Tim Robbins on Authoritarianism and the Cautionary Tale of ‘Silo’

Tim Robbins in ‘Silo’. Apple TV+

In Silo, the new series from Apple TV+, Tim Robbins plays a man struggling with authoritarian power. Based on the novels by Hugh Howey, the show is set in a distant future where the remaining population lives in an underground bunker to survive in a toxic world. After a string of deaths, the silo’s mysteries begin to emerge, thanks in part to Juliette from Rebecca Ferguson, the new sheriff who has her own agenda. Robbins’ character, Bernard, has his own ideas about society and how it should function. He’s almost a villain, but Robbins takes him to a more nuanced place.

“He wasn’t typical because the story was built up really well,” Robbins explains. “What I like about the series is that it is complex. It is not cut and dry. When you’re responsible for the lives of 10,000 people, it’s complicated. He is not a prototypical character. He has a lot of responsibility and a lot of burden. And he tries in the best possible way to operate the silo.”

For Robbins, the series and the role ticked a lot of boxes. It also marks the actor’s return to television after the second season of Castle Rock in 2019. While Robbins is best known for movies like The Shawshank Redemption And Walking Dead manlikes to spend more time with a character like Bernard, especially in a story he deems meaningful.

Here Robbins discusses his decision to join Silocautionary tales and what he learned from playing a character seeking societal control.

How does this series fit in with what you want to do as an actor these days?

It fit perfectly. That’s a story I want to tell and a character I want to play and a place I want to work: London. Those are the things I really think about at this stage. And they just put together a great cast and crew and great writers and great directors. I’ve had several experiences on long television and this is by far the best.

Is it unusual for all those things to come together?

Yes. I was thankful. I always feel blessed by the opportunities I have at this stage of my life. To be able to work with good people on a story that is important and resonates for today. That really resonates, especially after these last three or four years.

David Oyelowo, Geraldine James and Will Patton in ‘Silo’. Apple TV+

Why was this a story you wanted to tell?

I’ve always been interested in characters like Bernard, who I play. He is the silo’s head of IT and a person in a position of power with an enormous amount of responsibility. The lives of 10,000 people are at stake. The decisions he makes could jeopardize their safety. I’ve always been curious about what goes on inside people of power when they compromise their own morality and their own integrity to serve the greater good. Does it darken something in them? Are their souls in danger? What does that do to the individual?

I found that most of these people who make decisions that lead to authoritarian societies always do so with virtuous reasoning behind them. No one says, “I want to do evil.” There is always a rationalization or justification for limiting freedoms or controlling stories. I just wanted to get into that character. I’ve always wanted to see what the humanity is in them and what the complexity of decision making is and where they lead.

Did that experience give you new insights?

Yes. Generally, [that power] leads to a direct opposition and the direct opposition is the human heart. It is the instinct in man to be free. And that’s why so many sophisticated controls are used in the silo, and maybe in our own societies, to suppress that. It is something very powerful, the human heart. It is a very powerful thing in the search for truth. And no matter what you do, there will always be those who live deep down and still cling to the purpose of humanity and the strength of the heart. The fact that this story was enlightening was absolutely important and essential to me.

Have you read the books the series is based on?

I did, but was advised not to. So let’s say I didn’t. And it is necessary to be flexible enough and flexible enough to be able to take what you have [in the books] and develop the strengths. Or if it means inventing something new or introducing a new character, then that’s important.

How long did production take?

It’s stretched a bit due to delays. I don’t know if you are aware that there has been some delay in recent years. [Laughs] I think overall it was about six months.

What was it like being on that set?

Awesome. I mean, the design is beautiful. What was also great was that if you’re on a set and not doing any outdoor activities, there are no rainy days. There is no, “The sun is going down, we have to hurry, we missed the shot.” It’s all very controlled, which makes for a very human working environment. Because we know when the day starts and when it ends, and everyone can set their pace that way.

Are you someone who is generally drawn to dystopian stories?

I’m drawn to cautionary tales, which I believe Silo is. 1984—I’ve made a stage adaptation of it in various places around the world for almost 20 years now. Brave new world is another. Fahrenheit 451. These are books that you could consider dystopian, but I think of them more as warnings. These authors can imagine a future and it doesn’t look good, so they write about it hoping their readers will read it and say, “We don’t want that.”

I don’t know if we all pay enough attention to these books.

I think we should read them again.

So you see Silo as a cautionary tale?

I do. I also see it as a kind of detective thriller. As you progress through the episodes, more layers of what the silo is and how it works are revealed. Things you don’t expect and that surprise you. I like such stories.

Have you started shooting a second season yet?

I can say that we are all hoping for a second season.

Have you been busy with something else?

I made a little movie with my theater company [The Actors’ Gang] called in Los Angeles We live on based on writings by Studs Terkel, a book he called Hard times, which was an oral history of the depression. We worked on that in Zoom workshops, and when we were all able to get back together, we filmed it. It’s a little movie that I financed myself that I’m editing right now.

It seems important to be able to balance large budget projects with your own work.

The Actors’ Gang has always represented that personal aspect of my career for me. It’s not necessarily small – it’s a small organization with a huge reach. We have programs in 12 prisons across the state of California. We are in quite a few public schools with our education programs. We are in temporary housing for people coming out of prison. We have traveled all over the world with our productions. But it’s always been where I come back when I finish a project. That’s what has always kept me grounded and always given me a straight line, creatively. Here I can develop a new piece of work and not have to ask permission or have a multi-million dollar budget. So creative, it was great for me. It’s my lifeline.

You mentioned a few books. What have you read recently that impressed you?

I just read a biography of HG Wells. It was amazing. I usually read two or three books at a time. I also read Marcus Aurelius’ The Meditations. I’ve read Seneca. I mainly read the old masters to get a grip on the present.

Tim Robbins on Authoritarianism and the Cautionary Tale of 'Silo'

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