Oscar winner Tim Robbins finding allies on all fronts

Actor, playwright, antiwar activist discusses `neocons,' extols free speech

Theater

March 21, 2004|By Blake Green | Blake Green,NEWSDAY

Tim Robbins begs to differ.

Embedded, his play about war in the Middle East that has attracted sold-out audiences to the Public Theater in New York City, has been criticized as "preaching to the converted." The recent Oscar- winner's comment: an emphatic "No way!"

"For one thing, I'm not sure who the choir is," says Robbins, his lanky frame folded into a cushy sofa in his Chelsea office, which is decorated with movie posters, including ones for the sources of the two Academy Awards in his household.

He just won his best supporting actor prize for Mystic River; partner Susan Sarandon won best actress for 1996's Dead Man Walking, which he wrote and directed.

"A lot of Democrats and liberals supported the war. And some Republicans have seen it and loved it. They're as concerned with the rise of the `neocons' as I am," says Robbins, using slang for "neoconservatives."

They form the least sympathetic of the three groups on which Embedded focuses. Robbins wrote and directed the play, which is produced by the Actors Gang, the Los Angeles-based theater he runs as artistic director and chief financier.

The other two groups are journalists assigned to cover the conflict - as the title indicates - and soldiers involved in the war, which, although the oil-rich rogue state is called Gomorrah, is strikingly similar to Iraq.

Robbins, his soulful, youthful face beneath a hairstyle of peaks and valleys, says he wrote Embedded in the wake of intense personal criticism about his and Sarandon's antiwar activities.

"I was trying to raise questions" about why the invasion took place, he says, insisting that he doesn't know "what the message is. I was trying to tell a story ... write some satire." He's aware of "many mischaracterizations of the play," beginning in Los Angeles, where it was first produced late last year and also played to sold-out houses. (Its run at the Public has been extended to April 11.)

Opinions about Embedded haven't been the only mischaracterizations, as far as Robbins is concerned. He says he was surprised when he was repeatedly asked before the Oscar ceremonies "if I was gonna say anything."

The questions, he says, referred not only to his recent public pronouncements, but to 1993, when he and Sarandon were criticized for bringing the outside world into the hothouse atmosphere of the Academy Awards ceremony.

"That was a humanitarian plea - to shut down an internment camp where 200 Haitians who'd tested positive for HIV were imprisoned," he says of their remarks at the podium. "Clinton had said during the election that he'd close it, and 3 1/2 months into his presidency, he still hadn't. We made the plea and it was shut down in a week.

"Now you can call that a political statement if you want to, but I don't buy it," he says, adamant that he has "never used the Academy Awards or any awards ceremony as a platform to make a political speech."

Even so, the questions "got me thinking," he says. His role in Mystic River was that of a tortured man who had been sexually abused as a child, and Robbins used part of his acceptance speech "to encourage people to seek help so that they don't wind up like my character."

He believes it was the right thing to do. "I got thousands of [positive] e-mails," he says.

"So I'm not saying people shouldn't make political statements. I completely support anyone going in front of any mike, anywhere, to say what's on their mind without worrying it's going to cost them. I'm saying I never have, I didn't have any intention of doing it this time, and I'm not gonna do it because people expect me to do it."

Having lived most of his 45 years in Manhattan, Robbins suspects his activism evolved "from living here, living in Greenwich Village at a particular time, my dad being a folk singer [Gil Robbins of The Highwaymen]. It made you aware of the world around you."

Even today in that world, the makeup of the choir has sometimes surprised him. Robbins long ago rejected what he calls "the easy road in this celebrity thing: Just shut up, don't rock the boat, try to be glamorous and take all the perks involved." In the past year, while he was sticking his neck out for his beliefs and being attacked for it, he found many people too intimidated to speak against the war.

"Do you know the two people who came forward most vocally to support Susan and me? Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner," he says, naming two Hollywood figures generally found marching under the conservatives' banner.

"Where were all my liberal pals?"

Embedded plays Tuesdays through Sundays (two shows Fridays and Saturdays) through April 11 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. in New York. Tickets are $50, plus service charge. More information is available on the theater's Web site: publictheater.org.

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