(CBS News)The 1994 film "The Shawshank Redemption" was a disturbing look at life behind bars. Now its star Tim Robbins is working behind bars again, not as an actor but as a mentor.

Serena Altschul caught up with him for some Questions and Answers:

"Big breath. . . . Shake it out . . . Let the emotion grow . . . more, more, more . . . Let's see happy . . . "

This is an acting class, but not just any acting class,

The inmates at this medium security prison in Norco, Calif., are serving time for crimes ranging from possession of marijuana to murder.

One of their coaches is Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins.

"It creates this place, particularly important in prison, where people can step outside of what's expected of them and try to explore new emotions, create new realities, create new truths for themselves," Robbins said.

The project, now in its seventh year, is funded by The Actors' Gang, which Robbins and some acting friends founded in 1981.

Altschul asked Robbins, "What do you say to people who say, 'Prison isn't supposed to be about having a good time'?"

"It's not a good time. It's tough work they're doing," he replied. "It's physically demanding, it requires discipline. We want full commitment from them.

"What we're asking them to do they haven't been asked to do before. It takes a lot of courage. They're actually putting on makeup and putting on costumes."

"I never thought I'd be happy to tell another man I put makeup on!" said Yousef, who told Altschul preparing for a performance was liberating.

"You can always say ' We're acting, that's not really me.' But the truth is, thisisus. We're not all bad people."

"A lot of people are afraid to show they could be sad, or they could be happy," said another inmate, Yoshi. "They gotta have this mad mug all the time."

Robbins recalled one inmate telling him, "I didn't realize 'til I took this class that I've been wearing a mask on the yard for the last eight years."

Tim Robbins' first experience of prison was playing Andy Dufresne in the 1994 film "The Shawshank Redemption."

"I spent some time in solitary, to prepare for 'Shawshank.' I asked to be locked up. It gives you a good idea of what the isolation is, and what the loneliness of it is."

It's one of the most beloved and acclaimed films of all time.

"Everyone who comes up to you on the street must want to talk about 'Shawshank,'" said Altschul.

"Yeah, it's up there," he replied.

Also "up there": "The Player," in which Robbins plays Griffin Mill, a cravenly ambitious studio executive; and "Mystic River," playing Dave Boyle, a Boston man scarred by childhood abuse . . . a role that earned him an Oscar in 2004.

And who could forget "Bull Durham" -- playing talented, loopy "Nuke" LaLoosh, who learns some of pitching's finer points from Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon).

"It was a blast," Robbins said of the film. "I met Susan, had kids with her and it was a great, great experience."

The couple split in 2009.

"Every time I mention to someone that I'm doing the interview with you they always say, 'You guys were the model couple -- the activism, the films, and just that partnership of 23 years," Altschul said.

"Not gonna go there," Robbins replied. "Nope. It's just something that I've never done, and I don't see any reason to do it now."

Nope, he's not going there. He would much rather talk about his other prison project: "Dead Man Walking," which Robbins wrote and directed, and for which Sarandon, playing Sister Helen Prejean, won the Best Actress Oscar in 1996.

"Dead Man Walking" is now a play -- also written by Robbins, at the behest of the real Sister Helen Prejean.

"I said, 'Tim, you know what the film did. Well, think: If we have a play, every time the play is done, they gonna be thinking about this, and talking about it,'" Sister Prejean recalled. "And he's going, 'Oh, oh, Helen, I don't know about that.'"

Robbins laughed at her imitation of him. But she continued: "Took a while, but I remember I was at your house, and you said, 'I got something for you.' "

It's all part of a lifetime of political activism -- something he learned from his parents.

"They were very committed socially," he said. "They made sure their children knew what was going on in the world."

Tim's father, Gil Robbins, played folk music with The Highwaymen in the '60s -- and later, turned down a big job as a record company executive, to keep playing his music.

"Many years later, we were talking about it, and he said, 'You know, maybe I should have done that job,'" Robbins recalled. "And I said, 'Dad, if you'd done that job, I would not have the vocabulary to make the choices that I've made in my life. You taught me about artistic integrity. You taught me about courage. 'Pursue your dream. Pursue what's important to your heart.' "

Photo gallery: Tim Robbins

And don't worry. Tim Robbins hasn't given up his day job. A new movie, "Thanks for Sharing," opens this month.

But for now, Robbins is following his passions -- at the prison in Norco, Calif., where an audience of invited guests and fellow inmates gathered on graduation day.

One inmate, named Ysidro, said his biggest fear was "showing up."

For Ysidro, there is no doubt that the eight-week course changed his outlook, and his life.

"Yesterday I got a letter from my wife and my children and they're actually thanking me for the happiness that they see in the visits these last months," he told Altschul. "And she put on there, 'Thank you for going to church, thank you for going to school, and thank you for going to acting class' -- all three on the same level. So I just want to let you guys know that this works, if you work it."

More than 300 inmates have taken the class. And in a state where more than 60 percent of inmates return to prison after they get out, Robbins said, "No one that has gone through the program has come back to prison that we're aware of.

"People are going to get out of prison, whether you like it or not," he said. "But I would think a smart society would want people with better tools than they had going in."

Read or Share this story: