This interview was originally broadcast on Dec. 12, 2013.
Robert Redford isn't merely the star of the movie All Is Lost — he plays the only character. He plays a man stranded alone on a small yacht in the Indian Ocean, and New York Times film critic A.O. Scott says it's "the performance of a lifetime."
We don't know the man's name, why he's there, or anything about his background — but when disaster strikes, we learn that he's resourceful and doesn't succumb to panic. After a stray shipping container rams his vessel and leaves a gaping hole in the hull, he must make the boat seaworthy again in order to survive.
"I was very drawn to what was not said," Redford tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. The 30-page script for the nearly wordless film was made up mostly of sketches. And in a physically demanding role, Redford, 77, did nearly all his own stunts.
"I liked the idea there were no special effects," he says. "It was a very low-budget film, very independent in its spirit and its budget. ... It was more of a pure cinematic experience — the way films used to be, maybe even going back to silent films."
He says he was glad to get away from the high technology that has "infested the film business."
Redford was nominated for a Golden Globe Award in December, and the New York Film Critics Circle has voted him best actor of the year. His best-known films include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Candidate, The Way We Were, The Sting, All the President's Men and Out of Africa.
He directed several films, including Ordinary People and Quiz Show, and he directed and starred in The Horse Whisperer and the recent film The Company You Keep.
On the simplicity and minimalism of All Is Lost
I did ask in the beginning, "Is there something I should know about this?" And the director [J.C. Chandor] evaded answering it. ... I liked the script ... because it was so exact. It was so detail-oriented, and it told me that there was a vision behind this film that was very secure. And that meant that I could put myself in his hands. ... It just felt right; it was an instinctive thing. Rather than all the folderol that goes on these days before somebody commits — you got agents, you got managers, you got financial people that are all busy analyzing the pluses and minuses of it — it was stripped of all that, and I loved it. The fact that I could step into a film and really get back to my roots where I originally started in the theater in New York and the end of live television.
On filming the storm scenes
A lot of it [was shot] on the open water, but when we had to get into the really tough stuff we went into a giant tank where they have these big wave machines, these big cylinders that can cork up the waves to 6, 7 feet that will swamp the boat or maybe turn it over. You had rain, violent rain machines, then you had wind machines, and then you had crew members with fire hoses hitting you with water, heavy streams of water. So when all of those things are cooking at once, you're really in a storm. So I really did feel, while I was doing this, that I was actually in a storm. ... It became very physical. ... [When I was younger] I enjoyed doing my own stunts when I could, and I thought, "Well, at this point in my life, what can I still do? I'm not sure." So it was, in a way, a test.
On All Is Lost being an intimate journey with the audience
One of the things that was challenging was you had to be completely there as the actor. Because there was no filter, there were no barriers created by voice-overs ... there was the chance for the audience to come close to you as you were going through this. You had to be real in what you were going through. You had to be absolutely there.
That's also an attractive thing as an actor, to be completely occupied with your character on all levels. ... This gave the audience a chance to come closer to the character so that if it was going to work, then the audience could feel at a certain point like they were taking this journey with you.
On discovering his love of exploration and nature
I went to college to get out of Los Angeles. I went to college because it was Colorado, and it was the mountains, and by that time I realized that nature was going to be a huge part of my life. Los Angeles, for me, when I was a little kid at the end of the Second World War, I loved it. It was full of green spaces. When the war ended ... suddenly Los Angeles, which had no land-use plan, it felt like the city was being pushed into the sea. ... Suddenly there were skyscrapers and freeways and smog, and I ... wanted out. So I went into the mountains, into the Sierras and worked at Yosemite National Park and fell in love with nature.
I was not a good student through my entire life. My mind was out the window. I drew underneath the desk. I drew pictures. I wasn't learning the way I was supposed to learn, and I think I realized that my education was going to happen when I got out in the world and engaged with other cultures, other places, other languages and had the adventure of exploration. And I felt, "That's my education."
On how his family dealt with loss
[I] come from a dark family [that] emigrated from Ireland and Scotland: Didn't talk much; you don't complain much; you don't ask for anything; you bear the brunt of whatever comes your way, and you do it with grace. So when my mom had twin girls that died [after birth], there was no talk about it.
When I was a little kid, I was very close to my uncle who was in the Second World War, and he was with Gen. [George] Patton's Third Army. He was an interpreter because he spoke four languages fluently. I was very fond of him, and he would, on his furlough, he'd come down to play baseball with me and so forth. And then he went away to war and was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. When he died, I was very close to him.
The way the family dealt with it — it just wasn't talked about. It just happened, and you didn't ask a lot of questions. It was what it was. I think that was sort of built into the family structure. ... There was no talk about it, and everybody moved on.
On how he almost wasn't cast in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
When it first came up, because of the age difference between Paul [Newman] and I, which was like 12, 13 years, and he was really well-known and I was not well-known ... the studio did not want me ... and they tried everything to keep me out of the film. It was 20th Century Fox. I think it was Paul Newman and William Goldman, the writer, and George [Roy Hill, the director] that stood up for me against the studio. ... When I met Paul he was very generous, and he said, "I'll do it with Redford." I never forgot that. ... He and I, in the course of that film, became really, really good friends.
On being known for his looks
One of the things that has been sort of weird is to see yourself characterized so often as somebody that looks well, that has glamorous looks, or is appealing physically. That's nice, I'm not unhappy about that. But what I saw happening over time was that was [what was] getting attention.
I wanted to be good at my craft, and therefore I would be an actor that would play many different kinds of roles, which I did. I played killers, I played rapists, really deranged characters, but most people don't know about that, because that was in television. So suddenly you're seeing yourself in a glamour category and you're saying, "Wait a minute." The notion is that you're not so much of an actor, you're just somebody that looks well. That was always hard for me, because I always took pride in whatever role I was playing. I would be that character.