Robert Redford saw a plum role in The Company You Keep

Robert Redford tells Matt Mueller about his fascination with 1970s radicalism and his problems with the Hollywood studios.

Robert Redford poses for a portrait during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Thursday, January 21, 2010. (AP Photo/Carlo Allegri)
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Robert Redford ambles into a Toronto hotel suite, verbose off the bat and eager to be engaged on the substantive themes of his new film The Company You Keep, which opens at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival tonight.

Prior to our interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where The Company You Keep held its world premiere, he had sent out feelers to find out if we'd spoken before so he could be "better prepared". We haven't, but encountering Redford face to face still feels like meeting an old friend; he's warm and instantly affable, entering the blandly decorated room with a pretty young woman he introduces as his assistant. "She works with us in California and I wanted her to experience what it's like to do one of these," he explains.

He looks great for 76, healthy and hearty in jeans and an unbuttoned black shirt over a salmon pink V-neck, although that famous mop of hair might be dyed a slightly too bright shade of strawberry blonde these days. Fifteen minutes after we've settled in, I've only managed to pose one question as Redford gabs on cheerfully about the Irish poet Robert E Yeats, which leads into a discussion about the historical context for The Company You Keep and its subject matter of the Weather Underground, the American radical-left group that conducted a bombing campaign in the early 1970s to protest the Vietnam War. Redford's film depicts these once fiery radicals 40 years down the line, when they've mostly settled into normal lives under assumed identities - including his character Jim Grant, who is forced to go on the run when an aggressive young reporter (played by Shia LaBeouf) threatens to expose the past.

"These people were involved at a point in history where change was happening and the change looked exciting, it looked like young people were finally going to have a voice of their own to determine their future," muses Redford. "But the movement didn't succeed and the Weather Underground said, 'It's not enough to be peaceful, we have to bring the war home by showing what violence looks like here.' And that's when it started to go wrong. I'm fascinated by that chapter in American history, although I was not so much interested in making a film about that time - I was interested in those people many years later and what happened to them in between."

The Company You Keep marks Redford's ninth film as a director but only the third in which he also stars (the other two being 1998's The Horse Whisperer and 2007's Lions For Lambs). It's not something he ever looks forward to, acting and directing at the same time. "Directing myself is not that comfortable for me," he admits. "I can do it but I don't enjoy it." But as a former militant activist who goes on the run while seeking out his former Weather Underground cronies (played by a heavyweight ensemble that includes Nick Nolte, Susan Sarandon and Julie Christie), Redford recognised a juicy role for himself.

"There's an irony there in the sense that in this film I play a guy running away from a reporter and in All the President's Men I am the reporter," he smiles. "But I liked the vulnerability of the character so I wanted to play him, although I knew that if I didn't get this film made soon, I was going to be too old for the part."

Although Redford is the godfather of modern American independent cinema, as the founder and driving force of the Sundance Film Festival, he's used to working in a bigger budget arena as a filmmaker; his previous two projects, Lions For Lambs and The Conspirator, cost $35m and $25m respectively, which might be small change for a summer blockbuster but count as healthy budgets for the adult-oriented dramas his energies are focused on. The Company You Keep, however, he calls a "true low-budget independent" and he spent four years compressing Neil Gordon's complex novel into a narrative that he could raise the financing to make, in close collaboration with screenwriter Lem Dobbs.

"I see the script as a sculpture," he declares. "You have to just keep shaving and shaving until you have the shape. I have great respect for writers and I always try to include them in the process. You want to give them a chance. On my last film, The Conspirator, the writer [James D Solomon] had spent 14 years working on that project, going into the archives and finding a story connected to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that no one knew about. You can't just cut somebody like that off."

Budgetary limitations leave Redford to convey that turbulent time in America's history mostly using newsreel footage, but as previously mentioned, his primary interest lies in exploring what happens to people when the passions of their youth lead to terrible mistakes - and those mistakes return to haunt them.

Are there regrets? Reconciliation? Payback? And how strong are the bonds of loyalty several decades on? Interestingly, one of Redford's inspirations for wanting to tell this story was his fondness for Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, a story he's adored since he was a child. "I've always wanted to apply it in my own work and this was the chance," says the born-and-bred Californian, who credits his love for old-fashioned storytelling to a working-class upbringing in which trips to the library were a primary source of youthful diversion. "In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean gets 19 years for taking a loaf of bread and Victor Javert is the relentless pursuer whose ego is completely tied up in getting this man. The human side is thrown aside."

Loyalty is one of the key themes of The Company You Keep - loyalty to people, loyalty to beliefs - and it's clearly an important quality for Redford. "I do put a lot of value on loyalty," he agrees. "The loyalty I feel to my daughter in the film is paramount. That's the emotional driving part of the story. But loyalty can also go into a dark area and I wanted to explore that. That's what I'm interested in: the grey zone. Because my country's pretty much about things being black and white and I've never seen it that simple. I think my country has a lot of grey area and that's what I've focused on in the films that I've made. What's the truth beneath the truth that you're given?"

At the same time, Redford isn't keen to be described as a filmmaker with a social agenda. "I don't look at it that sharply," he counters. "What interests me is story. That's been with me my whole life - I think my obligation to my vocation is to tell a good story." And that's both the actor and director speaking. The spry Hollywood legend recently undertook his first acting gig in a film other than his own since 2006, and not only that, he's the only actor who will appear in All Is Lost, an open-water thriller from Margin Call's talented writer-director JC Chandor about a man lost at sea, battling both the elements and his own rising panic to survive.

It sounds like the sort of high-concept action vehicle that should star a thrusting young tyro like LaBeouf, whose own casting in The Company You Keep might appear at odds with Redford's frequently voiced views that soulless franchise films (like Transformers) are ruining Hollywood. But he makes an effective foil for his elder counterpart, who was won over by his co-star's brio; perhaps LaBeouf reminded Redford of himself as a young man. "Shia had two things that I thought were vital for the character: a quick mind and a fast tongue," he explains. "His mouth and his mind work very closely together and it just gives him an exceptional energy that I thought was perfect for the character. I'm very happy with his performance because it's so focused."

Redford bridles at the notion that there are less good stories these days than there were when he was at the peak of his stardom, and cranking out classics like Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Three Days Of The Condor and The Sting. He sees it simply as lack of imagination in an industry that's come to be unhealthily obsessed with the corporate bottom line. "To me, there's no reason for a sequel, ever," argues Redford, who has turned down lucrative offers to do sequels for The Way We Were and, alarmingly, Butch Cassidy. "I said, 'Didn't you see the end? How stupid can you be?'… There are just too many stories to be told. You don't need a 1, 2, 3 or 4…"

The Company You Keep screens tonight, Friday 12th October, at 6.15pm (Emirates Palace)