Company You Keep: Interview with Robert Redford

“The Company You Keep” can be seen as a cat and mouse game between two men – journalist Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) and fugitive Jim Grant (Robert Redford) – both attempting to expose the truth and, in the process, redefine their lives.

While the film, which is set in the present day, recalls the history and aftermath of the radical antiwar protest movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s (and in particular one of its most violent manifestations, The Weather Underground), it remains a work of fiction. Indeed it was the dramatic potential of the story itself, even more so than the meticulously researched underpinnings of Neil Gordon’s 2003 novel, which first attracted Robert Redford to the project.

“I thought it was a good story and it gave you a chance to look inside of an event that is a piece of American history,” says Redford of the film, his first as both actor and director since his 2007 drama, Lions for Lambs. “It truly gets inside how people were living their lives thirty years later… underground and with a false identity.”

“For me it was a bit like Les Misérables, with the character Jean Valjean sentenced to nineteen years for a loaf of bread,” Redford explains. “He escaped from prison, built a false identity, had a daughter, had a good life, but the pain of that time was always going to haunt him. So how do these people deal with that? Do they change? Do they not change? That was the interesting story to be told. It wasn’t so much about the antiwar movement itself, because that belongs to history.”

Working with fellow producers Bill Holderman, who previously collaborated with Redford on Lions for Lambs and his most recent directorial effort, The Conspirator (2010), and Nicolas Chartier (The Hurt Locker), the project was developed over the course of four years.

Adapted by Lem Dobbs, who scripted Kafka, Haywire and The Limey for Steven Soderbergh, the screenplay centers on Grant’s journey as he reconnects with the ghosts of his past – many still living underground – with the hope of ultimately exonerating himself from the murder charges he fled as a student linked to the radical fringe of the antiwar movement. All the while, Ben Shepard and the FBI pursue him, never more than a few steps behind his trail.
“This is about a group of people that were underground,” Redford explains. “They were very close, bonded by the styles of their time, the passions of their time, and now they’ve grown older and they’ve taken different paths. Some resent that they did it. Others have remorse. Some believed in it at the time, but feel they have to spend the rest of their lives paying for it. Others feel it was a just cause at the time and still is a cause for today. So there’s also all these multiple feelings and relationships – how they all interacted fascinated me.”

While Redford planned both the scenario and the production itself down to the finest detail, he also left considerable elements of the story open to the actors’ own interpretations. Indeed, as an actor himself, he encouraged each individual’s input.

“It was a skeletal script at the beginning that he was fleshing out through rehearsal,” explains Shia LaBeouf (Transformers; Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) of the collaboration between the director and his cast.
“I think it was like 80 pages when I first received it – and then he just started pumping life into it,” says LaBeouf. “He allowed twenty pages for the script to evolve.

He was still comfortable enough to pull the green-light-trigger on it… And he had the confidence in himself and his team to be able to move forward.”

LaBeouf points to a scene shared with Brendan Gleeson (The Guard) by way of example, one in which his journalist prods Gleeson’s retired police chief for information at an Ann Arbor, Michigan diner. “That scene didn’t even really exist initially,” explains LaBeouf. “Then you bring in somebody

like Gleeson and you start riffing a bit… Redford allows it to breathe, but it’s structured. It’s not just ad-libbed – it’s very structured as to what needs to be explained and why.”

For the central role of Jim Grant, however, Redford decided to play the part himself. “Because I’m nuts,” laughs the legendary star. “To step in and out of both roles is not easy for me,” he says of performing double duty as actor and director. “I can do it. But it’s definitely not easy.”

Redford as Jim Grant

With over 52 years in the business, 30 films as a producer, nine as director and an estimated 66 screen-roles to his credit, Robert Redford is one of the most influential figures in the film industry. He has received two Oscars: the first for his directorial debut, Ordinary People in 1980, the second for Lifetime Achievement in 2002.

For The Company You Keep, Redford called upon his experience and passion to bring the film and central character to life, shepherding his own independent project forward over the course of several years with his producing partners.

Though clearly captivated by the character of Jim Grant – his sense of loyalty, nobility and integrity – Redford is nevertheless quick to point out the differences between himself and the man we see on screen. “At that time, I was raising a family and starting a career, so I wasn’t involved politically,” he says. ”The activism in my life was centered around the environment. On the other hand, I had a lot of friends who were involved. I saw what was happening; I could see the good of it. The reason people were so passionate was because there was a draft then… People didn’t want to fight a war they didn’t believe in and so they rebelled against it. I sympathized with that at the time, but I didn’t get involved.”

Although Redford ultimately welcomed the task of directing and simultaneously playing the leading role on screen, he did have his initial reservations–along with his own unique approach.

“I think you have to be schizophrenic in a controlled way,” he explains. “To act and direct is not something that I’m particularly drawn to. When I act, I like to be free to act and when I’m directing I like to be free to look at the situation in the way the conductor of an orchestra would. Instead of being a single instrument, you’re looking at how they all come together and create a story.”