The player: the star of “Nothing to Lose” on parenthood, politics and his true passion –ice hockey.
Interview: Johanna Schneller
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo Editor Jennifer Crandall
"Save cash! Make tighter turns! Buy a hockey card, good for 10 sharpenings," reads a sign outside a Manhattan skating rink. It's high noon, and the room is filling up with silent, padded men. At some invisible signal, they move onto the ice. There is no discussion about who will play which position on which team; there is no starting bell or buzzer. There is silence, and then suddenly there is the ksshh‑ksshh‑ksshh of 10 men skating. Hockey players are like dogs ‑ they respond to a frequency too high for the rest of us to hear.
At 6 feet 5 inches, Tim Robbins is the tallest, leanest dog on the ice; his entering a room reminds one of the Tall Ships sailing into New York Harbor. All of the other, shorter guys know that Robbins is an actor, the star of films as varied as Bull Durham, Jacob's Ladder, The Player and Bob Roberts. All of them know he wrote and directed Dead Man Walking, which earned his live‑in love, Susan Sarandon, 50, the Oscar for best actress last year. They know that behind his baby face (you just want to pinch those cheeks!), Robbins is socially conscious, outspoken and irreverent. And because they are true New Yorkers, all of them would rather die than act like they know it.
Robbins, 38, likes it that way. He's a true New Yorker, too. He grew up in a three‑room railroad apartment in Greenwich Village. (His father, Gil, who ran a nightclub and sang with the folk group the Highwaymen, and his mother, Mary, a publishing executive, slept in the living room; his two older sisters shared a loft above the dining room; and Tim and his older brother slept in bunk beds in the walk‑in closet.) Robbins is also raising his kids in Manhattan: two boys, Miles, 5, and Jack Henry, 8, from his relationship with Sarandon, and Eva, 12, from Sarandon's relationship with director Franco Amurri. "I think living here exposes the children to a depth of experience," Robbins says. But that experience is sweetened by a country home in New York's Westchester County and a healthy dose of L.A. glamour: Jack Henry's godfather is Bull Durham director Ron Shelton; Miles' are Gore Vidal and Robert Altman.
Bull Durham may have changed Robbins' life, but Robert Altman made his career. In addition to Robbins' turn as a cold‑blooded movie executive (is there any other kind?) in 1992's The Player, which catapulted him out of comic second‑banana parts, he played key roles in Altman's Short Cuts and Ready to Wear; and when Robbins wrote and directed his first film, the 1992 political satire Bob Roberts, he borrowed Altman's cinematographer and assistant director. "If an actor doesn't surprise me, I don't work with him again," Altman says. "They've got to show me something I could never think up myself. But what really amazed me was Tim's restraint as a director in Dead Man Walking. A lot of guys are facile at showing off. But he hid. To do that, you have to have your ego in the right place. I can't do that. It was masterful."
It's a bit of a surprise that Robbins chose to follow Dead Man Walking with a Disney film, a broadly physical comedy called Nothing to Lose, which pits Robbins the shell‑shocked businessman against Martin Lawrence the carjacker. No one was more surprised, in fact, than the film's writer and director, Steve Oedekerk (Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls). "Tim phoned me," Oedekerk says. "I hadn't thought of him. The tone of his movies lately has been so serious, with profound messages. But he's a guy who just wants to make great movies. He's not trapped by genre. He doesn't always want the straight, stoic role. We had a great time."
Back on the ice, the game is heating up, the checking is dirtier. Under his helmet, Robbins' hair is drenched. The aggressive guys play from their shoulders, digging for the puck. Robbins, more relaxed, plays from the hips: He covers the ice with a few pushes of his long legs, and occupies a lot of space when he falls, which he does a few times, like everyone else. He scores a goal, and though no one keeps track, he can't help himself, his arms shoot up in the air for a second. As he skates by, he flashes a grin and gives me the jock nod, that little jerk of the chin that says, "D'ja see that?" and which all women, no matter how modern, are genetically programmed to find charming.
