The son of a folksinger and an actress, Tim Robbins grew up immersed in theater, music, and social activism, beginning his performance career when he was 12. Upon graduating from college, he co-founded the Los Angeles theater ensemble The Actors' Gang, and began appearing in films such as Bull Durham, Cadillac Man, and Spike Lee's Jungle Fever. Early starring roles included turns in Tapeheads and Jacob's Ladder, and in 1992, Robbins attracted new attention as the lead in two critically acclaimed films. The Player, a cynical take on Hollywood insider culture, was a long-awaited return to form for director Robert Altman, but it was almost trumped by the sharp political satire Bob Roberts.
Bob Roberts was Robbins' cinematic writing and directing debut, but he also starred in the film, playing a ruthless right-wing presidential candidate and down-home folksinger, and performing songs that he co-wrote with his brother David. After that breakthrough, Robbins' starring roles included The Shawshank Redemption, AntiTrust, The Hudsucker Proxy, Arlington Road, and, most recently, 2003's Mystic River, for which he won his first Academy Award. Robbins also wrote and directed 1995's controversial death-row drama Dead Man Walking (his longtime partner Susan Sarandon, with whom he has two children, took that year's Best Actress Oscar for her starring role) and 1999's Cradle Will Rock.
At the same time, Robbins has taken breaks from cinema to write and direct a series of stage plays with The Actors' Gang. The latest, Embedded, is a vicious send-up of the Bush Administration's post-Sept. 11 foreign policy. (The play is currently running in New York City, where its run has been extended through May 22.) Robbins and Sarandon have taken flak over the years for their outspoken activism, from their 1993 Oscar-presenter speech about Haitian political refugees with AIDS to their open protests against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Robbins about Embedded, the difference between film and theater work, the term "political," his punk-rock aesthetic, and why he bothers with an acting career at all.
The Onion: In a recent interview about Embedded, you said, "Satire should make you laugh, but it should also scare the hell out of you." How do you mean that?
Tim Robbins: Well, I'm drawing a distinction between satire and parody. The satire I'm referring to is—are you familiar with the early National Lampoon? That sensibility. It's satire with a razor's edge. It's dangerous. There's a tendency to think of satire as cute and clever. It's not as dangerous as it should be. I think the people you're satirizing should get pissed off.
O: The play has farcical and vaudeville elements as well as satire. Why use broad comedy in a dangerous issue play?
TR: Why not? We're not dealing with realism in those sections, where the actors are masked. You really can't be acting in a realistic format. It has to have a heightened realism, or hyper-realism. I think the best vaudeville, or clowning—in the European sense of the word, not in a Ringling Bros. sense—has to do with hyper-real behavior. The expression of emotions, if it's done subtly and in a realistic way—as the actors do in the scenes of the play that are more realistic—if you applied the same acting technique to the masked scenes, the masks wouldn't come alive. The masks demand more of a commitment to the emotions.
O: When you're directing for cinema, you don't get to do as much stylistic experimentation. Do you prefer theater?
TR: It's two entirely different disciplines, and I love both of them. I've been doing theater because for me, it's more immediate. If I have an idea, I can do it right away. With films, it's a process. I've done it three times, and I've loved doing it each time, but it's not like I'm yearning to do a fourth film. I've done the three I wanted to do in that period of time. If I'm going to direct a film, I gotta really, really, really want to do it, and I don't have that desire. But I still have that desire in theater. I still want to create stuff, but I don't necessarily want to do it in film right now. The great thing about theater, as you say, is it is a way to experiment with forms. In a way, to go back to school, a way to learn again about all these different complex realities and styles. A great way to work with friends, and to work in an environment that's simply about the joy and the experimentation of it, and the learning process. I feel incredibly lucky to have that kind of laboratory, because it allows me to go back to the basics of it and inform myself on different things.
O: What do you consider the purpose of The Actors' Gang?
TR: To entertain. That's always been the primary purpose. I mean, the way we want to entertain is different from the way other people want to entertain. We don't want to do it in a vacuum. Everything we've done has been done with the aim of doing it for an audience, finding a way to present material that we cared about in a way that was entertaining.
O: When you start a new project, do you ever question which medium would be best for that project? Do you begin with a concept and then decide it would work best on stage, or begin with the idea of writing a new play?
TR: Generally, it's all about the theater. There's never a process of "Let's do this for a while in the theater, and then we'll film it." That's never entered the picture. They're two entirely different animals.
O: In your personal experience, is there a bigger difference in going between stage acting and film acting, or between stage directing and film directing?
TR: It's similar, I guess. You get a chance to fail in theater, in the process of rehearsing. You have many, many days in rehearsal to fail. Whereas you have no time to fail in film. In other words, you can try something with a character, or with a scene you're directing, that's just some way-out idea, to try to capture the level of emotion, or the intricacies of character or plot or theme. And if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. You just drop it the next day and try something else. But on film, you have to make the decision that will work 30 years from now, when you're looking at the film again. That film is forever. So it's a much more tense discipline, and I think the better actors and directors are the ones with the courage to make the bolder choices in that moment, to risk failure. It's a lot scarier to risk failure in film, to go out on a limb. Because in theater, if you go out on a limb one night and it doesn't work, you can always go back to what you know works.
