Tim Minchin is battling a mild cold when he sits across from PEDESTRIAN.TV to talk about his first acting role in a Hollywood blockbuster – Friar Tuck in this year’s reimagining of the classic folk story, Robin Hood, also starring Taron Egerton, Ben Mendelsohn, Jamie Dornan, Jamie Foxx and Eve Hewson. The celebrated writer, composer, actor and musician is bubbling with energy and enthusiasm, his answers crossing wide terrain, his accent shifting where it emphasises a point: over the course of half an hour it traverses Northern English and London cockney, heavy Australian and LA American.
Minchin explains that he took on the part in Robin Hood when his Aussie animation project, Larrikins, with the team at Dreamworks seemed to be on the edge of folding: “[Robin Hood] was a blockbuster and I’m a fuckin’ idiot, I’m a failed actor from Perth, I was like ‘Yeah!’“
He describes himself, Halloween 2016, dressed in black with a skeleton mask, doorknocking for candy with his kids in Hollywood, serendipitously meeting producer Jen Davisson, a mum at his kids’ school who just so happened to be working with director Otto Bathurst on casting the flick.
Their vision was for a very different Friar Tuck to what we’ve seen before: “He doesn’t need to be mead-drinking, he doesn’t need to be driven by avarice, he doesn’t need to be big. He’ll be something different, he’ll be bookish, and what he became.”
Davisson went to Bathurst with Minchin on her mind, and no idea the writer and comedian has quite the profile in the UK, especially since the smash success of his Matilda the Musical: “‘There’s this guy at my daughter’s school, he’s got this energy, I think he’s a comedian, have you ever heard of Tim Minchin?’ And of course Otto, being English went, ‘Oh fuck!’“
For Minchin, it was a no-brainer. Why would he say no to this opportunity when Larrikins was under the pressure of a studio buyout? (NBCUniversal bought Dreamworks back in August 2016, and production on Larrikins was cancelled in March 2017. Minchin posted the news to his website’s blog, describing his feelings about the dumping as “impotent fury and sadness“.)
There’s just no way I would of thought that I’d end up doing a movie of this scale. [Still] I don’t think blockbusters are more important. I think actors get confused and they go, ‘Oh my God, that person’s in the reboot of Batman, they’ve made it!’ But that’s not true, it’s just a version of something that it’s good to have done, I think. I don’t think my life’s gonna be taken over by blockbusters now, although if they make Hood 2 I’m gonna be there with bells on.
I was always gonna say yes to this film, because it’s so far outside—I didn’t grow up going to NIDA and being super handsome, and thinking I’m gonna be a movie star. And I’m still not gonna be a movie star, but I’ll have a fuckin’ play in that playground.
When choosing acting roles, Minchin says he’s looking for parts that are completely different to what he’s done before. Although his look doesn’t change – “I’ve got this long hair and I look like me, I’m quite distinctive-looking” – the types of roles he takes on do, shifting dramatically from for instance his “Northern Irish rapist” in The Secret River on the ABC, to rockstar Atticus Fetch in Californication.
I think Tuck is very different… That’s all that matters to me. And he had such an interesting costume, and he played this sort of uncle figure in Robin Hood. He gently, quietly looks after everyone. You don’t realise until halfway through the movie that he’s actually a part of the revolution; he’s not passive even though in the first half of the movie he’s just getting bullied by Mendo [Ben Mendelsohn].
Minchin painstakingly unpacks why the story of Robin Hood still seems so meaningful in the 21st century. He thinks what’s interesting about making work now is that the artist has to “tak[e] on board what’s going on in the world, which is an interesting, fraught political time“.
He sees links to today’s unequal distribution of wealth – “the movement of wealth towards a tiny percentage of the population has been extraordinary” – and Hood’s “stealing from the rich and giving to the poor“.
In Minchin’s view Robin Hood – and its story about standing up to powerful, and corrupt forces, like the government and the Church – at its heart is kind of like Matilda:
While the structure of the world says it’s okay to do this [for the rich and powerful to hoard wealth, and exploit poor people to do it], at what point do you put your foot down and say ‘No, I know everyone’s doing that, but I am going to take personal responsibility for something that I see as, as Matilda says, ‘not right”.’ It’s just not right.
There is this thing about rebellion, and about standing up and revolting, which is what Matilda‘s about as well. And it’s what a lot of the world is about too. It’s kinda like saying, imagine if instead of sitting around tweeting at each other angrily we actually did something. It is about standing up. But it’s also a love story at the heart of it. And [about] jealousy. It’s pretty rollickin’.
Still, while the themes of the movie are dense, Robin Hood is still a “summer blockbuster, or a Thanksgiving blockbuster“:
So then you go, okay, it has to be fuckin’ awesome for 14-year-old people and 40-year-old people and so the action sequences in the first ten minutes of the movie are fuckin’ insane. It’s pretty fun. And there is this heart and this twinkle in its eye.
Minchin is looking forward to sharing the new flick with his now nine-year-old son, Caspar, and his daughter, Violet, who will be 12 in November (his children with his wife of 17 years, Sarah). He lisps when impersonating his son’s excitement.
Caspar’s like ‘Can I see Robin Hood?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s 13+.’ And he’s like ‘But I’ve seen Iron Man!’ And I’m like ‘Yep, totally bro.’ He’s definitely gonna be there, and that’s really good… This will be big for my kids.
Although I’ve successfully kept them in the dark about my [fame]. They don’t sort of know, like this tour going on sale and selling out, that would surprise [them], they don’t understand that that’s a thing, they don’t understand that lots of people wanna buy tickets to see me perform. They saw me perform for the first time in LA last year actually.
So I kind of keep them—the ‘F’ word, the ‘famous’ word’s not allowed in our house, we just don’t talk about it. So it’s gonna fuck with their heads. It has [already]; Caspar’s like, ‘That’s like a proper movie?’ He finds it quite confusing that I’m doing it, but it’ll be good.
Robin Hood‘s not Minchin’s only project atm – he’s just kicked off filming on the TV series Upright, a joint British-Australian production, and chaotic road trip story, he co-wrote with Chris Taylor, Kate Mulvany and Leon Ford: “I just don’t know if I’ll be good enough to do it now,” Minchin says.
He’s also working on a new record, ahead of his return to Australian stages as a comedian, with the show next March and April, titled Back, already selling out theatres across the country. He says he “can’t fuckin’ wait” to go back on tour. And neither can we.
Robin Hood is in cinemas November 22.