All sing-a-long with Robbins

Oscar winner on music, #MeToo, controversy, and dreams

by Richard Mowe

Tim Robbins will be in concert with The Rogues Gallery Band - playing at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Tim Robbins will be in concert with The Rogues Gallery Band - playing at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival Photo: Film Servis Karlovy Vary

After his high profile marriage to Susan Sarandon ended in divorce in 2009, Tim Robbins (the subject of a Crystal Globe career tribute at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival) sought solace in music, a passion that continues to this day. He’s looking forward to a live concert with his Rogues Gallery Band at the Festival on Wednesday. He explained in a media encounter about the roots of his passion and expounded on topics as varied as #MeToo; freedom of speech, his lofty stature, the enduring appeal of The Shawshank Redemption and the late Milos Forman.

Q: How important is music in your life?

TR: I am looking forward to the concert we’re giving - me and my band. I play a lot of originals that I have written. We do some cover songs, and mainly covers of songs that are not well known. We are not a karaoke thing. It is mainly traditional Americana, meaning blues, sea shanties, in the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger with a little Billie Holiday thrown in. I ask the audience to sing with me, and that has been so moving and beautiful. I first had that experience as a child because my father was a folk singer [his group was The Highwaymen] and they used to do what were called hootenannies where they would be six or seven musicians on stage. One of the essential parts of a hootenanny is that the audience are also part of the show.

Tim Robbins: One of my first experiences [of live music] was sitting on my mother’s lap singing a song called Mary Don’t You Weep
Tim Robbins: One of my first experiences [of live music] was sitting on my mother’s lap singing a song called Mary Don’t You Weep Photo: Richard Mowe

One of my first experiences was sitting on my mother’s lap singing a song called Mary Don’t You Weep and we do this song along with others. Music is essential to all our spirits and to make us feel not so alone in the world but part of a bigger community. I like the live experience in this time of cellphones and instant consumption on our devices. The theatre also is one of the last places on earth when you can ask people to turn off their cellphones and they do it. And you create two hours of community with the artists on stage. That is a rare thing, but it is very powerful and it will always be true.

Q: Have your outspoken comments about various issues ever got you into trouble in your career and your public life?

TR: I have been asked that quite a few times. I have no way of knowing. If I had been safe and kept my mouth shut when I felt something needed to be said then I don’t think I would like myself very much. I think compromise is a dangerous thing when you are talking about artistic integrity and the truth. To know something and not to say anything to me is a betrayal of what democracy is.

The reason we have freedom of speech in a democracy is not to use it when it is convenient it is to use your freedom of speech when it is difficult. That is the point of it. And I wish more people would have taken advantage of these rights given the information that they had back when we were drumming up the Iraq War which was based on false information, manipulated intelligence and a well-known human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people were dead, a new out of control refugee crisis created by the United States and that War but no-one wants to talk about that or admit that they were wrong.

In fact the people that got it wrong in politics did not have to pay any price. They kept their jobs and got promotions. Rewarding failure on a constant basis with regard to huge issues is why I believe that there is a lack of trust, at least in the US, about politics and the press. It is something that the current resident of the White House manipulates that trust very cleverly and pulled a great con on his supporters. Perhaps they will at some point come back to a world view that respects the truth - I certainly hope so.

Q: How do you perceive the #MeToo movement and its effects?

TR: It is important the problem is being discussed and I hope that it leads to a shift in the power dynamic. If people have committed crimes they should be prosecuted for those crimes. I am wary when it starts getting out of control. It is a difficult thing and subjective. It has to be called out because everyone wants this behaviour to stop. It is not going to stop unless you talk about it in public.

I do not think, however, that someone should lose their career over an accusation. It should be proved in a court of law and if someone’s career is destroyed because of that then that is what justice is. Rumour, accusations and innuendo without proof - that is a mob, folks. Even when it is a cause and an issue I support I have problems with mob mentality.

We have had a history of abuse of women where they were in courts of law but could not prove their case because of the power of the men involved and the law being skewed against them. So there was already an injustice in the way that we prosecute those kind of crimes in courts of law and the shaming that happens in the courts is atrocious. I hope we can create a safe place to celebrate women and the power they have, the talent they have and the intelligence they have and not to be subjected to a male power dynamic.

Tim Robbins: "Milos Forman made some of the most beautiful films I have seen"
Tim Robbins: "Milos Forman made some of the most beautiful films I have seen" Photo: Richard Mowe

Q: Are you surprised that your political satire Bob Roberts still has echoes today?

