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Most Creative People

Actor And Activist Tim Robbins On The Life-Changing Power Of Empathy

The Academy Award-winning actor discusses his new aid-worker movie, along with his ongoing efforts teaching acting in California prisons.

Fedja Stukan (Damir) and Tim Robbins (B) in A Perfect Day

[Photos: Fernando Marrero, courtesy of IFC Films]

In A Perfect Day, which opens today, Tim Robbins plays "B," one of a team of aid workers navigating the Balkan conflict in 1995. When we first meet B, a veteran logistics expert, he is giving a ride to Sophie (Mélanie Thierry), an aid-work rookie. The two are stopped in their tracks by a cow carcass, which B hypothesizes was dragged there to lure drivers into a roadside mine. But is the mine to the left or the right? B solves the problem by speeding recklessly over the carcass itself.

This mixture of toughness, wildness, and sympathy characterizes both B and the film, from the Spanish director Fernando León de Aranoa, as a whole. (Partly derived from a novel by a real aid worker, the film is "a drama inside a comedy, inside a road movie, inside a war movie," says the director.) All those qualities have also animated Robbins’s long and acclaimed acting career, as well as his noted political activism.

Fast Company caught up with Robbins to learn more about what attracted him to the film, the role of empathy in both aid work and acting, and Robbins’s experiences teaching acting workshops in California prisons with his theater company, The Actors’ Gang.

Fast Company: What attracted you to A Perfect Day?

Tim Robbins: I ran into Benicio [Del Toro] at an airport and he told me about it and sent me the script. I liked it a lot because it was telling the story of people we don’t hear about often, these aid workers that go into an extremely dangerous situation to try to help people. There’s something very compelling about these people. I met a few of them in the past and I was always struck by a certain swagger about them, a rogue nature and an ability to get things done regardless of the obstacles. And in the midst of all this madness, there’s this beautiful humanity they have.

How did you research the part?

I sat down to dinner with a couple of people who’d worked in this area. It’s the same way with war journalists, this kind of rogue nature. I spoke to a lot of war journalists when I was doing my play Embedded in 2004, about an embedded journalist in Iraq. There’s that same desire to illuminate a situation, and even if it comes at the cost of risking your life, you just have to do it.

Eldar Residovic (Nikola), Tim Robbins (B), Fedja Stukan (Damir), Benicio Del Toro (Mambrú), Mélanie Thierry (Sophie) in A Perfect Day

Some of the characters in A Perfect Day have very evident empathy, while others are more weary. Do you think aid workers have more empathy than others?

It certainly has to exist. I don’t think you wake up in the morning and say, "Where I should be right now is Syria!" I think to some degree, there’s a difference between aid workers and journalists. Among journalists you can find people with advanced empathy. You can also find some people who are there for the Pulitzer. And for some of the young ones, there’s a "Let’s go risk our lives" kind of thing. There’s the journalist whose friends might be hang gliding, and he just wants to take risks in a different way. But the common theme is the tremendous courage it takes to walk toward a place with gunfire, and to do so unarmed.

Mélanie Thierry (Sophie), Olga Kurylenko (Katya), Eldar Residovic (Nikola) and Benicio Del Toro (Mambrú) in A Perfect Day

You’ve said that acting work continues to expand your own empathy. Did that happen with this role?

I read a couple of books about the Balkan conflict, and my empathy grew a lot for people just caught up in it. Some people involved in a war just don’t want either side to win. They just want to survive, to get through the day. If someone were to ask them who they were supporting, they’d simply say, "I’m supporting my survival." That’s the tragedy of war, these people who are caught in the middle of it and had nothing to do with the bad decisions that led to the conflict. They’re simply citizens trying to have what all of us want: safety, security, food, and warmth.

You do work in prisons with your theater company, The Actors’ Gang. Both your theater and the prison workshops focus on a particular form of Italian renaissance theater called commedia dell’arte. Why?

Commedia dell’arte wasn’t performed in theaters and palaces. It was performed in the streets and public squares. The early commedias often told a simple story: and old man wants to marry his daughter off to a wealthy associate, but she’s in love with a young man who has less money, so the harlequino character finds a way to trick his boss for true love to survive. We use it in prisons because these are characters everyone can relate to. What we’re doing with them has to do with connecting to emotional states, and by using commedia, we use stock characters so they can express these emotions. The story is also about what it is to survive in the midst of a situation that sometimes looks impossible.

Tim Robbins (B) and Benicio Del Toro (Mambrú) in A Perfect Day

In the workshops, you’ll have men play women, for instance. Yet in prisons there are often rigid codes of masculinity.

We do work in women’s prisons—and they play men as well. When we’re in the men’s prisons, pretty much in every session a guy will step up and say, "I’ll be the woman." And it’s usually not the transgender or gay person. The workshops allow everyone a safe zone to express emotions they haven’t expressed in years—and to do so with a group of strangers to them. You might have seen them on the prison yard, but in these workshops, you have groups of mixed ethnicity. You have whites bonding with blacks, with Latinos, across racial barriers and gang barriers, and creating bonds with each other because of the deep essence of the work. If one person has a brother from class and forms a real bond with him, that’s the scary part for them. It’s not playing the female character. It’s getting in touch with that emotion at all, to feel that love for that man. That’s where the work really lies.

The use of masks is central to your work both in your theater company and its work in prisons. You’ve said one inmate told you he hadn’t realized he’d been wearing a mask his whole life.

The masks demand emotional honesty from an actor. They won’t let you phone it in. You see it again and again: If an actor is not fully committed to the emotion, the mask tells them to get the hell off the stage. In prisons, we don’t use actual masks, but have them paint masks on their faces. It allows them to open up. In a lot of ways, it allows them to find who they were before they came to this prison.


This interview has been condensed and edited.