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Issue Date: November 25, 2001

Interview: Robert Redford
By Jeffrey Zaslow

In this article:
Sept.11 and the flight he nearly took
Advocacy efforts, politics, energy and enemies.
Family and the aging face
Co-stars Brad Pitt and Redford talk about each other

Robert's Rules of Order
A surprisingly candid Redford on family, beauty, his continuing environmental "dissidence" and what saved his life Sept. 11.

Three times in Robert Redford's life, he recognized that the world had just been altered forever. In 1941, when he was a 5-year-old growing up in a working-class Mexican neighborhood in Santa Monica, Calif., Pearl Harbor was attacked. "Even at that age, I framed the moment," he says. "People went into the street. There was anxiety, fear, concern. I felt it. I knew life had changed overnight."

Redford says he watched the nation reel from a second great hit in 1963. He was 27 then, starring in the comedy "Barefoot in the Park" on Broadway. The night after President Kennedy was assassinated, the show went on and the theater was packed. "People needed to pull together, to find some meaning," Redford recalls. But from the stage, he sensed a change. "It was the nature of the laughter. It was hysterical -- almost like a scream. Before that, there had been a warmth to the laughter. That laughter never came back."

On Sept. 11, 2001, Redford, now 65, experienced what he calls the third life-transforming "shift" in our country. This time, the actor felt it on several terrible levels.

He believes his life was saved because, on Sept. 10, he had a business meeting in New York that ended early enough for him to get a flight out of town. Otherwise, he would have stayed overnight and, as he had done many times before, taken United Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco. "I would have been on that flight had I not finished my business," he says flatly.

Flight 93 was the plane on which passengers fought back against the hijackers Sept. 11. It crashed in Pennsylvania. "We all have our access to the horrors" of the attacks, Redford says. "For some of us, it's 'There but for the grace of God ...' I fall into that category."

Sitting in the den of his home in California's Napa Valley, he talks about spending hours Sept. 11 trying to call one of his two daughters in New York City. When he finally got through, he found her safe but shaken up; she'd witnessed the attacks while walking her dog.

That day's news coverage was "a great gift," Redford says. "As horrifying as those pictures were, America needed to have them put in our face, repeatedly, to force the reality that this was really happening. We have a tendency as a country to look away."

Redford has built his career, and decades of advocacy efforts, on not looking away. Whether making movies reminding America of the glories of the First Amendment ("All the President's Men") or lobbying for the environment with stinging comments about public officials, he has used his superstardom to prod America into paying attention.

Lately, he's been as busy as ever. On the heels of last month's military prison drama "The Last Castle," he's now headlining another film, Spy Game, co-starring Brad Pitt. It's a thriller about CIA agents, with Mideast locales and timely insights into U.S. foreign policy. Meanwhile, his passions for advocacy remain on the front burner. Near his other home in Utah, he continues to champion independent films through his influential film festival and his non-profit Sundance Institute, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. And despite calls to temper criticism of elected leaders since Sept. 11, Redford plans to continue speaking about those he sees as threatening the environment, including President Bush. "As the country pulls together, we can run dangerously close to a kind of jingoism that eliminates other aspects of democracy, like free speech."

Twelve days before Sept. 11, Redford was labeled America's "hot dissident" in Rolling Stone's annual "hot list" special issue. The magazine speculated that if the Bush administration had an enemies list, the actor hovered near the top of it. Indeed, after Interior Secretary Gale Norton invited Redford to a ceremony for the release of the endangered California condor, he sent back a scathing letter declining the invitation and promising to focus his time instead "on the devastating environmental repercussions of the agenda you and President Bush embrace." Redford charged that the administration is doing the bidding of oil, mining and nuclear power lobbyists by "banking on the fact that America is paying attention to other things."

Now, obviously, terrorists top the enemies list, and America is paying attention, often exclusively, to national security. Redford's fear? "Will this crisis be used to push through an energy bill that is terribly flawed?" He expects the administration to argue for stepped-up drilling in Alaska. "Another symbol of patriotism is the land and how we feel about it," Redford says. "Preservation of the environment should be part of our national defense." He favors developing alternative energy measures, including conservation, to cut our dependence on oil, both foreign and domestic.

That's long been his mantra. He also criticized the Clinton administration, which he says was "environmentally ignorant." For 20 years, "one administration after another has been so unsympathetic to the environment. They treated it almost like an enemy, which meant we had to fight harder to get a voice."

Redford's critics argue that his voice is louder than any bureaucrat's. "The preservationists have become like a new religion, a new paganism that worships trees and sacrifices people," says Chuck Cushman, founder and executive director of the American Land Rights Association, which strives "to protect private land owners from governmental environmental regulations" demanded by activists. "I don't think Robert Redford cares enough about people."

