A player who's not afraid of politics

By Mark Harris
June 26, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT

Tim Robbins hasn’t become vain — a laudable feat when you consider that right now, his career is made of mirrors within mirrors, and with each reflection he looms a little larger. Try navigating this: As the star of Robert Altman’s acclaimed The Player, Robbins, a proud outsider who prefers street theater to power lunches, plays a Hollywood studio shark. In his own Bob Roberts, Robbins, a politically active liberal actor-turned-writer-director, plays a conservative folksinger-turned-politico who thinks he’s a proud outsider. And at Cannes this year, Robbins became both player and politician, representing the two films to distributors from Norway to New Zealand.

”’Salesman’ sounds insincere,” he says. ”I was there because I’m proud of these films.” And with reason: After a week, Robbins ended up winning a Best Actor prize for The Player. Only the festival’s tendency to spread the wealth may have kept him from taking home a directing trophy for Bob Roberts as well.

In a business where back-to-back home runs can put you on the all-star team, Robbins is on his way: The Player has already gone over the fence, and Bob Roberts (due in September), a savagely funny mock documentary about a neofascist political candidate with a smile on his face and a song on his lips, will cement his reputation as actor and auteur. It’s a measure of the 33-year-old New Yorker’s prowess that he’s riding to stardom on the wings of characters who are, essentially, creeps — smooth-talking, sharp-dressing oil slicks who never become caricatures or easy targets. In The Player, Robbins makes you detest Griffin Mill while sympathizing with his squirrelly panic. ”Do I think he’s a bad guy?” he muses. ”Yeah. Now I do. But while I was doing it, I tried to understand him as much as possible. Who needs another movie where you know who the bad guys are in the first 10 minutes? Evil is not as recognizable as one would think.”

The same holds true for Bob Roberts, in which Robbins drips charisma as a guitar-strumming senatorial candidate who wins votes with brownshirt anthems like ”Retake America” and ”Times Are Changin’ Back.” Robbins spent six years writing the film, which began as a short on Saturday Night Live (”Bob was only a businessman then,” he says, ”but his ambition grew”) and began production in 1991. ”I needed to understand why these people are so popular,” says Robbins. ”Bob understands how important image is. He never forgets to portray himself as a nice, likable person” — even while singing the 13 hate-filled tunes that Robbins cowrote with his brother, David. Robbins was so worried the songs would be misappropriated by the political right that he vetoed plans for a soundtrack album, and if anyone tries to use the songs out of context, ”we’ll sue them,” he says. ”We’ll sue them and” — he smiles — ”they’ll be the right people to sue.”

Robbins is happier talking about his work than, say, his relationship with actress Susan Sarandon, a topic he greets with pained good manners and a pause-laden caution that one suspects he reserves for the witness stand, funerals, and the press. (Bob Roberts, to interviewer, through clenched teeth: ”I will happily indulge your personality search.”) ”I make every effort to be polite when I’m declining to talk about this,” he says, wreathing himself in a cocoon of cigarette smoke that serves as a sort of translucent ”No trespassing” sign. So just the facts will have to do: He has lived with Sarandon since they acted in 1988’s Bull Durham, they have two sons (Jack Henry, 3, and Miles Guthrie, born May 4), and Robbins is unofficial stepdad to Sarandon’s 7-year-old daughter, Eva Maria. Sarandon has a cameo in the film-within-the-film that ends The Player, and another one as one of many inane journalists (ouch) in Bob Roberts. In Roberts‘ closing credits, Robbins sneaks in a discreet valentine to his family.

About himself, Robbins is more relaxed. He’s cool as in ”not easily rattled,” cool as in ”funny,” and only occasionally cool as in Brrrrr. (”I will happily indulge your personality search,” he says dryly as he lights , another cigarette.) He was born in New York City’s Greenwich Village, the youngest of four children. ”My father was a folksinger, my mother worked in a publishing firm. It was definitely an eclectic place to grow up — the Village was filled with progressive thought, but also a lot of racism. Still, very few people came out of there with closed minds.” As a teen, Robbins performed in low-budget plays amid noise, screams, and sirens (”Very quickly, you learn to focus”). At 19, he headed for L.A. ”I certainly had the bug, but I never thought about movies,” he says. Instead, Robbins cofounded the Actors’ Gang, an avant-garde theater ensemble there that’s still going strong.

But movies are where Robbins ended up, in well-received roles that have shown his aptitude for nervy drama (Five Corners), nervous-breakdown comedy (Cadillac Man), and nerve-racked romance (Bull Durham). But with the lean intensity he brings to Bob Roberts, he’s likely to transcend those labels, as well as some physical ones that dog him: gangly, shaggy, ”and,” he says, flushing a little, ”baby-faced.” But despite its fiercer moments, the film, he emphasizes, is a comedy, not a harangue. ”I don’t think it’s necessarily partisan,” he says. ”I tried to approach it from a humorous angle-it owes as much to (This Is) Spinal Tap as it does to Triumph of the Will. I think there’s a streak of politics in any profession,” he adds. ”Anyone who’s danced around the truth to create a widely palatable perception of themselves is playing politics — even an actor doing an interview.” He lets loose a horselaugh. ”That’s probably a minor example.”

So now, he gets to sit back for a while. Robbins says he’ll spend the next six months reading, gardening at his and Sarandon’s Westchester County, N.Y., country house, enjoying his family, writing another script, and waiting for his next movie — Short Cuts, another Altman film — to begin production. Meanwhile, America will be seeing the first of Bob Roberts, but perhaps not the last. ”A run for President? Yes, that’s probably in Bob Roberts too,” says Robbins. Or is that Bob Roberts 2? With a sealed smile, Robbins leaves the statement unamplified. Which is fine. After all, you can’t be a cool actor without knowing when to act cool.