Tim Minchin

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

The last time I saw Tim Minchin, he was warm, funny and generous. He agreed to let me use his piano at a gig we were both performing at, gave me encouragement, and starred in a performance of a song I had written for Simon Singh’s Big Libel Gig. However, I haven’t seen him for four years, and before our interview I worry that he might have changed. Since 2010, he has risen from cult London-based comic singer-songwriter to famous LA-based actor/composer/director/singer-songwriter, writing the music and lyrics of the award-winning West End musical Matilda, playing Judas in an all-star production of Jesus Christ Superstar and landing the role of composer of the stage musical Groundhog Day, as well as directing and composing the Dreamworks animation Larrikins. In my experience, fame doesn’t always bring out the best in people, and I wonder if the success – as it does for so many – might have made him aloof or self-absorbed.

I needn’t have worried. When I meet Minchin at his management company offices in central London, he envelops me in a big hug and asks how I’ve been, before sitting opposite me at a boardroom table and warmly telling me about his life. He explains that he’s moved to LA so he can spend more time with his family and that he doesn’t get recognised there, so “it’s good for my sense of normality”. Despite having lived in London and LA for the past five years, his broad Australian accent betrays his upbringing in Perth. It’s used to great effect in his role as rock star Atticus Fetch, the best thing about unedifying US drama Californication. He is the very definition of a polymath, deftly turning his hand to different art forms, and is involved in so many projects I can barely keep up: he is in London to promote his new book Storm, an illustrated version of his acerbic beat poem about alternative medicine and evidence-based thinking.

He is self-deprecating about his achievements. “This sounds like I’m just being politically correct, but I don’t believe I deserve credit for anything I’ve done, because I don’t really believe in free will,” he says earnestly. “Not that I’m a determinist, but it’s all luck, a hundred per cent luck, and if I worked hard, I was lucky enough to be taught to work hard.” While Minchin says he’s happy making “big old mainstream animated films and musicals”, he also wants his work to do “positive things for people”.

Part of this is writing strong female characters to inspire young girls. “I want to make sure that when I write about a little girl, it’s not a Disney little girl who’s like, ‘I’m sassy and I’ve got awesome boobs!’ Happily, my musical’s about books and shit. I’m lucky, because I’ve stumbled upon these projects, but it’s become more and more conscious.”

I confess that my three-year-old daughter is obsessed with the movie Frozen, and with Disney princesses in general. How does he think we should get around that? “It’s something I’m very aware of. I’m trying to write a modern woman in Groundhog Day. Talk about not being entitled to do that!”

We talk about Storm, in which Minchin delivers a stinging rationalist diatribe to a fictional hippy who doesn’t believe in modern medicine. As it ends with the line “We’d as well be ten minutes back in time, for all the chance you’d change your mind,” does he think it’s worth trying to convert people to rationalism?

He eyes me wryly. “Is it worth putting signs on buses? Is it worth campaigning?” We laugh; he’s referring to the “atheist bus campaign” I ran in 2008. I don’t know, I reply, is it? “I think it is, because you just need the information to be available in as many forms as possible. The data shows that changing people’s pre-established ideas is almost impossible – there are all these incredibly depressing experiments that show that the more you try to show someone evidence against their beliefs, the more they believe the thing [they originally believed]. We just hate people telling us we’re wrong, to the extent that we will double down when shown evidence to the contrary and we will confirm our bias at every turn by taking in the data we want and discarding the data we don’t. That includes how we shape our Twitter feed and what we read and who we surround ourselves with – we’re just firming up our [beliefs]. I do it,” he admits, quipping, “It just happens that I’m right.”

He continues, launching into a fast-flowing stream of ideas: “There’s no new Enlightenment because it’s not top-down enough any more. Back in the day there were a few rich men who said, ‘Well, I think it should be about ideas, and we’re not going to have a hierarchy’, and you could kind of have an impact on a society that was only a couple of million people wide. Information dissemination is too disparate now. I’m probably right, there’s probably not going to be another sort of Enlightenment, there’s just information, gigabytes and petabytes of information churning out, and you’ve just got to make sure that the good information is amongst it as visibly as possible. I don’t know whether the sides of buses and the internet [are the right forums], but you’ve just got to make sure that people who are interested have somewhere to go to to get information.

“And,” he concludes, “teach critical thinking in schools, which if I was a politician would be what I would be running on, and therefore wouldn’t get voted in.”

Has he ever thought about it? “No,” he says. “I think about it sometimes, but no fucking way. It would be about ego, I think.”

I don’t think it would be with him, I object. “Well, I don’t know about that. I’ve had a real think about it, because you fantasise about ‘What would I say if I could do a speech? If I were going to run, what would I say?’ Because I’m so angry at the rhetoric my Australian leaders use. It’s all demagoguery, it’s all fear, it’s all basically ‘I’m going to protect our borders against the yellow peril!’

