SAN FRANCISCO Actor and political activist Robert Redford learned a lifelong lesson when he was a teenager.
"At 18, I went to the University of Colorado. I was asked to leave after a year. I went to Europe to study art," Redford says during an interview at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. "I was living a very Bohemian life with a lot of other students. They would talk about politics all the time.
And I had nothing to say. That's when I became determined to really read up about my country so I would have an answer for their questions."
After a few years abroad, he returned to the United States a "pessimistic optimist." He knew that while the country faced major problems, there was potential for change. It just meant getting involved.
That's why Redford balanced his pursuit of an acting career, spawned by the art he studied overseas and fueled by the set design work he began doing when he returned to the United States, with an interest in history, current events and politics. He was determined to live a life of learning and being proactive when it came to politics.
That has continued for the past 50 years. Redford has fought for social causes, such as the environment and American Indian rights. He founded the Sundance Institute and Film Festival, which helps small, independent filmmakers and has become a powerhouse in getting films noticed.
In acting, his movies such as "All the President's Men," "The Candidate" and "Three Days of the Condor" were driven by strong political messages.
Now, he's on the road to talk about his new film, "Lions for Lambs," which represents Redford's passion for politics. He directed the movie and co-stars with Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep. The film looks at America's current war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But instead of focusing on the gunbattles and big special effects, the movie is about today's politics and how they mirror the past. It has lots of dialogue. Cruise plays a Republican senator, Streep a cable-news reporter and Redford a college professor.
"Lions for Lambs" reflects Redford's belief that the American people are being failed by the educational system and that politicians and media more interested in small matters, such as a celebrity's rehabilitation stay, than in bigger, important matters, such as the war.
The film deals with the current conflict, but Redford doesn't want "Lions for Lambs" to be lumped in with other recent productions about the war, such as "Rendition," "Kingdom" or "Home of the Brave."
"First of all, if it had just been about the Iraq war, I wouldn't have been as interested in it as other projects I am developing. I knew there would be a lot of films and documentaries about the Iraq war. That is a subject that is well-covered," Redford says. "It is far more interesting for me to do a film that involves education, the media, and politics and the military by having these individual stories."
Redford pauses for a moment, sits back in his chair and rubs his hand across the face that made him a marquee giant for so many decades. His face shows every detail of his 71 years of life. But his powder-blue eyes have as much sparkle as the first time filmgoers saw him on the big screen in the 1965 film "Inside Daisy Clover."
What caught Redford's eye was that "Lions for Lambs" puts education, politics and the media under a blinding light. The idea of the film is to dig into these issues to find why such conditions continue to emerge at different times in history.
"If you think about certain events in my lifetime McCarthy, Watergate, Iran-Contra, this war if you look underneath it, it is always the same sensibility that creates these conditions. Look at Nixon and his henchmen and what they did in Cambodia. Look at these guys and their henchmen; it is the same," Redford says.
Redford has some personal experience with President Nixon, who almost single-handedly stalled Redford's interest in politics before it started. In 1950, Nixon was running for the U.S. Senate in California, which he won that year, and was at a Boys' Week event being held in Southern California. Redford, who is a Santa Monica native, was there to receive a sports award. Nixon gave him the award.
"He shook my hand," Redford says. He rubs his hand across the sleeve of his blue shirt as if still trying to wipe away remnants of that meeting. "I was 13 and couldn't care less about politics. It was boring. I was into sports. But he (Nixon) was the creepiest, most artificial guy I had ever met. That stuck in my head."
Redford is certain he'll be hammered by some people in politics and the media because of "Lions for Lambs." He has heard that a conversation on Fox News Channel had led to the question "What's the problem with Redford?"
"My problem is that I love this country. I wanted to make this film because I am in mourning for my country. The film is about frustration. It's about sadness. It is about what we have lost that we didn't have to lose because we let this happen."
"I accept the fact that there will be some controversy. The sad thing is that some of the controversy will be biased because our country is so polarized right now, it is horrible. Therefore, there will be those people out there who mischaracterize the film. If you miss the point, it would be easy to say this is a left-wing story."
But the actor isn't complaining. He long ago accepted the fact that he's not going to please everyone.
Redford only wants to make people think.
"How long can we sit with things going downhill because they are being masterminded by people with the same attitude we have seen before? People will say there is a similarity between what is going on and the Vietnam War. Well, yeah. Why? Look at Nixon. Look at Bush," Redford says.
Despite the frustration that travels through Redford's voice in waves, there is still a part of him that remains optimistic. He talks about how all that it would take is a little more education.
"If people with broader education went into politics, we wouldn't have these kind of characters. If young people were more educated about our political system, they would demand certain things they are not demanding now. So, where is the seed that will change this? I think it is education," Redford says.
It was that optimism that caused Redford to agree to direct "Lions for Lambs." He has directed only six other films since his directorial debut, the 1980 movie "Ordinary People."
Asked to speak as Robert Redford the actor, talking about Robert Redford the director, he says: "He is hard to please but easy to work for. I give actors leeway. I have strong feelings about what should come out of their performance but not by telling them to raise their eyebrows here or there. I give them a guide and edge them this way or that way."
And with "Lions for Lambs," Redford wants to edge the American people to move this way or that way when it comes to politics.