These are just a few of the things 77-year-old Robert Redford endures in All is Lost, about a nameless man who becomes stranded in the Indian ocean while sailing solo in his yacht: Hang off the side of the yacht to repair a gash in its hull; climb to the top of the yacht's mast to repair the radio; get pummeled by crashing waves in a storm; tumble inside the yacht as it flips upside down; and get tossed overboard into the roiling water.
For the most part, it really is Redford doing all of those stunts. And to repeat, the man is 77 years old.
To be fair, when writer-director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) first approached Redford to play the nearly wordless role, their initial understanding was that the Hollywood legend wouldn't have to do almost any stunts at all. "I said to [Chandor] when I read it, because of my age and everything, I've always been physical in sports and I've always wanted to do my own stunts, but at a certain point, you have to accept reality," Redford said with a laugh. "He said, 'Look, you know, we'll just sort of use you for close-ups, and we had doubles who can do some of this stuff.'"
Chandor saw things a bit more starkly: "Speaking as a director, it is catastrophic to injure an actor or crew member, but if you injure Robert Redford, you're really in trouble!"
But once Redford arrived on set in Mexico, where Chandor had spent months designing a specially rigged yacht in the giant water tank set first used for Titanic, all that caution got thrown to the wind. "Of course what kicked in was ego," said Redford with a smile. "It was also a professional attitude about your craft. I've always felt as an actor, you owe everything you can give of yourself. It always used to bother me when you see close-ups of somebody, and then you realize as soon as they started to move around, somebody else would [be there]. I felt that as an actor, you have to be there completely."
So when it came time to roll camera on his first stunt, Redford turned to Chandor and said, "Let me try this." And that was all the encouragement Chandor needed. "Once that happened," said Redford, while Chandor laughed next to him, "being the kind crazed person he is, JC started rubbing his hands saying, 'OK, I think I'll push him a little bit.'"
In truth, they say they both pushed each other, to see how many stunts Redford could safely pull off himself. "It was scary for both of us," said Chandor. "There's no one else to shoot. So if he skinned his knee, it's a problem, because you lose a day. So it was intense."
Both men think what made it possible for Redford to take on so many stunts was the fact that Redford's character is portrayed as just a man, and his feats are not the stuff of today's Hollywood action heroics. "I never wanted any of the one acts that he does to feel superhuman," said Chandor. He cited Redford's very first stunt, where he makes a small hop from his ship onto the giant floating metal container that has poked a sizable gash in his hull. In a standard Hollywood thriller, the sequence would have been a high stakes moment packed with tension, with Redford barely reaching the edge of the container in time. "We were like, 'You know what, it's scary enough, just jumping down, getting on this thing,'" said Chandor. "Each one of these events is going to feel heightened in its own way. The neat thing is [Redford's] just below superhuman at his age right now, so he's able to carry off almost everything we planned for him."
The film's stunt coordinator, Mark Norby, would walk Redford and Chandor through the logistics of how each stunt would work, and on occasion step into the stunt if it was deemed too difficult for Redford. But that rarely happened. What was more likely was Redford trying to make the stunt even more challenging, like the time at the end of one take Redford jumped off the yacht and into the water. "He was not supposed to actually jump at the end," said Chandor. "So from that point forward, I would tell him, 'There's not even a camera filming this last little bit, so if you do it, it's for your own enjoyment.'"
All is Lost opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, Oct. 18.