“Arbitrage,” “Sound of My Voice”) on what interested her about the film as opposed to low-budget Indies:
For me it always comes down to the story…when I read the script I was really moved by the idea of the Weather underground and how it’s not set back then but it’s set in the present day.
They’re looking back and wondering about the wisdom of the radicalism of their youth, and did they make the right choices and would they do it differently now, which I think my generation is grappling with a lot of the same ideas.
Stanley Tucci on how he approached playing the role of a “hard-boiled newspaper” editor:
He’s the sort of classic, curmudgeonly, exhausted editor. I think particularly in this day and age, he’s an interesting character because he’s the last of a dying breed.
Robert Redford on working with Stanley Tucci:
My dear friend, what’s his name? (Laughter) Stanley and I have some history together. We go a ways back, and like Brit, obviously I’m very indebted to people who come in for no money at all and volunteer their services to help me with a non-profit… There’s no money in film these days. It’s shrunk down to a nub, and you have to depend on the kindness of, not strangers, but colleagues to come in and help you, and I was blessed by having a wonderful cast… Stanley coming in, he didn’t have to. There was nothing in it for him except the joy of working with me. (Laughter).
Redford on the dynamics of watching scenes between LaBeouf and Tucci:
Shia has a fast mind and a fast tongue and for Stanley to work with that and still be the character that he had to play, he had to be a man in control with an industry that was going out of control…The fact that he could manage the energy by creating a counter energy, that as Shia got more crazed Stanley – if you watch the film – Stanley goes the other way. It creates a dynamic. As Shia slows down Stanley goes for his throat. I just enjoyed watching that. (Laughter.)
Redford on casting Jackie Evancho, a young singer who appeared on the television show “America’s Got Talent” and has released five cd’s:
This is one of those stories where you take a risk and it pays off…I was in Vancouver getting ready to film and I couldn’t find the young actress, the 11-year-old, to play my new daughter. Kids in films to me have always been a pretty big deal. Because I want to see a child just be, not act. I was frustrated in the interview process because I was interviewing girls who were lovely…and their mothers were dressed like they wanted a part in the movie so there was that, but the kids were too busy acting.
I’m sitting in the hotel room, depressed, kind of mindlessly surfing. Boom! There’s this vision on the screen, this angelic creature, 11 years old…She was singing Puccini. I was thinking, “Wait a minute! How does that work?” The camera pulls back and there’s this symphony hall, and this huge orchestra. And this creature just belted this music out that was so powerful and right away something just clicked into gear.
Somebody who has that composure and can do that from that kind of audience with that kind of register with that kind of complexity, maybe that could work…I contacted the agent, the casting person, I said find out this person where she is. They found out she was in Pittsburgh and living this normal life…they went down and taped her. It was clear she didn’t know what was going on, and I thought, “I don’t know, there’s something, I’m going to take this chance.” She was hired on Tuesday. We filmed on Wednesday. We filmed the first day we met. From that point on, I figured I am one lucky man because she turned out to be absolutely lovely. We just played together and had fun together and improvised together.
Evancho was asked if she knew who Redford was:
My dad said he played a cowboy. That’s all I knew.
Tucci asked Evancho if she was nervous the first day on set:
I was extremely nervous. I didn’t know what to think.
Redford: She was so busy having fun that it disguised her nervousness.
On Redford’s political activism and what he’d like audiences to take from the film:
The first thing would be that they would think. Some films are like cotton candy. You have a wonderful ride and then they’re over. Other films are designed in a way to at least make you ask a question afterwards or think about what’s happened and maybe dialogue with somebody. That’s what I would prefer.
The second thing is a criticism I have of my own country, that I don’t think we’re very good at looking at history as a lesson to learn so we don’t repeat a negative historical experience. We’re not good at that.
When this happened I was of that age, I was of them in spirit. Because I was starting a career in the New York Theater, and I was also starting to having a family, I was obligated to that task so I wasn’t a part of it but I was certainly empathetic to what they were doing because I also thought it (the Vietnam War) was a wrong war. I thought it was a war that was going to cost unnecessary lives.
