The Oscar-winning actor discusses his new HBO comedy series, The Brink, and shares on his Actors’ Gang Prison Project.
Actor Tim Robbins
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with Academy Award winner, Tim Robbins. The versatile actor has starred in such classic films as “Shawshank Redemption” and “Bull Durham” and is now appearing opposite Jack Black in the new HBO series, “The Brink”.
He’ll also share tonight on the groundbreaking acting workshops that his theater group, The Actors’ Gang, is providing for incarcerated men and women in the California prison system.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Tim Robbins coming up right now.
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Tavis: So pleased to welcome Tim Robbins back to this program. The Oscar-winning actor stars opposite Jack Black in the new dark comedy series, “The Brink”, which premiers this Sunday, June 21 on HBO. In the series, which is a political satire, Robbins plays the womanizing and often drunk [laugh] Secretary of State Walter Larson.
Robbins is also the founding artistic director of The Actors’ Gang, a theater group that does wonderful work for arts rehabilitation in California prisons. We’ll talk about that tonight, I suspect. Before, though, we start our conversation, a look at a clip from Tim’s new HBO series, “The Brink”.
Tavis: Not the Secretary of State, man [laugh]. What is John Kerry and Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger, what are they gonna say about this?
Tim Robbins: I deny any–it’s not about them. It’s not about them [laugh]. It’s about satire. It’s about creating a new Secretary of State.
Tavis: I’m laughing. It may be about them. You just don’t know it’s about them. It may be an amalgam of all of them. We just don’t happen to know that. So tell me more about the series, yeah.
Robbins: Well, it’s set in the nuclear crisis in Pakistan. It’s done in the spirit of “Dr. Strangelove”, the Kubrick film satire about nuclear annihilation. It’s a very, very serious subject matter, but approached with courage, as true satire must. You always must dare to tick off the people in power. I don’t believe the satirist should be invited to the fancy cocktail party.
Tavis: How will this be regarded in Washington, do you suspect?
Robbins: I don’t know. We’ll see. I know of a couple of people that have seen it from that world and have thought we got it pretty accurately. Who knows? I hope it angers some people. That would be nice.
Tavis: Unpack that for me. Angers them in what way?
Robbins: If we get too close to the truth or if we expose hypocrisy that might be there.
Tavis: Because there’s so much stuff that comes across your desk, so many things that you could do as an actor and director and producer and all that, when you see something like this, what was the appeal for you?
Robbins: Well, preface that by three years of turning down series for various networks. Just the idea the idea that I didn’t get excited by any of those scripts and then I read this one. And in the first scene, I understand, oh, I’m going to be playing the Secretary of State.
In the first scene, he’s with an Asian call girl in a hotel room tied up and engaging in some crazy roleplaying. And I thought, well, okay, I’ll read further [laugh] and it turned out to be quite an interesting satire, which isn’t done very often.
Satire is hard to get right. You need people that are committed to not only telling the truth in a way that reveals absurd behavior, but also that are intelligent about the world and know what’s going on in the back rooms of power and are willing and able to reveal that.
So as I read the script, by the time I got to the end of the pilot script, I thought, well, I’m in. This is great. Went and met the producers of it, was very impressed by their take on it, their ambition to live up to “Strangelove”.
They told me about what happens in the course of the season and the idea that this guy, although being the voice of reason in a war room that wants to go to war, nuclear war, this guy wants to use diplomacy, wants to appeal to the better nature of people, try to resolve this conflict in a peaceful way, but he’s also complicated. He’s also challenged as far as the way he lives his life. He’s a little morally complicated.
Tavis: So you mentioned “Strangelove” a couple of times. “Dr. Strangelove” is a film. This is a series. The snarkiness can wear off after a couple of episodes. The satire can get a little dry, okay, you get it. Again, so a film is one thing. Trying to stretch this out over a series is a different challenge.
Robbins: Well, this is the new challenge in television right now. When I was coming up as a writer and director, I never would have imagined that it would be possible to create a five-hour long formatted piece of entertainment or, with some of the hour-long series, 10 and 12 hours. You can tell a story in a much more interesting way, and I believe we sustained it.
I believe the writers knew that the snarkiness was something to avoid. Cleverness was something to avoid. We had to remain rooted in the reality of the situation, treat that seriously and find the absurd behavior within that. I think they did a great job with it.
Tavis: Satire, for me at least, good satire is also enlightening and sometimes even empowering. I don’t want to overstate it, but it’s certainly enlightening. Do we learn something from this?
Robbins: Well, I hope so…
Tavis: Or are we just entertained?
