Tim Robbins: The Cutest Serious Person in Showbiz

Robbins absent-mindedly takes a pack of sugar off the table, licks his finger, sticks it into the packet and then eats the sugar off it. I write sugar in my notebook, so I'll remember it later.

"Why'd you write sugar?" he asks suspiciously.

"Because I like to remember people's personality quirks," I say.

"But I've never done this before!" he implores, as if I had just written plays with his penis. "It's not a personality quirk if I never did it before."

"Okay, then I'll write that you were so driven during this interview that you started doing something you had never dreamed of before. Better get back to Bob Roberts before we lose the thread here. You did this film fast and cheap, right? Are you one of those people who works best while stressed out?"

"Well, yesss ... although I would have liked more time. And certainly more money. We did it in five weeks, for about $4 million. There was no time for sleeping. I would finish shooting and then go to dailies, and then rewrite for the next day and then to bed for three hours, and then have to be back on the set with complete energy and lead the troops back into the fray again. At the end of the five weeks I was completely exhausted. And I started preproduction just two weeks after I finished working on The Player. Bob Roberts was in Directors' Fortnight at Cannes. I was very nervous, because I wasn't sure how the humor would translate. But they seemed to get it all. I asked all the journalists from the different countries who interviewed me if they had a Bob Roberts in their country, and most of them said yes. It seems to be a worldwide phenomenon of Bob Robertses on the loose."

Okay. The hell with filmmaking. The real surprise in Bob Roberts isn't how dead right Robbins is about the political climate in America, or what a talented actor he is: no, the real surprise is that he's got a very good voice.

"I sang all the music in Bob Roberts live," he says with pride. "We had to pretape the music, but I didn't want to pretape the vocals, because I can always tell when that happens in movies. And often times you don't have the same passion in your face that the music has. I figured it was worth giving it a shot, even if I couldn't hit all the notes. For the stuff he sings at that large gathering at the end of the movie we used a live audience. What we'd done, because we needed to have a very well-dressed crowd and we couldn't afford to pay for it, was we threw a fundraiser for the public television station in Pittsburgh--"

"Wait a minute ... they weren't actors?"

"No, they were just a lot of rich people from Pittsburgh. I asked at one point, 'How many of you are Republicans?' About the same amount raised their hands as Democrats. But the majority of the room didn't raise their hands for cither. They asked me if Bob was a Democrat or a Republican, and I said, 'Well, he calls himself a Republican.' And they asked if this was going to show the Republican Party in a bad light. And I said, 'No, it's going to possibly show this character in a bad light.' I don't see that there's much difference in the two parties."

At this point we're taken out of our discussion by a wobbly old man who comes right up to us and says, "Tomorrow is corn flakes."

Robbins: "What about tomorrow's corn flakes?"

Man: "Tomorrow I can get two for 50 cents."

Robbins: "Okay, then, that sounds good."

Man: "Okay, I'll talk to you tomorrow.

Robbins: "Okay, take care. You see?" he says to me. "That's what's so great about New York. You get philosophy and wisdom right in the streets. Okay, where were we?"

"I was about to say that I have this feeling that if Bob Roberts was running for president today, he'd win. By a landslide."

"I had this audition early in the process," Robbins says, "and this guy came in and said, 'I gotta be honest with you. I like this script, but I want you to know that I'm a Republican and I voted for Bush.' I said, 'That's interesting. Why do you like this script?' And he said, 'Because if there are Bob Robertses in the Republican Party, then we got to get rid of them.' And I didn't want to tell him that there are Bob Robertses in the Republican Party, and that he's probably voted for them."

"Did you hire the guy?"

"Which guy?" he asks, looking totally confused.

"The Republican."

"No. But not because he was a Republican. He got another job. The bottom line is--"

"Oh," I plead. "Do tell. I've been waiting to find out the bottom line for at least 20 years."

"Okay. The bottom line is that it's important that people discuss and argue. And not be afraid of doing that in America. And not think that shows that you're weak. That's a way to get strong, to have opinionated people and have open debates on the issues."

Frankly, I haven't noticed people having any problem arguing in this country. I decide to change the subject.

"And what's next?" I ask.

"For me or the country?"

"For you. We'll let the country work it out for itself."

"Later in the year, I'm doing a play of mine with the Actors' Gang. It's called Mayhem--The Invasion. It's about Columbus and the Gulf War."

"Jesus, did he have something to do with that, too?"

"Theoretically. I still have to work it out. I wrote it while the war was happening. I'd go to my office and put the radio on and write."

"You're probably the only person who got anything done during that time ... everyone else was frozen in front of the television."

"Yeah, it was CNN time. I started writing a play on Columbus based on two historians' debate. Kind of a cross between 'Crossfire' and a game show. And the other idea I had was that each historian had a group of actors who work with him to try and dramatize his own version of Columbus's story. But the man who was trying to refute the myth of Columbus as a great, noble discoverer, his actors began to be threatened by the other guy, to the point where their funding was being taken away because of obscenity issues. They had portrayed one of the Indians naked."

"Has the Actors' Gang ever been funded by NEA?"

"No, we were turned down. And we will continue to be turned down. We were turned down because we were doing an evangelical comedy. We were representing the United States at the Edinburgh Festival and they wouldn't even pick up our plane fare! After that I said, f*ck it, we don't need any government money."

"I'm starting to think that Aerosmith should fund anyone who gets turned down by NEA. Let artists start supporting the arts," I say, referring to the band's recent donation to the List Visual Arts Center at MIT after they had been turned down by NEA.

"Yes, artists should support art," says Robbins, "but the government should as well. It'll only make your culture and your society stronger. I grew up in a theater group that was supported by NEA. And we were doing things that were pretty radical, things that questioned the government and made fun of corruption in the government. And I remember thinking at the time, 'What a wonderful place we live in, what a terrific government this is, that knows itself well enough that it could support dissent.'"

The car has arrived to pick up Robbins, so I try to get the rest of my questions out in a rush.

"There's this line in Bob Roberts," I say, "when he's being interviewed on television, and he says, 'I came here to speak of the issues, but I will happily indulge your personality search.' It was very funny, and I almost feel that's what's going on here ..."

Robbins eyes the tape recorder and leans back wearily. "So ... ?" he asks.

"So, I was just wondering if you want to say anything to us about Susan."

He laughs. "No, not really."

"You sure?"


"Okay," I say, and start to pack my things.

"What?" he says, in mock horror. "You're going to let me off the hook so easily?"

Truthfully, for the first time in my life, I'm all talked out.


Martha Frankel interviewed Annabella Sciorra for our August issue.

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