Tim Robbins: The Cutest Serious Person in Showbiz
Was Tim Robbins ever a big enough movie star to warrant a cover story in Movieline magazine? I guess he must have been, because after starring in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire, The Player, Robbins was right there on the cover of the October 1992 issue talking about his own political satire, Bob Roberts. While chatting up Martha Frankel, Robbins veers from silliness to seriousness and back again.
He played the Hollywood insider to end all Hollywood insiders; he’s anything but. His motto is “dare to be stupid”; he couldn’t be if he tried. He was in Howard the Duck; he’s not even embarrassed.
“You sure are a demented bastard,” I tell Tim Robbins as we settle into our window seats in a Greenwich Village restaurant. He licks his lips and runs his hands through his hair, which is blondish and flecked with grey. And then a sound comes out of his mouth–a sound that, in anyone else, might signal the need for the Heimlich maneuver or serve as a warning that errant liquid is about to come spewing out of their nose. This distinctive, noisy intake of breath turns out to be Tim Robbins’s laugh.
“Thank you,” he says between guffaws, “thank you very much.”
“I mean because of Bob Roberts,” I say, referring to Robbins’s new film, which he wrote, directed and stars in. It’s about a right-wing folk singer who’s running for the Senate in Pennsylvania, the kind of guy who advises a young well-wisher to work hard in school, be nice to her parents, and tells her, “Don’t do crack–it’s a ghetto drug.”
“Oh,” Robbins chortles again when I recite this line to him. “Well, thank you.”
Forget those tailored suits that Robbins, as Griffin Mill, carried off so effortlessly in The Player. Robbins has shown up for this interview in some kind of lunatic beach wear: a dark green, sleeveless T-shirt, an oversized white shirt with blue squares, and a pair of enormous shorts with a myriad of colors, none of which go with green or blue. And on Robbins’s 6’4″ frame, oversized takes on a new meaning.
When he notices me noticing, Robbins comes to his own defense. “I just flew back from Los Angeles, and I was there yesterday for the quakes. I was in my hotel room, and it got me right out of bed. It was five in the morning. Very weird. I looked out over L.A. to see if there were fires or downed buildings. And it was so strange, because these lights were happening. Throughout the city there were these lights, like lasers. Not like searchlights. They were coming from the ground, and they were definitely lasers. There were about seven of them. It was incredibly apocalyptic.”
“And what were they?”
“I’m trying to figure that out. But what someone suggested to me was that they’re disaster lights that come on after a quake, so that if the city was in flames, people could locate where they were. In such a disorienting situation, these lights would help you get your bearings.”
“So how come no one else has ever seen them?” I ask, not wanting to trip too heavily on the obvious.
Robbins gives me the hairy eyeball. “I don’t know, but I’ll tell you, it was pretty fucking technologically impressive. I guess maybe no one else ever looked out there at five in the morning. Or maybe they did, and they knew what they were.”
But we both know he’s teasing–he probably wears an outfit like this every day.
Tim Robbins has always been hard to pin down. Now that he’s hot off The Player and hyped for Bob Roberts–and scheduled for Robert Altman’s next one, Short Cuts, as well as Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Hudsucker Proxy–it is difficult to remember back to when it wasn’t clear whether Robbins was going to be a leading man, or a character actor so good you could never place him. He first garnered notices in Tony Bill’s Five Corners, playing a young, earnest civil-rights activist. Even though he was slightly overshadowed by Jodie Foster’s quiet rage and John Turturro’s derangement, Robbins was hard to forget. In his next outing, Bull Durham, he had to fight Kevin Costner for the affections of Susan Sarandon. In one of those quirks that lets you believe that there really is a God, Costner won her on-screen, but Robbins got the real thing: he and Sarandon have recently had their second child. Plus, as “Nuke” LaLoosh, he pitched in a garter belt. You had to love this guy.
Robbins became known as “a quirky actor.” Mostly it was his face. It just wasn’t the face of a movie star. The nose is too doughy, the jowls are like a chipmunk’s. The pale blue eyes can be steely, but on the whole, Robbins looks like an adolescent, with rubbery features that can be molded to suit the part.
