Seeing apartheid from both sides

In `Catch a Fire,' Tim Robbins tackles another movie about political and social injustices


October 29, 2006|By McClatchy-Tribune

Making the good guy seem human is easy. Making the bad guy seem human is a lot harder.

Especially when the bad guy is an interrogator for the white-dominated government during the days of apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.

It's not the kind of role one might envision for famously liberal actor Tim Robbins, who was an outspoken critic of apartheid during the same era.

But then that was part of the challenge presented by the film Catch a Fire, in which Robbins' character pushes an innocent black man (Derek Luke) over the edge and into action.

"To play someone like this, you can't go in saying, `I need my evil-guy mustache to twirl,'" Robbins says. "You have to find what's human about these people and understand that they have families, too. They love their kids. They want to protect the country and their family."

Sitting across a coffee table in a hotel room at September's Toronto International Film Festival, where the film made its debut to much applause, the 6-foot-5, lanky Robbins is soft-spoken and articulate as he displays great empathy for his initially unsympathetic character.

"To be honest, I was kind of naive about, or at least uneducated about, what it was to be a white South African," he says. "I was against apartheid, and I went to rallies in the '80s and early '90s. But I didn't understand the complexity of the situation. I still think that apartheid was wrong and needed to be changed, but what I discovered was [whites] were dealing with a real threat to their future."

Indeed, in other nations where whites lost power, they also lost their land and lives. And this inspired great fears among the white South Africans who had known no other world.

"There's no excuse for what happened, but I understand why it happened, and how good people could be sucked into the propaganda that made it possible," Robbins says.

And indeed, the fear of attack, of being overthrown by the blacks who easily outnumbered them, fuels the whites in Catch a Fire to drastic, awful measures. Robbins' character (based on a combination of two real interrogators) doesn't see torture as an effective means of turning suspects into informants. But others do. And again, while he doesn't condone it, Robbins tried to understand it.

"Torture compromises the torturer as well. It's a life-altering, horrible experience for the one who's tortured, but it also alters the life of the one who tortures," he says. "Once you cross that line, you can't go back, and that was part of what I was bringing to this role: that you have to hold onto this secret you can't share with your family. There's that voice in you that is saying this is wrong, but you have to do it because it's your job, and so you compromise around your sense of duty."

Obviously, Catch a Fire has a political message, and the violent circumstances surrounding its characters are reflected in current global turmoil as well.

"People do cross over the line, because of the intensity of the situation, and do illegal things. In a war, someone goes nuts and shoots up a village, and it's always interesting to me how politicians and the media will decry that as if it's the soldier's fault, as if putting him into that amazing amount of pressure and intensity of emotion and fear would result in anything but that," Robbins says.

Robbins, 48, was born in Southern California and raised in New York City. He made his first big-screen impression in 1988's Bull Durham, where he met Susan Sarandon. The two have been a high-profile liberal show-biz couple ever since.

Over the years, Robbins has starred in 1994's The Shawshank Redemption, been nominated for a best director Oscar for 1995's Dead Man Walking and won a best supporting actor Oscar for 2003's Mystic River. And while he always seems up for a fun cameo - he played a PBS broadcaster in 2004's Anchorman and will be seen next in Jack Black's Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny - Robbins remains best known for his roles in films such as Catch a Fire, complex looks at social and political injustices.

And he has faith that in a world of broad comedies and special effects extravaganzas, audiences will still find time for films with more depth.

"We all like our big popcorn movies. We all like to go to the big event and follow the big adventure," Robbins says. But, "I feel like if something good and intelligent comes along, people will find it."

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