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Robert Redford, a natural star
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Robert Redford, a natural star

Friday, 02 November 2018
By Frank Rousseau
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Frank Rousseau

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7 min read

His jeans may be faded but his blue eyes have that same intense sparkle. Robert Redford still radiates the natural authority that distinguishes one of cinema’s greats. Interview.

He behaves like any other guy, which isn’t what you would necessarily expect from such a legend in the film world – a fact he doesn’t seem too hung up on himself. The Sundance Kid, mountain man Jeremiah Johnson, the director of A River Runs Through It and The Horse Whisperer has other things to think about than his fame. Or the years that pass. Not at the age of 82. From the hands on his very first watch to the galloping hooves of one of the thoroughbreds on his ranch, it’s all part of the journey!

Do you remember your first watch?

Yes, it was given to me by my mother. When I was 11, the doctor diagnosed a mild case of polio. This was before Salk developed the first vaccine. Mine was a benign case, unlike the poor kids who had to live in an iron lung. I was still bedridden for weeks and, once I was over it, as a reward, my mother bought me a military watch with a compass. She told me, “You’ll need this. We’re going to Yosemite National Park. A change of air will do you good.” I was completely blown away by the trees and the rivers and the waterfalls. I knew there and then that I was no city boy. I also sensed early on that in the very near future, this beautiful natural landscape would be sacrificed for property development and economic gain. I knew I had to speak out against a consumer society that was running headlong into disaster.

Robert Redford
Robert Redford

Even so, the imbalance wasn’t as marked back then as it is today, which is why my involvement in nature conservation and environmental causes is stronger than ever. What’s the point of having children if we have nothing to leave them? You know, I grew up in one of those small towns that mushroomed around Los Angeles, and I felt stifled by the city in every sense of the word. My family used to take me to the Yosemite or into the desert around where we lived, just so I could clear my lungs. That’s when I fell in love with nature, and learned to understand it better. Already, in the back of my mind, I was thinking how one day I’d buy some land up in the Utah mountains where I could breed horses. My interest in Native Americans came later. I was disgusted by the treatment meted out to them by the government. Reservations and ghettoization, that kind of thing. I became even more involved once I saw how our leaders are more concerned with productivity than nature. This short-term thinking, this inability to see into the future and measure the consequences of our acts, affects me profoundly.

Do you still have that first watch?

Sadly, no. I’m 82 and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. It was a very simple watch, nothing fancy, but I wish I still had it today.

What about your first "grown-up" watch?

A gift from a woman when I was living in Paris. In 1956, after attending the University of Colorado for a while, I decided to travel to Paris and study fine art. That trip would really open my eyes. Suddenly, I was able to see my own country in a different light. It was during this time that I realised Americans were pretty full of themselves…

I hate anything showy.
Robert Redford
What do you look for in a watch?

First off, it has to be unpretentious. I hate anything showy. I don’t buy a watch to prove where I am on the social ladder. I buy it so I know what time it is. Having said that, I admire objects that are well-made. I appreciate expertise and innovation, and I can certainly tell when a watch has been made with care and respect for certain traditions, as opposed to the stuff that’s churned out by the dozen and doesn’t last two minutes. I love the fact that watches are made by people who are passionate about what they do, and don’t count the hours they spend. Which is ironic, when you think about it!

As a director, you have a reputation for being obsessed with detail. That's quite a Swiss way of doing things, wouldn't you say?

When you have a budget to manage, you can’t not take it seriously. It’s true that I have a precise idea of what I want. For The Horse Whisperer, for example, I scouted something like 300 ranches across Montana. I wanted to set the story on a property next to a river, with a particular layout. It took me six months to find what I was looking for. So if someone who aims for perfection is an obsessive then, yes, that’s what I am.

Of all the watches you've worn on-screen, which did you most enjoy?

I really liked the Rolex Sub 1680 that my character wore in All The President’s Men. For a shortsighted guy like me, those very visible hands were an added bonus.

As a boy, you were often told you weren't good-looking. When did you realise that your looks could actually open doors?

It took me a while to accept that I wasn’t as ugly as people made out! [laughs]. It was flattering at first, until I realised that my physical appearance was attracting more attention than my work. Inevitably, that weighed on me. I felt I’d become a prisoner of my image, and I wanted to break away from that. I stopped listening to the way people described me and started playing different roles. I didn’t want to become typecast.

Are there any "fashion" accessories you wouldn't be without?

A wool scarf that keeps out the cold and will never go out of style. A classic watch for keeping track of time, despite the fact I’m always running late! [laughs]. Ideally one that can cope with an active, outdoor life. A dive watch maybe. And a pair of aviator sunglasses, again with a classic design. Ones I can wear to go incognito and, more to the point, that will protect my eyes from sun reflection on the snow. Blue eyes like mine are, by definition, more sensitive.

How do you kill time?

In lots of ways. First of all, I live out west, in the mountains, so many of the things I enjoy doing in my free time involve nature. Horseriding, hiking, climbing. I also own a property in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s a magnificent region with clear skies and totally unpolluted. No factories. Nothing but sky, land and the horizon as far as the eye can see. We have so much to learn from nature. When I’m walking in the mountains in Utah or in the desert in New Mexico, I take time to listen to the sound of a stream or an animal. I marvel at the sight of a flower opening or bees gathering pollen. I need this contact with nature. It helps make up for the fact we live in such a hard world.

What's sacred in your eyes?

The luxury of being able to arrive late without having to explain why! [laughs]

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