Actor-filmmaker-activist Tim Robbins

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Oscar-winning actor, director, producer, musician and activist explains why it’s important in his new stage play, Break the Whip—which he wrote and directs—to tell the story of the Jamestown settlement without Pocahontas or John Smith.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Tim Robbins back to this program. The Oscar-winning actor serves as both writer and director for a new play about Jamestown called “Break the Whip.” The production runs here in L.A. through November 13th at the Ivy Substation in Culver City. Here now a scene from “Break the Whip.”
Tavis: So when you called me and asked me to come down to rehearsal to check this out, I had no idea what I was about to see. It’s pretty mind-boggling. Imagine a piece about Jamestown that doesn’t mention Pocahontas.
Tim Robbins: Or John Smith.
Tavis: Or John Smith. It’s pretty amazing. Good to see you, man.
Robbins: Nice to see you, Tavis.
Tavis: I was talking to Kim, our producer, and I had her check the – I was just curious to see how many times you’ve been on the program. So you’ve been here a few times now, and the majority of your appearances on our show have been to promote plays that you are involved in, strangely, interestingly – not to promote movies, which we know you for doing so well.
Of course, we see you in “Shawshank Redemption” every night on some channel. (Laughter) But it said to me that you really love theater, that you’ve been here on this show more times to promote theater than box office.
Robbins: Yes, yes. I have a wonderful company of actors called The Actors Gang in Los Angeles.
Tavis: The Actors Gang.
Robbins: Yeah, and we’ve been together 28 years now and we have a – it’s more than just a theater company. We work with our community on various projects, but when we get to work on theater and when I get to work on theater with them it’s such an honor and privilege because I’m able to bring them stuff that I write and immediately know what the problems are in the writing, because they’re so good they can tell me. They bring a level of truth to their work that is unparalleled, I think.
Tavis: So they can be honest with Tim Robbins.
Robbins: Well, the honesty is what you see on the stage. (Laughter) Yeah, they’re honest with me.
Tavis: So I said this earlier, somewhat jokingly, that no John Smith, no Pocahontas. So without giving the whole story line away, how would you describe what this play about Jamestown is?
Robbins: Well, we did a workshop last summer and we took three periods of history and had them read a history text. And we went in with the Columbus discovery, Jamestown and pre-Revolutionary War Boston. Everyone gets into costume and makeup and we wore masks from time to time, and we explored those three periods.
The one that resonated the most for us was Jamestown, because it was really the story of the birth of what we know to be the spirit of America, and that is that it’s not necessarily the merchant class or the aristocracy that settled there as a business venture, but more the white indentured servants and the Native Americans who from the very start had common ground.
The first laws were passed about fraternization. It was illegal to talk to an Indian if you were a white indentured. And within 10 years, the first Africans landed in Jamestown. Not a lot of people know that, but there’s a great text called “The Birth of Black America” that we read, and in fact the Blacks from the very start had common ground with the white indentureds, and those laws were passed about no communication between these two, because the aristocracy knew that there would be a common ground, a love to be shared.
And so in the course of our workshop we discovered that this story was a love story, was a story about this unrelenting human spirit that sought common ground from the very start, and in fact the first people to escape Jamestown started families with the Indians.
Tavis: Somebody watching right now who hears you refer to Jamestown as where the spirit of America comes from might get confused, because when we talk about the founding of this country it’s a powerful narrative to be sure, but one of the things that makes me so glad that you’re doing the Jamestown piece and why I want to see it is because we know the story of the immigrant class coming through Ellis Island.
It’s a powerful story, it’s a wonderful narrative, we all know the words etched on the Statue of Liberty – “Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe, yearning to be free.”
We know that powerful immigrant story coming through Ellis Island as, in large measure, the founding, the burgeoning growth of this country. Why is it that we know that story so well and don’t know the Jamestown story?
Robbins: Well, because for some reason the historians didn’t feel that that was an important enough story, I guess. For us, the way we work, what we came to understand was that our genetic roots to this story were very strong. Emotionally, we explored this story and we found, the discoveries that we were finding were much deeper and meaningful than when you read, “There was this colony and there was a starvation period,” et cetera.
But when you read that within two days of the landing, a white had escaped to take his chances out there, it sets a – we were very curious about who that person was. And there’s no name, we can’t say this is historically accurate, but we do know they left and they left because they were seeking something better.
Isn’t that the story of America? Isn’t that the story of our western expansion? Isn’t that the story of the idea that a servant class in England would eventually become a middle class? Would eventually become an upper class? The idea of progressing forward with the human spirit as your guide, and not the story of necessarily the merchant class and how the business ventures were failing at the time in Jamestown, in fact saved by the first Africans that came, who had superior knowledge of farming and raising livestock.
