Tim Robbins on the kind of films he won’t do: ‘I find it morally reprehensible’

Here's a fun experiment. Go to Tim Robbins' IMDB page and tally the number of action films on his resume. Notice how you can count them on one hand? That's by design. 

Rare among Hollywood stars, Robbins walks the walk not only in terms of his political activism but his work as a film actor as well. In short: his moral compass doesn't malfunction when a giant paycheck is put in front of him. As Robbins explained to me while promoting writer/director Fernando León de Aranoa's forthcoming Bosnian War drama A Perfect Day — which is currently up for eight Goya Awards in Spain and co-stars Benicio Del Toro, Olga Kurylenko and Melanie Thierry — he has a moral problem with starring in films that cater in gruesome violence as entertainment, and as a result he has turned down some presumably lucrative opportunities.

“Throughout my career I've turned down movies that were exploitative with violence, and used violence in some kind of popcorn entertainment,” said Robbins. “I don't find violence entertaining at all, I find it disturbing. I think it's a necessary element in movies if you're going to use the violence to tell the story about someone's emotional journey. That's essential, to see the violence. But to use it as some kind of device that is supposed to entertain people I find morally reprehensible.”

It's a rare stance in an industry filled with A-listers who are willing to take big bucks to star in films that encourage audiences to cheer for brutal displays of violence, but then Robbins isn't your typical movie star. Boldly political and outspoken on issues including the 2003 invasion of Iraq (he was staunchly against it) and America's broken prison system (through his non-profit theater group The Actors' Gang, Robbins helps run a rehabilitative program for prisoners known as the Prison Project), he goes out on a limb in a way that few other actors of his stature are willing to do. 

Earlier this week I spoke to Robbins via phone about the desensitizing effects of media violence and his political activism in context of A Perfect Day, in which he plays “B,” a freewheeling aid worker who navigates uncertain terrain during the waning days of the Balkan conflict. See below for the full interview.

A Perfect Day is a small, socially conscious film that deals with the day to day realities of war. It's much more focused on the human drama than any big battle scenes. Do you feel like this kind of movie is almost extinct today?

That's an interesting word for it. So you're telling me I'm in an extinct movie? 

We just don't see a lot of films about war that don't deal with big battle scenes.

Why do you think that is?

I think the perception is that they don't sell.

Yeah. So we need more people dying in order to sell the movie. 

I'm saying I think that's the perception.

I understand, I understand. I'm not being glib. You're stating reality, and I'm stating reality. It's just the nature of the business now, isn't it. But I still have faith. This is why I do the movies that I do. Throughout my career I've turned down movies that were exploitative with violence, and used violence in some kind of popcorn entertainment. I don't find violence entertaining at all, I find it disturbing. I think it's a necessary element in movies if you're going to use the violence to tell the story about someone's emotional journey. That's essential, to see the violence. But to use it as some kind of device that is supposed to entertain people I find morally reprehensible.

Your character B is cynical, and he's pretty desensitized at this point in his work to the violence that he sees on a daily basis. It's interesting that you talked about violence as entertainment, because I feel like as viewers now, a lot of people are desensitized to violence in general because we have such a steady diet of it on TV and in movies and in the media. Do you think desensitization is a larger cultural problem?

Yeah, I worry about it. I worry about an audience that breaks into laughter and applause when a glib hero of a movie says something clever and then shoots him in the head. I worry about the audience responding in that way. It reminds me of a line in George Orwell's 1984 where he's describing a movie where there's this callous violence and the audience erupting in laughter and applause. I think it's something that's a dangerous thing in society to look at human life as something that is easily discarded.

And I don't know that that's going to change in entertainment. I think it would be certainly challenging. It's a lot more difficult to make a movie like A Perfect Day than it is to make a movie where you have tons of violence as part of your drama. It's certainly a harder thing to write. But I have faith that in the long run, ultimately whether it finds an audience or not is up to the people that release it, and it's up to their will and whether they have the will to put advertising dollars into something that they believe in.

