Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins is also the founder and artistic director of the critically acclaimed Actors’ Gang theatre company. As the group brings
A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Beijing, he talks to Nancy Pellegrini about his life, his work and the Actors’ Gang’s Prison Project
When did you start acting, and when did you know it would be your career?
I was the youngest of four siblings, so I had to fight for attention at the dinner table and I kind of became a clown. I started acting when I was about 12, but at university I was studying directing, so I didn’t think I was going to be an actor. It wasn’t until senior year, when I won a competition and got an agent, that I started to audition. When I realised I could produce theatre with the money I earned acting, I got excited about becoming an actor. The Actors’ Gang had already started; the first play we did was a big hit, so we were excited. The parts on TV and movies started to fund the group. It wasn’t until I had done Five Corners  that I realised I could be involved in really good films.
What was the Actors’ Gang’s first play?
Ubu Roi, written [in 1896] by Alfred Jarry. I’ve always been attracted to theatre that has a larger canvas, that [concerns] subject matter that has to do with all of us, not just one domestic situation. And this play was the craziest play I’d ever read, there were stage directions like ‘the entire Polish army enters’ and ‘a malcontent explodes’. We were all punk rockers at the time, and I was interested in theatre that had a visceral, physical aspect – this was the perfect play.
Why was it so important to keep Actors’ Gang going after your film career took off?
I have this incredible laboratory, a group of like-minded actors and artists that want to create innovative new works. It was a way for me to keep developing as an actor and a director, and then as a writer. I started writing plays for the company, and through workshops and the rehearsal process, I learned how to mould a piece, to reinterpret it, to give it form and a certain style. It made me learn how to adapt, write and direct for film. I could go work on an idea, and I didn’t need studio approval or millions of dollars. I still spend more time in my theatre than I do on movie sets.
Did you have any formal writing training?
My training came from Actors’ Gang; we would get commissioned to do a work, and I would get everyone together. I would say, here’s the idea, here’s the basic script, we have three weeks – what are we going to do? When it isn’t on the page, the actor can create it. We’d go into the workshop, see the scene and think: It’s missing something. So then I would go after rehearsal and work until 3am with my co-writer, and we’d bring it back the next day filled out with more depth. I learned adaptability and improvisation, and how to create the truth in the moment.
What’s it like taking on Shakespeare?
It’s easier, you’re not – or I’m not going to rewrite Shakespeare. But the great thing about Shakespeare is that it’s all there, if you don’t ignore it, if you respect it, it’s there for you; it’s a solid piece of work. And what we found is that when we did [Dream] the first time last summer, any time anyone got psychological with the interpretation of a line, the laughs would go away. The metre was the most important thing; his rhythm is impeccable.
Can you tell me about the Actors’ Gang Prison Project?
Well it’s been transformative, not only for the prisoners, but for the actors too. It puts it all in perspective. Everyone has things they’re battling through, and creative people tend to dramatise that perhaps more than the normal person, but you go in and you realise that some of these guys are here for 30 years and they’ve got nothing. Then you see them transform in a complete, holistic way. It’s extraordinary. Most will tell you that their lives were profoundly changed by the experience, and some have created their own groups. These two guys, they trained 28 new actors, they made costumes out of paper, and sets out of anything they could find; they made Commedia dell’Arte masks out of papier mâché and shoe leather from their prison-issued boots. It has a lasting effect, and the prison officials love it because the problems go away. When they’re able to express their emotions, they’re more able to work out problems with fellow prisoners, and it is a much safer environment. This work demands a commitment to strong emotions. When they’re up there with ‘whiteface’ on, pretending that their feet are on fire, it’s something that they have to tap into to get the respect of others in the room. And they have to figure out – sometimes for the first time – how to express emotions.
Was your concern for prisoners influenced at all by Shawshank Redemption and Dead Man Walking?
I grew up in a rough area of New York City, and had to develop certain survival instincts; some of my friends wound up in jail. But I wasn’t particularly sensitive to the situation until I did Shawshank. You know, one of the great things about being an actor is that you’re constantly thrust into environments you would never choose. And you have to be open and receptive to what is there, which was a lot of prisoners. We were filming at a working prison, and a lot of our extras were doing time. We talked to some of them, and also these right-wing, conservative Republican prison guards, who told me that the whole problem with the prison system is the drug laws, that they’re locking up kids for possession of marijuana together with violent criminals. There’s a waiting list for high school equivalency programmes and for job training programmes, so they never learn anything but how to be a better criminal. This programme became something that made a lot of sense. For years I have advocated for various causes, gone to benefits and donated money, but even though the intentions were good, you don’t get anything out of it. In essence, you’re creating money for the people that do the work. It makes more sense to use your talent to affect change rather than your celebrity. That was a big revelation for me.
You’ve said before that directing is more difficult than acting, in what way?
Directing is easy. I mean, if you’re disciplined and prepared, it’s a lot of fun and really exciting. What’s difficult is setting up a film project that is outside of what Hollywood wants. It’s raising the financing, and convincing people to give you money to do something that’s in your head. But I really love theatre directing, and I love the ability to keep expanding in that way. I think you get constricted in this business sometimes; as an actor you can get on this hamster wheel, doing the same thing over and over again, and as a director you can make compromises and rationalisations for yourself, that this script isn’t formulaic, it isn’t something you’ve seen before. The difficulty is important, there’s always a Sisyphean challenge in accomplishing a project, whether it’s in theatre or film or television, there’s always a moment where the odds are stacked against you and you just have to just suck it up and do it. It’s never easy but it’s always fulfilling.
Do you have a favourite film experience?
The seminal moment for me was working with Robert Altman. He involved me in the project as a creative partner. For someone that you had viewed as an idol, as a hero, to be looking you in the eye and saying: ‘Your contribution is important, and I want to tap your brain and see what you think,’ it awakened a sense in me that I could direct, and I could go to different levels of acting. That was the invaluable and unique experience of The Player (1992).
Why did you choose to do a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Sometimes it’s important to remember that in the midst of all the crises and economic fall out, that love is still there, the spirit of the forest is still there in our world. We have to remind ourselves from time to time. And one of the most thrilling things for me is to see the audience’s faces lighten, and to see couples leaving the theatre in love, that’s just a really cool thing. What I love about the play is the end, when Oberon says any child conceived tonight, may it be without a flaw, may it have perfection, may it be healthy. And it’s one of those moments you realise the genius Shakespeare had, to take people through this crazy romp with lots of laughter, and then to end on a note of ‘and go from this theatre and make children that are perfect.’ It’s a blessing for the three couples in the play, but it’s also a blessing for the audience.