“Well, it’s ‘brown peril’ now,” Minchin continues, referring to his homeland’s recent anti-asylum-seeker policies, “but they’re just saying, ‘You should be scared and I’ll protect you’, and leaders have done that for ever. I’m so interested in rhetoric, and Obama’s the best rhetorician of our time. His ability to act on it is stymied by a completely broken system, but I love the idea that leaders can inspire people to be better versions of themselves, not to win votes by fingering the dirtiest part of them, by pressing the buttons of paranoia.” But if Minchin is quick to downplay his own role on the one hand – “My ambition is to have a fun job and have a cool time and make entertaining stuff” – he is driven nonetheless by a desire to influence people, to “disseminate good ideas”.

“I think I’m doing the thing that best allows me to do that now,” he says, suggesting that people stop listening the moment it becomes formalised. “That’s why I didn’t take up the presidency of the British Humanist Association, that’s why I don’t call myself an atheist in public, that’s why when people ask, ‘Are you a fan of Richard Dawkins?’ I say, ‘No, I’m not a fan of anything!’ The more I label myself, the more people can go, ‘Oh, he’s just...’ and discard the ideas. But if you’re just a comedian, making people laugh, or a musician, composing songs... I mean, Matilda’s full of pro-rationalist, pro-intellectual lyrics. It’s almost propaganda! And it’s probably more powerful for a young girl to watch that than for me to try and become education minister.

“But I’d really like there to be critical thinking [taught] in schools,” he reiterates. “So maybe I could be on a panel at some point to talk about that.”

Yes, I say, or provide lesson plans. “I’m not going to get around to that,” he laughs. “But I do think we have a little problem on our side of thinking: there aren’t many ‘you’s and there aren’t many ‘me’s.” Rather, he says, rationalism has become associated with “a certain type of didactic-thinking male who cares about scepticism and religion, and they’re not very entertaining”.

Minchin is far too polite to name names, of course, and makes clear there are “massive, massive exceptions” to the stereotype. But he identifies a certain tendency to assume that simply telling other people why they’re wrong is the best way to promote clear thinking.

To make his point, he holds forth on how to teach schoolchildren about confirmation bias, zipping through about two thousand years of human history in a few sentences. It’s a compelling story that gets the listener hooked, and is both true and convincing. I wish I’d had Minchin as a teacher instead of the boring, dry academics at my school. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to be taught that, at 14?” he says.

We talk about acting. His latest project is a starring role in The Secret River, an Australian drama about the massacre of Aborigines by European colonists. “I’ve re-engaged with our denial of history. It’s so horrific I can’t even read the script, I get so upset by it, and I have to do all these terrible things, I’m the worst character.”

How does he detach himself from that? “Well, I believe that the story needs to be told, and I’m an actor – ish – and the reason the director wanted to cast me is that she doesn’t want the audience to have the ‘easy out’ of a baddy who is two-dimensionally ‘evil’. The thing about Australia is that we need to tell stories about frontier conflict in the colonial days. There’s no point blaming yourself for the behaviour of your ancestors, but there is something about acknowledging your inherited culpability. We need as a society to say, ‘We did wrong by you, even though I didn’t do wrong by you.’”

He describes the character he plays as multifaceted – “we excuse ourselves from culpability by going, ‘That’s an evil person – Rolf Harris is evil, we thought he was good, but he’s evil – he sold us a lie’ – and that’s just not how humans work, there’s no such thing. The director thinks I have an inherently friendly face. She wanted someone people would be forced to empathise with, because we as a white society need to own some guilt. It’s inherited guilt but it’s not bad to embrace that. I think I’m slightly doing this role partly as self-flagellation. I find it hard to talk about.” Then he stops himself. “What the fuck? They don’t want my fucking guilt!”

This reminds me of his song “The Fence”, I tell him, where he says that nothing and no one is black and white. “Yeah, we divide the world into paedos and angels. We all think that if we were living in Germany in 1938 we would be one of the ones who helped the Jews, but I don’t know, I would have probably toed the line. They were fed stories – we believe stories, don’t we? And all the experiments show that there is very rarely anyone who won’t do terrible things.”

He explains why he takes on such a variety of projects: “I want to be an actor that people can’t pigeonhole. I know it’s very hard when you’ve got long hair and you’re known as a comedian, but I’m doing it. I did Judas, I’ve done telly drama, I’m building up this body of work that says, ‘No no, you can’t tell me what I can and can’t do, you fuckers!’” He smiles. “This is all me getting revenge for my twenties [when I was] never getting cast in anything, ever.”

As he signs a card for my childminder – a fan whom he has never met – and draws a picture of an elephant in the card, then gives me a hug goodbye, I feel thoroughly glad that he will never face that situation again.

Storm will be published on 16 October by Orion Books