TR: I have just watched most of it again at the Festival screening and these problems have been around for a while. This duplicity in politics and the idea that the media is going to report on certain things and not others and run with salacious scandals and sexual peccadillos which seem to drive the media. If all that existed in 1992 and it still exists today, but I did not know at the time that this businessman Bob Roberts who is a fan of beauty pageants and was also formerly in a military school and avoided service would be elected to the White House.

Q: Of all your myriad roles as actor, director and producer, do you have a favourite one?

TR: I really love directing and now I direct a lot in the theatre. I would be happy to do another film if anyone has a spare ten million dollars. I have a group of actors in Los Angeles, the Actors’ Gang, whom I have trained over the last 20 years so we have a common language and we can go deep very fast. They are ready to go on a journey with me at any time. I have a place to do it without asking for permission from anyone. We have been on five continents and have performed 1984 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream all over the world. With films you do not get the live experience but in theatre you have this immediate connection with the audience.

Q: Have all your dreams come true?

TR: I am blessed - I have three amazing children and they are my dream come true and what they are doing and saying to the world I cannot wait for you to hear what they saying. I would like to be a painter but at the moment I am not very good at it. I have no desire to be a politician because something happens to them after a while and they compromise their ideals. I am not personally cut out for that kind of life. As far as work goes I am at the editing stage of three documentaries - one is about the prison work I do, teaching workshops with other actors from the Actors’ Gang. We have been doing it for 12 years and we have discovered we have been able to transform lives so the film deals with that.

Q: Has your height been a help or a hindrance?

TR: I don’t really know. There have been some actors who are very small and don’t want to be next to me. I like being tall and I am able to see who dyes their hair - my knowledge of roots is extraordinary. I loved working with Jennifer Jason Leigh on the Coen Brothers' film The Hudsucker Proxy. She is 5ft tall and we had so many ways to make her taller and me smaller. And I just worked with Holly Hunter on an HBO show but she is a 5ft 2in dynamo.

Q: Can you explain why Milos Forman was such an influential figure for you?

TR: Milos Forman made some of the most beautiful films I have seen. Amadeus, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. I was a bit nervous when I had the chance to meet him. Sometimes when I meet people I idolise I am worried but most of the time they turn out to be really great people. And not egotistical. In his career and having had the successes he has had he retained his integrity and his vision of what a filmmaker should be. It is difficult sometimes trying to maintain a career and say No, but he did that and said he would cross a line. He gave me great inspiration and a touchstone. I loved Loves Of A Blonde because it was so illuminating about the Sixties and an indication of how we can tell stories that keep on resonating and tells about who we are, instead of explosions and superheroes. It is a simple film but with so many details about what life was like then - from the sexual repression to the cultural obstacles.

Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption
Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption

The film of his that really got me was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest because Milos somehow captured the spirit and the tenor of what was happening in our country at that time. It is a beautiful script and great story. Jack Nicholson is amazing in it and his rebellion, that is our rebellion - he was expressing all our frustrations at the time about certain rules that cannot be broken and the respect for authority and to stand up against that. We are misguided in the way we are talking about immigration - the idea that immigrants are going to steal something from us or hurt us is so ignorant, but when you think about the great achievements that have come from immigrants. In the arts you see that Milos can do five great American films and he is from the Czech Republic. We are all immigrants but we have this ugly hateful rhetoric going on. We are all from other places. Our country was built on the DNA of courageous people and it is a great thing to be proud of.

Q: Why was The Shawshank Redemption such a special film - and how do you view its success today?

TR: I feel very blessed by that film - pretty very much every day I am out about in public someone comes up to me and says something nice to me about that film so if I am having a bad day there is some positivity out there. It is awesome to have that. It is such a nice thing to be remembered for such a good film as opposed to people who are remembered for very popular films that might not have been received so well critically. I am pleased that the film has meant something for so many people, some of whom have seen it many times. It is an honour to have been in that film.

Q: Did you have any clue at the time what a phenomenon it would become?

TR: We knew it was a really good script - one of the best I had ever read. Both Morgan and I and the cast and the cinematography and we all knew that the script had great potential but we had no idea at the time how much it would resonate for so many people for so long. I do not think you can ever know that. When it came out it was not immediately a huge success. It would up with this longevity by more and more people discovering on video cassettes, then DVDs and television when it was on. It is a testament to the film itself that it did endure.

The Karlovy Vary International Festival continues until 7 July.

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