Redford talking about the challenges of making a film that deals with journalism:
It’s tricky business when an artist tries to mess around with journalism. I’ve done that before. Basically I was protected by a story, which was written by somebody else… It’s tricky because I don’t know that if the media is comfortable being criticized by people that are not in their own world… Because I have such a keen interest in the media, because I think it plays such an important role in our society, I’m very concerned if it’s ever it’s threatened in any way.
Redford on whether he has any positive thoughts about journalism and the country:
Positive? I don’t know about positive as much valuable. Because I consider journalism so valuable, I would almost – I don’t want to have too much ego here – I would almost take it personally if journalism failed itself because that’s the one avenue we have to the truth, so if I’m going to portray journalism in a film, which is tricky business, then you want to at least give it its due and maybe describe the threats that are against it.
So in this case the idea of Shia’s character was to me more interesting if it was complicated by the fact that is he going after the story for his own personal aggrandizement? Is he going after it for the purity of just getting the story? You should dance between that as he moves forward, but then what should be unmistakable is what he learns about himself in his pursuit of finding something about somebody else.
Redford on his two favorite stories and how they related to “The Company You Keep:
The two stories I loved as a kid, “Phantom of the Opera,” because I always wanted to play that part. (Laughter). No, I really did! And then “Les Misérables.” I saw similarities in that Shia’s character is Inspector Javert, and that I was Jean Valjean (in the film) in a sense that I go to prison for something I’ve done that’s wrong.
Redford on whether he’s had a chance to meet any of the radicals symbolically portrayed in the film:
No. I didn’t feel I needed to because I saw a documentary several years ago, it came to the festival, called “The Weather Underground”… and I felt that that documentary was very well made about the actual people, Mark Rudd, Bernadine Dohrn. I didn’t feel I needed to meet them. Also this was a piece of fiction that had to have the basis of truth to it but it was really about their lives later, so no I didn’t feel I needed too, but I did meet the son of Bernadine Dohnr and Bill Ayers, who lives here in New York and Chicago. He’s a teacher. And that was it. I figured I don’t want to go into far in this because this is a piece of fiction, dramatic fiction.
I’m happy to talk about this film. I’m proud of the actors who are in it. I was able to make the film I wanted to make the way I wanted to make it and I’m proud of that. But I think if you stay too long it’s not a good thing.
Redford on selecting photos of himself for the film and if it’s a “wink” to some of his earlier movies:
(Redford laughed) You think that’s a wink, ha? (Laughter)
Redford on the difficulties of culling pictures from old movies and aging:
I just had to go through archival stuff and find old photos of myself and be depressed. (Laughter)
Redford on casting Julie Christie and what he will do about getting her an Oscar nomination:
I would never try to get somebody an Oscar nomination. That’s not my business. Awards are not my business. But Julie became my business. I saw her because I knew her when she was younger and we both had film exposure around the same time, and I realized that she was radical then and assumed she might stay that way. That would be something to draw on, but I had no idea beyond that.
She seemed to disappear from the face of the earth and then she showed up in a film about Alzheimer’s, and I thought, well unless that was a real life thing for her maybe I should call. It took a while to get her. She’s in a remote area of Spain and sometimes London. It took two months of conversations, first of all trying to find her, then secondly, listening to her tell me why she shouldn’t do it, on and on, didn’t want to do it, didn’t think she could do. But perseverance ruled the day.
Redford’s next film is “All Is Lost,” J.C. Candor’s follow-up to “Margin Call.” The film, out this spring, is an adventure survival story in which Redford seems to be the only actor.
Then in 2014, the feverishly-awaiting “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” He plays the head of the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D.
“It’s going to be very different,” Redford said about the role.
After a long press day, I saw Redford at the film’s swanky afterparty at Harlow on East 56th Street. Redford mingled with Chandor, Tony Shaloub (“Monk”), Zosia Mamet (“Girls”) and director Oren Moverman.
Redford slipped out at midnight, shaking hands and smiling at guests, as he exited through a side door.
Robert Redford photos courtesy of Brad Balfour