That story is not told either. In fact, I’ve had historians come to the play and say, “Why’d you bring the Africans in? They didn’t come until much later.” Well, they don’t even know it themselves. So we were interested in that story, the stories of the anonymous, the vanquished, the muted voices. These were the stories that interested us.
Tavis: What do you make of – when I was sitting in the audience at the rehearsal watching this, my mind was all over the place. One of the thoughts I had was the interesting juxtaposition of the first African American president being in the White House now who himself is biracial, and – you know where I’m going with this, of course –
Robbins: Mm-hmm.
Tavis: – this fraternization that happens at Jamestown back in the 1600s. It’s an interesting kind of journey that the country has been on to arrive at this place, which is really where we started in a lot of ways.
Robbins: Right, right, and if we all – we should know that that’s where we started. There’s a documented case of a man named Robert Sweet (sp) who had a child with an African woman, and she was whipped and he was made to do public penance in James City church. This was clearly from the start a threat to the social order, the idea that there was a love between Africans and whites.
That’s why they legislated it immediately. They had to have laws that kept people divided, because they feared that united, they would be a danger to them.
Tavis: So this is a beautiful play and there’s a significant piece of it that has subtitles. You hear these various languages being spoken. I again was taken aback that these actors had to learn a few different languages. Tell me what I was hearing.
Robbins: You were hearing Lenape, which is a Native American language from the Delaware tribe. We would have done the Powhatan tribe, which is where they landed, but that doesn’t exist anymore; that language doesn’t exist.
We also heard Kimbundu, which is an African language from Angola, and the actors, when we were originally acting it, I had written it all in English and it just was ringing false that we were trying to honor these people, our forefathers, our ancestors, and we weren’t learning the language.
So the actors themselves were like – they were the ones that were the force behind it. They said, “We have to speak this in their own language in order to tap into who these people were and give respect to who those people were.”
Tavis: For those who know even a little bit about the Jamestown story, nobody prior to Tim Robbins has ever suggested to me that Jamestown is a love story. So when you say that the story that you’ve written, the story that you’re telling centered in Jamestown is a love story, how do you –
Robbins: We imagined who that Robert Sweet was and what it was that happened between those two people, and then we also looked at the records of escaped indentured servants and African slaves, and we imagined what that choice was like.
When you make the choice to go out into the wilderness, where there were hostile natives, these people were – this was not the Mayflower, this was not Thanksgiving. These people, from the start, did not want the English settlers there. So when you’re living in – how bad must it have been, how oppressive must it have been in Jamestown for them to risk their life to find something out there?
That, for us, was the story. Because we all know the history, but what is the love story? What is the story of the human spirit that makes you risk everything – death – to go out there and start a new family, a new way of life?
Those people, in making that choice, were rejecting what the English were putting upon them, and that rejection of that oppression eventually came to fruition in the American Revolution. But those were the first people that made that choice, and for us, that’s where the spirit of America started, is in making the choice to say, “No, I’m sorry – that’s unacceptable. That’s not the way to treat a human being. I’ll take my chances out there.”
Tavis: Where did this – in your creative universe, why this? Where did this come from? Why?
Robbins: I got a great company, and we did this workshop, as I said, last summer. I was interested in telling this story for many years, and this was the opportunity. I had a beautifully committed company of 23 actors, three musicians, who were ready to go on this journey, and what was happening in my life at the time sort of reflected my need to tell this story as well, the idea that there is a – the paths we choose and the paths that we choose for the future sometimes are lined with danger or the unknown. I needed to find that spirit in myself, as well.
Tavis: Am I supposed to ask you to unpack that, or am I supposed to leave that alone? (Laughter) I’m like, “Is that a segue? Is that an opening, or are you just trying to tell me to keep it moving, Tavis?” (Laughter) I’ll take that to mean, “Keep it moving, Tavis.” Okay, so I’ll keep it moving. Back to the play.
You’re not just, as I said at the top, you’re not just the writer, you’re not just the director; you got a music credit on this thing. Yeah, so you’re doing some music.
Robbins: I wrote a song.
Tavis: You wrote a song, too, yeah.
Robbins: I wrote a song with my brother, Dave.
Tavis: Yeah.
Robbins: Yeah, and it’s one of the songs in the play. There’s about six songs in the play. Most of them are traditional hymns and folk songs from as far back as we could find them; some are not historically accurate. Fifty years after Jamestown, one of the songs was written. But we did as best we could to find the music from the time.
Tavis: Not connected to this – you got a record that’s coming out pretty soon.
Robbins: Yes.
Tavis: Yeah, tell me about the record.
