ORLANDO, Fla. -- It's no secret that actors lie -- or at least stretch the truth -- to get a role. Even Robert Redford.
"He kept talking about his ‘boating experience,' admitting it might take him a while to get his ‘sea legs' back," remembers director J.C. Chandor, who needed an actor of a certain vintage for his survival at sea saga, "All Is Lost."
"Turns out, he was talking about the few times he's been motor-boating in Lake Powell (Arizona). In the desert!"
And that wasn't all. Chandor ("Margin Call") needed this older actor to be someone who could hoist himself, by bosun's chair, up the mast of his stricken sailboat.
"He didn't tell me he was afraid of heights," Chandor says, laughing. "He looks fearless. Swashbuckling. And it was all just ACTING."
Redford, 77, chuckles himself, remembering that perilous bit of business. Yeah, that was him up there. Once you've signed on, you do the job.
"You figure out just how scary that was when they have you up there, hanging off the top of the mast" of a 39-foot sloop," Redford says. "But you go up there because you have to. Something's broken. And once you're there, you worry, ‘Is my weight going to play a role in which way the boat (heels)? Is the boat going over with me on it?' "
Mentioning to Redford that there's a less-scary / less dangling way of climbing a 50-foot mast on a swaying sailboat -- the Mast Mate, a ladder you hoist and then climb with safety gear -- just annoys him.
"Wait. There is? Does J.C. know about that?"
Maybe. Maybe not. But Redford knew, from seeing Chandor's Oscar-nominated Wall Street drama "Margin Call" at Redford's Sundance Film Festival, that he wanted to work with the 39-year-old director. Bluffing his way into the role, Redford figured he'd trust Chandor on all the sailing stuff. It turns out Chandor has a little blue water (ocean) sailing experience -- a voyage from the Caribbean to Bermuda. And he'd taught sailing at summer camps.
"I knew enough to make this movie authentic," Chandor says. "And I knew I Redford would be perfect" playing an older man, in over his head when his boat collides with something in the Indian Ocean.
"All Is Lost" would be an acting exercise, a story told with virtually no dialogue. Chandor was relying on "Redford's relationship with the audience," going back over 50 years, to create empathy. And Redford would have to summon up memories of his first acting classes to pull this character off.
"How could a person who did a piece that was so ‘talky' ("Margin Call") be going in this direction, where there was no talking?" Redford says. "I was intrigued by the challenge he was setting up for himself. And I was attracted to a work that gave me a chance to go back to my roots. That kind of clean, clear, improvised performance -- almost like mime, in a way -- in an existential setting (the sea) -- pulled me. And once I figured out J.C. wasn't crazy, I was in."
Moment of truth
Chandor recalled the silences and the roar of an angry sea from his Bermuda voyage, and the loneliness of the solo sailor. He used that setting to explore an old man's moment of truth: to surrender to death or to persevere.
The unnamed sailor "has to improvise his way through this accident," Redford says. "He's not a super sailor. He's got his limits in skills, physical abilities."
Redford in that "existential setting" gives the film its emotional heft. Though Redford is loath to talk about it, he was making a movie that invites viewers, and the actor starring in it, to contemplate their own mortality.
"It's not his style to talk about it, but by the third act of the film, late in the shoot, we both realized that's what he was playing," Chandor says. "The realization of your own mortality is a tough thing to face and fascinating to see him go through here."
The actor pondered his own limits as he played a man facing his. "At what point, when all seems lost, do you give up? And what makes some people keep going while others just quit? Do we keep going just because that's all there is to do?" Those themes and that performance are earning "All Is Lost" the best reviews of Redford's long and storied resume, with Time magazine calling it "the capstone on Redford's career" and New York magazine praising the "actor in his element" who "anchors your gaze -- and gives the performance of his life."
More to come
Not that Redford is calling "All Is Lost" his coda, his curtain call. He's directing and co-starring in the older men hiking the Appalachian Trail comedy "A Walk in the Woods" next spring. Chandor also has his next film lined up. But the director will treasure the memory of "All Is Lost," of working with a legend, the Sundance Kid, on an acclaimed film late in an epic career.
"He gives this look, as he's falling about, putting on his foul weather gear, and that look IS the movie, for me," Chandor says. "His face says he realizes, ‘Whoa, I'm way behind this crisis,' maybe for the first time in his life. That's the movie for me, and that scene is why he's perfect in it." Even if he had to trick his director to land the part.