‘The Shawshank Redemption’: Tim Robbins Spent Time in Solitary Confinement Before His Role as Andy Dufresne

We have all heard about actors that go the extra mile when preparing to take on a big role. They may put on a few extra pounds, change their hair color or style, and even spend time in an area where their character must be. It is a way for them to help bring the character to life.

One example of how well it works is Tim Robbins. In preparation for the role, he spent time in solitary confinement as Andy Dufresne. Not only did it enhance our viewing pleasure with realism, but it has also led to an impressive future endeavor.

On the set

Tim Robbins in 'The Shawshank Redemption' dressed in his prison uniform in a stone room with his hand offered for a handshake.
Tim Robbins in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ | Getty Images

Creating The Shawshank Redemption was not always easy. Long hours, various issues, and trying to bring so many together on the set of one movie was complex. Add to that the simple fact that it is a movie based on the loneliness and isolation that comes from being a “lifer” in prison, which most people have never faced. How do you portray it effectively? For Robbins, the answer was simple. Embrace the way Andy would feel.

Another actor on the set of The Shawshank Redemption, Clancy Brown, took a slightly different approach to his character. He received several offers from real-life corrections officers who wanted to work with him and help him make his portrayal of Captain Hadley more realistic. However, Brown turned them down. He felt that since Hadley was an evil character, he would end up misrepresenting real corrections officers if he tried to add that realism to his Hadley.

Not to be outdone, Morgan Freeman also put impressive effort into bringing Red to life. Along with the long hours of acting, he also injured himself in the yard scene between him and Andy when Andy asks him to get stuff for him. 

Keeping it real: breathing life into ‘The Shawshank Redemption’

Although the movie crashed at the box office, it became one of the all-time greatest movies, according to most people. For the actors who were lucky enough to be a part of it, it meant taking a deep look at the darker side of prisons.

Robbins wanted to give Andy as much realism as he could. Therefore, he put himself into a position where he spent time in solitary confinement. He realized early on, even before doing it, that it would not be an authentic experience.

He would be voluntarily going into solitary. He could step out whenever he decided he wanted out. However, while in, he could still get a sense of the loneliness, desolation, confinement, and darkness that makes prisoners want to avoid it.

Solitary confinement wasn’t the only way for Robbins to get into the mind of Dufresne. He also took responsibility for imagining himself as Andy by handpicking all the posters that would adorn Andy’s cell. The effect was him also creating a movie that would ultimately shape at least part of his future and the future of others, especially the prisoners he represented in the movie.

Steping Back to Make Prison Reform a Priority

While working on The Shawshank Redemption, Robbins spent time speaking with the extras on the set. Robbins told The Hollywood Reporter that “a lot of extras that were playing prison guards were actual prison guards…And I had conversations with many of them at the time, asking them what they felt would make the prison system better, more effective.”

Since then, he has taken an active role in trying to reform prisoners rather than simply “locking them up and throwing away the key.” One of the ways that Robbins has attempted to do it is through The Actors’ Gang, founded in 1981. Robbins is one of the acting coaches. According to CBS News, “The inmates at the medium-security prison in Norco, California, are serving time for crimes that range from possession of marijuana to murder.”

Robbins embraces the concept of it because “It creates this place where people can step outside what’s expected of them and try to explore new emotions, create new realities, and create new truths for themselves.”

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