"Look, I started in the theater in New York because I was interested in the craft of performing," Redford tells me when I ask him if having one of the most famous mugs on the planet has been something of a mixed blessing, his voice registering a faint note of annoyance at what is clearly a sensitive subject. "I played character parts, villains, rapists, all kinds of different roles. When I went into film and the romantic thing struck, suddenly it was all about that, and then I was perceived as only that. If you're considered a good-looking person, you get hammered on your substance. I could see that coming, and it depressed me, and then it did come, and then it became like a hook in me that I couldn't get rid of."
Until, that is, Redford entered middle age. The talk remained focused on his looks, only now it was about how he was supposedly losing them. ("Weathered and remote" is how The New York Times described Redford's physical appearance in its review of 1990's Havana, released when the actor was 54.) "As you begin to age, then suddenly it's a liability that you're aging," Redford says. "What was I supposed to do? Die in a car crash and stay young forever?"
Well before that, though, Redford searched out roles like those in The Candidate and Downhill Racer, parts that made cannon fodder of his supposed vanity. And he used his popularity and charisma to back a succession of politically charged, decidedly non-movie-star-ish projects that likely could have been willed into being only during the much-mythologized New Hollywood of the late 1960s and the 1970s. These included Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), the comeback film of blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky and an early indication of Redford's interest in American Indian history; the iconic frontier Western Jeremiah Johnson (1972); and, of course, All the President's Men (1976), a movie to which Redford devoted years of his life as producer and star. Even some of the overtly commercial projects to which he signed on carried unexpected sociopolitical subtext, as with the McCarthy-era witch hunts that background the glossy Barbra Streisand romance The Way We Were.
"I guess, as an artist, somewhere along the line I became a cultural critic," Redford says. "I so love this country, but I also get worried about it. I see it sliding away from itself." Not that he's convinced that any of his contributions as actor, producer or director have had a lick of measurable influence. "The Candidate was about how we get people elected in this country for cosmetic reasons rather than substance, and that this was something worth thinking about. Well, nothing happened. We got Jerry Brown, and then we got Dan Quayle."
Redford has considerably more damning words for the state of American journalism in the three decades since All the President's Men, chiding print and broadcast outlets alike for their decisions to focus on sports and entertainment reporting at the expense of hard news and investigative reporting. Most of all, he's troubled by the media's unblinking willingness to toe the Washington party line. That's one of the deeper and more lasting issues that Redford hopes will be discussed in the wake of Lions for Lambs, though he remains wary of the real possibility of change through cinema, particularly among college-age audiences such as those he has been speaking to on his tour.
"I think it would be unfair to classify this generation as apathetic and cynical," Redford says when I ask if Lions' underachieving student protagonist can be considered a representative figure. "I think there's a lot of that out there, and I think a lot of it, by the way, is justified, because there's no leadership to admire there's no moral figure to follow. Kids today feel like they're too smart for all this bullshit, so they turn away from it, which creates its own issue young people turning away from the problem rather than saying, 'Wait a minute. This is my future that's going under. I'm going to do something about it.'"
Time, though, is of the essence. As the Lions for Lambs ad line neatly surmises, "If you don't stand for something, you might fall for anything." And, like his character in the film, Redford is a firm believer that every moment spent sitting down is a wasted one. To that end, he has infused Lions with an old-fashioned but diabolically effective gimmick: The movie's action unfolds in 90 real-time minutes, each one designed to press heavier than the last upon the audience's collective conscience.