“I don’t know about that rubbery business,” Robbins says when I point this out, “but there’s this great Talking Heads song about a guy who rearranges his face by mental will. You know that song? And I always thought that was a great ambition for an actor.”
In 1990’s Cadillac Man, even Robbins’s admirable performance as a psychotic, out-of-work, jealous husband couldn’t save the film from Robin Williams’s over-the-top shtick. This was the last in a trio of fine lost performances: almost nobody got to see his struggling music-video producer in Tapeheads, or his great turn as another psychopath in Miss Firecracker. “That was my first mononucleic performance,” Robbins says. “I was in such a bad mood and sleeping all the time. I couldn’t understand what was happening because I’m usually so energetic and committed to what I’m doing. The last day of shooting I found out I had mononucleosis.”
Robbins got his first leading man’s role in Jacob’s Ladder, Adrian Lyne’s rather morbid netherworld drama. Although Robbins gave an affecting performance as a Vietnam vet whose reality is twisted into a nightmare, the broad consensus was that the film just didn’t make sense. I tell Robbins that one of my friends mentioned that as far as she could tell, the only thing that Jacob’s Ladder seemed to be saying was that hell was living in a grungy New York apartment with a Hispanic woman. Robbins chokes on his cappuccino. “Oh God,” he stammers, genuinely rattled. “No, that’s not what it meant. She was a catalyst who brought him to a resolution. She’s the conduit that allows him to face himself and his own mistakes. God, Martha, you have some sick fucking friends.”
Finally, in Robert Altman’s The Player, Robbins hit it right. Part of it was that he finally pushed his hair off his face, so that he no longer looked like David Letterman’s long lost younger brother.
“Uh oh,” Robbins says in a high, falsetto voice. “David Letterman, huh? No one’s ever said that before. But I tried with Bob Roberts to get that David Duke hairstyle, and to be as chiseled as possible. That, combined with an idiot’s smile.”
“So,” I say, “let’s get Erik the Viking and Howard the Duck out of the way, so we can talk about the rest of your life.”
Robbins jumps right in. “Well,” he says, “Erik I enjoy more than Howard. Whenever I talk about those films, all I can think of is the directors who worked so hard on them. Terry Jones [Erik] is a great man, I would never say anything bad about Erik. It was a hard film to do. But not because of the director, who is the sweetest man I know in this business.”
Robbins moans. “Simple. They miscast the duck. His voice should have been deep-voiced and gravelly, and his fur should have needed washing. He should have been drunk half the time.But instead, they went for cute. They didn’t know if it was for kids or adults. I didn’t think it was for kids. The comic book certainly wasn’t. It was about this cigar-chomping, whiskey-drinking duck who had very ironic perceptions of life on earth. He was clever, like a philosopher comedian. More Lenny Bruce than borscht belt.”
Robbins will happily chat on about the movies, but what he’d rather talk about is the dismal state of the nation. I can feel that this small talk is really just an interlude between saying hello and the BIG TALK. You’ll see. But Robbins isn’t a newly signed-up liberal: He was active at 10, resolute by 12. He was raised in Greenwich Village, the youngest of four kids (two older sisters, who are both actresses, and an older brother, who wrote the music for Bob Roberts). Their father is Gil Robbins, who sang with the Highwaymen (remember “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”?) – their mother works in a New York publishing house and sings for The New York Choral society. This was a family of sing-alongs and peace marches.
“My parents are left of center, but not–you know–radical or anything,” Robbins says.
“They were progressive and aware. I marched against the Vietnam war in ’69, 70…”
“How old were you?”
“I was born in 1958, so 10, 11 years old. I went by myself or with my sister. I marched against the war, I worked in a day-care center when I was 10.”
“So, you were 12 and changing the world,” I say.
Robbins’s eyes lose their humor. “I was not changing the world. I was just speaking up. Don’t say I was ‘getting political,’ because if you’re an American you should do this stuff. There’s all these negative connotations on the word ‘political.’ The ’60s I knew is a totally different ’60s from what I’ve seen perceived yet. Whenever you see one of these retrospectives, it’s so much about style, and it has nothing to do with content.”
