Interview: Tim Robbins

The actor and artistic director of the Actors’ Gang theatre company brings Shakespeare to Beijing

Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins is also the founder and artistic director of the critically acclaimed Actors’ Gang theatre company. As the group brings A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Beijing, he talks to Nancy Pellegrini about his life, his work and the Actors’ Gang’s Prison Project

When did you start acting, and when did you know it would be your career?
I was the youngest of four siblings, so I had to fight for attention at the dinner table and I kind of became a clown. I started acting when I was about 12, but at university I was studying directing, so I didn’t think I was going to be an actor. It wasn’t until senior year, when I won a competition and got an agent, that I started to audition. When I realised I could produce theatre with the money I earned acting, I got excited about becoming an actor. The Actors’ Gang had already started; the first play we did was a big hit, so we were excited. The parts on TV and movies started to fund the group. It wasn’t until I had done Five Corners [1987] that I realised I could be involved in really good films.

What was the Actors’ Gang’s first play?
Ubu Roi, written [in 1896] by Alfred Jarry. I’ve always been attracted to theatre that has a larger canvas, that [concerns] subject matter that has to do with all of us, not just one domestic situation. And this play was the craziest play I’d ever read, there were stage directions like ‘the entire Polish army enters’ and ‘a malcontent explodes’. We were all punk rockers at the time, and I was interested in theatre that had a visceral, physical aspect – this was the perfect play.

Why was it so important to keep Actors’ Gang going after your film career took off?
I have this incredible laboratory, a group of like-minded actors and artists that want to create innovative new works. It was a way for me to keep developing as an actor and a director, and then as a writer. I started writing plays for the company, and through workshops and the rehearsal process, I learned how to mould a piece, to reinterpret it, to give it form and a certain style. It made me learn how to adapt, write and direct for film. I could go work on an idea, and I didn’t need studio approval or millions of dollars. I still spend more time in my theatre than I do on movie sets.

Did you have any formal writing training?
My training came from Actors’ Gang; we would get commissioned to do a work, and I would get everyone together. I would say, here’s the idea, here’s the basic script, we have three weeks – what are we going to do? When it isn’t on the page, the actor can create it. We’d go into the workshop, see the scene and think: It’s missing something. So then I would go after rehearsal and work until 3am with my co-writer, and we’d bring it back the next day filled out with more depth. I learned adaptability and improvisation, and how to create the truth in the moment.

What’s it like taking on Shakespeare?
It’s easier, you’re not – or I’m not going to rewrite Shakespeare. But the great thing about Shakespeare is that it’s all there, if you don’t ignore it, if you respect it, it’s there for you; it’s a solid piece of work. And what we found is that when we did [Dream] the first time last summer, any time anyone got psychological with the interpretation of a line, the laughs would go away. The metre was the most important thing; his rhythm is impeccable.

Midsummer 1 high res

Can you tell me about the Actors’ Gang Prison Project?
Well it’s been transformative, not only for the prisoners, but for the actors too. It puts it all in perspective. Everyone has things they’re battling through, and creative people tend to dramatise that perhaps more than the normal person, but you go in and you realise that some of