Following his split with the actress Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins is taking it easier, getting back to his musical roots with a new band. But that doesn't mean his environmental efforts will take a back seat.
Tim Robbins: 'I'm trying to be less serious now'
Tim Robbins, Oscar-winning actor, The Shawshank Redemption star, left-wing Hollywood rabble-rouser and Prius-driving enemy of Big Oil, has had it with films. No, really. If not quite retired, the 52-year-old is giving his career, and indeed his life, a serious rethink.
"For me right now, the most exciting thing I can think of is travelling around the world, and playing my music everywhere I go." he says, laying down the gauntlet right from the start. "Basically, I had an epiphany recently, when I woke up in the middle of the night and said: 'What am I doing with my life? What have I not done that would give me joy? And what would I regret not having done if it all collapsed tomorrow?' And the answer was: 'My music!'"
Robbins, dressed tip to toe in black (denims, shirt, boots) and kicking back in the office of his London-based record company, is serious about his music. But not that serious. Amiable, quick-witted and always seemingly on the verge of a gag or a quiet punch line, he is aware of the contradictions and clichés that surround the very idea of a Hollywood actor segueing into a rock career.
"For the longest time I was thinking of calling my band AFAB - for Another F***ing Actor Band. Because I get it. And I think it's totally justified when people criticise actors for making albums and forming rock bands simply because they can. But I don't think I've followed that route," he says.
Instead, his route is detailed and complex, and encompasses a rich musical heritage in childhood, a long-time friendship with music stars such as Rufus and Martha Wainwright, and that aforementioned midnight epiphany - which arrived, incidentally, after a year that included the ending of his 21-year relationship with his partner, Susan Sarandon. The result of all this is a musical project that he calls, jokingly, his "midlife crisis album". Simply titled Tim Robbins and The Rogues Gallery Band, this debut album is a rich confection of folk-rock ballads and foot-tappers that have undeniable echoes of Leonard Cohen, Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan throughout.
Lyrically, they are mostly songs of romantic desperation, with Robbins wailing repeatedly on one track, Queen of Dreams, "A look in your eyes! In your eyes!" Or on another, Moment in the Sun, he asks of a broken romance, "Would you have run as fast if I'd been around? Would I have watched you fly, or would I have held you down?"
They are songs impossible to listen to without seeing shadows of Robbins and Sarandon's failed relationship after two decades, no?
"I think it's fair to say that however you perceive it is legitimate," he says with that trademark Robbins smile, all dimples and squinty eyes, hiding a world, it seems, of inner emotion. "But it really depends on the song. I know what made me write each one of them, but yes, it is fair to say that there is a sadness to it, and a lovelorn quality."
He adds nonetheless that he likes his lyrics to be as ambiguous as possible, and that he doesn't like to limit his songs by making them explicitly autobiographical. He says, too, that his love of music, unlike some actors, goes right back to his childhood and to the essence of who he is. He was six years old, he explains, when his late father, Gilbert, then a founding member of the influential 1960s folk band The Highwaymen, dragged him and his three siblings (two sisters, one brother) on stage at the Saratoga Springs music festival in upstate New York to sing Three Dog Night's counterculture anthem Black and White. "There was a big folk scene up there in summer, and my dad just got us up onstage. He always encouraged us to sing, and it became for me a matter of, 'I want to do that, and I want to excel at it!'"
Robbins describes the rest of his childhood, growing up in Greenwich Village, New York, in less than glamorous terms. Though not unhappy, the family lived in a one-bedroom apartment where space was a premium - "I had to sleep in a walk-in closet with my brother from the age of 13 to 19," he says. His parents were political, he says, and were a source of his beliefs later in life (he would famously speak out at the 1993 Oscars, with then-partner Sarandon, to protest against the treatment of Haitian immigrants with HIV in Guantanamo Bay). But the key moment from those years came when he abandoned his musical ambitions for the stage at age 13.
"My sisters were working at the [famous Off-Broadway playhouse] Theater for the New City, and I used to go with them for company," he says. "And one day the director there asked me if I wanted to do a play. I said, 'Sure.' And that was it."
From then, and right through school and college, Robbins notched up the familiar roll call of theatre productions and bit-part TV roles (The Love Boat), eventually pinging between New York and Los Angeles, and establishing his own theatre group, The Actors Gang, together with fellow struggling actor John Cusack. Robbins eventually found fame playing the boyish baseball ace Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham (he met Sarandon while filming), but truly touched the A-list only after starring in the classic prison drama The Shawshank Redemption.
"The fame that came with that, I found very uncomfortable," he says. "It's a dangerous thing, and it can destroy you as an actor. Because you can't be waiting for the cameras to roll, thinking: 'I am great, wait till you see this!' You have to be thinking: 'This is all a mystery, and it requires humility, or else I'm going to suck.'"
Robbins continued undaunted on the Tinseltown trail, adding a directorial string to his bow and even snagging a Best Director Academy Award nomination for his powerful essay on capital punishment, Dead Man Walking (starring Sarandon). In 2004 he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as a victim of abuse in Mystic River, but he says his career took its toll on his family (he has two boys, born in 1989 and 1992), and that he eventually reached a point where "I didn't want to direct any movies, and the acting I was doing in other people's films I didn't really love".
He turned to theatre directing, began writing songs and established a new acting rule for himself - "I was only going to act in movies that I'd want to see myself." Thus he starred in Human Nature, Code 46 and The Secret Life of Words - "all beautiful movies, but no one saw them".
