For more than 50 years, Robert Redford has been at the top of his game, whether as an actor, Oscar-winning director (Ordinary People), producer or at Sundance, the festival and institute he founded. He won an honorary Oscar for his work with Sundance in promoting independent film, and that is where he met director J.C. Chandor, whose first film, Margin Call, premiered at the festival. But none of the many young directors whose films got big breaks at Sundance actually ever dared to ask Redford to be in a movie. That is, until Chandor brought him All Is Lost. The result is an extraordinary tour de force performance in which Redford is the only actor on screen, playing a man trying to survive after his sailboat springs a leak. Incredibly, Redford has only been nominated for an acting Oscar once in his career, 40 years ago for the lighthearted The Sting. Betting odds are that All Is Lost is going to bring him his second best actor nom.
AwardsLine: What attracted you to such a physically and mentally challenging role?
Robert Redford: It was an opportunity for me to go back to my roots as an actor. That was how I began in this business, and it brought me great joy. As you move through your life, you create opportunities, and if you see new opportunities, you take them. Directing and producing, or creating opportunities for other filmmakers, feels great, but you’re not aware of how it’s taking you further and further away from what your basic joy is—to act. This gave me that in a very big way because of the kind of role it was. Then there is that other thing that happens when you just go in—and it’s impulse—where you say, “I’m going to trust this.” That happened for me with J.C. We met, and very quickly, I thought, “Let’s just do it.”
AwardsLine: They say never work with kids, animals or on water, and here you are doing a movie that’s entirely on water.
Redford: When I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles, my family didn’t have much, so there wasn’t a car. But you find your way to the beach. Most of my childhood was on the water, by the shore. I’d be sitting on the sand and I’d look out and see this vast sea that seemed to go on forever. I remember thinking, “Where does that go?” Somehow that got me. When we were doing the film, I asked J.C. if (the character) has a moment or two (like that). I thought, “What does it feel like to be on a small boat in the middle of the ocean?” As far as you can see there’s nothing, so what are you going to think? You look out, and maybe the audience can have that experience with you. We are in the middle of nowhere here with no one to talk to.
AwardsLine: The character you play doesn’t have a name in the film. Did you create a backstory for him?
Redford: No, I didn’t. I was very drawn to what little was said (in the script). It allowed me to fill in on my own. J.C. was the director, and you want to know what’s on the director’s mind. I’d ask him questions, but he was evasive in a way that I thought, “Well, he’s a smart guy. He’s doing this on purpose.” Then I realized it was all connected to the way he wrote it. There is only so much you need to know, and then you fill in the rest. You remove as much as you can, then you provide a space for the audience to come in. As an actor, you hope that can happen, but then you have to do something that’s going to connect with the audience as well. You have to be pretty honest with yourself, with what you’re doing and what’s going on, and how you’re feeling.
AwardsLine: What was the toughest scene for you in terms of shooting?
Redford: It’s a tough film, there’s no question about it. I was in wet clothes that got pretty tiresome to wear all day long. (But with) a short budget and a short schedule, you have got to keep going. There was a particular scene where the water is rising, but I’m not alone in there. You want to create the feeling (of isolation), but you have a camera man, a sound guy, a prop person, and we’re all there and it’s feeling claustrophobic and crowded. At one point, the water got (too) high. The guy who was the setting adviser suddenly says, “Everyone off the boat!” and everybody got off and nobody thought about me. They were in a rush to be the first one off the boat, and they were diving off, and I said, “Gee, thanks a lot.”
AwardsLine: What’s significant about the sextant, a piece of navigational equipment, in your character’s emergency kit?
Redford: That ties into something else that really appealed to me. J.C. had developed a script about a good sailor, not a perfect sailor. I really liked that, because it meant you weren’t playing a superhero. You were getting a real person who could do very well, but there were also some things he wasn’t going to be able to do because he didn’t know. So he has to go back to the manual to map where he thinks he is. He hadn’t had to do that before. I thought that was a wonderful piece of writing, and as an actor, I liked it because it meant (my character) was not a superhero.