Tanned, trim, with a full head of hair and movie star face that’s craggier but still impossibly handsome, Robert Redford takes the label of a senior citizen and smashes it with his cowboy boot. It’s hard to believe the actor is 79, but he does have TV credits dating back to 1960.

Since becoming a box office draw in classics like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, The Way Were Were, Out of Africa, The Natural, All the President’s Men, Quiz Show and Ordinary People, which earned him the Best Director Oscar some 35 years ago, Redford took a grueling solo turn as a marooned sailor in All is Lost in 2013. He continues to challenge himself in his lighter—but no less physically demanding latest effort—buddy comedy opening this week, A Walk in the Woods, directed by Ken Kwapis and co-starring Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Nick Offerman and Kristen Schaal.

It’s based on Bill Bryson’s memoir about hiking the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail with his former carousing partner Stephen Katz, a burnt-out recovering alcoholic with a bum leg. Redford, who also serves as a producer, originally optioned the book intending to make the movie with Paul Newman, but his friend’s declining health and eventual death put an end to that dream. When he directed Nick Nolte in 2012’s The Company You Keep, however, he found a new partner in climb. At a press event in Los Angeles, Redford explained his love of exploring friendship, mortality, personal challenge, connecting with nature and roads not taken in a comedic context.

“We weren’t on the whole trail. We were on parts of the trail. But we felt like we did hike the two-thousand miles because there would be a take where Nick and I would go uphill, and they’d say, ‘Okay, cut. Let’s do it again.’”

What drew you to this story?
I was attracted to the project back in 2004. It just had a lot of elements that I thought would be wonderful for a film in terms of the story; it was a great story with great characters. There was emotion involved, and it also dealt with the environment and nature. It’s about friendship—that’s another subject I thought was always good to work with. So that was what drew me to it. Then the idea of working with Nick felt very compatible. When I asked Bryson about Katz, he said, “He was very smart, very daring, but he had an addictive personality.” So I thought, “Nick will be great.”

The book came out in 1998. What took so long to make the movie?
It’s the nature of our business. Since studios don’t do the many films they used to, they don’t have a stable of directors, actors, scripts and so forth. Therefore, the business depends on a couple of things. The people that are financing it have to have certain guarantees [of] foreign sales. Foreign sales demand stars. I think that puts an unfair stress on a project. So a lot of projects don’t get made. I think that’s why a lot of independent films are getting made, because they’re free of that pressure.

A major theme in the movie is life doesn’t have to stop when you reach retirement age.
Yeah. I think Bryson was afraid of that, and he wanted to do something that would shake things up but he didn’t quite know what it was going to be. It had to be something that he had not done before that would put him to the test rather than him writing about people that were doing it, and he came up with this idea. He hit a certain point in his life and he said, “I just have to do this thing.  I don’t know why, I can’t explain it, please don’t ask me, but I just have to do it.”

So he embarks on it not having a clue how it’s going to go with a friend who he hasn’t seen for thirty years—they used to be very close and they had a falling out—to be his partner on the trail. One of the things that appealed to me is that they were both kind of wild in college. They were both smart, and they loved to scam. They loved to play the game, and they went out of bounds, very often did illegal things, and had a lot of fun. Bryson gets his act together. Katz stays pretty much who he is, wanting to be independent of any formula or any rules. Finally he has to come back to Des Moines because he runs out of money, and they come back together again later in life. I thought that was a pretty good story.

How much of the Appalachian Trail did you actually walk?
We weren’t on the whole trail. We were on parts of the trail. But we felt like we did hike the two-thousand miles because there would be a take where Nick and I would go uphill, and they’d say, “Okay, cut. Let’s do it again.” And we’d do it again and again and again. And you’d do that all through the film.

Nevertheless, the scenery is spectacular. As an environmentalist, was that element important to you?
That was an intention, showing nature in its pure form—also showing where nature is being desecrated would make some point.

It’s also really funny.
I hoped it would be, but also it has pathos to it.

What’s next for you?
A whole bunch of stuff: a film coming out in October called Truth about Dan Rather and I start filming a movie with Jane Fonda, a late in life love story.

Photo credit: Broad Green Pictures