Actor keeps fires burning in arts and politics

If the Hollywood Walk of Fame awarded stars for effort, Tim Robbins would have left his mark on that storied boulevard years ago.

The honor wouldn’t have been premature in the mid-’90s, when he enjoyed career-making roles in “The Player,” “Short Cuts” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” and also guided his “Bull Durham” co-star and eventual partner, Susan Sarandon, to an Oscar for “Dead Man Walking” (while earning himself a directing nomination).

Nor would it have looked out of place in 2003, when Robbins, widely known for his political activism, took a strong stance against the war in Iraq and also delivered arguably his finest screen work in “Mystic River.”

Here in 2008, a few days shy of 50, Robbins is capping an unusually busy year even for a guy who’s always made multitasking look easy. He’s appeared in two films this year, “The Lucky Ones” and “City of Ember” (three if you count the theatrical release of 2007 fest premiere “Noise”); he’s writing and exec producing “Possible Side Effects,” a Showtime series that takes on the pharmaceutical industry; and he recently toured the U.K. with Hal Willner’s Rogue’s Gallery, performing pirate ballads and sea shanties alongside musicians such as Lou Reed and Pete Doherty.

For all the work he’s done in his nearly three decades in the biz, it’s Robbins’ longest-running gig — as an actor, writer, director and producer with the Actors’ Gang — that he regards with the strongest affection. Now serving as artistic director, Robbins was one of the founding members of the Los Angeles-based troupe in 1981 and has barely taken a break since.

“I would take four or five months out of every year and do work with the Actors’ Gang, which drove my agents crazy at the time,” he says. “I always felt it was something important, something I wanted to continue to grow in and learn how to do.”

Over many years of commuting between his home in New York and his troupe in Los Angeles, Robbins has often relied on his work in film — and before that, in episodic TV — to pay the bills (“I do have mortgages, I do have to make a living from time to time”) while pursuing his more personal theatrical endeavors on the side. He describes the Actors’ Gang as a “laboratory,” one that affords him the freedom to workshop and produce material away from the greenlighters and naysayers — the Griffin Mills — of the studio system.

While themes of a topical nature have informed much of his screen work — starting with his 1992 directing debut, the political mockumentary “Bob Roberts” — it’s the Actors’ Gang that has given Robbins his most reliable and wide-ranging outlet for edgy, ripped-from-the-headlines fare.

Over the past six years, the company has gone on the road with “The Exonerated,” a play about unjustly convicted death-row inmates; “Embedded,” an astringent satire (that Robbins wrote and directed) set on the front lines of a Mideast conflict; and “1984,” a Robbins-helmed adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian classic.

Offstage and offscreen, Robbins’ liberal politics have been more pronounced. Before Barack Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, Robbins and Sarandon were strong supporters of John Edwards; shortly after GOP vice presidential pick Sarah Palin extolled her hockey-mom virtues, Robbins was photographed wearing a “Hockey Dads for Obama” T-shirt. His opposition to the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, declared at a time when it was still bold to do so, remains a point of pride.

Still, when pressed for his two cents on what has been a contentious election season, Robbins seems less impressed with the virtues of any candidate than he is by the willingness of voters to seek out information beyond the usual media din-and-spin.

“If Obama becomes president, that doesn’t solve the problems by any stretch of the imagination,” he says. “If we really want change, if we really want a fundamental shift in the way things are done, it’s up to us, the people. Should we have new leadership, it’s our job to make sure they do their job.”

While Robbins would likely be the first person to call himself outspoken, he’s keenly aware of the difference between politics and art. He downplays the political strain running through his work, emphasizing that even those projects that grapple with contempo themes and parallels — from “Dead Man Walking,” “Code 46,” “The Secret Life of Words” and “1984″ to this year’s “The Lucky Ones,” in which he plays an Iraq vet trying to piece his life back together — are human stories first and foremost.

“That’s something I kind of have some frustration with,” he admits. “People have said I’m a person driven by political ideology, but it would be refreshing if someone were to say that I’m driven by a humanistic ideology. I think that’s what the job of an artist is.

“Honestly, what I’m most concerned with is emotional truth. When I read a script, I’m not interested in the agenda or the opinion of the writer. … I’m interested in the characters and the story, and whether the emotion rings true. For me, that’s the whole purpose of trying to create something.”

TIP SHEET
What: Tim Robbins gets star on Walk of Fame
When: 11:30 a.m., Oct. 10, 2008
Where: 6801 Hollywood Blvd.

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