The best defense

Special to The Times

Tim ROBBINS is not campaigning for governor. Nor is he pitching politics to talk radio shock jocks. He isn't even hustling the Hollywood party circuit to gain Academy Award votes for his haunting performance in "Mystic River."

The Manhattan-based actor-writer-director is in California again to express his politics the old-fashioned way: through his art. He still believes drama can change consciousness. But this time there's a difference: Robbins is speaking out because political extremists won't leave him and actress Susan Sarandon and their children in peace.

This time it's personal. "There was some nasty stuff in gossip pages about one of my kids," Robbins explains. "Just petty, to bring a 13-year-old kid into this. And radio people were using words like 'traitor.' This really made me angry and made me realize that maybe I should write something."

Specifically, Robbins wrote "Embedded," then brought the play to the Actors' Gang, the theater company he founded in 1981. "Embedded" proves to be a surprisingly touching and balanced play about journalists and U.S. military personnel during the invasion of an oil-rich rogue state named Gomorrah ruled by a "butcher of Babylon." (Similarities to Iraq are by design.)

At a recent rehearsal, Robbins directs two performers dancing to a Chet Baker jazz melody. At 6-foot-4, in a black T-shirt and jeans, the 45-year-old looms at the foot of the stage. He studies the dance. The actors move slowly and close. "You make sure to kiss the kids every night for me," says the male character. "And throw the ball around with the boys. They're gonna need someone to do dad things with them."

"You were so sexy in that uniform," says the woman to her dance partner. "I fell in love with that pitcher."

A soldier leaving home for war, his wife bravely repressing tears on what might be their last night together? At the Actors' Gang? The home of in-your-face confrontational experiments?

Along the theater's walls are open dressing stalls adorned with spotlighted commedia dell'arte masks, a trademark of Actors' Gang stagecraft. Robbins typically employs expressionist makeup to provoke satirical nightmares. But this time no garish surreal faces confront the audience. A sympathetic portrait of the individual American soldier emerges from the shadows, inspired in part by Robbins' exposure to military personnel when he portrayed a naval pilot in "Top Gun."

The impact is unexpected for veteran Actors' Gang followers. Even an interviewer on KPFK-FM, a progressive station to say the least, saw the play and then argued with Robbins on the air about the "moral responsibility" of troops who "accidentally" shoot civilians. Robbins refused to be politically corrected, passionately defending individual soldiers' behavior in war.

A cellphone rings. The distracted actors gradually become silent and stare at their introspective director. One actor utters a mock stage whisper: "Tim's phone is ringing, everybody." The performer signals for quiet on the set, as if a powerful Hollywood star must be treated with reverence. Robbins retrieves his cellphone, mutters "I'm not going to answer it" and silences the ringer.

He offers some final notes to his cast: "Tony? When you do your [speech], try to find the joy in it. OK, let's take a break, then a complete run-through. Good luck, everybody! Keep the faith!"

During the rehearsal break, Robbins discusses the process that led to "Embedded." It's his first play written since 1992's "Mayhem: The Invasion," and lessons learned as a screenwriter are evident in its compression and humanism. Although masks are used in a few scenes at a mythical Washington, D.C., "Office of Special Plans," they're neither grotesque nor shocking.

The masked characters Robbins calls "The Cabal" are presidential advisors with names like Rum-Rum, Woof, Pearly White, Gondola, Cove and Dick. Their strategic discussions provide comic relief between poignant scenes of a Jessica Lynch character named Pvt. Jen-Jen Ryan and her evolving romance with a Mexican American soldier. Robbins' embedded journalists, however, get no relief. Their "minder," Col. Hardchannel, addresses them as "maggot journalists." The reporters genuflect to the Army's censorship of their reports. Ultimately, everyone is embedded. No one wins this war.

Examining all sides

Robbins speaks softly, in calm and careful cadences. Pauses multiply while he gathers his thoughts. No simple conclusion seems to suffice: There are multiple sides to every question, and a series of events must be examined before legitimate understanding can occur.

Perhaps such precise speech can be traced to his first five years of life, when little Tim never spoke, despite growing up in Greenwich Village, the son of a folk singer (Gil in the Highwaymen, whose most popular song was "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore").

But being raised a Catholic, with nuns "whacking me on the knuckles" and getting "slapped across the face," probably didn't encourage verbal spontaneity either.

Whatever. This night it's obvious that Tim Robbins is no flaming radical spraying ideological rhetoric. On the contrary, he comes across as an all-American, patriotic, conscientious family man forced by hostile intruders to protect his loved ones. Gary Cooper could play Robbins; Robbins could do a modern-dress "High Noon."

"I think that whole intimidation factor is meant to make you feel isolated," Robbins says. "If anyone speaks out and they're immediately attacked, you're going to prevent others who feel in a similar way from talking."

So how did Robbins and Sarandon and their three children become targets of the extreme right? Ever since becoming a couple in 1988 while acting in "Bull Durham," they've been perceived as a team of outspoken activists.

In 1992, his politics overtly appeared on film when Robbins wrote, directed and starred in the prescient satire "Bob Roberts," about a folk singer turned businessman seeking public office. (Seemingly a parallel universe to 2003 politics, the mockumentary even depicts a cynical opportunist running for election who accuses Saddam Hussein of being a terrorist with weapons of mass destruction.)

