Tim Robbins: The Cutest Serious Person in Showbiz

Tim Robbins only looks like the cherub next door. In real life, the star, writer and director of the plitical satire Bob Roberts worries about the dismal state of the nation and seems to have done so since as far back as when he actually was the cherub next door.

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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 fones [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."

"And Howard?"

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 the world," I say.

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