Robbins: I did a record with a band called the Rogues Gallery Band, and it’s coming out in Europe in the end of September and I’m going to tour in Europe in October.
Tavis: You looking forward to this, I assume?
Robbins: I’m scared. (Laughter)
Tavis: Not Tim Robbins, scared? What are you scared of?
Robbins: Oh, I don’t know. I’ve done it before. My band opened for Pearl Jam on the Vote for Change tour, 2004.
Tavis: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait – you opened – wait, wait, wait, hold up, hold up, hold up. You opened for Pearl Jam –
Robbins: Yes, we did.
Tavis: – and you’re scared? (Laughter)
Robbins: Well, that was – yeah, that’s true.
Tavis: Yeah, it’s Pearl Jam, man.
Robbins: Those were big, big crowds.
Tavis: Yeah.
Robbins: But we were the opener, and it was loud rock and roll. This is more sensitive stuff and telling stories, so I’m a little bit (unintelligible).
Tavis: For those who have not seen you, you’re singing, you’re playing, you’re doing both?
Robbins: I’m playing guitar and I’m singing, and I wrote the songs.
Tavis: Yeah. Have you always had the gift of music or you grew into this over time?
Robbins: My dad was a musician, my brother is a really talented musician, my mom was a musician. Yeah, it was a lot of music in the family.
Tavis: I think people who know your work and know what a wonderful humanitarian you are won’t be surprised by this – so we had to adjust our taping of this conversation tonight, today, with Tim Robbins because he had a prior commitment that caused us to push the taping a little bit later so we can make our cut so you could see this, but he got here in time.
But we pushed it back because he had a prior commitment, and you today were at a prison.
Robbins: Yes.
Tavis: What were you doing?
Robbins: Well, The Actors Gang does work with incarcerated inmates up in Norco prison here in California. We do eight-week workshop periods. We go once a week for about four and a half hours and we do a theater workshop with these guys.
They’re pretty hardcore dudes. They’re in there for various reasons. We don’t know the reasons or want to know the reasons. The point is rehabilitation, the point is to reduce their recidivism rate, and we find great results with our work.
The guys testify that it turns their life around and that they find ways to communicate that are productive and not destructive through the emotional work they do in this theater workshop.
The Actors Gang has come to understand many years ago that being a theater company isn’t enough, hat you are a part of a community, and it’s one of our responsibilities to find as many things as we can do to help the community and particularly in this economy, and so we’ve got education programs with children in the Culver City area where our theater is.
We started those programs through volunteerism because of the cuts in the public school system in California. We figured we could fill in a gap and so every day in our theater we have either grade school, middle school or high school kids in there working on finding their voice creatively.
We also have reduced our ticket prices as well in this economy. We figured it was more important that the theater be full with the community than to keep theater an elitist art and charge way too much money that only a few people can afford.
Tavis: When I’m listening to you talk about the work you’re doing in the prison, I made a joke earlier about Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption.” This is like Andy Dufresne coming to real life. In the prison you’re building a library for the guys in prison, and now you’re doing workshops. But that was just –
Robbins: But I get to leave.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Well, you left in “Shawshank,” too. And whoa, the way you left – what a story, how you got out of there, but that’s another conversation for another time. But I just thought about that. In real life, you are doing work inside of a prison helping people, which is pretty amazing. But I digress on that.
Robbins: Well, listen, it’s my honor to do it. I view what we do as part of the gift that we’re given, and I’ve been so lucky in this profession. I just think it gives me so much to give back; I almost view it as a selfish thing because I get so much out of it.
Tavis: That’s beautiful to hear; beautiful to see, moreover. Back to the arts – given all the stuff you’ve laid out, the changes you’ve made, the adjustments you guys have made, reducing ticket prices, programs for kids in Culver City, it’s all wonderful work. You ever get the sense that we’re losing our appreciation for the arts?
You said you didn’t want it to be an elitist thing. I wonder whether or not you think that as everyday people we are losing, or never had the way we should have had, an appreciation for the arts?
Robbins: I think that accessibility is the key, and we all have access to movies, we all have access to music, but we don’t have access to theater. Part of the problem with that is something that I figured out when we were touring in Spain last year with our production of “1984.”
We had packed crowds every night, and we had kids in there with nose rings and dyed green hair and stuff, and I was wondering about that, and I had this revelation about our first exposure to theater in the United States, it’s not so good. Music, we get – if your parents have any taste you get the Beatles or Mozart or Beethoven.
