Tim Robbins was somewhere in red-state country last year shooting the film "The Lucky Ones" when a serviceman approached him in a bar. "One would think it wouldn't be safe for me to be in situations in areas like that," said the actor and political activist who still burns over the names he was called -- "traitor," "Saddam lover," "terrorist supporter"-- after he made some antiwar remarks back in 2003.
But experience told him that the soldier, an Iraq veteran, would probably just want to talk. And indeed, what he wanted to say was just how tired he was of people making him into a hero and always thanking him for his service.
The soldier's story happened to mirror a running bit in "The Lucky Ones." Currently in theaters, the movie features Robbins as a working-class Army Reserve officer on a road trip with fellow soldiers (Michael Pena and Rachel McAdams) on leave from Iraq. (Whenever they express thanks to a stranger, they invariably get the reply, "No. Thank you.")
It's also a good example of the sort of stories that attract Robbins these days: personal, emotional, timely and relevant -- in an oblique sort of way.
This fall, in addition to "The Lucky Ones," he will appear in the family fantasy "City of Ember" (Oct. 10) as an inventor and father of a teen who attempts to save an underground city from extinction. He will also direct a pilot (which he wrote) titled "Possible Side Effects," a drama about a family that runs a pharmaceutical company, for Showtime.
About to turn 50, Robbins may be best known for his outspoken politics, his long-term relationship with Susan Sarandon and a wildly checkered career. There were the Oscar wins ("Mystic River"), Oscar nominations ("Dead Man Walking" as director) and cult favorites and crowd-pleasers ("The Player," "Bull Durham," "The Shawshank Redemption") .
And there were films few remember ("Tapeheads"? "Five Corners"? "Noise"?).
Some industry observers have wondered whether his political activity might have adversely affected his movie career even in liberal Hollywood, particularly his support of Ralph Nader in 2000, who was seen as splitting the Democratic vote and helping George W. Bush to be elected. But Robbins shrugged off the question, saying that no one in the business has ever said that to him directly. "So how would I know?"
And he's not going to complain about what might have been because "that way lies misery," he said. "The truth of the matter is, my best experiences in this business would not have happened if I had not been who I was."
Languid and initially reserved, Robbins folded his 6-foot-5 frame into a sofa in the dim foyer of the Culver City theater of the Actors' Gang, the collective he founded with self-described "renegade actors" in 1981. He rarely socializes in Hollywood, he said, preferring to spend his time at the theater, his home away from his New York home. This week, he had come to L.A. primarily to help his son move, hang drapes and assemble furniture.
As he sees it, Hollywood isn't the town he knew 10 years ago: Movie studios have failed to keep up production of meaningful dramas for the masses; local theaters serve mostly to showcase talent for producers.
The theater where he's artistic director and his other passions, like folk singing, have kept him busy, creatively free and feeling gratified, he said. "If I have an idea and a passion and I write something, I can come here with a script and it's up in four weeks," he said. That's what happened with "Embedded," a play he wrote about journalists in Iraq. "It's like I have a laboratory to keep experimenting as a director and a writer. If I had brought 'Embedded' to a studio, it would have been a few years, and it wouldn't have been as relevant or as in the moment as it was when we did it."
Though New York critics claimed it "preached to the choir," Robbins was proud that the play, like others the troupe takes on the road, has drawn a broad-based audience that often stays to discuss its ideas in forums following the performance. He said audience members decide what issues they want to discuss.
"In a lot of these areas, they're used to the standard stuff that comes through," he said. "One of the comments I'm most inspired by is: 'We didn't know theater could do that.' "
The actors have also taken an especially dark adaptation of "1984" on tour nationwide and to other countries. And the theater gives rights to a stage version of "Dead Man Walking" to universities that agree to offer courses about the death penalty.
Itching for a smoke, Robbins waxed on and off -- angrily, philosophically, sometimes professorially -- about politics and culture.
A supporter of Sen. Barack Obama in this year's election, he said he'd be happy to work in any capacity the campaign would have him fill. "I can advocate for a certain candidate, but it's up to them. If they want me to do that, I'll do that."
The political climate has cooled considerably from 2003, when the 15th anniversary celebration of "Bull Durham" at the National Baseball Hall of Fame was canceled because he and Sarandon were invited. Its president said that Robbins' public stance against Bush represented a "danger." This year, the couple have been invited back to Cooperstown, N.Y., for the film's 20th anniversary and, Robbins said, are looking forward to it.
Meanwhile, he still enjoys edgy speechmaking -- largely as a form of live theater. This spring, he was asked not to deliver a pointed and profanity-laden speech he had prepared for a gathering of the National Assn. of Broadcasters. He gave it anyway, telling them, "Now is the time to stop making money on the misfortunes of others and the prurient and salacious desires" of the public.
Listening to the speech online, you can hear the audience laughing throughout. But there were also "shocked moments where you could hear intakes of breath," Robbins said. "It's really exciting to be in a situation where there is a dynamic in the audience. Not all for. Not all against."
But lectures are for the lecture hall, he said, insisting there's no place for didacticism in art. In the adaptation of "1984," for instance, he said there's no need to state, " 'This is Guantanamo; we're going to have Winston Smith tortured.' Essentially we're just introducing the material written by [George] Orwell, but we're bringing an emotional context to it, so they can view it with new eyes."
Neither does a specific political agenda dictate his film projects, he said, even though he figures that he's seen every antiwar script written lately. "I don't do them on a regular basis," he said, "because either they're just not crafted well, or they sit like dead weights, overburdened by good intentions."
What attracted him to "The Lucky Ones" was that, though each of the main characters is wounded in different ways from the war, no one talks about it.
"The word 'Iraq' wasn't in the script," he said. "The war is there on every page, but it didn't have the description of the battle or the emotional speech about my best friend. It was all there, but it was something they weren't going to talk about."
And unlike most films about the war, he said, "The Lucky Ones" also finds laughter in its dire circumstances.
The film also reveals how removed most of the country is from the actual experience of war, he said. That's one of the reasons why soldiers like the one he met on the road don't like being thanked for their service, he said. "It just rang to this particular soldier as insincere. He said, ' "Welcome home" would do.' "
Listening to soldiers' stories has been a "tremendous gift," he said. "For me, it's humbling. I've been trusted with that information, that emotion, from strangers. It's kind of my job, I would think, to share that, to pass it on."