Actor finds authentic swing in 'Vance'

Robert Redford sits in a New York penthouse, looking out on a landscape of skyscrapers. "If I seem casual," he says with a smile, "it's all a lie."

Mr. Redford was in Manhattan recently for the opening of "The Legend of Bagger Vance" (see review, page 15), which he directed and his Wildwood Enterprises produced. It opens nationwide in theaters today. Later this evening, Redford will fly to Europe to work on a film with Brad Pitt. The working title is "Secret Agent." Redford stars as a CIA agent who is planning to retire, and Pitt is his new recruit.

He smiled as he said the young actor's name, for it was Redford who gave Pitt his initial star-making role in "A River Runs Through It" in 1992. It's the first time they have worked together as costars.

"We're filming in all the hot spots of the Middle East, plus Hungary and London," says Redford.

Just then, room service delivered a plate of freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, which he ordered earlier and generously shared with this reporter.

Munching away, Redford then started talking about "The Legend of Bagger Vance."

"The filming was a killer," he says. "Shot in South Carolina and the Georgia coast, we were almost knocked out by two hurricanes, which could have ended the movie."

The cast - headed by Matt Damon, Will Smith, Charlize Theron, and Jack Lemmon - "will tell you it was a ball," says Redford. But he admits, "that's because we made it fun with each other."

What attracted Redford to the Steven Pressfield novel was the phrase "an authentic swing." It tells the story of a man who had everything - fame, love, and friends. Everything changed after he was on the battlefield in World War I. He had lost his will, metaphorically "his authentic swing," not only on the golf course but in life. Smith, who plays his caddy, is a spiritual guide, who shows him that the redemption of a man's soul is more important than a golf game.

Redford knew Damon had never played golf; that Smith had never played a role with such spiritual strength; and that 12-year-old J. Michael Moncrief had never acted in his life.

"Once the hurricanes subsided, those minuses turned into pluses," he adds. "J. Michael Moncrief [who plays Mr. Lemmon as a boy, and has more screen footage than the Oscar winner] was the best thing that could have happened. He's from a small farm in Georgia, population under 200 ... his major excitement [was] going to the Dairy Queen. He was a natural and a joy to teach."

Part of the plot concerns Damon's character playing a charity match with golf stars Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. The actors who play those roles (Joel Gretsch and Bruce McGill) are excellent golfers.

PGA master professional Tim Moss served as a technical adviser and had to make Damon (who'd never swung a golf club) look like a pro. Since the match takes place in 1930, they played with hickory shafts and persimmon woods, and wore vests, ties, and tweed knickers. Mr. Moss was thrilled at the challenge of teaching Damon because "Matt had no bad habits to unlearn."

A star like Smith has a certain persona with the public - he's funny, he's a music-recording artist, and he has a bit of irreverence in his nature. Could he dig deep enough to change that public image?

"When I talked with Redford," Smith confided earlier, "All I could say, was 'Yes! Let's do it!' "

As our talk continued, Redford became more relaxed. Munching on the last cookie, he mumbles, "Wouldn't a hot fudge sundae taste good?" Such thoughts seemed to trigger childhood memories, especially when the Areo Theater in Santa Monica, Calif., was mentioned. Redford grew up poor in Santa Monica, where his dad was a milkman.

"We lived in a small house in what today would be called an ethnic neighborhood. It was during World War II, and no one thought about race or differences. We were all united to win the war.

"On Saturdays, we walked to the neighborhood Areo Theater on Montana Ave. It was built for the employees of McDonald Douglas Airplane Company. It was here I saw my first movie, 'The Fallen Sparrow' [in 1943], at age 3. We saw a newsreel, cartoon, and two movies. It was a whole menu of film. You walked there, and felt it was your neighborhood, your theater, and you kind of owned it."

Today, Redford does own it. "When I heard the Banana Republic or one of those retail stores was going to demolish the whole block, I asked 'for what?' They aren't adding anything new, you can go to a mall a few blocks away. We bought the property.

"It's part of an overall master plan for the Sundance Institute [which he started in 1980] and its contribution to independent film and new filmmakers. "We're starting out to save old theaters from the wrecker's ball," he says. "We want to set a frame for young artists, then give them the canvas [space] to try out ideas of their own."

His two production companies, Wildwood and South Fork, and the Sundance Institute have a similar goal - to let newcomers stretch their mental muscles in the field of the arts.

Who knows, they too may find their authentic swing - which Redford describes as inner peace.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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