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Redford relishes 'Unfinished' role

Robert Redford
Robert Redford

Robert Redford has had to postpone his morning interview, and when he does check in with apologies, he reports the reason with some wariness.

"I had to do some business with corporate America," he says. "My least favorite thing."

Corporate politics have also affected Redford's new film, "An Unfinished Life." "An Unfinished Life," to Redford's "enormous frustration," has been on the shelf for more than two years while Miramax, the distributor, attempted to come to some sort of understanding or reconciliation with its corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co.

When it did, it designed an agreement that allowed Miramax to shepherd its remaining films to market, but as Redford observes, it's shepherding some films with more guidance than others.

"It could make me crazy if I let it," Redford says.

"An Unfinished Life" is easily Redford's best film since 1998's "The Horse Whisperer" and the first to see him truly accepting, if not altogether embracing, his 68 years. He plays an embittered Wyoming rancher who spends his days cutting brush and looking after his former horse wrangler and best friend, played by Morgan Freeman, now an invalid after being mauled by a bear.

But the rancher's life changes dramatically with the arrival of his dead son's former wife, Jennifer Lopez, and an 11 -year-old granddaughter he never knew he had. He had finally begun to live with his son's accidental death. But seeing Lopez, hiding out from an abusive boyfriend, and whom he blames for the tragedy, opens old wounds.

"God, it was great to play a guy like him, gone to seed, surly. I put on weight, didn't have to shave or get groomed every morning, didn't have to smile for the camera. Plus, I had never played that guy before, but I knew him intimately. You live in the West long enough, you meet those guys everywhere. Times have changed, and they don't like it a bit. Some go with the flow, some don't, and this guy doesn't."

"An Unfinished Life" was adapted from a novel by Mark Spragg and since, unlike most of his films in the past 25 years, it was not developed by Redford's Wildwood production company, he enjoyed the relative freedom of being an actor for hire.

"Oh, Lasse and I did a little bit of work on the script," he says of director Lasse Hallstrom, who specializes in novel-to-film adaptations like "The Cider House Rules" and "Chocolat ."

"Mostly, we're concerned about getting too sentimental. He's a Swede. He likes things more stoic. I just like things more expressed than talked about." Which means he's not that comfortable talking about the fate of "An Unfinished Life," the sort of serious-minded but morally redemptive film that generally resounds with Oscar voters. It is not a stretch to imagine Redford, Freeman — once again the voice of reason, but also funny as hell — and Hallstrom getting Oscar nominations if a serious campaign is mounted.

"It's really not about winning any awards for me, anyway, although I wouldn't mind seeing Morgan get some more recognition," Redford says. "Besides being a fine human being, he's one of the best actors there ever was, not because he can play God, but because he can play anything from the devil to God convincingly.

"I just want people to know the film is out there. It's awful to spend a lot of time doing something you know is worthwhile, and then see it sit around in limbo for a couple of years, and then sort of just get tossed out there in a marketplace where if you don't get a lot of attention the first weekend, it just disappears into the ether. This is a movie that might change a lot of perceptions about Jennifer, too, and the little girl who plays her daughter (Becca Gardner) is really terrific."

Redford has stayed busy; Wildwood is developing a movie about Jackie Robinson, in which he might play Branch Rickey, and he's considering directing his first film since 2000's "The Legend of Bagger Vance."

He was prepared to make a film of a book by Allan Tennant called "On the Wing," a nonfiction work about two men tracking the peregrine falcon through America.

But his attention has now turned to a script about some radicals who went underground in the 1970s. It will be filmed in upstate New York and in what Redford calls "the real ground zero of the antiwar movement," Ann Arbor.

"This is a story that was too hot to touch for a long time, but I think enough time is passed, and also that this is a story with a lot of relevance for right now, you know? So I wanted to get started. The time is right."