Robert Redford Returns to the Screen in Great Form in
Political Potboiler The Company You Keep
By: Ellis Nassour
After an absence of six years onscreen and three as director, two-time Oscar winner and Kennedy Center honoree Robert Redford returns with a powerful punch and edge-of-the-seat storytelling with the political potboiler The Company You Keep (Sony Pictures Classics). He hasn’t exactly been loafing, as he’s very involved with the ever-expanding Sundance Institute, which he founded in 1980 to develop the work of aspiring filmmakers.
Following the deep complexity of his last outing – – the strange Lions for Lambs (2003) which, even with Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep starring, was like diving into murky waters – – in The Company You Keep he gets down to gritty storytelling about issues that were and are relevant to him.
Redford plays Jim Grant, a widowed father and former Weather Underground militant, reestablished under another name and living his own underground life as a public-interest attorney in the Albany, NY suburbs. Interestingly, as he pointed out recently, the role combines several genres the actor’s well-associated with: political agendas, dirty goings on at high government levels, journalism, and family.
He describes the film, adapted from Neil Gordon’s 2003 novel, as a cat-and-mouse game between two men – a fugitive in hiding, an aggressive but idealist investigative reporter – both attempting to expose the truth to redefine their lives.
To be director and star, says Redford, "You have to be schizophrenic and a bit nuts. Schizophrenic in a controlled way. To act and direct isn’t something I’m particularly drawn to. When I act, I like to be free to act; when I direct, I want to be free to look at the situation the way a symphony conductor would – making everything come together to tell a coherent story. Stepping in and out of both roles doesn’t come easy."
He’s shown through the years he knows something about casting. Company… is given considerable heft not only with co-star Shia LaBeouf, in undoubtedly his best performance to date as a bulldog- a role that parallels Redford’s role in All the President’s Men ; and a distinguished roster of A-List screen veterans: Chris Cooper, Sam Elliott, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte, and Stanley Tucci. Newcomers Brit Marling (as an adopted daughter unaware who her father is) and Jackie Evancho (the youngest daughter unaware of her father’s past) also shine.
Classical crossover chart-topping singer Evancho, now 12, was last to be cast. Redford tried in vain to find "a kid who could realistically play an11-year-old. They all came in acting to the hilt; none, but their mothers even dressing as an 11-year-old. I was frustrated. Filming [in Canada] had begun and we were three days from shooting scenes involving [Grant’s daughter] Isabel. I was sitting in the hotel watching TV and was suddenly drawn to this angelic creature singing Puccini in front of a symphony orchestra and an audience of thousands. Her naturalness and composure impressed me. I phoned my agent and said, ‘Get her!’" She was at home in Pittsburgh. When her dad told her about the call, Evancho asked, "Who’s he?" Her dad explained Redford was a famous film star, "a movie cowboy." She arrived two days later, was tested, and two days later was in front of the cameras. "It was her first film role," states Redford. "I was a lucky man. Sometimes taking a risk pays off."
Company… has two A-list casting coups: Susan Sarandon and Julie Christie, portraying long-FBI-pursued Undergrounders; one, perhaps guilty of murder. Both Oscar winners appear briefly, but in powerful sequences. Sarandon’s prison interview with LaBeouf is the stuff of Oscar nods.
That he knows something about casting doesn’t come as a surprise. If you’re Robert Redford, people don’t normally say no. However, that wasn’t quite the case when it came to Christie. "I had known Julie and her interest in political causes," notes Redford. "I wanted her for the role of Mimi Lurie [a radical who’s virtually disappeared and living under various identities]. I’ve always loved her work, but what really made me think of her was her Oscar-nominated portrayal of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s in Away from Her."
However, finding Christie was a bit daunting. "She lives in a remote region of Spain most of the year," he explains. "It took two months to locate her. Then, she was pretty convinced she shouldn’t take the role. It took a lot of persuading." For her part, Christie, once convinced, reveals, "I had immense empathy for Mimi. She fought for what she believed in. She has enormous integrity – painful integrity, because so often integrity is a painful business."
"The Company You Keep is a sto
ry of about a group of people in the time of the Vietnam morass who were underground politically very close," explains Redford. "They were bonded by the passions of their time. As time passed, they took different paths. Some believed in it at the time, but spent the rest of their lives paying for what they did. Others felt it was a just cause and is still one for today. How they interacted is what I found interesting."
He notes the story has parallels with today’s Occupy Wall Street movement. "It’s an opportunity to look inside an event that’s a piece of our history. I had a social reason for doing the film, not a political one. What’s important to me are stories about American life that sit just below what we’re being told. We have a great country, but we should always look at the gray area. I know. I lived through it."
Redford, who says he was against the Vietnam War and many policies of that era, states, "We’re not good at looking at our failures and learning from them so we don’t repeat the past. I was empathetic with the Weather Underground in spirit, not necessarily with some of things they did [bank heists, massive protests]. However, I was just starting a career and family and obligated to those tasks."
On reading Gordon’s novel, Redford explains he found the story quite compelling in the way he found one of the favorite novels of his youth, Hugo’s Les Misérables. "People were living their lives for 30 years under a false identity, very much like Je
an Valjean, sentenced to 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread; then, after he broke parole he built a good life. But the pain of that time haunted him. Plus, he had Javert in constant pursuit."
He explained he wanted a different film score for Company…, "There’s a bittersweet, rueful quality to the film," said Redford. "I wanted the music to support the emotion from underneath – to be strong yet subtle, emotional yet restrained." He turned to Sundance Fellow Cliff Martinez (original score, Spring Breakers), a 2012 juror.
"The Company You Keep," says Martinez, "like many of Robert’s films, felt like real life. That’s the element I wanted to capture." For the soundtrack [Milan Records], he used a French "cristal baschet" to create suspenseful elements. The unique instrumentation is created by rubbing over 50 chromatically-tuned glass rods with moistened fingers. The result: good and weird vibrations.
Robert Redford made his Broadway debut in 1959, as a replacement in the featured cast of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s college comedy Tall Story. He alternated between TV, film, and theater. In 1961, he made a splash in Norman Krasna’s Sunday in New York – receiving the Theatre World Award. Stardom followed in 1963, opposite Elizabeth Ashley, in Neil Simon’s Tony-nominated Barefoot in the Park, directed by Mike Nichols. He left the play about a year later for TV series work. His first major screen lead was opposite Natalie Wood in 1965’s Hollywood drama, Inside Daisy Clover. He appeared opposite Jane Fonda in the 1967 film adaptation of Barefoot… The following year his stardom was assured, co-starring with Paul Newman, in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
[Trivia: Nichols considered Redford for The Graduate, but ending up not casting him "because I didn’t think anyone would believe Robert would have trouble getting the girl." However, Redford says he turned down the role of Benjamin Braddock "because I never did look like a 21-year-old just out of college who’d never been laid."]
Company… premiered last September at the Venice International Film Festival and was an entry at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. It had international release last year in Italy.
Redford is to be seen solo next in All Is Lost from writer/director J.J. Chandor (Oscar-nominated, screenplay, Margin Call). There’s a tight lid on plot details, but Redford has described the film as a "‘man versus nature drama in which I’m struggling to survive." He should be good. He’s done that before!