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The Last Word: Robert Redford on Activism, Fighting Climate Change, and the Importance of Truth

The acting legend talks founding Sundance, the moment he became an environmentalist, and what ‘All the President’s Men’ was really about

Robert Redford opens up about his personal heroes, life after filmmaking, and more in Rolling Stone's Last Word interview.

Illustration by Mark Summers for Rolling Stone

Long before it was fashionable to embrace environmental causes, Robert Redford was fighting the good fight, using his celebrity status to bring attention to causes ranging from keeping power plants out of Southeastern Utah to the use of “clean energy” to combat carbon pollution. He’s been on the board of the National Resources Defense Council for decades; helped facilitate a “greenhouse glasnost” by inviting the Soviet Academy of Sciences to an environmental summit at the Sundance Institute, the independent-filmmaking haven he established in 1981; and has lent his name (and money) to a wildlife preserve in Utah. And though the 84-year-old has technically retired from his day job, i.e. directing films and being one of the single most recognizable movie stars of the past 50 years, Redford is still active in overseeing aspects of the Redford Center, the organization he cofounded with his late son James Redford and is dedicated to, in his words, “using storytelling to help reimagine environmentalism and expand the idea of what it means to be an environmentalist.” He continues to beat the drum that “this is the only planet we’ve got. What could be more important than protecting it?”

For Rolling Stone‘s Climate Issue, we spoke to Redford about what initially drew him to a life as an environmental activist, why he’s hopeful for the future, his personal heroes, and the rules he continues to live his life by.

You’ve said that as a longtime environmental activist, you’ve become more radicalized over time. Was there a moment when you began to understand that what was happening to our planet was more serious than you’d realized?
I was attending a conference in Denver, in 1989, where there was a presentation by two scientists who explained Earth’s temperatures were rising — they called it global warming. They explained what would happen if we ignored this threat. That moment was my wake-up call. I knew they were speaking the truth. Because one thing we’ve learned is that time waits for no one. I realized that when there’s something you have to do, you better act, and act quickly.

Where does your connection to nature come from?
Well, I think it had to do with a trip that my mom took me on, many years ago. I was born and raised in L.A. — I was kind of rooted in that place. So my mom decided to take me on a cross-country trip, and she drove me to Yosemite National Park. We went through that long tunnel when you come out of Fresno, and when I came out of the other side, I was suddenly sitting on this precipice looking out on this valley. I thought, “God, this is amazing. I don’t want to be standing here looking at it; I want to be in it.” So I got a job at Yosemite National Lodge waiting on tables, and that’s what took me into the belly of the beast.

Having been someone who spoke up about environmental concerns very early on, how have you seen the movement change over the years?
People have become far more aware of the issues we face. Unfortunately, people who deny climate change also have stronger voices and are usually in positions of power. We’ve had to live with what’s happened over the last four years, where the attitude about the environment was so strictly negative. That caused so much damage — it’s like a road that needs repairing. We have to repair it quickly. Climate change is happening now, full time. No more denying.

Are you more or less optimistic now about our ability to fight these environmental disasters?
I’m more optimistic than ever. My optimism comes from seeing young people because they’re inspired, they’re engaged, and they’re passionate — they’re like a new group. They understand that the future is in their hands, and we’ve got to support them.

Do you think that Biden re-entering the U.S. into the Paris climate agreement is a step in the right direction?
I think Biden’s a bright guy, and I think he’s put together an incredible team, with [National Climate Adviser] Gina McCarthy and [Special Presidential Envoy for Climate] John Kerry. There’s more that needs to be done, certainly, but I feel like they’re the people to do it.

Since the early 1970s, you’ve made a number of films that have shed light on social issues — do you feel that there was window where it was possible to make movies that balanced entertainment with, say, concerns about the environment or calling our political system into question?
For a while, maybe. But that was a big reason why I started a film festival devoted to what would eventually be called “independent film.” And what took me in that direction had a lot to do with the fact that at that point, the industry was completely controlled by the mainstream. The mainstream was focused on profit and money.

I felt, OK, I’ve been a part of that … but I can see already, there are many, many voices out there that are not being heard, and they seem better suited to do this outside the system. I thought, “Well, that’s not getting much attention. I’ll shift my focus.” So that’s when I decided to create the Sundance Institute, and then the Sundance Festival — all those areas that were basically in support of the role of independent film. The problem with that was trying to take the profit and non-profit worlds and put them together. That created a tension that I had to kind of navigate myself through. And believe me, I’ve tried.

You’re more or less retired from acting and filmmaking — is there anything you miss about either being in front or behind the camera?
[Pause] No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I think that work now is in other hands, and I’m happier being in a supportive role.

You helped bring All the President’s Men to the screen as a producer, as well as starring in it. What do you think that film can tell us about what the nation went through over the past few years?
That history has a tendency to repeat itself. I was attracted to the story about two journalists who were searching for the truth. And that was the story I wanted to tell. It wasn’t about Watergate, really. It was about journalism and truth.

What are the most important personal rules that you live by?
Take a good long walk and a long sip of good tequila.

Who are your personal heroes and why?
[Marine biologist] Rachel Carson, because she was an early advocate for nature. Jacques Cousteau, who was one of the first to open up the world to life within the ocean. And finally, and I can’t emphasize this enough because we’re talking about who’s current, Bill Gates. I’m very, very encouraged by his commitment to finding solutions with the challenges we face. He’s committed his time and money — let’s not forget that — to this cause.

What advice do you wish you could pass on to your younger self?
“Why did you ever get into this?” [Laughs] To be serious about it, I’d probably say always look for the truth, even though truths can be elusive. I’m always inspired by the words of T.S. Eliot: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” So maybe, “Just follow your instincts and keep searching for the truth.”

Looking for the truth seems to be a constant thread through your career.
I think so. But you said that, I didn’t. [Laughs.]

From Rolling Stone US