After the game (he scores two more times), Robbins reappears, showered, in black jeans, sneakers and a zippered sweater. We go out for coffee, which he drinks with skim milk. He bonks his head on a hanging lamp but barely flinches; this must happen a lot. "D'ja see the wraparound?" he asks. "That's all I care about. That's the hardest shot to make; you have to come from behind the net and edge the puck in. Write it down: w‑r‑a‑p ‑around."
What was the greatest hockey game of your life?
I saw the Rangers win the Stanley Cup. I've been a Ranger fan all my life. That was really a dream come true.
You drank from the cup that night, didn't you?
A friend and I decided we had to go in search of the Holy Grail, and we wouldn't sleep until we found it. We got into a cab and went searching for any place with police barricades, which we finally found on the Upper East Side [of Manhattan]. We had our Ranger jerseys on, looked like a couple of goon fans. At first they wouldn't let us in, but then one of the guys at the door recognized me ‑ not from being an actor but from being at game six in Vancouver [B.C.], where Susan and I and a couple friends were the only people wearing Ranger jerseys and they showed it on television. So they let us in, and an hour or so later, Mark Messier walks in with the Stanley Cup, and we drank some champagne out of it.
What's the greatest game you've ever played?
I skated a couple of weeks ago in Madison Square Garden with the Legends of the Rangers playing the Legends of the Boston Bruins. It was a huge adrenaline rush, to step out on the ice at the Garden. It was staggering.
What do you love about hockey?
I like the speed of it. I think there's a grace to it. It's all about agility; it's about avoiding contact.
Avoiding contact? I thought contact was the point.
You're not gonna score that way, though. The guys that can dance around checks, and keep the puck, and go to the net, are going to be the ones who score. It's really about getting free.
And you like your freedom. In fact, you're known as a publicist's worst nightmare on that front.
I think they've given up on me now. Maybe my publicist is a little more nervous with me than with some other clients; I don't know.
Have they ever sat you down and tried to tell you what you can and cannot say?
There's always someone telling you not to do something. The main thing is just to ignore them.
Can you give me an example?
Oh, the Oscars was a good example.
The 1993 Oscars, when you and Susan Sarandon spoke out against the internment of HIV‑positive Haitians? What kind of fallout did that cause?
Actors are supposed to just talk about what fashions they're wearing, wave to the paparazzi, talk about their sex lives and earn their enormous incomes. Whereas if you take this access to the media that you're given the gift of, and use it to try to help somebody ‑ if you speak your mind ‑ certain words follow you around: political, didactic, sanctimonious. If you just toe the line, ignore things in front of your eyes, don't talk about them, I don't really see the same kind of condescending adjectives used.
You think "political" is condescending?
First of all, I don't think I'm political. I hate the word politics, I don't have anything to do with politics, I don't support politicians. Politics to me is about safety, about doing things for your own betterment, acting in a way that's going to serve you best.
Now, the person who writes that people who try to help are sanctimonious ‑ is that a political act? I think so. Because what they are basically saying is, "Shut up. Don't spread information. Please don't make me feel bad about what I don't do." Ignoring things is just as political. But it's never defined that way. Did you hear from people who were on your side? Very few. Very few. A small circle of friends. But otherwise, all these progressives, all these liberals in Hollywood, we'd see those people kind of looking the other way. What I found really interesting is that in all the times that I've protested something in a Republican administration, I've never caught the hell that I've caught protesting against a Democratic administration. And I don't want to say it isn't a coincidence or anything, but I've been audited twice during the Clinton administration. You fill in the blanks.
How did you do in the audit?
I did fine. I am so squeaky‑clean.
We better change the subject. Your new film, 'Nothing to Lose,' struck me as an unusual choice.
[Mock petulant] Whyyy? I'm too serious?
It looks, well, not quite as complicated as some you've made.
This is not a change‑the‑world movie. This is the other side of entertaining, which I am totally into. Along with the movies I direct, I love going to see movies that are pure entertainment, that you get a good laugh out of. At the time I read the script, I was editing Dead Man Walking. And it was a great antidote. Since I started having a choice, since Bull Durham, I've been trying to mix it up, to not do one thing.
How does it differ from the many other buddy comedies we've seen?
