NEW YORK -- Psychologically, Tim Robbins sits poised somewhere between Hollywood celebrity and American citizenry. It is neither a comfortable nor a safe place.
On one hand, Robbins is an Oscar-winning movie star known for the complexity of his performances, whether as hero, as victim or just as often as the villain. In Steven Spielberg's current sci-fi movie War of the Worlds, Robbins is all three rolled into one for his strong cameo. During the alien invasion, Robbins' half-crazed character obliges hero Tom Cruise to make an astonishing moral choice to ensure survival for both he and his daughter.
On the other hand, Robbins is a concerned citizen, a left-wing activist who was -- by default -- one of the most vocal Americans to oppose the invasion of Iraq and who now believes George W. Bush is "a lame-duck president" who should be repudiated by his own Republican backers. Along with his long-time romantic partner Susan Sarandon, also an Oscar-winner and political activist, Robbins has been ridiculed for his willingness to take a stand. Most absurdly, he was one of the celebrity puppets lampooned as dupes and fools in the South Park creators' comedy, Team America.
Is it theater? Is it a film? Documentary? I dont know. Now, after almost 1,600 Americans and 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died, after our actions have increased recruitment for terrorist groups worldwide and alienated our most trusted Allies, now that our press finally reports what I and others read three years ago in the alternative press and British newspapers, now is the time for American artists to tell truth to power.
Today, Robbins' two hands are clapping together on one project. It is a new self-financed DVD called Embedded -- and it is not available by conventional means. Instead, Robbins is flogging it over the Internet in a bold, if risky move that could show a new way to proceed for filmmakers to avoid getting lost in a glut of DVDs at the big-name video stores.
"You can't think in the old paradigm," Robbins tells The Sun in an exclusive interview in the library lounge of his funky office penthouse in lower Manhattan. "You can't think like that."
Robbins is changing a lot of his thinking. For the War of the Worlds media onslaught, Robbins did just a mass press conference. For Embedded, he sat down for an hour one-on-one to talk about a citizen's responsibility, the pressure on celebrities, what he perceives are the evils of the Bush government and his disillusionment with "the pussies" in the Democrat Party, including John Kerry, who refused to oppose Bush over Iraq.
Some of that is woven into Embedded, which was written and directed by Robbins. Along with fellow members of his theatre troupe, The Actors Gang, Robbins also co-stars as a sympathetic U.S. soldier shipped off to Iraq for the war.
Embedded is a spin-off from Robbins' play by the same name. Designed as a satire but containing many gut-wrenching moments as well, it tells the story of embedded journalists as well as active soldiers who were involved in the invasion of Iraq by American forces. The play, and now the film version, savages the deep thinkers in the Pentagon and the White House for their lies and deceptions about weapons of mass destruction and other issues, including false intelligence that linked Iraq to terrorist cells. Embedded also confronts the U.S. mass media for what Robbins sees as a gross failure to uncover lies, thus serving as propaganda machines.
The play was written before it was fashionable to acknowledge the truth -- yet Robbins is still attacked as an activist in a country where the word "liberal" is a profanity. "But we were right!" Robbins says. "We were right. They were wrong. And why was it us who were the ones who stepped forward to say those things, to ask those questions?"
By "us" Robbins is referring to other Hollywood celebrities, such as Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin, Janeane Garofalo and Michael Moore. "And most of us, by the way, were simply saying: 'Let the (UN) inspectors have more time.' We weren't purporting to know what was going on but just saying: 'Let's be patient. Let's not be hurried. This is human life we're talking about. Let's be judicious.' It's not like we wanted to do that. It's not like, if there was an opposition party, a strong voice of resistance, that we would go: 'Wait! I want to be on the show, too. I want to say something.' No, there would be absolutely no need for it. There would be no need for an actor to speak. But we don't live in that world."
Obviously, the U.S. government ignored the protests, at home and abroad, and the invasion of Iraq went ahead. It was at that point that Robbins decided to create Embedded as a play. It was his personal reaction to the situation.
"Definitely," Robbins says. "We have a limited number of venues where we can tell stories or get information." U.S. television was neutered, Robbins says. Only one major radio show, Democracy Now, was confrontational, he says. The mainstream print press was failing, too, in his view.
"So where do you go? What do you do? You do what you do and I am incredibly fortunate in that I have a theatre company and a theatre (an arrangement with the Public Theatre in New York) and I could write something and put it on stage and get the information out that way."
Robbins chose not to try to make a regular film, like his acclaimed political satire Bob Roberts. "If I thought that I could do it on film, I would have attempted it that way. But I didn't feel that it was possible, when you consider who owns the film companies. It would also be a process and it would just be coming out now, if I was lucky enough to have raised the money way back then. I had the immediacy of my own theatre company and I was able to do it right away, which, for me, was really great and, for the actors, it was really great. It was a way for us to do something when everyone felt so frustrated and impatient about our ability to stop this war from happening -- and, once it happened, to spread the information that we knew was out there."
Today, Robbins' two hands are clapping together on one project. It is a new self-financed DVD called Embedded -- and it is not available by conventional means.
Not surprisingly, Embedded first generated lousy reviews, in L.A. and then in New York. "If you were to read the reviews and if you were to believe the reviews, you would think that what we had done was silly and inconsequential," Robbins now says with a grin. "It was marginalized in the reviews and I knew that was going to happen. You don't go in to the backyard of the media and say, 'You're full of s--!', and expect them to embrace you."
Some reviews attacked him for allegedly making up stuff. In fact, much of the dialogue and the situations depicted were mined from real-life events, including BBC reporter John Simpson's eyewitness experience in a firefight, as well as accounts of the dubious Jessica Lynch rescue. She is called Jen-Jen in the play but Robbins says she is iconic now and the character will immediately trigger images in a viewer's mind.
The reviews hurt the show for a week, Robbins says. Then word-of-mouth revived ticket sales and led to sell-outs.
"We always considered it the little engine that could," Robbins says proudly of the play. Now he is saying it about the DVD version. He could not find financial backers to film the play. So he sank his own money into the project. Then he could not find a regular DVD distributor to handle it.
"We didn't want to release it as a film. We wanted to go out to DVD and to television and still there was that fear of it."
So Robbins hooked up with Netflix, the U.S.-based service that supplies films by overnight mail to its subscribers. "That's three million people, potentially, but there's no way that all of their subscribers are going to (order Embedded). So we're selling it on our own website (embeddedlive.com and also on amazon.com) and now it keeps growing. It really is the little engine that could. We're losing money as of now. But I always knew that, just like the play, it would be slow, there would be a resistance to it, but eventually it would find its audience."
Robbins and company were crafty enough, as well, not to simply film themselves acting out the play. The DVD version of Embedded shows the play as "an event" that mirrors his attitude towards theatre in the first place. "We've always kind of done theatre in The Actors Gang that's all raucous and rude and loud. We were all punk rockers when we started the group so we all have that aesthetic -- to stir things up."
© 2005 Winnipeg Sun