Redford: An Entertainer Who Looks To Inform Oscar-winning director and actor Robert Redford is back in theaters with The Company You Keep, a look at aging American counterculture revolutionaries. He spoke with NPR's Robert Siegel about his career, his passion for journalism and how a thoughtful teacher helped encourage him.

Redford: An Entertainer Who Looks To Inform

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Robert Redford's new movie, "The Company You Keep," is about an act of domestic terrorism, but one committed some 30 years ago by members of the group called Weathermen or the Weather Underground. They turned from organizing marches and sit-ins against the war in Vietnam to planting bombs and in one case robbing a bank truck and killing a guard. Several members of the group went underground and built new lives with false identities. Over the years, some were found out, and some turned themselves in.

This is the springboard for Redford's fictional movie. In "The Company You Keep," he plays Jim Grant, a suburban lawyer in upstate New York, a man with a past. Shia LaBeouf plays a dogged young newspaper reporter determined to uncover that past.


SHIA LABEOUF: (as Ben Shepard) Because you're sympathetic to their cause? You agree with their tactics?

ROBERT REDFORD: (as Jim Grant) You know, clearly, you have some kind of an agenda here. I don't have time for this (bleep).

LABEOUF: (as Ben Shepard) I don't, actually, I don't care much for either side.

REDFORD: (as Jim Grant) So, what, that makes you fair and balanced? You know, it's a funny thing. Thirty years ago, a smart guy like you probably would have been involved with the movement yourself. I hope you get what you're looking for, kid. Take care.

SIEGEL: Well, Robert Redford, who also directed "The Company You Keep" and recruited that incredible cast for it, too, joins us right now. Welcome.

REDFORD: Thank you. Nice to be here.

SIEGEL: And first, I want you to talk about you and journalism. You got "All the President's Men" made into a movie and played Bob Woodward, and now, Shia LaBeouf plays reporter Ben Shepard, who's driven by this great ambition. Is this an important subject to you?

REDFORD: It is an important subject because I think it's an important profession. I take journalism in the highest regard, almost to the point of almost taking it personally because it's so hard to get to the truth these days with - ever since the democratization that the Internet provided. Since that time, where information was so dissembled and so many voices out there - not all of them to be trusted, they're just loud - it's hard for the public, people like myself to find: Where's the truth?

SIEGEL: I want to ask you about the attitude the film has toward these people who were part of the radical Weather Underground, who thought that violence was an acceptable mode of expressing their political agenda. I was wondering if you can even do a story about this without acknowledging the degree in which political violence has entered our nation's life over the past decade.

REDFORD: The film is not about then. It's about now. It's about living without your own name, your own identity; and the feeling is that eventually you can't. I do have a big interest in anarchy, and I've realized that there have been many, many moments in our history where there's been those attempts to break the mold of convention or what have you, but they always seem to crash before they reach their height. That is what interested me because it usually has to do with ego and because the intention, as it starts, is right.

They want to say: Hey, wait a minute, we don't believe in this Vietnam War. We want to have a voice. We're young people. I'm all on board with that. They then said - because the film says it - they felt they had to then bring the war home, which led to violence, which led to the beginning of the end for that movement. That's what interested me and how it affected the people involved, now.

SIEGEL: You've spoken about the kinds of movies that you like to make and the lack of interest in Hollywood in making those movies, movies that raise interesting ethical moral dilemmas, challenges, stories. Why should it be more difficult at this point than it was 40 years ago?

REDFORD: Times, you know, like anything, you know, times change. Hollywood is not the same as it was when I first entered the business. It felt to me like it was starting to narrow down and centralize itself around what would be - make money, which it's always been, you know? I just felt all the films that I liked might get thrown away, so I committed to doing whatever I could - that's how Sundance started - to give a chance to those kinds of voices that would continue to make those films.

All of the films that I've made are about the country I live in and grew up in. And I see it - I think if you put an artist's eye to it, you're going to put a critical eye to it. So, to me, I've always been interested in the gray area that exists between the black and white or the red and blue, and that's where complexity lies.

SIEGEL: And do studio executives say, Bob, it's so gray, it's so gray?


SIEGEL: We can't make a movie this gray.

REDFORD: No. They don't say it's gray. They just say, can you have so-and-so in it because we have a budget for - or they say they're looking for commercial hooks, which I don't blame them for. I mean, so am I. Really, you don't want to make a movie that's going to be left in a closet somewhere. I mean, you want to make a movie that's going to reach an audience. It is the entertainment business, and we are obligated, I think, to entertain. I just am attracted to the idea of entertaining but also maybe informing in a way that you ask someone to look at something differently and - or maybe ask a question. That appeals to me, but that's not for everybody.

SIEGEL: Someone told me that you once said the most important thing to know about me is I'm black Irish, and I don't think it was only genealogical. I think it was about temperament that you said...


SIEGEL: Do you recall that, and what does that mean?

REDFORD: It has to do with being raised in an environment and a feeling that no matter what you did, there was always going to be some kind of dark cloud hovering over the whole process.

SIEGEL: A pessimism from the start.

REDFORD: A doubt. Yeah. By the way, I don't accept that anymore.

SIEGEL: And you were a painter. You were an artist.

REDFORD: Mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: I can imagine that wasn't encouraged very much by - in the mood you're describing.

REDFORD: No. I remember my dad came from Ireland and Scotland, and so he carried with him the fear of poverty. So when I wanted to break loose, it kind of made him very nervous.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Was there a mentor when it came to painting, somebody who...

REDFORD: Yeah. No, there was.

Excuse me. In the third grade - I was a terrible student most of my life because my mind was always out the window wondering about other things. But I drew, from the time I was about 4 or 5 years old. That was how I amused myself. But it was underneath the table, on my knee, you know? And so this teacher caught me one day. And she forced me to come up in front of the class and show what was more important than listening to the lesson. So I was about to be really trashed, humiliated, and I went up, and I held up this thing.

She said, now, you want to tell us what that's about? And so I described - I said, well yeah, these cowboys, and they're chasing these Indians. And they're shooting at the Indians, and the Indians are shooting back at the cowboys. And they're about to be driven off a cliff, and above them are some B-51 bombers bombing the cowboys. So what happened was the class was interested in it. And she saw that. Instead of putting me down, she made a deal.

She said, we'll put an easel up here, and every Wednesday we'll give you 15 minutes, and you can come draw a story for us, but then you got to pay attention to the class. Now, had that not happened, I would have been humiliated. It probably would have knocked me down to not trust that impulse that I had.

SIEGEL: It's a remarkably creative, thoughtful moment by the third-grade teacher to do that, to...

REDFORD: Yeah. Sometimes, I don't know about you, but maybe one or two in your life is all you need to spur you forward rather than have you collapse.

SIEGEL: Robert Redford, thank you very much for talking with us.

REDFORD: Thank you. I just love this show.

SIEGEL: We have been talking, I should say, about your new film, "The Company You Keep," and about much else. Thanks for stopping by.

REDFORD: My pleasure.

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