How many plots are there? Not many. But how many different ways of doing them are there? I think, as many ways as there are individuals. It's very hard to do a good comedy. Especially if you're doing comedy that's not at the expense of race or sex. Or mean comedy, comedy that relies totally on tearing someone down. Here was a script about a black guy and a white guy that had pretty much zero racial references.
Except for the fact that the carjacker is black and the businessman is white.
Yeah. But you don't have a lot of "Oh, you're a good dancer" kind of crap. I hate stuff like that. And also, I'm an armed criminal by the end of this thing; the white businessman is on a rampage.
What was the chemistry like between you and Martin Lawrence?
He's had some problems lately: There was an incident with a concealed weapon on Ventura Boulevard; he checked into rehab; there was a sexual‑harassment charge [Quickly] I don't know anything about that; I didn't see any evidence of him being that way with female members of the crew.
It was rumored that you didn't always get along.
We're very different people, but that wasn't what was important. What was important was that onscreen the chemistry works. Generally, at the end of the day, I'm too exhausted to hang out with anybody I work with. Even on Dead Man Walking, I had to sleep in a separate hotel room [from Sarandon] because my schedule was different.
Did making that film change your opinion about the death penalty in any way?
I was always against the death penalty, and now I am so clear why I'm against it. I realized that if you decide you're against the death penalty, you have to decide it after having walked in the shoes of the parents. You cannot ignore them. On a personal level, you have to accept the fact that everyone is capable of retribution. It's something I've addressed in myself: What would I do? I would want to kill the guys, with my own hands, kill them. But there's a difference between that and whether you want the state to do it. The leaders of the anti‑death‑penalty movement really should be victims' families. I've met some of them; they are saints. They are in touch with angels. Because they are living up to the lessons of Jesus in a profound way.
Were you surprised that some people considered 'Dead Man Walking' a pro‑death‑penalty film?
When I was editing it, this scenario kept running through my head, an image of an action-adventure movie I'd seen as a child: Hero pursues villain, hero captures villain, puts a gun to his head, then puts the gun down. Villain asks, "Why didn't you kill me?" Hero answers, "You're not worth it." But now in action‑adventure movies, hero puts gun to villain's head, delivers a cute catch phrase and presses the trigger. Villain's brain explodes, audience cheers. I realized that these are pro‑death‑penalty films. Our heroes are now executioners. You talk about political films, that's intensely political. That's advocating doing away with the justice system. And that statement is made again and again. It's just "entertainment."
You were raised Catholic. Do you still consider yourself one?
I'm not a practicing Catholic, no. I still go to church once in a while. I try to teach my children about good and bad and morality. For me, those lessons are more important than forcing a bearded‑God image at the exclusion of all other God images. I distrust and hate that kind of radicalism... It's been really wonderful to know Sister Helen Prejean [the inspiration for Dead Man Walking], to have her come over and be with my children. I think they have gotten a very strong idea of a spiritual woman who is dedicated to her God but whose base is love, not a ruler on the knuckles.
Sarandon has said that while filming 'Dead Man Walking,' your relationship suffered "six horrible days." What were they?
Was it six? I'm the kind of person that does not remember bad things. I think we disagreed on the way a scene was written. I'm fairly competent as a director and actor, but I am Mr. Neurotic as a writer. I just don't have enough confidence in my abilities to take criticism well. I take it personally. Start with "It's a masterpiece," and then tell me what you think could be changed.
Did you ever feel your relationship was in danger?
Oh, no, because we told each other early on that anything that happens during this thing is not real. Directing a film is not a great aphrodisiac [laughs].
You're famously protective of your relationship. Can we talk about it?
I'd rather not.
One great conversation, one wooing moment?
You're not married, but you're wearing a serious‑looking gold band.
It's on my right hand.
Have you ever wanted to get married?
No. But I think it's great when others do. I'm a supporter of marriage. I wholeheartedly stand by your right to get married [laughs].
Sarandon is 12 years older than you. Do you do things, such as having children, by her timetable or yours?
I don't think it has as much to do with age as with will, and I think we're both pretty strong‑willed. Never has age been an issue. I look at her as an equal. For me it's about the moment, where we are today.
