In THE CONSPIRATOR, director ROBERT REDFORD tells the little known story of MARY SURRATT, the only woman charged as a co-conspirator in the Abraham Lincoln assassination. The icon is aware you likely have no idea who MARY SURRATT is, despite her connection to the most notorious murder in American history.

POPEATER spoke at length with ROBERT REDFORD about his motivation for telling this gripping story – and we coax out other anecdotes, like his fanciful experience on a quiz show in 1960, the recipe for his expulsion from college and what it was like to be a environmentalist when no one else gave a god damn. And because he’s ROBERT REDFORD, the man got deep, revealing despite all the riches he’s earned, he still finds himself in dark places.

NICKI GOSTIN: I have to admit I’m a bit embarrassed to say I’d never heard of MARY SURRATT.

ROBERT REDFORD: Don’t feel exclusive. Nobody else has either. That’s why I decided to make the film. I never knew about it until I read the script and that’s what intrigued me – because when I first got it, I mistakenly thought it was going to be about Lincoln. And I thought: well, that probably is not going to interest me because that’s territory well travelled by books and documentaries. Of all the characters in American history no one has survived with as much attention as Lincoln.

But when I read the script I realized Lincoln was the frame, the assassination was the frame for the story that no one knew about and that’s what intrigued me. A story tied to that assassination that no one knows about and as I dug into it and went into the archives and got more and more into the story behind it, that led me to feeling like this is a story I wanted to tell. It’s a story beneath a story that everybody knows.

It’s a story about a trial and a woman that few people know about and inside of that which is where the creative work is done and the relationship between the lawyer and MARY SURRATT – and to me that’s where the emotions lie and that’s where I went to develop that aspect of it because I thought the arc of their characters had such a reach to it.

NG: Do you see the relevance of the story today?

RR: First of all, the parallels that exist there are not for me to even talk about because they sit there provided by history. They’re there for the filmgoers to find and they’re pretty obvious. I don’t feel comfortable talking about them because otherwise it looks like I may be into a propaganda position I’m not really in. The parallels are given to us by historical fact now with today’s headlines – with Eric Holder announcing he’s been pressured to have the 9/11 trials moved to a military tribunal. Well, it’s almost speaking right to the film. I think that’s for others to find. It’s there obviously.

NG: It’s still not clear if MARY SURRATT was innocent or guilty. Do you have an opinion?

RR: No, I don’t and that’s what I love about it. I probably would have been bothered had there been conclusive evidence one way or another. One of the appealing things was the ambiguity to her innocence or guilt. Because they never knew if she was guilty or not it was a double tragedy because she was put to death. Not only was it a trial that violated the constitution which was very young at that time, but it was one of the first violations of our constitution which has now seen many, many others come following that. There’s always someone trying to mess around with our constitution. But the fact that they could never prove she was guilty I thought added an extra piece of ambiguity that made it intriguing.

NG: It’s a period piece. Those costumes look like they were pretty itchy.

RR: The bigger problem was the heat. We were filming in October but Savannah is warm up until close to Christmas. The room was very small and there was also smoke to get that feeling of the day when everyone was smoking cigars or pipes.

NG: So it was like a bad nightclub from 1865.

RR: Exactly!

NG: I have to tell you QUIZ SHOW is one of my favourite movies. I love all the different layers to it.

RR: Thank you so much. Because it was a very special movie for me to make because I was actually in a quiz show. When I was a young actor in New York I was desperate. I had a wife who was pregnant about to deliver a child, we had no money, no resources and a teacher said, “Hey, they’re casting down at a quiz show. They’re looking for people,” so I ran down because I was told you’d get $75 if you got selected. I got selected. It was a show called PLAY YOUR HUNCH with Merv Griffin as the host.

NG: Did you win?

RR: No! I wasn’t a contestant. I was a subject. It was the most mortifying thing. This guy picked me and I said, “Am I going to be on the show?’ And he said, “Yeah,” and I said, “Oh my God. I’m going to be on TV.” The next thing I know there are three screens and the contestants were two couples and they were arguing. They had to argue about those three screens that were silhouetted and in front of the screens stood a man and behind one of the screens was the guy’s twin brother. They had to guess which one of the three was the twin brother. When my screen went up everybody booed. I thought: “What an entry into show business!”