O: What about when you're writing? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the different ways audiences approach each medium?
TR: Yes. Yes. Yes. That'd be three yesses. [Laughs.] But I was just thinking, as I was answering that, that when I'm writing for the theater, I write more in a filmic way. Classic structure in the theater is two or three acts, with a couple of scenes in each, generally in the same place, with times of day moving forward. Longer scenes, fewer characters. I tend to write plays with 25 characters and 12 different locations. I also tend to write them with the idea that it's done in a way that is not dependent on realistic sets, that depends more on the imagination of the audience and the use of sound and music to fill in for the scenery that you don't have.
O: You've said in many interviews that you dislike the term "political." Is there a better term to describe your work?
TR: When someone says "You're doing a political movie," like about Dead Man Walking, I have a problem with that. Because I think that movie is about love and compassion. It's a story about two people growing to know each other, more than being about anything political. I just think the word "political" is used too broadly, and if you think about what politics is, and what politicians are, it really has nothing to do with humanitarian things, or exploration of the human condition. I guess that's what I'm trying to do with my stuff—ask questions and explore different themes and ideas. I guess the question is, "Why isn't work that upholds the status quo considered political? Why isn't a play that talks about the dynamics of sexual relationships considered political?"
O: Do you find that criticism of films like Bob Roberts and Dead Man Walking—
TR: Now, Bob Roberts is a political movie, because it's about politics. I don't have a problem with calling it that. It's a satire about politics in America. It's just that the word "political," and the way it's used, is a way to marginalize a piece of work. When you think of a political film, you don't think of something that's funny or entertaining. You think of something that's pedantic and boring. At least, that's the way I think of it.
O: So, did you never intend for Dead Man Walking to inspire people to make political change? Do you think there's no message there that could carry over into politics?
TR: I think there's a message that can carry over into compassion in the human heart. I think that if you're talking about things that change someone's spirit, or their heart, or the way they view something, that's what a good movie should do. I don't think that makes it political.
O: But your films could be read to say that human feeling belongs in a political arena, as well. It often seems like you're suggesting that compassion isn't just the realm of the individual, that it also needs to extend into a policy sphere.
TR: Well, I like that. [Laughs.] I guess it's just semantics, then. For me, my experience with that word is that it's thrown out to marginalize. If what we're trying to do is create stories about the human condition, if that's our job, then I just don't see the value in trying to marginalize that by saying it's political. For me, when you're a political person, you're a person who does things for calculated reasons. "Political expediency." "Political maneuvering." They all have to do with behaving a certain way so that you get a certain result. And I don't think that's what I'm doing. I think what I'm trying to do is raise honest questions about the human condition.
O: Do you find that viewers tend to ignore the aesthetic issues of your films in order to criticize your perceived agendas?
TR: Well, when you're talking about critics, you're talking about a pretty wide range of people. Film critics, I think, are much more adventurous than theater critics, in terms of the experimentation they'll allow. I think that's why we have a strong independent—we could get into a squabble about what "independent" means—but at least thematically, in films, you're seeing a good range of content. Theater critics… With some of them, I just don't think they read newspapers in general, or are aware of what's going on. We had a critic, one of the major critics on Embedded, who thought I made up the Office Of Special Plans. And that was for The New York Times. Now, everyone has a right to whatever opinions they've got, but I've never really followed what critics say. I've gotten the same kinds of reviews for 23 years now, the same kinds of words coming into these reviews. "Preaching to the choir" is a good one. See, I don't know who the hell the choir is. Because I've had Republicans come up to me after Embedded, saying they loved the show, and that it's affected the way they think. And I've had people who would describe themselves as liberals say they think it's dangerous. So I don't know who the choir is. I view that as an impotent criticism. I've heard "pedantic"…
I think there's a reaction in some people who are used to a certain kind of theater, who have a certain amount of revulsion that I have a punk-rock kind of aesthetic working. I think it's great that they have that revulsion. I want them to. With any of the shows with The Actors' Gang, from the start, we've never been embraced wholeheartedly by the critical community. That's never been part of the equation. What's been the important thing is that we want to do plays that people want to see, that entertain people. We've stayed alive because of our connection to the audience, not to the critics.
O: But given your themes, you're obviously trying to communicate something as well as entertain the masses. Otherwise, you'd just be juggling things on fire.
TR: We've done that. [Laughs.] We're trying to raise some questions, we're trying to stir things up, we're trying to be a little rude with the standard order of things. But that's all entertainment for me. I think that's part of it. But I like going to punk-rock concerts. I don't like sitting… I grew up with "Kum Ba Ya," and I did not want to continue it. I grew up in the folksinging aesthetic, and then I hit college, and The Sex Pistols came out, and it was all over for me. That's where I saw the energy that I liked—the commitment, the passion, the being able to confront something in a passionate way, with belief. I love that, and I respond to it. I wanted to create something that had the same kind of energy, commitment, and social values as a Clash concert.
O: You've made more use of folksinging in your work than Sex Pistols music, though. Have you ever considered doing more with a musical career?
TR: You know, that's my Secret Santa. I guess that's what I want to… I have, actually, recently started a band with my brother. We've been doing kind of punk-rock versions of Bob Roberts songs. But I don't want to be… I'm trying to figure out how to do it without being another actor who's got a band. It's fun as hell, though. It's really fun.
O: You've said you'll never release a Bob Roberts soundtrack CD, because it would be too easy to take the protagonist's songs out of context and play them without irony. Is it different in concert?
TR: I think it is. Because if you do them loud enough and fast enough, you probably won't understand the words. [Laughs.]
O: A lot of people draw a fairly straight line between your parents' folksinging and activism, and your own activism. Do you see the two as directly related?
TR: Oh, yeah, I had a pretty rare and lucky childhood. I used to go out with my baseball glove and walk down MacDougal Street in the middle of the '60s. [MacDougal and Bleecker streets in Manhattan were famous as a countercultural center. —ed.] I mean, I didn't know any different at the time. I thought everybody lived that way. But it certainly informed a lot of my sensibility. I have nothing against folk music.
O: Was there ever a point in your life where you had to sit down and rethink your activism, and how it might affect your career and your life?
TR: No, the only time… I kind of dropped it for a while when I was in college. There was a period of time after Watergate, the Carter years, when all I cared about was getting laid and getting drunk. Didn't really feel much connection to the political environment. Then Ronald Reagan got elected, and everybody woke up.
O: As a writer and director, you have the opportunity to point people at issues and alert them to new viewpoints and ideas. But what about as an actor? What do you personally get out of acting in another director's film?
TR: Well, you learn something on every one of them. I hope I can work with the same efficiency that Clint Eastwood does, the next time I direct. That's something to aspire to. You learn great things from the Clint Eastwoods and the Robert Altmans, and those kinds of visionary people that you're lucky enough to work with sometimes. And then you learn what not to do, sometimes, from other directors. But the best thing about acting is this strange thing that happens. I don't know where I'm going to be in three months: Last year, I was in the middle of Shanghai, and then I went to the United Arab Emirates, and then India, and then London. And if I'd been told, two months before, that I would have been in those places, it would have been nuts. But that's the great thing. You're thrust into these environments, some of which you'd never go to on your own, and you all of a sudden are talking to people who you never thought you'd talk to. It just widens your experience, constantly. I think the quality you seek to have most as an actor is a lack of judgment of anybody, and the ability to open your heart and your mind to new experiences. And the fact that some of these movies take you into these places is just incredible for you personally, for your growth and expansion and experience and your mind.
But that also works in Mansfield, Ohio. I never thought I'd be in the middle of Ohio talking to prison guards, but that's where we did The Shawshank Redemption. You get an insight from these people that you never would have had. I personally wouldn't seek out asking a bunch of salt-of-the-earth Republican prison guards about the prison system, but I found myself asking them what they thought could reform the prison system, which they clearly thought was a mess. And what do you think their answer was? Legalize drugs. Republicans. Who'd been there. Who'd been in the experience and had seen 18-year-olds going into jail for possession, being put next to murderers. And seeing that there's a three-year waiting list for a rehab program, or a job-training program. And the kids are in there for two years, so it's crime school. You take an 18-year-old who's smoking pot, and you turn him into a hardened criminal. And they see the injustice and the insanity in that, and they're starting to advocate the legalization of drugs. Now, I never would have imagined that.
That's the thing that's unique about being an actor, is finding yourself with access to things you never thought you'd have access to. You start to understand that these divisions we throw off on ourselves, these prejudices we create, are just completely limiting, as far as your experience and your growth goes. And that goes both ways, for Democrats who demonize Republicans and Republicans who demonize Democrats. They're missing out on a lot in between. I've come to understand and know and love people who don't agree with me politically, because I know that there's more to a human being than just their opinions.
O: But you make it sound like a means to an end. Are there rewards inherent to the process of acting itself?
TR: It's the ability to work with incredible people, and to learn about the human experience, about who people are. And again, it's connected. If you can learn not to judge people—by going and meeting them, being in situations you never thought you'd be in—it's only going to help your craft as an actor, your ability to take on a character who might not be like you at all. In order to be an actor, you have to be able to find the evil in the good guy, and the good in the bad guy. You have to be able to cross those barriers and see that people are more than just their surface. Sister Helen Prejean [author of Dead Man Walking] once said, "Every man is better than their worst day." Because she feels there are a whole bunch of people who are in jail because of their worst days. And that's a wonderful insight, I'd say. What separates the average person from a criminal is the luck to have not had a bad day.