“Okay,” I say, totally unchastised, “let me just get this straight… you were 13 in 1970?”
“No, 12,” he says.
“That’s just so adorable.”
Finally Robbins laughs. “Listen, I also grew up in the Village …. What can I say? I just got it. Both of my sisters were involved with the theater and they got me involved with that. Then I went to Stuyvesant High School [a public high school in New York for gifted students]. It was an interesting place, it was fun.”
“It was?” I shriek. “You’re the only person I ever heard say that about high school.”
“Well, I got by because I started to do theater. And it was essentially a math and science school, so theater was my way to survive. I directed my first play when I was 14. The math and science I couldn’t understand. I did fine in English, but I didn’t care about trigonometry. Then I went to a party school, SUNY at Plattsburgh. I wanted to get as far away from New York as I could and still stay in the state system. I had written to all the theater departments at all the schools, and Plattsburgh was the only one that wrote back. Plus, my parents weren’t that rich … I mean, we had enough to eat healthy and have clothes, we were never starving, but it was understood that I would go to a state school and that after two years I would have to support myself.
So I went away and had a good time for two years. I got my grade point average up, scheduled all my classes so that they started after noon so I could stay up and drink half the night, and carouse, and … I think college is such an important step. I had a good time. Plattsburgh kind of declined after I left, when the drinking age changed. That’s terrible: if you’re 18 and away at college, you should be allowed to drink. Downtown Plattsburgh was a madhouse. Every weekend was just this insane bacchanalian event, people just going wild. Kids away from their parents for the first time. Okay, there was lame music, but the people I knew were discovering all the new stuff. We would have these manic parties … this is 1977, so The Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello were getting heard.
We would have these Sex Pistols parties that were so twisted and wonderful and so anarchic compared to my previous life. We had parties where we took the ceilings out by head-butting them, and we’d wake up and there would be absolute carnage all over our apartment. People would be sleeping all over the place. I guess it was just the absolute pleasure one could take in knowing that your parents weren’t going to show up and that you were responsible for yourself. It was just great.”
“Well,” I say, trying to draw us back from the edge of such exalted happiness, “it’s over now, Tim.”
“Who knows?” he says.
“It may come back in our lifetime, but we might be too old to enjoy it again,” I say.
Robbins looks downright glum. “Yeah, you’re probably right. After I left Plattsburgh, I went to California and worked in a factory for a year, loading magazines onto a conveyor belt. I got residency and went to UCLA and got serious. Well, not too serious. I think working in a warehouse for a year definitely motivates you to approach college in a different way. I have a really strong work ethic–I don’t believe in downtime, and I have real problems with vacation. I usually try to bring a book to motivate myself to write something. At UCLA I began writing and directing and acting with a vengeance because I had spent a year of downtime at the warehouse … and the rest is, what?”
“The missing years?” I venture.
“Well, not exactly. But maybe. I started a theater company, started getting work in films. No, not exactly the missing years.”
The theater company is the Actors’ Gang, an ensemble company that’s still ongoing in Los Angeles. They’ve performed some of Robbins’s plays (including Slick Slack Griff Graff and Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer). Between pictures, Robbins devotes lots of time to keeping it going. His money is the mainstay of the company. “We’re having a fundraiser now,” he says, “and I match them dollar for dollar.”
“So you have to keep working …”
“Right,” he laughs. “I have a lot of people depending on me.”
“Have you ever taken a role just because the money was good?”
Robbins answers without any hesitation. “No. No. I haven’t had to, but I’m not going to pass judgment on actors that do. Because a lot of it is just luck. And I understand now better than I did how difficult it is, and how it’s more important as an actor to keep working, how, if the right thing isn’t coming up, it’s good for your soul to keep working.” Then Robbins starts to laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“I was just thinking that I’ve just finished my trilogy of assholes. First I was the architect that fired Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever. Then I was Griffin Mill in The Player. And now I’m Bob Roberts.”