It seems that Robert Redford has always been a movie star. Although most of us first took notice of him -- stealing away scenes from Paul Newman with his impossibly big, absolutely genuine smile -- in 1967's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he'd already had a number of roles in film and television.
But it wasn't until after his breakthrough as the Sundance Kid that Redford hit the big time with leads in The Way We Were, The Sting, Out of Africa and, most recently, The Horse Whisperer, among many others.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, he decided to try working on the other side of the camera as well, grabbing Oscar gold the first time out for his direction of Ordinary People. His newest -- and his sixth -- directorial effort is The Legend of Bagger Vance, the story of a championship golfer (Matt Damon) who goes off to fight in World War I, and comes back so demoralized that he has no interest in the game -- until he meets a mysterious, possibly mystical caddie (Will Smith), a man who might be able to turn his life around.
Making a film about a sport is nothing new to Redford, either as an actor or a director. He acted in Downhill Racer (skiing) and The Natural (baseball), and directed A River Runs Through It (fly-fishing).
"I've played a lot of sports in my life, and I think sport is a wonderful tool to use in film, but I don't have a lot of interest in just a literal translation of a sport in film," says Redford. "I'm not interested in a golf movie because you can turn on a television and see golf -- it's everywhere. But to use it as a metaphor for something else, then I get interested. Same with baseball, same with fly-fishing. I think skiing was the only one that I took straight across.
"I think using sport as a metaphor allows you to touch higher things," he adds. "And to put sport in a deeper context when it has to do with someone's personal journey or a journey of the soul. In this case, golf was the best one of all because it's about a character's battle with himself. And there's no sport that carries that battle better than golf because what are you playing against? You're playing against yourself, and the only other element you're really dealing with outside of a ball and a club is nature."
Redford, stunningly handsome as a young man, is now 63. Yet even though his face is deeply lined and craggy, and his fingers and hands are wrinkled, handsome is still the operative word. And neither his dazzling blue eyes nor his shiny golden hair get in the way. He also has a very relaxed demeanor, settling into a chair, leaning back and chatting about his films and himself, remaining at ease even when discussing some of the difficulties he's faced.
He acknowledges that even with the name he's carved out for himself as a big box office draw, it's always been a challenge for him to get certain movies made.
"I've fought a lot more than anyone would know," he admits. "I had to seek independent financing for A River Runs Through It because the mainstream in Hollywood wasn't interested. Even on Ordinary People, I had to trade that I would do another film as an actor if they would let me do that one as a director. One of the reasons for starting Sundance was to create something antithetical to what was out there, and a place for filmmakers to at least have a place to learn and work that isn't encumbered by that whole money and competition thing.
"But it doesn't make it any easier to get the films made, because you're being judged now by the bottom line so much. What star do you have in your film? What factors do you have that are guarantees that we'll get the money back that's already too much money anyway?"
As a working student of filmmaking, Redford continues to learn, grow, get better. On Bagger Vance, he claims to have pushed his own envelope as far as color palette and working with the camera. As always, he pays a lot of attention to detail. For instance, with the film taking place in the 1920s, sharp-eyed viewers will notice that a $5 bill that trades hands is a vintage old one, with red serial numbers, instead of green.
But still, Redford is confounded by the way the system works.
"The challenge now is to continue to make the movies that I find interesting to make against the formulas that have to come up in order to make the bottom line work," he says. "I do get them made, but they're not easy. The early films I made were real independent and were made for a million-and-a-half dollars. Well, on that budget you're not gonna hurt anybody too bad, and you're allowed to do it. But then you have to be very resourceful in the way you make it, which, by the way, I like."