Robbins: No. I hope it illuminates a truth about the way we deal with the world, about the way the world deals with us. I hope it makes people laugh, certainly, but I also think there’s an element of illumination in it and I think that’s important in a satire.
I think you’re absolutely right that satire is a way to reach an audience in a way that is not appealing to their fear or to their prior prejudice about a situation, which I think oftentimes television drama does. But it appeals to their sense of the truth in a way that allows them in. Humor is a great way to engage an audience and, if you can do so with intelligence and with courage, I think you can make a great satire.
Tavis: The flip side to that satire is that there are those who’ll say you’ve gone too far, is nothing sacred. And are you prepared for those persons?
Robbins: Well, you know what? It’s not our job to be sacred. It’s our job to create tough satire and I’m sure there’ll be people that might think we went too far.
Tavis: Here’s why I ask this. Let me just come out and be bold about this. The reason why I ask this is because I had my own point of view which we never really got into on this show in great detail because it wasn’t necessary or relevant perhaps. But this fiasco that Sony put out, didn’t put out, put back out again, there’s great debate.
I remember being at a dinner party one night. This went on for like hours, a debate about whether or not Sony was right or wrong to have done that in the first place. So George Clooney and a bunch of other artists and others, you know, have their own point of view that you can’t be intimidated, you got to put this–I get all of that.
On the other hand, only Hollywood, white Hollywood, respectfully, would dare put a film out where the plot line, even satirically, is killing a sitting head of state. They didn’t make up a character, Tim. They didn’t make up some fictional head of state.
I mean, we would never put a film out about killing a sitting U.S. head of state. We’ve told those stories, but they were true stories about Lincoln and about Kennedy. Hollywood would not dare put a film out, even about the Black president, about him, you know, being the target of an assassination. We wouldn’t do that.
So we go to North Korea, we pick a sitting head of state, use his real name, get somebody that looks like him and we do a film about killing a sitting head of state. I was troubled by that for a lot of different reasons which we won’t get into tonight. They billed that as satire, but I thought that as across the line for some of us.
Robbins: I didn’t see that film, so…
Tavis: I didn’t see it either. I refused to see it, but…
Robbins: I can’t really comment on it, but…
Tavis: You take my point, though. It was satire, but…
Robbins: Oh, for sure.
Tavis: But it was about a sitting head of state, though.
Robbins: What I found really curious about that was that no one in this debate mentioned the fact that the CIA in the course of the film was trying to get these guys to kill him.
Robbins: Somehow that’s not even talked about. I mean, shouldn’t that be a concern?
Tavis: Because it’s all satire. That’s my point. It’s satire, so it doesn’t matter that the CIA’s trying to get them to do it. It doesn’t matter that it’s a sitting head of state. We’re just supposed to laugh and chuck-chuck-chuck because it’s a satirical film.
Robbins: I understand. I understand that point of view.
Tavis: That’s why I think, you know, satire can be illuminating. It can be empowering, but we’ll see. We’ll see where this goes. That’s my own ax to grind. I don’t know how we got into that, but [laugh] it’s a fascinating…
Robbins: You’re gonna work through this, Tavis.
Tavis: Yeah [laugh]. It just troubles me that, you know, this is a free speech issue, you know, and you’ve done work on this free speech ain’t free. It has a cost and there is, I think, a line to it and I think Hollywood hiding all the time behind the fact it’s film, it’s satire, you can’t take a joke. I mean, anyway…
Robbins: Satire is tough to do.
Tavis: It is tough, I agree.
Robbins: And you have to have people with courage doing it. One would hope that they are also responsible enough to be well-educated on the material that they’re doing and do not try to provoke. I think that’s the issue.
Provocation is important for satire, so you have to be able to go after sacred cows. So in a way, I kind of support what they’re doing. I understand your point about it being an active head of state and how that could be received as an offensive thing to the people in that country.
But I’m also, you know, the thing about freedom and the thing about freedom of speech is you have to allow people to make mistakes in that kind of way and you have to kind of support it, you know. Even though you might not agree with the way they did it, I personally support their ability to do it and their right to do it.
Tavis: I love you. We disagree on that a little bit.
Tavis: That ain’t going to stop our friendship, though [laugh]. I support their right to do it too. I just think, though, that it has to be done responsibly. Even when you’re making people laugh, it’s got to be done responsibly. And when you cross a line to a sitting head of state and, again, we would never do that to our own president, it’s a double standard.
And the fact that we can think that’s funny and hide behind, you know, this notion of free speech, you know–anyway, I digress on that point. Let’s talk about the other work that you’re always doing, The Actors’ Gang, the work that you do that I’m, quite frankly, most proud of.