She once said, "He's not easy, and I'm not easy." You're not easy in what way?
You have to ask her. [Laughs wickedly] Don't throw quotes at me from other people and ask me to explain them.
But she won't speak to me for this interview; apparently it's a policy of yours. Can you sum up your general philosophy, the way you've chosen to live your life?
Privately. [Wicked laugh again] I think one of the reasons we've had a successful relationship is that we don't live it publicly. I think when you go public with very personal feelings and specifics, you're violating a trust and a sanctity that a relationship should have.
Are you raising your children the way your parents raised you?
Yes and no. I don't want to say anything disrespectful to my parents. It's all a mystery, really. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong; sometimes you're a good parent, sometimes you're not. You just keep trying to figure out the best way.
Do you find that your parents' once‑puzzling behavior is suddenly making sense?
I've heard my mother's voice coming out of me. I actually said the words young lady to my daughter once.
What's the greatest thing your parents gave you?
A fierce commitment to justice. And an awareness of injustice, and the civil‑rights movement, and why the war in Vietnam was protested against. All these flash points in my childhood, I was brought into in a very personal way, a way that I could understand. Also, my mother, for my 11th birthday, traveled out one morning to Queens to wait on line at Shea Stadium to get me tickets for the World Series. I wound up seeing, on my 11th birthday, the Mets win the World Series. That was one of the greatest things a mother could do for her son.
What would you like to give to your kids?
I would like them to feel power and self‑confidence. I would like them to have a sense of justice and honor.
Have you done the equivalent of the trip to Shea Stadium?
Well, I took them to see the Yanks win the World Series last year. I'm a Mets fan, but it suddenly hit me that the Yankees could win the World Series and my kids could see it. But by then it was already game five in Atlanta. The Yanks were coming home for game six on a Friday, so Thursday there I am on the phone to Steinbrenner's office to get [laughs] six tickets. We got pretty good seats, too.
That must have taken a bit of nerve.
That's the trade‑off of celebrity. It's worth all the interruptions at restaurants, all the people clapping you on the back too hard ‑ actually hurting you. That's where it evens out.
Let's completely change the subject. You haven't done many sex scenes, but the ones you have done [in 'The Player’ and Ready to Wear'] have a fantastic, giddy abandon that-
What did you say? That I'm what?
I asked about sex scenes in movies. What did you think I said?
[Relieved, a bit sheepish] I just ‑ I just didn't hear you. I don't particularly like doing sex scenes. Inevitably, in the middle of it, I step outside myself and think, what kind of weird profession am I in? To pretend to have sex for eight hours, from different angles, with someone who is a couple steps removed from a stranger. To be rubbing against someone and kissing them ‑but no tongues ‑ again and again and again, without any consummation. I don't know where else in the human condition that's done. Maybe some Kamasutra, hold‑back‑the‑orgasm thing. I can't wait till they're over.
Come on. I can imagine worse tortures than rolling around with Greta Scacchi or Julia Roberts for eight hours.
Oh, yeah? What are they? Think about it.
Many factory workers would trade places with you, Tim.
It's like high school.
Was it all bad in high school?
[Emphatically] It was torture in high school, are you kidding me? Absolute torture. But at least there weren't 20 people watching, judging whether it's good or not for the camera.
Let's talk about your unusual fashion sense. You've worn some pretty flashy tuxedos to the Oscars.
Yeah, my perennial quest to be on the worst-dressed list. It's a point of honor for me. I think it is so incredibly boring, these black tuxedos. The women get to wear all the fun stuff.
I particularly remember one blue number, two years ago. What was it made of?
I don't know. Shiny stuff. I have it still. I'll have to give that away. You can't really wear it more than once.
Unless you start wearing it all the time. Last question: Have you done one great thing for love, taken one great risk?
[Big grin] Yeah, but I'm not going to tell you. Those are the real personal things. If you start reading about them in the paper, you go, "Well, that's not really for love; that's for self‑promotion. " But I've done a couple things that I'm really happy about. And do you know what I'm happiest about? That no one found out about them.
Johanna Schneller interviewed Woody Allen for the February issue of 'US.'