At the end of the day I'm content that I made the choice I made because it's part of a body of work that I am building through my life and that I want to be proud to say that I participated in, particularly after a certain age where I'm secure enough with my life, career and income to be able to say no to things that I don't want to do. So ultimately the things I say yes to are things I have to be proud of. And proud of in the quality of the film, the story that's being told, and how the story is delivered. Not whether the zeitgeist is right for it or whether there's advertising dollars to support it.

That's a very righteous perspective. I think that's actually quite rare. Even among actors who are financially comfortable, it seems that there's less discernment in the roles that a lot of them take than there is for someone like yourself, who wants to make movies that have meaning. It feels kind of like a rare thing, unfortunately.

It's unfortunate, but there's other parts of the world, too…[A Perfect Day] is nominated for is it eight awards in Spain, eight Goya awards? Their Oscars? So you know, it's resonating in other places. I hope it resonates here, I hope people see it. I am doing this interview in the hopes that people will go out and see the film. That would be awesome. But I can't get emotionally involved with what degree of success it's going to have. That's ultimately out of my hands.

One of the things I liked about the movie was the soundtrack. There's a Buzzcocks song, there's a Ramones song. A lot of the songs are coming out of your car radio, your character. Do you ever listen to music before shooting scenes to get into a specific mindset?

Well, I had them bring [a song by the band] X. We had a good recording of “Los Angeles,” that song “Los Angeles.” I think it made it into the movie.


Yeah, that's one of my favorite bands from — still is one of my favorite bands, they're still together. I saw them about a month ago. Yeah, I used to listen to a lot of music on sets but I don't that much anymore. But if there was music to listen to for this character, it was definitely punk rock.

This film is political in a sense. It's not necessarily an issue movie, per se, but it definitely deals with some political themes. You're very well-known for being very active in the political and humanitarian spheres. Do you feel that actors and performers that are high-profile have a responsibility in a sense to draw attention to issues? Where do you come down on that?

I think you have a responsibility to be who you are. And if you are someone that is socially engaged and that is part of who you are, then it seems to me that should be one of the obligations in your life. If you're not someone that cares about any of this stuff, I don't believe that because you're famous you have to become socially engaged. I don't think that does anybody any good. Because oftentimes those people are uninformed or partially informed and can't really speak to the issues or the questions that need to be raised.

At the same time, I understand how much rarer and rarer it is for actors to step out boldly and courageously in front of an issue. It's not encouraged, and I believe that there's a stigma related to it now. Depending of course on the issue. There are certain issues that are safe that famous people step in front of, but there are other issues that are more controversial and it takes a little more courage to stand up on. And I find that less and less people are doing that.

Tell me about the Prison Project.

Well, we set it up ten years ago, we started ten years ago. The idea is that we go into prisons with the same kind of work that we do at our own theater company…the characters give them a buffer, a safe zone, in order to play emotions. And for whatever reason, I believe it has to do with the discipline that the Gang works in, in that it is not only demanding emotional honesty, but it's also demanding a very physical presence and a very physical form of work but also absolutely relies on teamwork and ensemble building in order to achieve success…

We somehow realized after a couple sessions of this that it was tremendously effective…and was actually re-patterning individuals and transforming them from cynicism and hostility into a more hopeful and leadership kind of quality. And so I realize we have to expand it, and we're now in six prisons in the state of California and we plan to expand to more, and we are in a discussion with the White House and the Justice Department and the Attorney General about criminal justice reform. And doing what we can to contribute to the dialogue of how to fix a situation that after 30 years of a drug war has left us with overpopulated prisons without rehabilitative programs with unfortunately a much more of a possibility that you're gonna be in jail if you're a person of color than if you're white.

There's something really wrong with it the way it is now. And there's something that can be fixed if the will is there, and I believe the will is there now more than it ever has been in the past 30 years, and this is a real opportunity for criminal justice reform. I'm glad the president is taking the lead on this and working towards reducing sentences for non-violent offenders and trying to figure out how to have a more just justice system.

A Perfect Day is in theaters today.