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Nanjing Night Net

Talking to Robert Redford, you soon remember that he started his career at a time when interviews with actors were few but lasted for hours. He sighs more effusively than I do when the PR comes to wind us up.

”That’s the world we live in,” he says with resignation. ”The soundbite world.”

This world we live in makes a good many of the things he cares about – films, journalism, the political culture – look pretty rickety. Redford was born in 1936; he was already middle-aged by the time he played reporter Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men, Alan Pakula’s landmark 1976 film about the Watergate break-in. Things were clearly rotten then too – presidents are not supposed to spy on political opponents – but at least the subsequent investigation had a sense of moral purpose. You could talk about right and wrong without being laughed out of the party room.

”I didn’t think about that when I was watching proceedings; I was just thinking, ‘They’re going to get him, they’re going to get Nixon’,” Redford said when I last interviewed him in 2012. ”But when I look back on it now, there is no moral tone over any of our discussions at conventions. No moral tone: it’s gone. I think it went away with what was left of our innocence. We are just living in a different time.”

Back then, who could have imagined how an internet economy of hits and traffic would speed up the news cycle to the point where everything had to be instant? ”You can’t imagine what the future is going to be like,” Redford says. ”I think we were lucky to make that film at such a high point in journalistic history.”

Not that Robert Redford spends his time hearkening to the past; far from it. At 77 he is still head honcho and the public face of the Sundance Institute, which fosters independent film through the year and runs the Sundance Festival for independent American and international cinema every January. His political causes are myriad and he is old enough and famous enough to say what he likes about his opponents; nobody at the launch of Sundance London two years ago, for example, will forget him taking a swipe at Prime Minister David Cameron, who’d suggested the British film industry should concentrate on making commercially viable films. ”That may be why he’s in trouble,” Redford responded. ”That’s a very narrow view.”

If Redford’s acting career has slowed down, he says it is because people don’t ask him to be in movies very often. He’s still keen.

Just last year, in fact, Redford delivered what is possibly the performance of his career; why he has not been nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of a lone ocean sailor in trouble in J. C. Chandor’s All is Lost is just one of those awards mysteries.

Chandor had previously directed Margin Call, a chamber drama about bankers’ dirty business that was launched at Sundance in 2011. He then became the first director picked by Sundance Festival in its 30 years to offer Redford a role. Ten minutes into his pitch, Redford said yes.

Redford is legendarily wary; William Goldman, who wrote the script for All the President’s Men, said that after making three films together he still refused to give him his phone number. Redford’s belief in Chandor seems to have surprised even him.

”This is not a business where you can trust easily; it is not a business that lends itself to trust,” he says. ”It’s a business that is not always truthful or honest, a business that tries to hide its true interest, which is money, and therefore there are a lot of false claims and a lot of lies. You protect yourself by saying, ‘Hmm, I don’t know’. So what a joy to be able to go into a situation saying, ‘My instinct tells me I can trust this man. It’s only his second film, but I don’t care about that. I think he knows what he wants to do and it is a chance for me just to be an actor’.”

It was acting without dialogue and mostly without facial expression; there was nobody else there to reflect the famously radiant Redford smile. That excited him; it would be ”pure”.

Of course it was hard, especially at his age, to clamber around a boat and be wet and cold all day, but he liked the fact that there was no clutter of conversation or backstory. ”By taking away dialogue or special effects you created a direct channel for the audience to come close to you in your journey and it meant you had to be really there. I loved that challenge because that is how I started as an actor in the theatre. To go all the way back to that felt good.”

Perhaps this is where he’s going. Last year, Redford announced he would be stepping back from direct involvement in the Sundance Institute; it could get on fine without him. The institute is built on land he bought with his first wife, Lola van Wagenen, who came from Utah. It was conceived in 1979 to provide mentoring, a stimulating work space and some direct funding for emerging artists; in 1985 they took over the local festival of independent American films, which was also chaired by Redford, and renamed it the Sundance Festival.

The success of both the laboratories and the festival in unearthing new talent is unarguable, although the festival has been criticised in past years for courting the studios with glossier, more conventional films. Redford sees himself now as the protector of the original flame. ”For example, there is now a pressure to build more outside in the higher regions of Park City where there is more money. Higher condominiums, bigger hotels, that kind of thing; there is a tendency to follow the money. I have to say, ‘No, no, no, you come back down to where we belong’.”

He’s not against mainstream film, he adds. Indeed not. The films that made him famous, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), were all studio pictures; of course, that was back in the days when studios made a broader spread of work. This year, however, he will surprise us all by appearing in the next Captain America movie as the head of superhero protection agency S.H.I.E.L.D. ”But I think you can be independent within the mainstream,” he says, ”because I have been when that was all there was.”

Redford has always been conscious of beating his own path. Of course he is an idealist, but I suspect a kind of bull-headed contrarianism powers his determination to do things he isn’t supposed to do. He was a bad student at school, spending much of his time drawing under the desk. He still managed to attend university on a sporting scholarship, but was expelled for drunkenness and went to live in shared student houses in Europe. It was no place for a young jock. ”You know, the French are great at making you feel miserable!” he says with a laugh. ”They said, ‘So you come from this wealthy country, you have all this military, so what are your politics?’ And then they just creamed me! And I was so humiliated that I started paying attention.”

In 1987 he went to Cuba, thus possibly violating a United States trade ban. He had a purpose: he was trying to persuade Nobel prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was a friend of Fidel Castro’s, to come to Sundance to launch a new Latin American program; the quid pro quo was that he visit Havana. There was no way the US Treasury would give him the papers that would make it legal, so he left in secret from Orlando – ”I’m probably revealing things here I shouldn’t reveal, but anyway …” – and spent five days in Cuba, where he spoke to film students and evaded Castro’s attempts to have the press photograph him. ”It was great; I just had the best time. I had a lot of fun with Castro because he was tricky; he was a tricky, smart, shrewd guy.”

Word leaked out after he returned and he was investigated for six months, ”but it never really went anywhere and then it finally went away”. And it was worth it: Garcia Marquez came to Sundance.

It is at about this point, in a great roll of anecdote, that our conversation comes to its abrupt end. Redford waves me out. I see later that there is another film on his producing and acting slate: an adaptation of A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s account of walking the Appalachian Trail. Redford once said – in fact, has probably often said – that it was the outdoor life that was real for him. He grew up in Los Angeles and headed out for the sierras as soon as he could; he says he was ready to leave Tinsel Town by the time he was 14. But then he became a film actor, which meant that he would have one foot in Los Angeles for the rest of his life. That life must hold hundreds of stories. I hope there is time one day to hear them.

All Is Lost opens on Thursday.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.