Hollywood icon Robert Redford sits down with author Jay McInerney to discuss Lincoln, Sundance, Washington—and the Cubs.

When I met Robert Redford in a photo studio in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, he was bathed in sunlight from a big south-facing window. Redford has long been the golden boy of American cinema, and since 1980’s Oscar-winning Ordinary People, he’s carved out a second career as a director (not to mention a third as the founder of the Sundance Film Festival, and a fourth as an environmentalist).

His latest effort, The Conspirator, focuses on the trial of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators following the Lincoln assassination: It tells the story of Union war hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), who becomes the reluctant defense lawyer for Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the mother of one of the conspirators and herself one of the accused.

How did you find this movie?
ROBERT REDFORD: Joe Ricketts [who founded The American Film Company, which produced The Conspirator] decided he’d like to make movies about American history. This was his first one. The script, by James D. Solomon, had been around for 18 years. When I first got it, I thought, Lincoln, that territory’s been well covered. But then I read it and I realized it’s a story no one knows about—the story of Mary Surratt and Booth’s co-conspirators. What appealed to me was that this was the story that had not been told, hidden in an event that everybody knows. Lincoln’s assassination by Booth and so forth, the world knows about that, but not about the conspirators because [Edwin] Stanton, the secretary of war, had succeeded with what he had set out to do: bury them right away.

 
>>Timeline: Redford's Roles  

So you didn’t know the story of the conspirators?
RR: No. But to me, the core of the whole piece was the relationship between Mary Surratt and Frederick Aiken. I thought it had the ingredients, the character arcs that are always appealing. So like in All the President’s Men, rather than focusing on the general picture, Nixon—what was it about these two guys? Tell their story against the backdrop of the Watergate story everyone knew; the chemistry, the emotional part came from their differences. One guy was a Jew; the other guy was a WASP. One guy was a liberal; the other guy was a Republican. One guy was considered a good writer, and the other guy was considered not so good. They didn’t like each other, but they had to work together. And I said, chemically, I like the outcome of that. So this story had the same thing: Aiken’s a war hero, reluctant to defend Mary Surratt, and she’s a Southerner and a Catholic who knows the deck is stacked against her. Their relationship against this backdrop of what was going on in the country, with America so shaky—anything could happen. With Lincoln assassinated, the South was revitalized, and Stanton knew that and shut the whole thing down.

Like what you're reading? Get it delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up now for our newsletters >>