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Tim Robbins remains his own man

September 27, 2008|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Tim Robbins was somewhere in red-state country last year shooting the film "The Lucky Ones" when a serviceman approached him in a bar. "One would think it wouldn't be safe for me to be in situations in areas like that," said the actor and political activist who still burns over the names he was called -- "traitor," "Saddam lover," "terrorist supporter"-- after he made some antiwar remarks back in 2003.

But experience told him that the soldier, an Iraq veteran, would probably just want to talk. And indeed, what he wanted to say was just how tired he was of people making him into a hero and always thanking him for his service.

The soldier's story happened to mirror a running bit in "The Lucky Ones." Currently in theaters, the movie features Robbins as a working-class Army Reserve officer on a road trip with fellow soldiers (Michael Pena and Rachel McAdams) on leave from Iraq. (Whenever they express thanks to a stranger, they invariably get the reply, "No. Thank you.")

It's also a good example of the sort of stories that attract Robbins these days: personal, emotional, timely and relevant -- in an oblique sort of way.

This fall, in addition to "The Lucky Ones," he will appear in the family fantasy "City of Ember" (Oct. 10) as an inventor and father of a teen who attempts to save an underground city from extinction. He will also direct a pilot (which he wrote) titled "Possible Side Effects," a drama about a family that runs a pharmaceutical company, for Showtime.

About to turn 50, Robbins may be best known for his outspoken politics, his long-term relationship with Susan Sarandon and a wildly checkered career. There were the Oscar wins ("Mystic River"), Oscar nominations ("Dead Man Walking" as director) and cult favorites and crowd-pleasers ("The Player," "Bull Durham," "The Shawshank Redemption") .

And there were films few remember ("Tapeheads"? "Five Corners"? "Noise"?).

Some industry observers have wondered whether his political activity might have adversely affected his movie career even in liberal Hollywood, particularly his support of Ralph Nader in 2000, who was seen as splitting the Democratic vote and helping George W. Bush to be elected. But Robbins shrugged off the question, saying that no one in the business has ever said that to him directly. "So how would I know?"

And he's not going to complain about what might have been because "that way lies misery," he said. "The truth of the matter is, my best experiences in this business would not have happened if I had not been who I was."

Languid and initially reserved, Robbins folded his 6-foot-5 frame into a sofa in the dim foyer of the Culver City theater of the Actors' Gang, the collective he founded with self-described "renegade actors" in 1981. He rarely socializes in Hollywood, he said, preferring to spend his time at the theater, his home away from his New York home. This week, he had come to L.A. primarily to help his son move, hang drapes and assemble furniture.

As he sees it, Hollywood isn't the town he knew 10 years ago: Movie studios have failed to keep up production of meaningful dramas for the masses; local theaters serve mostly to showcase talent for producers.

The theater where he's artistic director and his other passions, like folk singing, have kept him busy, creatively free and feeling gratified, he said. "If I have an idea and a passion and I write something, I can come here with a script and it's up in four weeks," he said. That's what happened with "Embedded," a play he wrote about journalists in Iraq. "It's like I have a laboratory to keep experimenting as a director and a writer. If I had brought 'Embedded' to a studio, it would have been a few years, and it wouldn't have been as relevant or as in the moment as it was when we did it."

Though New York critics claimed it "preached to the choir," Robbins was proud that the play, like others the troupe takes on the road, has drawn a broad-based audience that often stays to discuss its ideas in forums following the performance. He said audience members decide what issues they want to discuss.

"In a lot of these areas, they're used to the standard stuff that comes through," he said. "One of the comments I'm most inspired by is: 'We didn't know theater could do that.' "

The actors have also taken an especially dark adaptation of "1984" on tour nationwide and to other countries. And the theater gives rights to a stage version of "Dead Man Walking" to universities that agree to offer courses about the death penalty.

Itching for a smoke, Robbins waxed on and off -- angrily, philosophically, sometimes professorially -- about politics and culture.

A supporter of Sen. Barack Obama in this year's election, he said he'd be happy to work in any capacity the campaign would have him fill. "I can advocate for a certain candidate, but it's up to them. If they want me to do that, I'll do that."

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