Robert Redford will tell you it's all about story. Some stories start at the end.
It's the last of our three meetings and he says he's sick of talking about himself. We're in Colorado, where he is the guest of honor at the Telluride Film Festival. He looks gaunt, his blue eyes sunken far into his face, his world-famous hair askew.
"I've got bed head," Redford says with mild despair.
He is promoting 'All Is Lost,' in which he plays a sailor adrift alone in the Indian Ocean. He is nearly silent the entire film and his ravaged, desperate performance could earn him, remarkably, only his second Oscar nomination for acting in his 50-year career. (In 1981, he won for directing Ordinary People.)
Part of being the guest of honor is submitting yourself to an hour of your clips followed by a 45-minute interrogation in front of 600 people. Twice. Redford was charming the first night, watching earlier versions of himself with a grin and the occasional covering of the eyes, ducking out only during the three minutes of 'Out of Africa,' which he says is his most demanding film. The bummer was he had to do the whole thing again 14 hours later. It's now afternoon and he's exhausted, looking small and vulnerable as he falls into a lounge chair in the lobby of the Hotel Madeline.
"Is there really anything more for me to say?" says Redford with a sad smile as he shakes my hand.
We'd spent hours at his Sundance lair talking about his fleeing his hometown of L.A., his battles with Hollywood, and carving a better life in Utah. The conversation had been somber – a product of what Redford calls his dark Celtic roots, a clash with his cowboy-hero image. But now I wanted to know if there were some, you know, kick-ass moments from being the most desirable man of the second half of the 20th century.
"Oh, there were some fun times with my leading ladies," says Redford with a twinkle. He doesn't elaborate, but instead tells me about visiting Jimmy Carter in Plains, Georgia, during the 1976 presidential campaign and being disappointed when Lillian Carter, Jimmy's mom, remarked, "Mighty glad to have you here, but I'd much rather have Paul Newman."
Redford says it in a perfect Southern accent and then talks about lying on the family-room carpet with Billy Carter watching a tape of the Nixon–Kennedy debates in preparation for Jimmy's debates with Gerald Ford. (Carter woke him at 6 the next morning and asked him if he wanted Cheerios.) But he quickly slips over to the flip side of fame and relates skiing with his son Jamie and Vice President Walter Mondale and how oppressive it was with all the Secret Service.
Then Redford sees a familiar face. A man with long, streaked blond hair and a cowboy squint walks toward him with a roll-away bag.
"Am I interrupting?"
Redford flashes his famous smile at Brad Pitt. "Depends what you have in mind."
The only clip in the Telluride highlights from a film Redford directed was of Pitt being dragged downriver with a trout on the line in the Redford-directed 'A River Runs Through It.'
"I was just looking at you when you were younger, fresher, cleaner."
Pitt grimaces. "Younger, more respectable, and I smelled better."
They talk about the scene for a moment. Then a sweet thing happens. Both men get more than a little sentimental. Pitt clears his throat.