It doesn’t take people long to figure out Robert Redford is among the best actors in the world.
Oona Laurence, 14, spent a few months working with Redford on the re-imagined version of the 1977 feature film “Pete’s Dragon.” What she saw working with him on only one film is that “actors are just people doing a job. Robert Redford is just really good at his job.”
When told what his co-star, who is 65 years younger than Redford, had said, all the veteran performer could reply was that compliments don’t get better than that.
Actors are just people doing a job. Robert Redford is just really good at his job.
Oona Laurence, 14, on her 79-year-old co-star in “Pete’s Dragon”
What Oona learned making the new version of “Pete’s Dragon” is what moviegeors have known for centuries. Since 1960, Redford has been showing off his acting skills with legendary film projects like “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid,” “The Way We Were,” “The Sting,” “Out of Africa” and “All the President’s Men.”
In retrospect, it’s easy to see how Redford has glided between different types of roles.
But there was a time when he had to fight a narrow-minded way of thinking that is more often associated with women.
“I really had a hard time when I first started acting in films, and suddenly it was about how I looked. And I wasn’t expecting that because I became an actor because I was drawn to the craft in the theater in New York,” Redford says. “So I wasn’t prepared to go into film and suddenly be judged by how I looked. That’s not the way I saw myself.
“So you try to work your way out of it.”
Redford broke the mold only when he started doing a variety of different movies such as “Downhill Racer,” “Little Fauss and Big Halsy” and “Jeremiah Johnson.” He was also able to expand the type of work he was doing by moving behind the camera to be a director. (He won the 1981 best director Oscar for “Ordinary People.”)
Redford calls the battle “hard, hard times.”
One way Redford has been able to build up the kind of career actors admire (even new ones) is through his ability to see past what’s in front of him. That has meant seeing how interesting a character could be to play, how he could make more of a story by directing or starting a film festival (Sundance) that makes people look past the norm.
I think what new technology has done is narrowed our focus on things. We have to see it reproduced on our screen.
He sees his character in “Pete’s Dragon” as the kind of guy who has always looked beyond the end of his nose. Sometimes that has brought him ridicule, but at least he’s being honest about seeing something as miraculous as a dragon in the woods.
Redford likes that the character in the film about a boy and his dragon looks at the broader canvas.
“I just thought that was a very healthy thing. In the film, he tells his daughter you only see what’s in front of you, but there’s something more. So you can walk around, but also look around.
“I think what new technology has done is narrowed our focus on things. We have to see it reproduced on our screen. And so that makes me sad. So the idea of playing a character who asks simply that you look beyond what’s right in front of you, and you make that a story point – I love that idea.”
Redford says that when he looks at the scripts he’s sent, he wants to see something in it that’s unexpected, different and outside the norm – and that’s what caught his bright blue eyes when he read “Pete’s Dragon.”
A reminder of younger days
It also didn’t hurt that “Pete’s Dragon” was shot in New Zealand. You can tell by his skin that Redford has a passion for the great outdoors. It was a joy for him to work in the forests of New Zealand because the countryside is so beautiful. At the same time, it left him a little sad because he can remember a time when America was like that, especially California when he was a youngster.
“I grew up at that time in the end of the Second World War when there was big mass stretches of land. People were friendly because they were all together for the war effort, or paper drives, things like that. People were friendly with each other. The air was clean. There were swatches of land between Santa Monica and Westwood, Beverly Hills,” Redford says. “And then I went away, and when I came back, the place had changed. And it was no longer the place that I knew or loved.
“So I couldn’t wait to get out of here. I felt it was developing itself to death. So going to New Zealand is a reminder to me about how California and Los Angeles was in the ’40s. And I could relate to that, so it made me both happy and sad.”