Tim Robbins: The Cutest Serious Person in Showbiz

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."

It almost seems like all the theater and the activism and the other movie roles were just a dress rehearsal for Bob Roberts, which was first written as a short for "Saturday Night Live." The film is a quasi-documentary about Bob Roberts's campaign, which is steeped in family values, pride and elitist ideas (one of the songs Bob Roberts sings is "This Land Was Made for Me"), but Roberts may also have done some gunrunning and dope smuggling.

Robbins's feet start tapping as he explains the genesis of this new film. "About three years ago, I started to write it as a feature film. Bob Roberts was a businessman back then: he makes his living in the stock market. He travels around in a bus with all this equipment. I was enthralled by the idea of a bus that was so full of technology that ...

The truth is, to have the kind of technology that they had in the bus you would have seen huge radar and satellite dishes on the roof of the bus. We didn't have the money to do that. So we just made it that Bob had the kind of technology that no one else had yet. He's a jack of all trades: a talented musician, a businessman, a financial genius."

"Sort of like Ross Perot?"

"This was before Ross Perot, before a lot of things. It's kind of strange the things that have been happening that mirror Bob Roberts. I guess some of it is predictable, but some of it defies imagination. Like Clinton playing the saxophone on 'Arsenio Hall,' and Quayle with all his family values stuff. And then to have Bush play into it so heavily, blaming the '60s and social programming. It's like a paranoid's dream."

"I loved Gore Vidal in the film," I say. "I think he should quit writing and become an actor."

"I think so, too," says Robbins. "Well, he shouldn't quit writing ... but I know what you mean. I was so excited when he called to say he liked the script. He said, 'You know, Tim, you're a dangerous man.' And I said, 'What a compliment. Thank you, sir.' Because it validated everything I had been thinking."

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