Why the political is still personal

Tim Robbins grew up in a creative and politically radical family and their independence of mind still informs his acting and directing

Tim Robbins has the physique of a clean-cut action hero and the face of a dissolute baby. And the body - all 6ft4 of it - played a dim baseball pitcher in his first big hit, Bull Durham. He re-appears this month as an astronaut named Woody in Mission to Mars, a regrettably sentimental space opera directed by Brian De Palma.

But, despite the gravitas bestowed by greying temples and gold-rimmed specs, the face is podgy and inchoate. It speaks of a tendency to run to fat and temper tantrums, deceits and self-indulgence. Perfect for a millionaire folk-singer turned ultra-conservative politician (Bob Roberts), a murderous studio executive (The Player), or a far-right urban terrorist (Arlington Road).

In a forthcoming film of High Fidelity, which transposes Nick Hornby's comic novel from Camden Town to Chicago, it belongs to a creepy ponytailed attorney who tries to move in on the hero's girlfriend. And it is currently leering before the cameras in Anti-Trust, about a ruthless computer magnate with shades of Bill Gates. "I don't," its owner declares rather superfluously, "have a problem with playing bad guys."

Yet Robbins's liberal credentials seem impeccable. Born in 1958, he grew up in Greenwich Village where his father, Gil Robbins of the folk group The Highwaymen, raised his four children in the best tradition of Sixties idealism. They regularly went on peace marches and it became a point of family pride whenRobbins's sister was arrested during an anti-Vietnam demo. "It seemed like a normal childhood," says the actor. "Only later did I realise how lucky I was to be surrounded by such creativity."

Tim, the youngest, nicknamed "Cardinal Robbins" for his serious demeanour, displayed every sign of following the family tradition. Aged 12, he joined his two sisters in an improvisational company called Theater For A New City, where he remained for seven years, staging such items as a satirical act about Watergate. He studied acting in Los Angeles where he helped found an acclaimed theatre group called The Actors' Gang. An example of their work: Mayhem, The Invasion, "a biting political satire which challenges the myth of Columbus as heroic explorer".

So, when Robbins decided to write and direct a comedy about left-wing artists in New York in the Thirties, one would naturally expect a rosy portrait. The main plot thread follows a production of The Cradle Will Rock, a musical fable about the class war in a steel town, composed by Marc Blitzstein and staged by a young and already iconoclastic Orson Welles in the teeth of both government and union opposition.

The background is the Federal Theater Project, a Roosevelt initiative to bring theatre to the masses which is being attacked by conservative Congressmen. Meanwhile, a glamorous Italian journalist, played by Susan Sarandon, Robbins's off-screen partner, is in town to curry support for Mussolini. The communist Mexican painter Diego Rivera is designing a fresco for Nelson Rockefeller: a strange liaison bound to end badly. And, at the opposite end of the cultural spectrum, a sad-sack ventriloquist is trying to purge his vaudeville troupe of the Red Threat.

Robbins's last film as director was Dead Man Walking (1995), the true story of the friendship between a compassionate nun and a convicted murderer. It won Sarandon an Oscar for her performance as the nun and Robbins a Best Director nomination. Since it was also a modest commercial success, he fondly imagined that producers would be queuing up to back his new project.

But, as Sarandon says, "It's alwaysdifficult to get a movie financed when people can't see the poster in their minds." While Robbins waited, he kept on writing. "It grew and grew and grew as I discovered more eccentric events and characters," he recalls.

Although Cradle Will Rock cocks an eyebrow at radical artists who accept the capitalist shilling, it was Joe Roth, Disney's ex-chairman, who finally stumped up the $25m budget. Asked whether Walt - never noted for his revolutionary views - is spinning in his grave, Robbins insists there was no pressure to tone down the story. But the brainless cameo role in Disney's Mission to Mars, which he claims he took in order to please his sons, has been widely seen as a thank-you gesture.

Reaction to Cradle Will Rock has been divided. Some major publications applauded its ambition and intelligence. Others thought it confusing or politically simplistic. There is, it is true, a streak of caricature in some characters, and of thundering overstatement in the sledgehammer climax. And the musical's fervent agitprop sensibilities must come across as naive to a modern audience. "Perhaps, perhaps," Robbins concedes. "It is of its time and I don't know if it would work today. But it was ground-breaking in being the first American musical to deal overtly with social content and there's some wonderful writing in it."

Other elements in the film display a quizzical humour towards these failed romantics: a daft Marxist children's show called Revolt Of the Beavers, or a ventriloquist's dummy which betrays its owner's former Communist sympathies by insisting on singing the "Internationale". And the portrayal of Welles, played by Angus MacFadyen as a profligate, publicity-seeking egotist, is also ambiguous, to say the least. "When I started reading about Welles before he went to Hollywood or made the War of the Worlds, I was surprised to discover what a vital theatre artist he was," Robbins says. "He created these amazing nights, and he was only 21."

Robbins has also established himself as a gifted all-rounder. He starred in and directed Bob Roberts as well as performing the songs in it. On Cradle, he is the director, producer and writer ("I was going to play a small part in it, but I realised it would be too much"). He collaborated on the editing, "on old-fashioned machines", meaning manually as opposed to digitally. "Computers are faster," he says. "But is faster better? I like feeling the film, taking a frame out, putting it together."

Indeed, with his rather fleshy looks, Robbins would be a natural to play an older Welles, and the comparisons have been inevitable. How do they make him feel? "Wary. Always wary. I'm flattered if someone says that, but no thanks. I don't want that pressure." He adds, "For me, genius at such a young age goes hand and hand with bacchanalia. You don't get there by being safe."

He and Sarandon live with their two sons, aged 10 and seven, and her daughter, 14, a stone's throw from where Robbins spent his childhood. He talks nostalgically about how the neighbourhood has gone down: "We used to be able to play on the streets - stick ball, hockey, roller skating. Once in a while someone would yell, 'Car, car!' and we'd run to the side. Now there's a constant stream of automobiles. Parts of the village have been gentrified to distraction. And I'm sick of seeing chain stores. I'm trying to teach my children that you can find anything you want in mom-and-pop operations."

The closing shot of Cradle Will Rock, which it would be unfair to reveal, might be interpreted to suggest that the foment of the Thirties has long been squashed by the homogenising hand of big business. I ask Robbins whether he still finds a passionate intensity in the cultural scene and he replies at once, "It's still there, all around. It exists, man. People who are really committed and alive and involved in their world. I must think that - how else could I have made this movie?

"Maybe we're more cynical now than we were in the Sixties - but maybe cynicism is good. It means we're all much more savvy about how things work." He describes Clinton tartly as "the only Republican I ever voted for" and says, "The only reason I vote is because of who the president appoints to the Supreme and Federal Courts. Ultimately, I believe much more in the individual than in any union or government." And there we have Robbins: paterfamilias, political sceptic, proponent of old-fashioned editing and patron of the mom-and-pop shop. Something, in short, surprisingly akin to a conservative with a small "c".

'Mission to Mars' is on general release; 'Cradle Will Rock' is reviewed onpage 10

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