Tim Robbins isn’t your typical message-mongering liberal. From “Bob Roberts” and “Dead Man Walking” to the new “A Perfect Day,” the actor-filmmaker is attracted to complexity, sometimes even playing the bad guys.
His character in “Day” is a good guy: He’s an aid worker (along with Benicio del Toro and Olga Kurylenko) in the Balkans in the mid-’90s, fighting bureaucratic red tape to help a village with a contamination problem. But he’s no saint.
Robbins, 57, talks to us about what socially conscious films have to do pique his interest and his real-life work helping rehabilitate prisoners.
What were you surprised to learn about aid workers?
They’re the kind of people who run towards the fire, the kind of person who wants to be in a situation where they can help. They’re not particularly concerned that it’s dangerous. There’s a certain madness to them, a certain incredible courage where in the madness lies a nobility. They give up themselves to help others. But it’s not a do-gooder thing. It goes deeper than that. It’s a compulsion to be in a situation that’s particularly dangerous, to go into that fire and emerge.
Like a lot of politically-themed films you make, this isn’t about merely peddling good messages.
The fact that a script is dealing with an issue isn’t enough for me to say yes. It has to meet certain criteria as far as how it’s telling the story. From the very start with my theater company, we would get material that reflects on society. We were always looking for what is ironic about them, what it is that’s humorous, and what is it about the other person’s point of view that is legitimate. It’s really important that your good intentions don’t lead you into a didacticism that would undermine the subject matter.
Is that why you’ve often played characters who believe things you don’t, like the right-wing politician in “Bob Roberts” or the Apartheid police officer in “Catch a Fire”?
Yes. And those are always very challenging. On “Catch a Fire,” part of my homework was hanging out with the guys who did the torturing and policing during Apartheid. I had to get inside that skin and give [the character] a humanity. He’s not the twirling mustache bad guy. It’s more complicated than that. You have to find the reasons why people behaved in those abhorrent ways. What was in their mind that rationalized that behavior? I don’t think it gets you very far if you say, “Well, this guy’s just pure evil.”