"Free-eee-eee Nelson Mandel-aaa!” Tim Robbins’ voice echoes from behind the heavy white double-doors of his New York hotel room and down the long corridor to where Total Film waits to meet him. No wonder they call him an activist. Actually, that’s not all they call him. Author Gore Vidal called him “a dangerous man”. And at the height of his anti-war protesting, the media dubbed both him and long-time partner Susan Sarandon traitors...
Few, though, would say it to his face: “I’m 6’4½ and I have a temper,” he once said. Equalling John Wayne as the tallest actor ever to have won an Oscar (for 2003’s Mystic River), he’ll forever be remembered as Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption – the role that best combined the two sides of a screen persona cleft between likeable doofus (Bull Durham, The Hudsucker Proxy) and morally conflicted dark-man (studio cynic in The Player, urban terrorist in Arlington Road). The fraught shading of Robbins’ roles continues in true-life Apartheid thriller Catch A Fire, which sees him as a South African police colonel whose brutal tactics stun an apolitical oil-worker (Derek Luke) into armed revolt against the country’s oppressive regime. A composite of two officers who nearly killed the imprisoned Patrick Chamusso during the turbulent and divided ’80s, Nic Vos is an evil metaphor. But Robbins’ portrayal sculpts him into a three-dimensional man intent on upholding his duty and protecting his family.
Few, though, give Robbins that kind of credit. He’s one of Hollywood’s hardest-working actors, yet is better known for his politics than his performances; he’s seldom thought of by the public as a filmmaker, yet has directed three films and was gushingly dubbed by Robert Altman as “the second coming of Orson Welles”. He’s also seldom thought of as a cineaste, yet he made a documentary with Tarantino on slam-bang tabloid auteur Sam Fuller and steered Sarandon to a Best Actress Oscar in searing death row drama Dead Man Walking. And in his guise as the founder of theatre troupe The Actors’ Gang, he gave a 12-year-old Jack Black his first role. (“He had to quit because he had to do his bar mitzvah,” Robbins recalls.)
The doors open and here he is. A world away from the 13-year-old who broke into showbiz operating the spotlight at a drag show, he nonetheless remains an incredibly youthful-looking 48-year-old who’s calm and intense, even when tucking into a huge bowl of salad. “There’s your first line,” he deadpans as he chomps down on a forkful of green. “Tim Robbins talked with his mouth full.” Did we mention he was funny, too?
Catch A Fire is yet another politically loaded film. Does it bother you when people label you a political actor?
I don’t view the film as political; I view it as humanist. A political statement is when you get to the end of an action thriller and the policemen sees the criminal, says something clever, the audience laughs, he shoots a gun and kills him. That’s a political statement. Don’t think of that as political, though, do you?
But do you see it as your responsibility to put that right?
The real question is, if you hold beliefs and you swallow them, should you suppress them because you’re an actor? Why? For your career? People are convinced there’s some kind of detriment to it.
Isn’t there though?
I tell you, the opposite is true. I don’t think Robert Altman would ever have wanted to meet with me if I wasn’t who I was.
Let’s put it another way: did you see Team America? [Ribald 2004 satire from the South Park team that roundly mocks Robbins and others for their leftist sympathies.]
The only thing that bothers me about that is that they didn’t give me my charred puppet. I wanted my broken, mangled puppet so I could frame it somewhere! I have to say, I really like South Park. I think that when they’re on, they’re brilliant satirists. Fucking brilliant. Right on top of it. I think Team America was funny, but I don’t think they were on top of it. I think when you’re a satirist you’ve got to pick the largest targets. And there were far larger targets that could have been satirised about war, about terrorism, about threat rather than about actors. I’m fair game, but that’s not the issue.
As a star, you’re certainly less vocal about your personal life than, say, Tom Cruise...
[Takes a big mouthful of salad] Mmm-hmm.
And you’re well known for having one of the most successful relationships in Hollywood. Is keeping quiet the secret?
[Takes another big mouthful of salad] Mmm-hmm.
Does it help to direct your partner to an Oscar?
[Chews and then finally swallows] It doesn’t hurt. Next question.
When you directed Dead Man Walking you’d already worked with some great Hollywood directors. Whom have you learned the most from?
Eastwood shows you a model of how to do this as a living and not torture yourself. He doesn’t waste time; he does one take, maybe two if you’re lucky. There are no bells and whistles, hissy fits or anxiety attacks. You come to work no earlier than 9am and you leave, usually, after lunch. You’ve created a really good movie and have a life. I thought Mystic River was really great. But we didn’t have to torture ourselves for it.
You’re playing a bad guy in Catch A Fire. How does one of Hollywood’s nice guys tackle such a role?
I think we all have it in us; we all have that capability. We’re all capable of murder. Go two days without food – seriously – and you’ll feel it. You have a moral backbone, I’m sure. But I’m saying, biologically, everybody’s capable of it. Lose a couple of comfort factors and you can lose a lot of humanity. I’ve felt like that before. Not out of choice, but just by being poor and not having enough food. It was an interesting personal journey for me, kind of thrilling.
Bull Durham was your first success. After that, though, were you worried about being typecast as the goofy good guy?
It’s awfully hard to play earnest. After Bull Durham came out I got a lot of knuckleheads. Why do the same thing again? I understand why – because they offer you more and more money every time. So you kind of commodify yourself. Become a product. You’re the dim, tall, athletic, funny stud. And when I read these scripts, I was like, “Oh, no.” I did Miss Firecracker: poet, slightly insane, Southern accent, tortured soul. After that it was Erik The Viking…
After all, how often do you get to play a Viking?
Right! And I think that was the last Viking movie we saw! [Laughs]
Do you keep your Oscar with Susan’s?
