Activist, director, actor, writer and Oscar winner are just some of mantels bestowed upon Tim Robbins, who co-stars in the new Indie feature, The Lucky Oners, that premiered at this year’s Toronto Film Festival.
Born in West Covina, California, but raised in New York City, Tim Robbins is the son of former The Highwaymen singer Gil Robbins and actress Mary Robbins. Robbins studied drama at UCLA, where he graduated with honors in 1981. That same year, he formed the Actors’ Gang theater group, an experimental ensemble that expressed radical political observations through the European avant-garde form of theater.
He started film work in TV movies in 1983, but hit the big time in 1988 with his portrayal of dim-witted fastball pitcher “Nuke” Laloosh in Bull Durham (1988). Tall with baby-faced looks, he has the ability to play naive and obtuse (Cadillac Man (1990) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)) or slick and shrewd (The Player (1992) and Bob Roberts (1992)).
The Lucky Ones revolves around three soldiers — Colee, [Rachel McAdams] TK [Robbins] and Cheever [Michael Peña] — who return from the Iraq War after suffering injuries and learn that life has moved on without them. They end up on an unexpected road trip across the U.S., with Colee on a mission to bring her boyfriend’s guitar back to his family because he saved her life, TK seeking confidence to face his wife after a shrapnel injury that threatens his sexual function and middle-aged Cheever planning to hit the casinos in a desperate effort to pay for his son’s college tuition.
Robbins will next be seen in next month’s fantasy film City of Ember. The Oscar winner chatted to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview during the Toronto Film Festival.
Question: Tim, was it the nature of the character that appealed to you in taking this on, or was it its overall theme?
Robbins: Well, I did love the character. I thought there was an incredible nobility in this character, as I find there are – there is in a lot of untold stories of relatively anonymous men and women. Overall, the story was a story that I felt was necessary. I think we’ve kind of dehumanized this war. And I think what this does is, it opens up a door to three individuals. It gives us a look at who some of these soldiers are that we seem to be ignoring.
Question: Were you surprised that there was as much humor in this movie?
Robbins: I think it was absolutely essential. That’s part of what I really responded to.
Question: Why is that?
Robbins: Well, because that’s life, you know? That’s the way life progresses. You know, terrible, terrible stuff can happen to people, but I’m interested in characters that have that indomitable spirit, that – you know, finds a way through the pain. Finds a way to laugh, finds a way to survive. This is about survivors. And for me, the easy thing is to write the monologue about – you know, sloggin’ through hell in Fallujah. The things that happened. The things I seen. And the painful memories of war. And those are all legitimate, and that’s a legitimate story to tell, in a different story. It’s not a story I want to tell right now. We’ve had some very good movies come out like that. And I see them. And I think that they are important films. But I don’t know how many of those we can take, as a nation. And maybe we’ll have more of an appetite for those kinds of movies later on.
Question: As we did –
Robbins: As we did with the Vietnam War. But I wanted to make a movie that a veteran could see and say, “Oh, that’s reflective of my experience.” And something they could actually perhaps help.
Question: Did you talk to many veterans?
Question: What did you learn that surprised you when you talked to them?
Robbins: Well, everything was important, what I heard. Tremendously moving things. I was mostly – I was mostly just honored that these men and women were generous enough to share very intimate memories with me, and experiences. And painful experiences with me. I felt trusted by them, with emotion and information. But – you know, one of the guys said to me, “I really hate it when people say ‘Thank you for your service.'” Which surprised me.
Question: Why did he think that?
Robbins: He said, “All I want to hear is, ‘Welcome home.’ That’s what I want to hear. I feel like when those people thank me for my service, they’re absolving themselves of their responsibility of service. And they feel that that’s their part in this war, is to thank me for doing it.” He felt it was a cop-out for them. And I thought it was an interesting perspective. And so when I saw that in the script, about – you know, all these people coming up and thanking them – and it’s kind of funny, you know? I knew how to play that. I knew that – that experience, from the guy that was talking to me about it. Other things that veterans told me? One of the things I found really moving was a Lieutenant who was – I asked him – I asked him about the men he was serving with. And he said, “You know, I want you to know something. There’s a guy who I serve with who I don’t agree with him on a goddamn thing,” he said. “The guy is – politically, him and I have nothing in common. And I don’t – I don’t care for his politics, I don’t agree with him on anything. But I would die for him. And he would die for me. And I would not want a better man next to me in battle. I could not imagine a better man next to me.” And that was really interesting to me. Because it was really about the character of the man. Not about the opinions of the man. But what makes up the person.
Question: I’m wondering of your perspective of this war would have changed as a result of doing a film like this, given obviously – you know, the politics, and whether you agree or disagree with the politics of the war – did your perspective on the war change?
Robbins: No. I’ve had a real affinity toward people in the military since I did Top Gun, in ’83? Eighty-five. I think it was ’85. And – you know. for me, it’s always been – for me, there’s no debate about the nature of individuals that serve in the military. You know, there are some incredibly decent, honest, rock solid men and women. There are also, like in any cross section of society, there’s also people that – you know, are lesser lights. Shall we say. But even those, across the board, all of the people that serve deserve our respect. And part of the way I feel – one of the primary ways we can respect them is to make sure that if we ask them to make that ultimate sacrifice, that it’s for a reason that’s undeniable. And unavoidable. And time and again, politicians too often, with absolutely no service in the military of their own, are putting young men and women in harm’s way without proper vetting of information, and without a real necessity. And that’s never changed. I’ve felt that forever.
Question: I was going to ask you if that will – I mean, probably since World War Two, really, I would imagine. Do you think that will ever change? Because World War Two was the last real war in which it was necessary to have fought.
Robbins: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I often wonder about World War Two, being – how disastrous it became, with Hitler and Mussolini’s rise. I think that more war was made possible when the people that were responsible for that war were able to retain their fortunes and their businesses, and continue life as it had been before the war. And didn’t seem to be the ramifications there should be for people that create such havoc and violence and death. Once again, the poor are the ones that are suffering the most of us. But the Rockefellers and the Standard Oils and the Ford Corporation and the Volkswagen Corporation and the – and IBM, and all of these guys, had something to do with the war machine being built. And I tried to get into this a little bit, in one of my movies, Cradle Will Rock. And, you know, it’s just – it’s like the elephant in the room that nobody ever talks about. And so now we’re in a situation where everyone knows what the elephant in the room is. There’s — the Halliburton Corporation and its many subsidiaries are making billions and billions of dollars. They’re coming out of my pocket. And my fellow citizens’ pockets. They’re taking from the poor, to give to Halliburton.
Question: Do you think anything will change?
Robbins: Well, I don’t know. I know that there will always be struggling to get information out, to try to create more awareness of what the truth is. And I know that any time people try to do that, they’re labeled with marginalizing labels, that attempt to keep their voice out of the arena. So I don’t know. I don’t know if anything will ever change.
Question: Are you optimistic about what’s going to happen after November?
Robbins: I am cautiously optimistic. It’s really up to us. You know, even if Obama is elected, if you really want change to happen, it’s going to have to happen from the ground up.
Question: You’re also an extraordinary filmmaker, so I was wondering when we’re going to get to see more of that side of you.
Robbins: Well, after Cradle Will Rock, I took a hiatus from directing. Mainly because of something my son said to me, which was – I think he was – let’s see. Ninety-nine. He was seven at the time. He said, “I like it better when you act.” [LAUGHTER]
Question: What does that mean, exactly? Is he a critic?
Robbins: No. What he was meeting was, I was spending too much time away. And I’m a lot more there when I’m an actor, for him. And I couldn’t- if there’s a hard night – you know, I was really glad I did. Because he’s a really special kid. And now he’s about 16. He’s 16 years old, and he can’t wait ’til I’m out of the house. So I’m looking to direct again. I’ve kept up my chops, directing theatre. I’ve done three shows over the past five years. One of which has toured in 40 states and four continents. An adaptation of Orwell’s 1984.
Question: Where else would it have gone? Where did it travel outside the country?
Robbins: It went to Hong Kong, China – which was very interesting, to do a play about Big Brother in China. We also went to Australia. Melbourne – at the Melbourne Festival. Been in Greece. And been all over the United States. It’s a great book and this adaptation’s really interesting and powerful. And the actors – you know. They’ve been doing it for two and a half years. The levels of performance are just extraordinary.
Question: Will you adapt it for the screen?
Robbins: I’ve been flirting with a couple of things. That’s not going to work out, because of the rights situation. But it’s interesting. I’m re-entering this arena of whether I’m going to direct or not. And I never have directed for the sake of directing. Any work I’ve done. Theatre, movies. Anything I’ve done, I’ve wanted to do. And I’ve never had to direct for economic reasons. You know. I don’t – I’m lucky enough to have a career as a director. So I’m re-entering this arena – it’s a much different world than it was in ’99, when I set up my last movie. You know, it’s–well, you know, The Player has come true. It’s just – [LAUGHTER]. And I’m not that interested in a world where I have to make any concessions. And so I’ll get some done eventually. But I’m a fighter on this kind of stuff. And I don’t know that it’s the particularly welcoming environment for that kind of thing.
Question: I think you should still keep on fighting.
Robbins: I’m going to. I have no problem fighting. It’s just – let’s put it this way. No one is opening up the vault for me, at this point, to make movies. And – when I figure out how to pick the lock, I’ll be directing again.
Question: What’s going on with you as an actor now?
Robbins: I did this, and I did City of Ember, and that was it. And I’ve been reading scripts, and I’m less and less interested.
Question: It looks amazing.
Robbins: Awesome. Awesome.
Question: What was the experience?
Robbins: Mine is very limited. I had a small part in it. I did it because I liked the script, and because they were offering me a nice salary. So I do have mortgages I do have to pay. But again, even with that, I get offered crap.
Question: You turn down real crap, don’t you?
Robbins: I do. I do. I turned down, like, a movie – I just couldn’t understand how people were going to do this. And why they wanted to do it, and what it was saying. Just was nothing, you know? But $3 million. I’m like, “Wow.” You know? No, I can’t do that. situation can’t do that. I can’t. It’s just crap. And so I hope City of Ember comes out good. The stuff I have seen looks really incredible.
Question: Did you deal with all of the blue screen stuff?
Robbins: No. I was all on set.
Question: Are you signed up for anything else?
Robbins: Nope. I’m working right now – I’m going to be shooting a pilot in December of something I’ve written. So I’m directing that.
Question: You want to do television?
Robbins: It’s Showtime, so the way I look at it is – for me, these – Showtime, HBO, those folks – I feel like they’re making the independent movies now. I think the independent movies are kind of – been co-opted by, again, large corporations.
Question: What kind of genre is this going to be?
Robbins: This – satirical drama bout the pharmaceutical companies.
Question: Oh, so it’s not a very political subject matter, then.
Robbins: No! Drugs, political? [LAUGHTER] What are you saying?