FILM / Mr Roberts goes to Washington: With the release of Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins is being compared to the young Orson Welles. Sheila Johnston met him

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This was the year that Tim Robbins stormed the twin citadels of the American Establishment: Hollywood, in Robert Altman's The Player, in which he played the amoral studio executive Griffin Mill; and Washington, in his own satirical film, Bob Roberts, about a (fictional) folk-singer turned New Right senatorial candidate. The concept started life in 1985 as a skit for Saturday Night Live (a parentage it shares with Wayne's World). But where the character then was loud-suited and slightly portly, he seems in the film to have gotten himself a good team of image consultants and gone on a fitness jag - now he's hip, younger-looking, slim, oleaginous, late-Eighties vintage.

There was much talk at Cannes, where Bob Roberts played in the Directors' Fortnight, of its political prescience. Roberts (unaligned to either major party, though labelled a crypto-Fascist by the alternative media) was seen there as a wild-card candidate, like Ross Perot, and his assault on the social reforms of the Sixties mirrored the GOP response, weeks earlier, to the LA riots. Now there are other echoes: the ad hominem smears aimed by Roberts at his patrician, world-weary rival (Gore Vidal) have begun to sound familiar as the two real-life Presidential candidates strip off their gloves for the last leg of the election.

'Things are going to get really ugly,' Robbins says. 'These are people that understand that mean-spirited campaigning benefits them, 'these people' being the Republican Party. They know there is nothing of substance to run on, so ultimately their platform becomes tearing apart the opponent. By November, people will be so disgusted by the process, so turned off by both candidates that they won't show up to vote.

'However, the core constituents of the Republican Party will be there at the polls and always, historically, have been: the party is counting on low voter turn-out to win the election. What makes me believe this is that Bush recently vetoed an act put forward by the Democrats that would have made it a lot easier to register to vote. Quite simply, he knows that if more people vote he won't get re-elected.'

You may have come across Robbins in the press or on television these past few days; it has been hard to miss him. He knows that, as the director-writer- star of Bob Roberts (a feat which rasher pundits have been comparing to Citizen Kane), he must carry the film alone on his shoulders, and he has been working like a Trojan to support it. He has been elevated into something of a political pundit, will readily talk at vast length and in detail about all these connections, and indeed makes it his business to stay genned up on current affairs.

Robbins on the LA riots: 'For the President of the United States to say that this stems from liberal social programmes is truly evil, truly horrifying.' Robbins on the Gulf war: 'We were presented with a sanitised war; a video game. There was no suffering, there was no blood, there was no death, there were no charred human remains for us to see. Then our leaders had the audacity to say this is making America feel good again] How morally corrupt are we that we need a war to feel good about ourselves?' He is one of an endangered species, an active Hollywood liberal; an idealist even.

Perhaps this is because he's practically a lone voice in Lotus-land. 'Let's dispel the notion that Hollywood is a political town. We have fund-raisers, and the tradition of celebrities appearing with candidates; Arnold Schwarzenegger is Bush's most potent ally right now. But in terms of the films, I wouldn't agree. When I was trying to set this project up I was turned down everywhere. I don't think it's a coincidence that an English company (Working Title) wound up producing it.'

And this despite a pitch to die for: 'Griffin Mill would describe it as Spinal Tap meets Triumph of the Will.' Like Tap, his film is a documentary - if you will, a mockumentary - about a fictional character. But the joke about Spinal Tap was that only the director-within-the-film thought the Tap were magic; to everyone else it was clear they were a bunch of no-talent bozos. At the beginning of Bob Roberts, you half expect the director-within-the-film, a bluff, sincere BBC type rejoicing in the name of Terry Manchester, to get things similarly wrong - to be a dumb Limey who would be thoroughly hoodwinked by Roberts and his team of foxy, media-wise Americans.

Robbins, however, intended his movie as a tribute to the investigative prowess of the BBC documentary: 'From my time spent in Britain, it always seemed that there was a real respect towards programmes that expanded one's realm of experience, an importance placed on the mind and on learning new things.' And, among the air-headed American commentators, Terry Manchester turns out to be the only one to ferret out Bob's dark secret. 'I always saw him as an intelligent person who would see something only someone from the outside could see.'

Robbins denies that his film tells you what to think in exactly the manner it affects to deplore. 'All movies one way or another are manipulative. I've tried to reflect what I've seen as honestly as possible. I'm not saying that people should vote for Democrats or Republicans and I don't know that I've told anyone what to think about Bob Roberts. Some journalists have seen him as a perfectly viable political candidate.'

One message is unequivocal: the exhortation, in huge letters at the end of the closing credits, to VOTE; like all good idealists, Robbins believes that his movie can make a difference, be it never so small. 'One of the strengths of story-telling is that if it's visceral it can stay with you a lot longer than any politician's words. What tends to change societies fundamentally is a collective frustration or anger. But a film can verify for those watching it that there are others who think the same way.

'If they can hear a common response to something they have been holding secretly in themselves, it can give them empowerment. I've had people come up to me after I've spoken at marches saying: 'Thank you for doing that because I thought I was crazy to hold beliefs against the war in the Gulf.' I don't know about changing the world, but I am optimistic; I think people are inherently good but they need to hear an opinion that takes issue with what they've been force-fed by the media.'

Robbins has played his share of basket cases: he was the dumb baseball pitcher in Bull Durham, sundry terrorists in St Elsewhere and Cadillac Man and a flashback-anguished VietVet in Jacob's Ladder. His present roles, however, come steeped in the sweet smell of success: he recently signed as the lead in the Coen Brothers' new film, The Hudsucker Proxy. 'He's a man who comes from a small town, gets a job with Hudsucker Industries and within a day becomes the president of the corporation.' More ruthless upward mobility? 'No - he's quite sweet and good-hearted; he bumbles into it. I'm really looking forward to playing him.'

'Bob Roberts' opens tomorrow.

(Photograph omitted)