In fact, more people may have seen - or at least heard - Robbins's reaction last year to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It is no wonder that one of Hollywood's leading liberals includes the environment as one of his causes - he and Sarandon famously drove their Toyota Prius hybrid vehicle to several Oscar ceremonies - but his comments and actions after the April 2010 ecological disaster were as strident as his earlier diatribes against the US military involvement in Iraq.
In quick order, Robbins took a helicopter tour of the affected area with principals of the Gulf Restoration Network, and called the crude oil they saw in the water "blobs of death". He then lent his support to Gulf Aid, a New Orleans benefit for those adversely affected by the oil pumping into Gulf waters after the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon offshore well. He called BP's response to the disaster "shameful, irresponsible and criminal", and he pointed to the history of offshore oil leaks. "If you're going to drill offshore, you're going to have spillage," he told reporters backstage.
"What we're trying to do here is build an emergency fund for those who'll be affected," Robbins said of the benefit for commercial fishermen who were suddenly out of work as Louisiana coastal waters were closed. "Citizens of Louisiana realise it's up to them to take care of their own."
Robbins then went on to serve as one of the narrators for the Gulf Restoration Network's Gulf Tides video series chronicling the disaster.
Last year also saw the end of his relationship with Sarandon, and the rebirth of Robbins began soon after.
"I'm trying to be less serious now," he says. "And I'm trying to enjoy life. Because I'm coming out of a period that was not very fun, so it's time to live, and find joy and laugh." The couple, meanwhile, view the split in amicable terms, and present a united front, focusing on their sons. "I would say that, right now, it's all about my kids," he confirms. "That's how I have to define my past. We raised some great kids, and I know we're both proud of that."
He speaks at length about his boys, and about how exciting it is to connect with them as they get older. And then he talks, too, about his future, and about his role in the upcoming comic book film Green Lantern - surely a blatant violation of his new acting rule?
"What can I say? It was in New Orleans, which was fantastic." he says, looking slightly sheepish. "And I have a mortgage to pay!"
He finishes, though, with more descriptions of the new Tim Robbins. How, once a vibrant political activist, he doesn't even watch the news anymore. Or how much he enjoyed directing his most recent theatre project, Break the Whip, which tells the story of the Jamestown colony of 1607. Or how he sang at Madison Square Garden for the 90th birthday celebration of folk legend Pete Seeger.
He contemplates these moments, beams his best smile and decides aloud with seemingly newfound wisdom: "It's a different road that I am looking at now, and it's full of infinite possibilities. So, yes, it is a time for revitalization. I get to dream about what my future is now."
Green Lantern is due to be released this summer.
The Robbins file
BORN October 16, 1958, West Covina, California
SCHOOLING Stuyvesant High School in New York, State University of New York, UCLA Film School
FAMILY Father Gilbert (who died April 2011) was a folk musician and mother Mary, an actress. Has two sons, John "Jack" Henry and Miles Guthrie, with ex-partner Susan Sarandon.
FIRST JOB An uncredited role as an assassin in Sidney Lumet's award-winning Network.
A MANHATTAN ALTAR BOY MEMORY "Our priest took a whole bunch of boys to see Deliverance. At the end all I could think was, 'Did he think, by the title, that it was a religious movie?'"
NICKNAME The Cardinal. "My father called me that because I was so serious as a kid. He thought I was old when I was born."
FAVOURITE MOTTO "The only people that can't sing are the ones that don't sing."
BIGGEST MYTH ABOUT HIS CHILDHOOD That he grew up in a community of trendy Greenwich Village liberals. "It was a very old world of conservative racists. One kid in my class was a German who had a Nazi flag in his apartment. In 1966!"
BIGGEST MYTH ABOUT HIS CAREER That he's lost work because of his political views. "Actually the opposite is true. I'm sure I wouldn't have worked with Robert Altman had I not been so outspoken."
CRIMINAL SECRET "I stole letters from a movie marquee when I was a kid. I still have them in my house in the country."
CAN'T STAND Political duplicity. "Unfortunately, the BP oil spill revealed that [Barack] Obama, like every president before him, is beholden to the oil industry."
SEEMS FITTING The man whose breakthrough film role was that of a pitcher is an avid baseball (and ice hockey) fan. He supports the New York Mets and the New York Rangers and often attends games. He narrated a documentary on the 1969 Mets for the SNY channel.
Five great roles for Robbins
BULL DURHAM (1988) Co-starring with real-life partner-to-be Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner in his breakthrough film, Robbins shines as the rookie minor league baseball pitcher Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh. He loses the girl but makes it to "The Show" of the major leagues.
BOB ROBERTS (1992) Robbins not only stars in this satirical mockumentary about a right-wing US senatorial candidate, but also makes his screenwriting and directorial debut. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award as Best Actor, but lost to himself in The Player.
THE PLAYER (1992) Robbins heads an ensemble cast as a studio executive who gets away with murder in this Robert Altman tale of crime, drama and blackmail in modern Hollywood.
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) "Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane," co-star Morgan Freeman says as a wizened convict in this much-admired prison drama based on a Stephen King novella. Yet hope drives Robbins's character, and eventually sets him free.
MYSTIC RIVER (2003) Robbins won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and Sean Penn nabbed the trophy for Best Actor for their roles in this critically acclaimed drama, directed by Clint Eastwood. Robbins plays a man traumatised from having been molested as a child and is also a suspect in the killing of the daughter of Penn's character.