Anyway…the issue for me was that back then the American belief system was still enough intact where you could not conceive that they would rip off the entire country. Then there was the whole issue that had never been touched, where I knew I was going to be in trouble, talking about anti Semitism within the Jewish community. That had never been touched on and I was going to get clobbered on it – who the hell is he to be doing that? – but I just saw it, just experienced my whole career life.

NG: Having said that, you know for Jewish girls you are a god because of THE WAY WE WERE.

RR: (Laughs) No, I swear to God I don’t.

NG: You’ve got honorary membership.

RR: Well I consider that a pretty good club to belong to.

NG: You were a big environmentalist way back in the early 70s. Were you considered a kook?

RR: Yes I was. You know there was a derogatory categorization of anyone interested in the environment and preservation and nature. I was considered a tree hugger, granola cruncher, all these derogatory terms where for me it was about if we didn’t start preserving something, are we going to survive? Because if we develop everything you have no life. So I focused on that and I got very committed. But I received a lot of grief over those years because there was no real community of support for environmental preservation and now there is. But there’s still the forces against it which you can now see.

NG: You’ve been in a zillion movies. What’s your favourite?

RR: I don’t have a favourite. I’m not saying that just to be political. The most fun I’ve ever had was on BUTCH CASSIDY. But in terms of making a story about something which I thought should be made: ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN or THE CANDIDATE, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR or QUIZ SHOW.

One of the things I remember as a young man in New York, the academic world was still considered a very high calling and order – and you would see very frequently pictures on magazine covers of academic figures and entertainment was considered at the back end of it. It was back there with sports, cartoons and obituaries in newspapers. Slowly entertainment moved up to the front and the more substantial stuff got pushed away.

I felt like in that moment in history the quiz shows and the scandal that came, at that moment entertainment got exposed. But academia got exposed – the corruption. The sad thing is it didn’t hurt entertainment. It hurt academia.

NG: Well I find it sad that SARAH PALIN insinuates that higher education is elitist. I can’t work that one out.

RR: Well, I can because the country is made up of three categories: traditionalists, cultural creative people and the moderns. The moderns are the hi tech Silicon Valley people. The traditionalists on the lower end of it are the people who don’t want change. They’re afraid of change therefore they have anger. The fear card is a very big powerful card and when you have people afraid of change they’ll do anything to prevent it. They’re doing it because they’re limited, frightened of people who are not as limited. I think with SARAH PALIN, part of her strength is how limited she is.

NG: What would we be surprised to know about you?

RR: I think a lot of things. Like I live in doubt, great doubt about everything. I come from a very dark family, Irish immigrant family, quite poetic of mind but dark in outlook because they suffered so much in the past. My family says if something good happens there must be something wrong with it. There’s that, there’s the doubt that every artist has.

NG: Are you a worrier?

RR: Yeah, I worry about things I don’t need to worry about which is a waste of time. I’m very critical. I’m way too critical. That makes life hard and then there’s just I think the idea that whatever you’re doing is never quite as good as you want it to be and you have to live with that. I’m hardly someone who looks like he rode in on a golden horse.

NG: But you do look like that!

RR: I know! That’s the problem. I keep hearing, “Oh, everything’s so easy for you,” and that’s not the case.

NG: You were naughty. You got kicked out of college for drinking.

RR: That was just one of the few naughty things. There were many other naughty things. I came from a very lower working class background in Los Angeles and the thing that got me out of trouble was being an athlete and then being an artist that saved me, I think. I went to Europe to study art. I found myself by being in different countries. Seeing my country from another point of view. I had a full view of my country that I think may have darkened things a bit so that eventually when I was able to make films, I wanted to tell stories about my country that were underneath the stories that you thought you knew.

Like THE CONSPIRATOR is underneath a story that you’re aware of.

But yes. I went through the normal process of being bad and of course it was great fun a lot of the time.


  1. The traditionalists on the lower end of it are the people who don’t want change. They’re afraid of change therefore they have anger. The fear card is a very big powerful card and when you have people afraid of change they’ll do anything to prevent it.

    classic. 🙂

  2. It appears that you have a distinct appreciation for Mr. Redford’s quote, glim.

    So do I. Absolutely and completely.

    Oh hell yeah…

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