Tim Robbins On Authoritarianism And The Cautionary Tale Of ‘Silo’

Robbins compares the new AppleTV+ sci-fi series to 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451: "These are books that imagine a future with the hopes that readers will say, 'We don't want that.' "

Tim Robbins in “Silo.” Apple TV+

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

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“He wasn’t typical because the story was constructed really well,” Robbins told Observer. “What I love about the series is it’s complex. It’s not cut and dry. When you’re responsible for the lives of 10,000 people, it’s complicated. He’s not a prototypical character. He has a lot of responsibility and a lot of burden. And he’s trying in the best way that he can to serve the silo.”

For Robbins, the series and the role ticked a lot of boxes. It also marks the actor’s return to television following the second season of Castle Rock in 2019. Although Robbins is best known for films like The Shawshank Redemption and Dead Man Walking, he enjoys spending more time with a character like Bernard, especially in a story he considers meaningful. 

Here Robbins discusses his decision to join Silo, cautionary tales and what he learned from playing a character who seeks societal control. 

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

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

Is it unusual that all of those things would converge?

Yes. I was grateful. I feel 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’s important that resonates for today. That really resonates, particularly, 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 the characters like Bernard, who I play. He’s the head of IT of the silo and a person in a position of power with a tremendous amount of responsibility. The lives of 10,000 people are at stake. The decisions he makes could compromise their safety. I’ve always been curious about what goes on inside people of power when they make compromises to their own morality and their own integrity in order to serve the greater good. Does it turn something in them dark? Are their souls compromised? What does that do to the individual? 

I found that most of these people that do make decisions that lead to authoritarian societies always are doing it with some virtuous reasoning behind it. No one is saying, “I want to do evil.” There’s always a rationalization or justification for limiting freedoms or for controlling narratives. I just wanted to get inside that character. I always wanted to see what the humanity is in them and what the complexities of decision making and what they lead to are.

Did that experience give you any new insight?

Yes. Most of the time, [that power] leads to a direct opposition and the direct opposition is the human heart. It’s the instinct in man to be free. And that’s why so many sophisticated means of control are used in the silo, and perhaps in our own societies, to quell that. It’s a very powerful thing, the human heart. It’s a very powerful thing in the quest for truth. And, no matter what you do, there will always be those that live in the down deep that will still hold on to the purpose of humanity and the power of the heart. The fact that this story was illuminating that I found was absolutely important and essential.

Have you read the books the series is based on? 

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

How long was production?

It’s a little drawn out because of delays. I don’t know if you’re aware there were some delays in last couple of years. [Laughs] I think overall it was about six months.

What was it like to be in that set?

Great. I mean, the design is beautiful. What was great also was that when you’re on a set and not doing any exteriors, there’s no rain days. There’s no, “The sun is setting, we gotta hurry up, missed the shot.” It’s all very controlled, which allows for a very human working environment. Because we know when the day begins and when it ends, and everyone can pace themselves 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 done a stage adaptation of that for almost 20 years now in various places around the world. Brave New World is another one. Fahrenheit 451. These are books that one could consider dystopian, but I consider them more like warnings. These authors are able to imagine a future and it doesn’t look good, and so write about it with the hopes that their readers will read it and say, “We don’t want that.”

I don’t know if we’re all paying close enough attention to these books. 

I think we should re-read them.

So you see Silo as a cautionary tale?

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

Have you started shooting a second season yet?

I can say we’re all hoping for a season two. 

Have you been working on anything else?

I did a small film with my theater company [The Actors’ Gang] in Los Angeles called We Live On based on writings of Studs Terkel, a book he did called Hard Times, which was an oral history of the Depression. We worked on that in Zoom workshops, and then when we could all rejoin each other we filmed it. It’s a small film that I self-financed and I’m editing it right now.

It seems important to be able to balance big-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 outreach. We have programs in 12 prisons in the state of California. We’re in quite a few public schools with our education programs. We’re in transitional housing for people that are coming out of prison. We have toured all over the world with our productions. But it’s always been where I return when I finish a project. That’s what has always kept me grounded and has always given me a through line, creatively. It’s where I can go and develop a new piece of work and not have to ask permission or have a multi-million dollar budget. So creatively, it’s been amazing for me. It’s my lifeline. 

You’ve mentioned a few books. What have you read recently that’s had an impact on you? 

I just read a biography of H.G. Wells. It was awesome. I usually read like two or three books at the same time. I’m also reading Marcus Aurelius’ The Meditations. I’ve been reading Seneca. Mostly I’ve been reading the ancient masters to get a grip on the present.

Tim Robbins On Authoritarianism And The Cautionary Tale Of ‘Silo’