Robbins: Why, thank you.
Tavis: Tell me how that’s coming along. Last year when I last saw you, you guys were like in five venues and I’ve heard the numbers like jump now.
Robbins: The last time I talked to you, we were in three, now we’re five.
Tavis: In three. Now you’re in five, right.
Robbins: We just started a pilot program in Lancaster. This is The Actor’s Gang prison project. We go into prisons and work with inmates, male and female, in rehabilitation. Started it eight years ago, it’s really taken off. The Department of Corrections recognizes it as a cognitive therapy.
The State of California has started to, actually through our advocacy and our lobbying, has reinstated Arts-in-Corrections as part of their budget which they had eliminated about five years ago. And we got it permanently, I believe, reinstated as a line item this year and we have tripled the budget of what they’re putting into that.
We feel it’s a very important thing to deal with. Public safety issue for everybody, right and left, there are lot of people in prison and 85 to 90% of them are getting out and they are going to be living in your neighborhood or close to your neighborhood.
So wouldn’t you want them coming out with more tools to deal with the frustrations and their inability to process emotions? Wouldn’t you want them to come out of prison with better tools to manage those kinds of things that wound them up in prison in the first place? So what we do is interesting because we didn’t know it was going to be as effective as it is.
When we started it, a woman named Sabra Williams started the project and what we soon discovered was, because of the demand for emotional honesty in the way that we work in The Actors’ Gang and because of the approach that is quite physical to the work we do onstage, somehow this combination of elements provided a way for these guys and for these women to get in touch with their emotions in an honest way that some of them had never done.
So what happens is we witness transformation. We witness these guys turning from sullen, withdrawn, hostile people into leaders that are able to change the people around them as well by eye contact, by being able to express what is on their mind, by not hiding or suppressing emotions.
You know, I get a group of guys working together and I get them in a state of sadness. All playing characters, by the way. It’s a buffer for them to be able to express the emotion to play a character, to express the emotion.
But I get them in a room and I take them to a funeral of one of the characters and they’re all standing before this casket and you see these guys, you know, that’s real emotion in their eyes. And when I say, “Look at each other, share this emotion with each other”, this is the first time this has happened in prison for them.
To be able to look in another man’s eyes without the tough veneer, without the mask, as they put it, that they put on on the prison yard, and to be able to have empathy for someone else’s emotion, is a truly extraordinary, profound thing that changes them.
And they create bonds in this room that are far more deep and important to them than any bonds they created with gang members in the past or prison inmates in the past.
They say I’ve got this guy’s back, and we make sure that our classes are integrated. And you know prison yards, there’s African Americans over here, there’s whites, there’s Latinos over there, all separated. In our room together, sharing together, creating bonds together that are deep, lasting bonds, actually can wind up changing the culture of the prison.
Tavis: There are a couple things about that that strike me as interesting which, again, as I said earlier, I adore the work that you do in this regard. One, because it says to me that, while we routinely hear that prisoners cannot be rehabilitated, when you say the word prison rehabilitation, people start laughing.
It’s like oxymoronic to put those two words in the same sentence. What do you mean, rehabilitation? We just had a conversation about this on our show not long ago about this notion of what it really means to rehabilitate prisoners. This is working, number one, so that’s fascinating to me.
Secondly, though, it says something to me about–and this is, I guess, the flip side of my critique of the whole Sony movie a moment ago–that at its best, at its best, what art does, whether it’s in Hollywood or outside, at its best what art does is heal. It heals, it gets to the humanity and the dignity of people, and that’s what I love about the art form.
I mean, it’s your domain, not mine, but when I see work that hits me in that core and I see how it can heal people and change people, that’s the beauty of art. And it scares me because that’s so lacking in our society today, the appreciation for that kind of art.
And I wonder every time I think about you and see this work, I wonder whether these guys might have ended up in prison in the first place in an acting program later in life if they’d had access to those kinds of arts on the front end.
Robbins: You’re dead on right. I ask all the guys we work with in our work, how many of you had access to arts…
Tavis: Music, anything, yeah.
Robbins: 80% none, none at all. And I see the direct correlation between cuts in art education in our public schools and the rise in the prison population. It’s pretty obvious to me. What art provides is, yes, it provides not only a sense of humanity and shared experience with other people, but it also can illuminate a soul that is lost. I remember in high school, I wasn’t particularly adapt at mathematics or science. I wasn’t going to be a scientist or a doctor.
