Michael Feeney Callan devoted 14 years to writing Robert Redford: The Biography. Having written biographies of Anthony Hopkins, Julie Christie and Sean Connery, Callan persuaded the sometimes reticent actor-director to be interviewed for a "no holds barred" biography.
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Redford spoke openly and at great length with Callan and, further, turned over voluminous files, journals and correspondence related to his films. The actor/director's co-operation on the project apparently persuaded literally scores of A-list co-workers—Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda, Sydney Pollack and others—to be interviewed for the book. Feeney, who lives in Dublin, recently answered a few questions about Redford for us.
In your acknowledgements, you say that editor Susan Hill thought Redford to be "undervalued." Did you share that assessment when you launched the project? How, if at all, did your work on the book alter that perception?
Susan Hill sadly and unexpectedly died long before the book was completed. The reason we started the book together is exactly that we shared a belief that Redford was undervalued, or rather that his iconic status detracted from an important, building body of work as producer/director. My perception changed in that I saw Redford increasingly as an overlooked visionary, especially in his eco-activism, launching the critical Greenhouse Glasnost five years before the United Nations Rio summit, and in the alternative art of Sundance, whose underlying principle of promoting diversity has a subtle but clearly rationalized educational objective.
You preface the biography with a quote from Owen Wister's The Virginian. To what extent do Redford's films and his life mirror Wister's and his Virginian?
Redford is a frontiersman. In that I mean he is committed to the challenges within the culture, whether reflected in the exploratory themes of his directorial movies [Quiz Show, Ordinary People, Lions for Lambs, etc.] or the boundary-pushing of Sundance.
Throughout the book, you demonstrate a thorough grasp of American culture and history. How was this background acquired?
I like to travel and read. My interest in the interchange of cultural values began with The Notebooks of Geoffrey Crayon and has never quit. American principles fascinate me and the can-do spirit of the pioneers was resoundingly resonant for me as a child when I heard Kennedy's speech committing America to go to the moon "not because it's easy, but because it is hard." That American spirit, I find, is laudable. And important for humanity, if that doesn't sound too grand.
You quote actor John Saxon as saying of Redford, "There was a chasm, a distance he'd put between himself and the rest of the world." Other interviewees you quote express similar sentiments. When you interviewed Redford, did you also sense that "chasm?”
He's first and foremost a poet. He's at his most comfortable when talking about Eliot or Yeats. He knows their work, their ideals and chronically, almost obsessively, analyses them. He has his own viewpoint, but it is constantly evolving. So, truly engaging him means stepping away from the domestic or iconic issues and getting into that inner dialogue. In my experience, the door is open, though not many seem to go through it to really access him.
Although you present some details of Redford's personal life, this aspect is not as central to the book as his work as an actor, director and environmentalist. Was this focus your intention?
I always intended to let Redford tell the story for himself, so the balance of the text accurately reflects who he is, what interests him and how he perceives himself. The book attempts to be evaluative by being accumulative. I wanted to be forensic in recording every significant incident of his life, and then turn it over to the reader to assess.
Not all film stars also become icons. What forces came together to make Redford an icon? What does he symbolize as an icon?
I think he deployed the same skills Gary Cooper did—the Native American's restraint and economy of words, combined with the projection of courage, resilience and compassion. The audience sees the beauty in the deed, not the look.
How do the story, style and ideas in Redford's latest film, The Conspirator, fit in, or depart, from the other films he has directed?
I'll quote Bob Woodward here, who says he cherishes Redford's "observational skills." In all his self-produced or directorial films he probes the roots of things—human behavior, institutional weakness, societal beliefs. The Conspirator is another probing part of that tendency, a piece in the mosaic. When his work is finally done, I think film historians will assemble all his self-produced/directed movies as a unified statement of the individual's capacity to tackle, change and finally improve "the system."