In 1992, in the thick of the presidential campaign between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Tim Robbins wrote, directed and starred in the barbed political satire “Bob Roberts,” about a conservative Senate candidate and folk singer who co-opts Dylanesque imagery in hopes of winning the election.
More than two decades later, as another presidential campaign approaches, Robbins, 56, is producing, directing and starring in the HBO political comedy series “The Brink,” which debuts Sunday. He plays Walter Larson, a secretary of state who constantly clashes with the administration’s situation-room hawks.
It’s his highest-profile role in a decade, one that plays on the fact that, for a time, he was known as much for his left-wing politics as he was for his acting. Yet, as he promotes “The Brink,” he seems eager to put away the image of himself as an ideologue.
“I’m really not that interested in politics,” Robbins contended in a recent telephone interview. “I’m interested in progressive causes and working in a hands-on way to effect change.”
Once, his activism with his former partner, actress Susan Sarandon, dominated conversation, overshadowing even his Oscar in 2004 for his role in Clint Eastwood’s gritty urban crime drama “Mystic River.” The year before, his opposition to the Iraq War led the National Baseball Hall of Fame to cancel a 15th-anniversary tribute to Robbins’ classic baseball movie “Bull Durham.”
Since then, Robbins has kept a relatively low profile, professionally and politically, save for a jittery role in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 blockbuster “War of the Worlds,” a stint campaigning for John Edwards in the run-up to the 2008 presidential primaries and a tabloid blip after his breakup with Sarandon in 2009.
Dark political farce
In its opening moments, “The Brink” declares its allegiance to farce; one of the first scenes shows Robbins’ libidinous Larson running away buck naked after being tied up by a prostitute. A later scene finds a fighter pilot having a scatological accident in the middle of a bombing run.
But along with its many comic mishaps, over 10 episodes, the series takes on a darker, more pointed tone. Larson battles a bellicose defense secretary, played by Geoff Pierson, who tries to persuade the indecisive president (Esai Morales) to launch a first strike on Pakistan. By the second episode, an ambitious low-level aide played by Jack Black, is taken captive by the Pakistani military and tortured. The series revolves around Larson as he tries to pull the United States, Israel, Pakistan and India back from the precipice of a third world war.
With its dark humor and high stakes, “The Brink” recalls Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 blistering Cold War satire “Dr. Strangelove.”
“That was pretty much the model we were working from,” Robbins said.
Finding laughs in such a dire situation isn’t simple, and that’s precisely what appealed to Robbins.
“Satire is a form I love, but it’s not done much because it’s so hard,” he explained. “What some people call satire is really just parody.”
Many of Robbins’ ideas on satire come from director Robert Altman. The two first worked together on “The Player,” the sharp 1992 sendup of Hollywood’s cutthroat culture, in which Robbins played a studio executive turned murderer, but Altman’s influence began even earlier.
“Bob was a hero of mine,” Robbins said. “I first was turned on to the idea of doing cinema when I saw ‘Nashville,’” the 1975 film that grounded the sprawling story of a presidential primary with a sense of gritty realism and set it against a backdrop of music, much as “Bob Roberts” would later do. “I loved his sharp eye, his sensibility, his way of working with actors. That was the movie that changed everything for me.”
Though the years may have dulled Robbins’ political edginess, he still seems a bit like his old self. For one thing, he stands by the implicit attack on the Persian Gulf War in “Bob Roberts.”
“The original film still works,” he insisted. “When I wrote it, people suggested changing the specifics about Iraq and Saddam Hussein. They said ‘Ten years from now, it’s not going to be relevant.’ But I thought, ‘This is a new step in American foreign policy, the face of a new animal.’ Unfortunately, I was right.”
In fact, with its jabs at the nation’s banking system, the film hardly seems dated. “I certainly wish it weren’t still relevant, but it is.”