After viewing "Bob Roberts," director Robert Altman proclaimed that "there's a new Orson Welles, and [Tim Robbins] is it." Against his production studio's wishes, Altman cast Robbins as the studio executive in "The Player."

Access to the national political arena tempted Robbins to exploit his charismatic star power for various causes. As an Oscar presenter in 1993, he scandalized the Academy Awards by condemning the Clinton administration's policy of imprisoning HIV-positive Haitian immigrants. This public statement led to a brief ban for the couple from the Oscars.

But the ban had little impact. Robbins' performance as a prison accountant who employs intelligence to overcome brute force in "The Shawshank Redemption" was universally celebrated as a tour de force. Robbins used similar tactics in real life to avoid being labeled a political activist. In 1996, during Robbins' publicity appearances promoting "Dead Man Walking," a film dealing with capital punishment that he wrote and directed, PBS' Charlie Rose attempted to force Robbins into accepting an activist identity: "You're a liberal do-gooder. Is that true? Do you accept that? Or would you use different terms: Caring? Concerned citizen?"

"I don't know," Robbins finally allowed. "I'm just a Boy Scout run amok."

But early this year, as the Bush administration accelerated its push for war against Iraq, Sarandon and Robbins lent their voices and presence to antiwar marches. After such appearances, attacks against each multiplied on the Internet, on conservative radio talk shows, on what Robbins calls "19th Century Fox Television."

"It was an extremely frustrating time," Robbins remembers. "As much as we would appear at peace rallies or go on the occasional television show to voice our opinion, it really wasn't being acknowledged or heard or, for that matter, there was no one in our supposedly 'opposition party' who was saying anything. The war was just railroaded right through Congress."

Then Sarandon appeared in a pro-peace 30-second TV cable ad aired before and after President Bush's State of the Union address: "Before our kids start coming home from Iraq in body bags and women and children start dying in Iraq, I need to know what Iraq did to us." The political spot concluded with: "Why rush into war? Let the inspections work." Evidently a line had been crossed. To conservatives, Sarandon seemed to imply Bush was lying to the American people, that the evidence for war was at best highly suspect.

In the months that followed, as America invaded Iraq, a torrent of personal attacks besieged Robbins' family and relatives. Radioheads called them traitors. The Internet called them far worse. Death threats appeared, and Robbins had to deal with his 13-year-old son's predicament. (Robbins prefers not to discuss his son, now 14.) Robbins' nephew was told by his history teacher that Sarandon had put American troops in harm's way by opposing the war. A niece was told by a teacher to keep her aunt and uncle away from the school play: "They're not welcome here."

April proved the cruelest month. The United Way canceled Sarandon's appearance at a conference on women's leadership. The next week, Robbins was informed by the Baseball Hall of Fame president not to come to Cooperstown for the anniversary celebration of "Bull Durham." The weekend, scheduled for a year, had been eagerly anticipated, a rare family getaway devoted to baseball.

Robbins felt the Cooperstown cancellation was more than a brush-back or change-up; it was a knockdown fastball to the batter's ear, timed to inflict maximum damage. "It was intimidation. [The Hall of Fame president] had sent the letter to me and the Associated Press at the same time. This was meant to be a statement warning others not to oppose the war."

By coincidence, Robbins had been scheduled to speak just three days later to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Until the Hall of Fame rejection, he hadn't prepared comments. Suddenly he had a subject and a cause. "So it gave me a focus to write this speech that I hadn't written yet about what was happening and about opposition to the war and what that meant. The cancellation turned out to be a gift because it galvanized me into writing."

In his speech, Robbins warned that "a chill wind is blowing in this nation. A message is being sent through the White House and its allies in talk radio and Clear Channel and Cooperstown: If you oppose this administration, there can and will be ramifications."

The Press Club speech became an eloquent, oft-quoted document, circulated widely via the Internet. But then, as if in counterattack, the campaign against Robbins' family accelerated. "The attacks were so vociferous, so immediate, from so many angles," Robbins says. "Different talk radio people were saying different inflammatory things, using words like 'traitor.' This really made me angry and made me realize that maybe I should write something more. And that's when I started writing 'Embedded.' And it came really fast."

Isolation factor

Once written, a script's ultimate test for Robbins is to hear it read by professional actors, particularly those he's worked with since the 1980s. And so he brought "Embedded" to the Actors' Gang. "It's really refreshing to be able to work with people that you have a certain vocabulary with and a certain history with."

Now the full-dress rehearsal is about to resume. The actors, in military khakis, are assuming positions on the raised wooden stage. It's time for Robbins to get back to work. And so a final question must be asked: Why? What does Robbins hope to accomplish with "Embedded"?

His answer follows a cautious pause: "Maybe we can -- those of us who are against this war -- find some solace in that other people might have the same questions. For years, the right-wing radio guys have been complaining and complaining about Clinton and the Democrats, and I realize now they've got it all: the presidency, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the judicial, most of the media. You start to think, 'Well, now they got everything. Why don't they do what they want to do? Why are they so unhappy? What is it? Why aren't they content?'

"And why, if they have all that power, and if they got it legitimately, then why be so concerned by what a couple of actors say?"

*

'Embedded'

Where: Actors' Gang Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood

When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m., except Nov. 30, 2 and 8 p.m. Dark Nov. 27-28

Ends: Dec. 21

Price: $25, pay-what-you-can on Thursdays

Contact: (323) 465-0566, Ext. 15

Richard Stayton can be reached at calendar@latimes.com.

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