We have an auxiliary bathroom where we keep all the awards. It’s not our bathroom, it’s a guest bathroom.
You’ve won an Oscar and directed three films. How galling is it when people still say they loved The Shawshank Redemption?
You know what? It’s all good. I mean, it’s not like everywhere I go people say, “I loved you in Air Bud!” You know, the movie about the dog who plays basketball?
But you weren’t in that movie...
I wasn’t, no. What I’m saying is it’s wonderful that such a great movie has been recognised. And that people feel the need to share that it’s an important movie to them.
They say it’s the most popular movie without a lightsaber.
It’s consistently in the top two in internet surveys.
So give Andy a lightsaber and...
You gotta write that movie! Yeah, Andy Dufresne with a lightsaber.
Why do you think it’s still so popular?
It’s a combination of two things. There are very few movies that portray a relationship between two men that doesn’t involve car chases and scoring chicks. It’s about the idea of real friendship. And I also think thematically, and to some extent on an existential level, we’re all prisoners looking for our beach in Zihuatenejo. Whether it’s a dead-end job or a relationship that keeps us from pursuing personal freedoms, the movie offers the hope that even though it looks bad and it may never happen, there’s always the possibility of that beach and that boat.
What happens after Andy meets Red on that beach?
You know… a sequel. Andy And Red: Girls Gone Wild In Zihuatenejo. [Laughs] These two middle-aged men with colleges in spring break! It’s ridiculous. Part of the appeal of the movie is that we all get to imagine what happens.
You’ll be 50 soon. You must now have a good feel for your craft...
I’m at a stage in my life where I have a certain confidence. Of course, there’s always got to be a fear, a self-regulation. You never can believe you’re hot. I think that’s the death of you, when you start believing you’re a great actor. I’ve run into those people. Anyone’s capable of a shitty performance on a given day. It’s more important for me to be in work that’ll be around 10 years from now. I have enough money; I’m not greedy in that way. I think longevity is the key.
What’s your feeling on the state of Hollywood today? Did The Player pull its punches?
Well, that’s what Altman told me. He told me we were too easy on Hollywood. I’m an outside observer: I live in New York for a number of reasons and one of them is that I don’t want to live in a town that’s obsessed with showbusiness. I get the feeling that Griffin Mill wouldn’t have the power in today’s Hollywood.
What do you mean by that?
There are fewer and fewer iconoclasts, whose office you can walk into and come out of with a deal. That was the way in the ’70s and ’80s. That’s what made it cool – the idea that Dennis Hopper could walk into an office with an idea, Easy Rider becomes a hit and all bets are off. It happened because you didn’t have anyone at the top who knew what people wanted. All of a sudden you could be Coppola, Peckinpah or Altman and get a film made. That doesn’t exist now.
If anything it’s now the direct opposite. Hollywood seems to have a formula now for what they think audiences want...
They’re all terrified that if they make a wrong decision they’re going to lose their jobs. So they’re not going to make the wrong decision. They’re going to stick with a very simple formula: big stars, explosions, car chases.
Is that why you’re a big Sam Fuller fan?
That’s what I’m talking about, man. That’s fuckin’ Hollywood, right there. It was dying when I started coming up, but I got a glimpse of it with Cradle Will Rock. I walked into Joe Roth’s office; he’d read the script. He said, “I like your script. How much do you need?” I was like, “Yes!” [Shakes fist.] That was it – the deal was done. I walked out and made the film.
Why haven’t you directed anything since?
While I was making that film my son turned to me and said, “I like it better when you act.” What he was saying essentially was that I wasn’t around. And I wasn’t. When I direct, I’m out.
What happened to the Eastwood model?
I become obsessive. I would find myself in the office editing at midnight – without a deadline. I actually wanted to be there. I wanted to figure out the problems. And I loved directing. But I was also dismayed when I would come back to acting that any momentum I had was now at zero.
Do you now see yourself more as an actor than a director?
I’ve stopped directing movies for a while. I directed Mephisto and 1984 [on stage] and I feel like I’m honing my skills again. Directing film for me has never been about reaching a mass market; it’s been about telling a story. I was able to do that in the theatre. I got my rocks off. I was fulfilled by working in the theatre.
What’s your feeling about Altman’s Orson Welles comparison?
I think he said it due to me being an actor/director/writer who also has a theatre company – and also being involved in radio. I remember saying, “I hope that’s not a curse.”
Well, you’re not as chubby as he was...
Ha ha! Yeah. And Orson couldn’t get his third film made.
So will you ever direct again?
My kids are older and I am getting itchy to direct again. I have an idea but I’m not going to share it – I’m kind of superstitious about that.
It says on the Internet Movie Database that you made your screen debut in a Buck Rogers In The 25th Century episode...
That’s an IMDb fiction. There are a couple things on there I haven’t done.
Does that include rumours that you were considered for roles in Donnie Darko and Fantastic Four?
[Chuckles] Oh God… Sometimes it’s just wish-fulfilment, you know? Someone’s idea they want to be true. But no.
Would you be interested in a comic-book action role, though?
You know, I was offered a big action movie. It was five months in London and a lot of money, too. But how can you be away from your kids for that long? My kids knew the story – it was a popular comic-book kind of thing. They said, “Daddy, you’ve got to do it!” And I said, “Why do I have to do it?” “Because you need an action figure!” I said, “You’d rather have a three-inch action figure than me in the house?” Imagine the sad scene of the kid with the plastic figure. “Tell me a story, Daddy…” [Laughs]
No plans to become an action hero, then?
Catch A Fire is a bit of an action role. I get a gun, but other people kick ass for me, I take the high ground.
Did you know that Stallone’s making another Rambo? Maybe you can get a part in that.
You’re kidding me. John Rambo’s back? I’m afraid to say I’ll probably see it.