Venice: Tim Robbins Calls for Prison Reform in New Doc

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Tim Robbins

The Oscar winner and star of 'The Shawshank Redemption' discusses his Venice entry '45 Seconds of Laughter' as well as projects in the pipeline, including "a pretty brutal satire about what's going on right now in the world, what is happening in our country."

Academy Award-winner Tim Robbins is the quintessential Hollywood multihyphenate: actor, writer, director and producer. But the role he takes on daily is that of activist.

For the past 13 years, the Dead Man Walking director has gone to a place where few Hollywood stars have ventured: prison. With his innovative theater troupe, The Actors' Gang, he's been instrumental in advocating for prison rehabilitation programs through The Actors' Gang Prison Project. In his new documentary 45 Seconds of Laughter, he takes viewers behind the scenes of this program, offering a personal look into how its techniques have transformed the lives of those incarcerated in California.

Shot in 10 days over an eight-month period at a Level Four-security facility in Calipatria State Prison, the documentary explores how an acting workshop can help break down the barriers of racial and gang divisions, allowing men to tap into long-dormant emotions and form bonds between their former enemies.

Using characters from the Italian commedia dell'arte, such as the Harlequin and La Signora, to take off the masks that they have been forced to wear while locked up, each workshop ends in a transformation, or "45 seconds of laughter," with Robbins showing how rehabilitation programs and the arts can give men and women a second chance.

45 Seconds of Laughter premieres in Venice on Friday before making its North American debut at the New York Film Festival.

Robbins talked to THR about the need for prison reform, what he learned about the U.S. prison system when shooting The Shawshank Redemption and future projects he hopes to do.

Was there one experience that really sparked your activism around prison reform?

I think it's been an awareness for a long time about the disparity of justice in the U.S. prison system. I think it was most evident in the '90s, when the prison population started to grow and grow and grow and usually for crimes that had been relatively recently criminalized: possession of marijuana, nonviolent crimes.

When I was on Shawshank Redemption, a lot of the extras that were playing prison guards were actual prison guards in the adjacent prison to the location. And I had conversations with many of them at the time, asking them what they felt would make the prison system better, more effective. And these are, you know, Mansfield, Ohio, conservative, probably Republican, prison guards.

They were telling me in 1993, that they would have two systems. They would have a jail for violent criminals and one for nonviolent criminals. And I said, "Well, if you were a politician, what would you do that effectively would change everything?" And they said, "Legalize marijuana." This is '93 in the middle of the Midwest. They saw firsthand what was happening, which was you're taking nonviolent criminals, kids that made mistakes, and putting them in jail with violent criminals. So, as they said to me, there's a one- to two-year waiting list for GED [General Educational Development] and job training. So basically what you are doing is putting them in there to become better criminals. And some of these people were in jail for things that I had gotten away with.

What are you seeing as the main barriers to prison rehabilitation?

I think we saw a turn of attitude of "lock them up and throw away the key." It's a useful abstraction that allows us to not have to deal with the fact that we are incarcerating more people than any country in the world. When we started this program, we did it purely volunteer, and after about two or three years, the state of California cut funding for all rehabilitative arts programming. And we continued our program despite that.

And then I and [fellow Actors' Gang member] Sabra Williams lobbied extensively over the next few years and were able to be instrumental in reinstating funding for arts in corrections in the state of California. At first we got $1 million back into the budget. Now it's up to $8 million. It's still a fraction of the money that is spent, and we continue to advocate for expansion of rehabilitation programs.

It makes so much sense. Most of the people that are in jail are going to get out eventually, and they're going to be in our neighborhoods. Wouldn't we want them to have better tools to deal with challenges in life than when they went in? It's a public-safety issue as far as I'm concerned.

Rehabilitation makes a safer society and a more humane society. Unfortunately, now we're going in the opposite direction with private prisons that have absolutely no incentive to provide rehabilitation because they make money based on the beds they sell.

What else is often misunderstood about rehabilitation?

We have to understand that this isn't just about the way that we treat prisoners. It's also about how we are asking agents of the state to treat prisoners and the effect of that on their lives.

Correctional officers have one of the highest rates of suicide in this country. That's related to what is being asked of them. When you are asked to dehumanize individuals, when you are asked to apply a punitive system instead of a rehabilitative one, it affects the spirits and the wellbeing of correctional officers. When you are asked to be inhumane toward someone, it kills something in you.

And so the cost we are paying for this system is not only in creating a revolving door for the incarcerated, but it's also exacting a toll on those whose job it is to lock them up.

How did The Actors' Gang workshops translate to this type of environment?

The Actors' Gang was based on a style that I learned from the Theatre du Soleil in Paris, which was this combination of a strong demand for emotional honesty in combination with the physical nature of the work. We discovered after doing it for about a year that it was truly effective in liberating something inside these men and women. We discovered that there was something about the way that we worked that translated into something that could truly help them not only come to terms with who they are emotionally, but also remind them of the people that they once were before they headed down a path that led to their incarceration.

How can the average person who watches and is inspired by your film get involved?

Well, they could donate to The Actors' Gang [Laughs]. I think we can all effect change. I think the first step is that we imagine what it is we're doing when we are incarcerating men and women and ask the question of why we're doing it. If we are doing it to simply lock them up and throw away the key, then perhaps we need to question what that means for us as a society.

I think the dialogue is already happening. The narrative is already changing. I believe that the advocacy is growing for change. And there are several different ways to participate in that: voting for prosecutors that use sentencing in a different way, and voting for legislators and politicians that see the need for fundamental change in our system.

What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

I'm working on another documentary.

I have written a couple of scripts that I would love to do, The Heretic being one of them. It's about faith and how faith can be used in a hypocritical way to achieve quite unspiritual outcomes.

I'm also working on a pretty brutal satire about what's going on right now in the world, what is happening in our country. It would be lovely if I could get one of those going.

I guess the reason I started writing it is, you know, how do you satirize this world we're living in right now? So it's kind of going to the next extreme of what this all means.

And what is the other documentary you're working on?

It's about war and our propensity toward it. I interviewed, before they died, four American writers that were World War II veterans and had become strong antiwar activists in their later lives: Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut and Howard Zinn. I was working on it while they were still alive, and I put it on the shelf, and I've picked it up again. I feel like it's an important story to tell.