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Photo Courtesy of SBIFF.

Who knew Robert Redford was funny? That was just one of the happy discoveries I made—along with a sold-out audience—at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Friday evening. I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours onstage interviewing the famously private movie star-turned-director, producer, and indie film hero. Having said hello to him at the Sundance Film Festival a few weeks back, he greeted me warmly backstage and set my wife’s heart palpitating with his effortless charm. (Other women around us responded the same way. I later asked Alice if it was wrong to refer to the 77-year-old actor as “boyish,” but she agreed that he still embodies that quality.)

I’ve hosted a number of these tributes and while they’re always enjoyable, there are evenings when, if the subject feels relaxed, the interview (interspersed with film clips) becomes more of a conversation. That’s what made Friday so special, especially since Redford doesn’t make many personal appearances or expose himself on the talk-show circuit. He was genuinely touched by the standing ovation that greeted him and sensed that it was sincere. “I’m a California kid,” he said, “I grew up not far from here. I spent a lot of my time in Santa Barbara surfing and spending time in these mountains, so it’s a little bit like coming home.”

He spoke with candor about his aimless and troubled youth in a working-class Chicano neighborhood of Los Angeles. He said he was a bad student, recalled how he blew a college baseball scholarship, and identified the first thing that truly motivated him: his desire to be an artist. He traveled to Europe and scraped by, sketching people in cafes and bars.

“Do you still draw?” I asked, and he said yes. I then inquired if he made thumbnails or storyboards for the films he directs, and he recalled the lightbulb moment on Ordinary People when, talking to his cinematographer, he realized that he could communicate best by sketching the way he wanted a shot to look. (He confessed that in all his years in front of the camera, he never paid attention to the technical chatter around him; asked if he wanted a 35mm lens or a 50, he had no idea how to respond.)

As I introduced a pair of film clips, from The Candidate and The Way We Were, I said it seemed as if these political stories allowed him to mouth his real-life beliefs. There was a hesitation on his part and I added, “Or am I overstepping here?”

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Photo Courtesy of SBIFF

“Yes, you are,” he replied with a slight smile, “But you’re right.”

The crux of our talk was his journey from artist to actor to storyteller. He explained that he was always interested in probing beneath the surface, and early on set out to expose hypocrisy in the worlds of sports, politics, and business. “I got to do two out of three,” he concluded, citing Downhill Racer and The Candidate.

He has spoken before of his fondness and admiration for Paul Newman, and how he wound up taking the role his costar was originally set to play in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He reiterated that director George Roy Hill doesn’t get enough credit for shaping and interpreting William Goldman’s screenplay, which was played more for laughs than the finished picture.

I asked how he and Hill dealt with Newman’s habit of dissecting every scene of every script. He laughed and said Hill would urge Newman to stop and just get on with it.

He spent time outlining the four-year journey from the moment he was promoting The Candidate in 1972 and overheard reporters grumbling about there being more to the Watergate break-in than anyone was telling, to his first attempts to contact reporters Woodward and Bernstein, to the completion of his landmark movie All the President’s Men four years later. The audience at Santa Barbara’s cavernous Arlington Theatre hung on every word.

Following an excerpt from The Great Gatsby—a film he thoroughly enjoyed making—I mentioned that we’d be paying tribute to Bruce Dern the following night. Summoning the timing he learned from his earliest years on stage, he paused briefly and said, “Ask him if he remembers me.” It got the huge laugh it deserved.

As it came time to close the tribute I told him that what I intuited from our conversation, and his account of working to tell the kind of stories that interested him—even if Hollywood disagreed—was that he was driven by curiosity. He looked somewhat startled, but pleased, at my remark and said that it was the word that best described his character: an insatiable curiosity.

Robert Redford revealed a bit of himself over the course of this career tribute, and both the audience and I came away from the experience admiring him all the more.