Redford shrugs off such accusations and isn't afraid to voice unpopular views. he questions construction for Salt Lake City's 2002 Olympics, for instance. "Mountains are getting carved away to build things for a two-week event," he says. "They're chipping away at incredible assets that can't be put back." Polls, though, show Utahans overwhelmingly support Olympic development. "Redford is not taken seriously in Utah," says Jerry Spangler, who has long covered the environment for Salt Lake City's Deseret News. "He's considered an outsider, even though he's lived here longer than most people." (He bought his first Utah property in 1961.)

Activists wince at such dismissals. "Our members see him as a genuine hero, the face of the environmental movement," says John Adams, president of the 520,000-member Natural Resources Defense Council. Some celebrities "come in and out on a given issue," Adams says, but for decades, Redford has always been there. "He's very reflective. When he sees that he antagonizes people, he changes and does it in a different way."

Trying just such a positive approach, Redford says one benefit of the current crisis is that fewer people are flying. Traveling by land allows people to appreciate the nation's beauty, he says. He often drives about 750 miles in one day between his California and Utah homes. "It puts me in touch with the land, with people, with communities. Maybe it's time for Americans to pay more attention to their country by taking a train or a car."

Of course, Redford is no ordinary traveler. One time, in Santa Fe, he stopped his car and headed into an ice cream parlor. A woman in line recognized him and tried hard to maintain her composure. "After she left, the guy behind the counter was laughing," Redford says. "He said, 'Do you know what that woman just did? She put her ice cream cone in her purse!' "

Redford, a grandfather of four, still has the looks to fluster women, although his face is now seasoned by age and the outdoor life. Divorced in 1985 from his wife of 27 years, Lola, a consumer activist, he's now seeing Sibylle Szaggars, a German-born abstract painter who on this day is at his house "painting away."

He's troubled that so many people "rearrange themselves" with cosmetic surgery. A catalogue in his den features clothing and "environmentally friendly" products offered through his Sundance line, run by daughter Shauna. A beautiful gray-haired woman graces the cover. He notes proudly that "the cover has a political subtext" - that not only the young are attractive. "I'm attracted to experience in a person's face. If you erase that, what's there to see?"

He's "extremely disappointed" that some critics review his movies by focusing on how he has aged. "If my aging is so upsetting to people," he says, they should just skip his movies.

In "Spy Game," moviegoers will learn about the CIA term "blowback," which refers to the unintentional consequences of U.S. policies. Redford knows some of his greatest movies also caused societal blowback. He never expected All the President's Men to lead so many people to go into journalism "so they could take public figures' clothes off and make money doing it." While directing A River Runs Through It, he didn't expect the film to lead to fly-fishing mania, crowding and polluting pristine rivers.

Now, he hopes the positive aspects of a nation uniting in the wake of Sept. 11 won't have troubling repercussions for free speech. He understands the need to rally behind the president, to fly flags, but at his house no flag is on display. "My flag," he says, "is in my heart."

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What Brad Pitt and Redford say about each other

Robert Redford sees one obvious difference between himself and Brad Pitt, his co-star in "Spy Game." "He lives in Hollywood. I don't. I grew up in Los Angeles. It holds no magic for me as a city."
"I do have a big love for L.A.," Pitt says. "I'm one of the few. But I come from a place [Springfield, Mo.] without much access to the arts and music." And so Pitt places himself at the center of the celebrity storm. He even has a superstar wife, Jennifer Aniston.

Redford directed Pitt in "A River Runs Through It" in 1992 but has rarely seen him since. He's never met Aniston. "Brad has pressures now that didn't exist then," Redford says. "The pressures of stardom, the loss of privacy - all the things I went through. I empathize. Some people wanted fame all their lives and fall all over themselves gobbling it up. Brad is struggling to maintain a balanced place."

On the "Spy Game" set, Redford says, "we talked a lot about having to deal with these issues. You're forced into a kind of cynicism and paranoia. Brad has his own integrity. He's finding his way, while still living in the [Hollywood] community."

Pitt is often compared to Redford, but Redford dismisses their similarities as "mostly physical." In their case, however, that's significant, says "Spy Game" director Tony Scott. "They're two such beautiful men, and both went through their lives suffering with that. People see their looks rather than their performances."

Pitt calls Redford "very generous" as a co-star and a mentor. He sees in him a clear sense of duty. Had Redford taken United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, as he nearly did, Pitt believes that "he'd have been one of those [passengers] saying, 'We have to take action.' "

Pitt finds Redford almost hypnotically persuasive. In "Spy Game," their characters debate each other. "He's so charismatic," Pitt says, that "I had a hard time getting my character to disagree. He'd talk, and I'd agree with him. That's Redford."

Photography by Art Streiber Contributing Editor Jeffrey Zaslow last profiled Damon Wayans for the magazine.