Movies, we have the most gifted animators that are creating great stories. In visual arts your parents could take you to a museum and see beautiful art or show you a book with great art. In theater, our first theater experience, most of us, is watching a really bad high school play. (Laughter) And you’re there because your friend’s in it, and you swear that you will never, ever go through this pain again. (Laughter)
You’ll never watch another 16-year-old play Willie Loman. That’s just not going to happen. So when we were in Europe, the revelation was, and I asked people there, is that they get to see theater from a very early age. They get to see the best theater. The state makes it available to the children in schools so that they see high quality, mind-blowing theater at an early age.
That creates an appreciation. That creates a desire to see. That happens in Spain, that happens in France and England, and it’s a smart thing to do. So what we’re trying to do in The Actors Gang is compensate for that, opening our doors to children.
We do free theater in the parks on Sundays, and Saturdays and Sundays in summer we do free Shakespeare out there. Hundreds of kids come and we hope by doing that they will create an appreciation so that when they get to be teenagers they’ll come back to this building and be with us.
Tavis: Did Tim Robbins get started in a bad high school play?
Robbins: Yes, I was in a few bad high school plays. I played Ragueneau in
Cyrano de Bergerac” and I had no right to play that part. (Laughter)
Tavis: So from that inauspicious beginning to the Academy stage and all the work you’re doing in the theater and beyond now, how is it at this point in your life that you’re making decisions about what you will do next? You’re so busy – when I saw the production, you’re so knee-deep in this thing, and not even knee-deep; neck-deep in this thing, how are you doing that and figuring out how to do the Hollywood movie thing?
Robbins: Well, at this point it’s like it’s what stirs your heart, because I don’t know, you get to a certain age and you think – you get a script and it’s not so good, and there’s an offer to do it, and you think okay, that’s eight weeks of my life, and you start doing those one after the other and what are you doing? Essentially, that’s the question.
I have the opportunity to do what I want to do, and as long as I can do it and live my life that way, I will. It doesn’t matter to me that it’s on a smaller scale. It doesn’t matter that it’s in a theater, because I’m able to do something that I really care about. I figure if I can do that my entire life, then there’s certainly a happiness in that.
Certainly more happiness than slogging along trying to find work and doing things that I’m not too crazy about.
Tavis: Yet I’ve heard actor after actor tell me in this very chair that you’ve got to pay the bills.
Robbins: Oh, yeah, you do. I do. I do that kind of work too. (Laughter) But the last one, I got real lucky on, and I think it’s going to be a great movie – “The Green Lantern.” But I got to be in New Orleans for nine weeks.
Tavis: Oh, what a great place to hang out.
Robbins: I just heard so much great music and so I’m blessed, let’s put it that way.
Tavis: You’re doing it – and not to give too much away – what are you doing? Can you tell me what you’re doing in “The Green Lantern?”
Robbins: I play the father of the bad guy. (Laughter) The thing is, my bad parenting actually almost results in the destruction of the world. If I had been a better parent (laughter) I don’t think that Peter Sarsgaard would want to destroy the world.
Tavis: I think there are a whole lot of parents, with all due respect, who we could accuse of – label with that. If you had just been a better parent, the world might be a better place.
Robbins: It’s all your fault.
Tavis: It’s all your fault, exactly. But I’ve been hearing – we’ve been talking about this and I’ve had a couple of guests on the show who are somehow, maybe even tangentially, connected to this project. Is this thing slated to come out yet? Is it slated yet?
Robbins: Oh, yeah, it’s next summer, I think.
Tavis: Everybody’s been talking about it for the longest time – “Green Lantern,” yeah.
Robbins: Yeah, it’s going to be a big, green thing. (Laughter)
Tavis: Finally, so you’ve got big hopes for this play here that’s about to open. You going to tour this thing eventually?
Robbins: Yes, we’ve been touring. Our last five productions that we’ve done we’ve toured all over the world. Not a lot of people know it in Los Angeles, but we’ve been in 40 states with our productions. We’ve been on four continents. We want to tour this one. We want to tour it all over the world. It’s a big one, though. It doesn’t fit the economic model for a touring production.
Tavis: A big cast, yeah.
Robbins: Yeah. So we need help in doing that, and we need people that see why it would be an important thing to bring to their various communities. But we have relationships all over the country with various universities and theater presenters, and we’re hoping that they come to L.A. to see it as well.
Tavis: It is called “Break the Whip,” written, directed and music score by Tim –
Robbins: Well, no, my brother did the music score. (Laughter) I don’t want to take credit for that.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, okay –
Robbins: By Dave.
Tavis: Yeah, big Dave does the music score here. It’s called “Break the Whip” at the Ivy Substation in Culver City. You’ve got to get a chance to see this now before it hits the road and starts traveling around the world, set to open here this week here in Los Angeles. Tim, good to have you on, and I enjoyed your play.
Robbins: Thanks for having me. Thank you very much.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm