Player power

Tim Robbins (Photo by Jeff Vespa)

By Nicholas Kralev
The Financial Times Magazine

April 27, 2002

NEW YORK — Tim Robbins seems a man of contrasts at first, but what appear to be conflicting sides of his personality actually complement each other in a character of the rarest type.

He has the ability to engage in the most profound conversation while provoking a genuine and contaminating laughter. On screen, he has been naively stupid (in “Bull Durham” and “The Hudsucker Proxy”) as well as shrewdly slick (in “The Player” and “The Shawshank Redemption”). And, of course, his dimpled babyish face tops a nearly 6’5” body.

So no wonder the actor-writer-director-producer Robbins is crusading against labels and stereotypes, the most common of which in his case have been “political” and “liberal”. He says he doesn’t “buy the liberal thing”, but appreciates progressivism and libertarianism. He also notes that he has a hard time distinguishing between Democrats and Republicans.

“The great illusion in America is that we have a choice, because if we don’t have that illusion, we don’t have a democracy,” he says. “If you don’t believe there is a difference between the parties, you are operating under the assumption that this is a democracy in failure. That’s unfortunately the assumption I have to operate under, because I see so many similarities between the two parties.”

Robbins finds that labelling him and the actress Susan Sarandon, his partner of 14 years, a “political couple” early on in their relationship was unfair and inaccurate. “It’s not politics — it’s advocacy,” he explains. “But you do a little advocacy and you are political. It would be so easy for us if the media did their job covering things that we have to call attention to.”

Robbins and Sarandon, frequent participants in various demonstrations, have a history of using their celebrity to promote causes they deem important. As presenters at the Oscars in 1993, for example, they took advantage of the live broadcast to bring public attention to the plight of hundreds of Haitians with AIDS who had been interned in Guantanamo Bay.

Brushing aside criticism that the Academy Awards stage is not a political forum, Robbins remembers nostalgically the “award shows of the 1970s”, where “anything could happen”, and rebukes the more predictable recent ceremonies, during which “people are intimidated, not stepping outside of the box”. He wishes that Danis Tanovic, the Bosnian director of this year’s Oscar winner for best foreign language film, “No Man’s Land”, had offered more substantive thoughts than simply thanking the usual list of people. “He could have said something — he made a movie about it,” says Robbins.

This, however, doesn’t mean that each of his films carries a social message (“I hate being asked what the political statement is in every movie I make”), although his directorial works — “Bob Roberts”, “Dead Man Walking” and “Cradle Will Rock” — certainly do. But Robbins says he also believes in art for entertainment’s sake. As if to disprove the label theory, his recent roles have been in films that belong exactly to the latter category: Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity” (2000), a romantic comedy co-starring John Cusack, the 2001 computer thriller “AntiTrust”, as well as this year’s “Human Nature” and “The Truth About Charlie”, a Jonathan Demme-directed remake of the 1963 classic “Charade” with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, to be released in the autumn.

“Human Nature”, which opened in the US two weeks ago and is released soon in the UK, was written by Charlie Kaufman, whose script for “Being John Malkovich” brought him almost universal critical acclaim. Kaufman has won praise again, although this time most US critics have found that his concept — abhorring the alienation of human beings from the natural world — hasn’t quite come to life as a movie. It tells the peculiar story of a fellow raised in the wild by an apeman father and then civilised in captivity by a prudish behavioural scientist, played by Robbins.

Now 43, Robbins juggles his acting jobs with managing a small production company, Havoc, which produced “Cradle Will Rock” and “Dead Man Walking”. “It’s not a company that puts a lot of things in development, because we don’t have that kind of capital,” he says.

We meet at Havoc’s office in downtown Manhattan, not far from Robbins’ home and about a mile from where he grew up. He is wrapping up a phone call, standing behind a big wooden desk with the receiver in hand, his blue-green shirt totally unbuttoned. His smile is famous for making both men and women melt, but the really interesting part comes when you notice a beam on its way and watch it turn into a fully fledged smile. He is also known to be a more polished thinker than speaker, mainly because passion tends to dominate his rhetoric.

Robert Altman, the maverick director of “M*A*S*H”, “Nashville” and, most recently, “Gosford Park”, once said that Robbins “has qualities that could make him the next Orson Welles”. Robbins, in turn, has a special fondness for Altman, having been directed by him in “The Player”, “Short Cuts” and “Pret-a-Porter”. In fact, I owe my presence in Havoc’s office to Altman, who had telephoned Robbins after an interview we had done a couple of weeks earlier.

Directing — and possibly writing — was what Robbins set out to do back in college, and acting happened almost by chance. Born on October 16 1958 in West Covina, California, and raised in New York’s Greenwich Village, he was surrounded by theatre and politics at a young age. His father, Gil Robbins, was a folk singer and member of The Highwaymen, a popular group at the time, and his mother worked in magazine publishing. He was barely a teenager when, along with his two older sisters, he founded an improvisational group called Theatre for a New City, where he staged such acts as a satire about the Watergate scandal.

“The plays were on current events and the performances also included juggling and clowning,” he recalls. “We’d unload a truck and set a stage, with anywhere between 50 and 500 people as an audience. There were a lot of interesting things happening on the streets of New York at that time, and we had to compete with them. It was great training.”

Robbins received his formal education at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). “I didn’t have a grand plan about being a famous actor,” he says. But when his success at an acting contest just before graduation landed him an agent — something most actors have to knock on many doors to achieve — he welcomed the “lucky shift”. He began auditioning and got his first job six months later.

“I was working in television, and it dawned on me after my first pay cheque that it might be a way to continue to grow in my directing and writing, but not to have to work as a waiter.” So instead of returning to the east coast, he stayed in LA, defying the “Ivy League snobbery that great art is impossible there — banality maybe, but it’s unfair to characterise an entire city that way”.

Soon after leaving UCLA in 1981, Robbins and several college friends founded The Actors’ Gang, a theatre group that became known for its innovative, avant-garde productions and attracted members like Cusack. “Theatre for us has never been a showcase to land roles or a place to play it safe,” Robbins wrote in a newspaper article last November. “It was, and still is, a dangerous and risk-filled place where it is essential to approach themes that are controversial and socially relevant. I’m proud that the group has survived for 20 years, but am most proud that after 20 years, the actors still have the courage to take risks — not only with the work, but with what the future holds.”

Overwhelmed with acting and directing engagements in cinema, Robbins left The Gang’s artistic director position in 1996 but returned last year after things had gone bad. As the troupe’s main benefactor, who now provides most of its nearly $500,000 budget, he “felt that they needed to figure out a way to fund-raise on their own and develop independence”. But four years later, “they were doing one show annually… the quality had suffered and they had not moved forward”. Although several of The Gang’s members accused Robbins of an autocratic management style, the company’s board voted 6-3 to bring him back.

When The Gang was making its initial steps, Robbins took his first movie roles, in “Toy Soldiers” and “No Small Affair” (1984), “Fraternity Vacation” and “The Sure Thing”, both in 1985. By 1986, he was beginning to get noticed by audiences and critics in “Top Gun” and “Five Corners”. But the first signs of success came with the part of a minor-league baseball player in “Bull Durham” (1988), opposite Kevin Costner and Sarandon. Robbins then had two flops, “Tapeheads” and “Erik the Viking”, but received critical acclaim for “Miss Firecracker” and “Cadillac Man”, co-starring Robin Williams.

Having started the next decade with his first leading role, as a hallucinating Vietnam veteran in “Jacob’s Ladder”, Robbins followed his strong performance with parts in some of the most memorable films of the 1990s. The role of an unscrupulous studio executive who gets away with murder in “The Player” earned him the Best Actor award at Cannes. That same year, he starred in his directorial debut, “Bob Roberts”, a political satire about a manipulative, ultra-conservative folk singer-turned-senatorial candidate.

In “Short Cuts” and “Pret-a-Porter”, Robbins was part of Altman’s characteristic ensemble casts led, in the second film, by Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. In 1994, he also starred in the comedies “The Hudsucker Proxy”, where he played a naïve business graduate appointed president of a company as part of a stock scam, and “IQ”, in which he was a mechanic who falls for Albert Einstein’s niece (Meg Ryan).

If Robbins wasn’t a household name until “The Shawshank Redemption”, the prison drama based on a Stephen King story made him just that. A white-collar criminal, his character manages to survive in the toughest prison of the US northeast. “It’s an incredibly well-written story, great cinematography and great music,” says Robbins. “It’s popular because it has something to do with hope even in the most dire circumstances.”

In 1995, Robbins directed his second picture, “Dead Man Walking”, which earned him an Oscar nomination and Hollywood’s respect as a serious filmmaker. The movie, about a New Orleans nun counseling death-row inmates starred Sarandon, who received an Academy Award for the part, and Sean Penn, whose performance was also nominated. The next film Robbins directed was “Cradle Will Rock”, a Depression-era piece about the clash between art and politics in New York. He says it was “ground-breaking” because it was “the first American musical to deal overtly with social content”. He has written all three movies he has directed.

Robbins, who once called independent film-making a “scam”, because the “little boutiques” producing such movies are actually owned by the big Hollywood studios, today says that “independence and true freedom are in the mind”, not in a films’ financing. “You can be free in your mind and do a film for Disney or another corporation. Of course, certain people are allowed to express their opinions more than others, but I never felt that I wasn’t free to say whatever I wanted.” He says media conglomerates concern him, “but I don’t think that’s a vast conspiracy, though diversity and competition are always better”.

Movie marketing angers him, though. “I was talking to someone at a studio and they knew they had a really bad film. They put it in 3,000 theatres, with millions in advertising. At the same time, I was involved with a good film that was only released in 10 theatres. The person at the studio told me, ‘We have to make the money with our film in the first weekend, before anyone finds out how bad it is.’”

Between acting in “Nothing to Lose” in 1997 and “Arlington Road” (1999), Robbins took 15 months off to “re-evaluate some big things” in his life. He quit smoking, cured a 15-year back problem and spent a lot of time with “the kids” — he has two children, aged 12 and nine, with Sarandon, who has a 16-year-old daughter from her previous marriage to actor Chris Sarandon. Robbins and Sarandon are not married.

In order to be with his family straight after the September 11 attacks, Robbins drove from LA to New York, since all flights in the US were suspended. What happened that day is “very personal” to him, having grown up not far from ground zero. Although in the past he has deplored US “arrogance that led us to support dictators and subvert democratic movements” in some Latin American countries, he argues that this time the US action in Afghanistan is justified, because “we were attacked and a threat of future attacks exists”.

But he says he has “mixed feelings” about the war on terrorism and the threat it poses to civil liberties. “I’m really concerned about people I know in the [anti] World Trade Organisation movement,” he says in reference to anti-globalisation protesters. “Where does that slippery slope lead? Where does it stop being about terrorists and start becoming rounding up people who will make it uncomfortable to have a conference in a democratic city in the US?”


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