I found my self-worth through performance. I found my reason to go to high school through my theater club and I wonder often how many children are dropping out because they don’t have that life line. And all it takes is one class to want to go to school. I mean, you can suffer through the other things if something…
Tavis: You got to find that one class, though, yeah.
Robbins: If something is lighting your spirit in school. And oftentimes, what lights the spirit isn’t mathematics. It’s some kind of visual art or music program or theater program or physical education, which has also been cut. So it’s so obvious to me that it’s such a lack of vision in legislators to cut arts education in schools. It’s betraying the future generations. It’s denying them a fundamental right of education.
I think that art is just as important as math or science and, in fact, they’ve done many studies that show that the combination of the two lead to a better mathematician, a better scientist. More imagination, hence I can think outside the box, hence I can imagine a different theory. So, you know, we endeavor at The Actors’ Gang also to provide that in the public school system.
Last year we worked with eight public schools in the Los Angeles area in in-school emersion and after-school programs in grade school, middle school and high school providing these kids, most of them for the first time, the idea that they can get up onstage and perform or, even better, just simply giving them the empowerment to be able to stand in front of people and speak and look them in the eye honestly and say some truth.
That’s really important for a child and I see their faces light up and we see the transformation all the time. And it’s, for us, a great honor. It’s something that feeds our teachers.
I have a great group of actors not only great onstage, but are really great people that go out and, at first, this was all volunteer. For years, this was volunteers and recently we’ve been able to get some funding to pay these educators.
Tavis: I was thinking a moment ago about–you said it a couple of times there, you referenced it, that just the basic value and the basic respect that comes along with looking somebody in the eye. Just a simple thing and you can’t be an actor and not look somebody in the eye. We live in a society that where you do that, you can get killed for that, you know.
Tavis: But the respect that comes along with that is something that a lot of these guys are just discovering for the first time.
Robbins: We had one guy that had been down for 30 years or something and said that I was able to go to my parole hearing, look them in the eye with confidence and tell them that I have rehabilitated myself…
Tavis: Sounds like “Shawshank Redemption” to me! Sounds like “Shawshank” [laugh].
Robbins: Well, he got his date, he got his date.
Tavis: He got his date?
Robbins: He got his date, he got his date.
Tavis: See, that’s what I want to hear. Morgan Freeman, I love it, I love it. Is that movie on like every night somewhere or what? It’s like the best movie ever, man.
Robbins: I know.
Tavis: And it’s on somewhere like every night.
Robbins: I just feel so blessed to have been through that experience and the experience of the years and years since then with most of the people that stopped me on the street that mentioned that film not only are wanting to say that they saw the film and they liked it, but are wanting to share some experience of this movie really fundamentally changed me. And that is a pretty…
Tavis: Now you’re making me dissect this movie because we were just talking about the value of art. The scene where you play the record?
Robbins: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Oh, Lord.
Robbins: And how music can lift the spirit.
Tavis: Oh, Lord, that scene is the most powerful–that thing is rich, man. I got to let you go. You were talking earlier about when you were in school. I recently had a guest on this program who just finished his own schooling at a place called USC. You may know him. His name is Jack Robbins [laugh].
Robbins: Yes. I know him very well.
Tavis: I bet you know him very well. There are a couple of Jacks in your life. Jack Black on “The Brink” on HBO, your new series, Jack Robbins directing a wonderful project. We just had him on with his mother, Susan Sarandon, here a few weeks ago. I assume you must be a proud papa of Jack.
Robbins: So proud of him. So proud of my other children as well. I feel like we did a really great job to…
Tavis: There’s Jack. See Jack on the screen there? There he is on our set, yeah.
Robbins: To be able to guide these beautiful souls forward into a life of purpose, I think that is the achievement that we both wished for and I believe we’re seeing come to fruition, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Tavis: Well, I can only imagine because, I mean, every parent wants their child to grow up to do something that’s meaningful and has worth and value. But to take on a project like this, homelessness, that’s a huge first step.
Robbins: Well, that man, Jack Henry Robbins, has the largest most beautiful heart I have ever experienced and has such empathy and has had it since he was born. And I’ve been witnessing it over the years and have been honored to witness it, and I am continually impressed and enamored of him.
Tavis: Well, with all due respect to Jack Henry Robbins, he has two parents with awfully big hearts who care about issues that matter in Susan Sarandon and one Tim Robbins, who is now the star of a new project called “The Brink” on HBO premiering this week with his friend, Jack Black. Check it out and we will all laugh ourselves to tears. Tim, good to have you on, man.
Robbins: My pleasure.
Tavis: I love you, and I appreciate you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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