Interview: Tobin Bell Discusses His Career and His New Horror Film Dark House
We know him best as Jigsaw/John Kramer from the Saw franchise. But Tobin Bell began his career long before the 2004 premiere of that series. He'd been working as atmosphere and stand-in talent for many years before being cast for his first speaking role in a mainstream feature, 1988's Mississippi Burning. His latest venture, Dark House, is a different brand of horror, and it opens this weekend. Mr. Bell revisits his past as a young actor, his process working in film and television, and his thrilling adventure working on the new film. He is on the East Coast in pre-production for another new project now.
Tobin Bell: I'm making a film near where I grew up, which was in Weymouth, Massachussets. I was born in Queens, grew up in Weymouth. I've lived in New York for thirty-five years. Have been kind of between, I was out in L.A. for, you know, ten years, and I'm kind of back and forth. I've really enjoyed the weather where you are. I moved to L.A. because, when I went out there, there wasn't that much work in New York; it was kind of a slow time. Things have picked up since then, but it was a very slow time, when they were having a lot of trouble with unions in New York. So, everyone who I talked to while I would work on a film said, "Hey man, if you want to work, you gotta move to L.A," So I did. So that was my motivation. Never even gave the weather a thought, but it's one of the big pluses of being there.
Rotten Tomatoes: Now, growing up, your mother was an actress and your father was a politician, is that right?
TB: Well, yeah, he actually was an aspiring politician. He ran for mayor of a city in upstate New York and was defeated. I think that was about as close as he ever came. He was a staunch Republican his whole life and was interested in politics. And my mom was an actress; she made three films in England as a lead when she was nineteen, twenty-one and twenty-two, somewhere around, I'd say, 1938, '39, '40; right around there. I have a copy of one of them. It's called Frozen Limits. She's the lead in the film. She's incredibly gorgeous. And so I have a gene somewhere in me.
RT: You have a gene but you chose not to go into politics; you chose the other route.
TB: Oh yeah [laughing]. Right. I think politics could be easier. I'm not sure. Becoming an actor is not always the easiest route.
RT: You started out as a stand-in and background actor.
TB: Yeah. I was always convinced that somebody would eventually hire me. I always wanted to do films. I did lots of Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theatre in New York. But I'd always wanted to do films. Once I was in the union, no one was really hiring me for speaking parts at that point in time, and I wanted to get close to the camera. I wanted to see what was actually going on and whether or not I felt like, "Sh--, I can do that." You know, for $150 a day, whatever it was they paid at that point in time, it was a great way to do that. Being a stand-in is a terrific job because you get to watch the rehearsals. It's much quicker now because of the digital age, but at that point in time they had complicated lighting to do. So these actors would go back to their trailers and the stand-ins would walk there, do everything exactly the way the actors had done it during the rehearsal. So you actually got to do it, but not when the camera was actually rolling. So it was kind of fun in that way. I loved doing extra work. I worked in a lot of films -- thirty five films -- before I ever spoke. During that time I had other actors say to me, "How can you do that, man? It's so demeaning. You're such a much better actor than that," and la la la. And honestly I just don't feel that way about it. I remember sitting in the court room -- I was a court room reporter along with 40 other people in a film that Sidney Lumet directed called The Verdict, with Paul Newman. I was on that job for two weeks. And I got to watch James Mason and be directed by Sidney Lumet. You'd see and you'd hear exactly what was going down. So for me, not only was it $150 a day, but it was a learning experience, you know.
RT: People would kill to even just watch that now.
TB: Yeah, and I found it reassuring, in a way. So that once I did get hired to speak, I had been there. I'd been in that situation. I'd physically been close to the camera and I knew what went on, and I knew the pacing and I knew how many different things you have to pay attention to when you're an actor. You're paying attention to what the sound guy needs, what the cameraman needs, what the cinematographer needs; you don't stand in somebody's light, you don't hit the table. There's just a lot of things -- you're thinking about seven things at the same time. And I knew that better, having the preparation that I'd had before. I actually had to do it myself.
RT: You can't pay for that kind of training.
TB: No, you can't. You don't get that in a school. You get other kinds of training but you don't get... So much of acting is technical. Actually, I don't want people to think that acting is technical, that you don't need to have a rich fountain of emotional life and all those kinds of things, and know how to focus and concentrate and have good imagination and all of the other things that really make up an actor. One of the things they teach you, for example, in acting class is respond to your instinct, to your moment-to-moment instincts. If they just did that, they'd never get the shot, you know? Because you'd be walking all over... You'd be doing it differently every time. And the camera guys and the light guys, they need to know what you're going to do. That's what I mean by, if you just followed your instinct, or follow your impulses, which is what they say to you in acting class, you have to do that but you have to do it in a very confined window.
RT: It's the same for the stage, too. You still have to stick to your same blocking, you have to hit the right punchlines the same way. You don't go to a Broadway show and not hear the jokes land every time.
TB: [laughs] You're right. But that having been said, it all has to seem like it's happening for the first time in both mediums. So that's the fascinating part of it.
RT: So you're living proof that you can do stand-in and background work, and make it. Make a living. You became a horror icon.
TB: I'd been in the business almost twenty years before Alan Parker hired me to do Mississippi Burning in 1987, and that kind of got me rolling so that other people hired me to do other jobs, whether they were TV or... And to build a resume, maybe people have seen you, maybe just look at your resume, maybe it's just your look, whatever it is. So it kind of took off. I wasn't really making a living at it until... When I came back from filming Mississippi, I went right back to working in a restaurant. 'Cuz I wasn't sure what the hell was gonna happen after that, and not a whole lot did. Except when the film came out -- I didn't have a big part in it, but it was an important film, so people saw it, and they saw me in it, and so that reassured them. And I think Sidney Pollack hired me to do The Firm because he knew me from the Actors Studio; I was a member of the Actors Studio in New York. And they kept seeing me work there. And then he saw Mississippi Burning; I think he saw me play this heavy, this FBI agent in Mississippi Burning, so that just kind of put me back on his radar. But as you know, unless you're like Leonardo DeCaprio, or Matthew McConaughey, these guys, they go from one job quickly to another. Actors, just 'cuz you've done something doesn't mean you're necessarily gonna get a job again right away. It's an up and down game.
RT: But when you landed Saw, that must have changed your life quite a bit.
TB: Well, when I did Saw I, I actually had no idea that there was ever going to be a Saw 2. We just did the film and that was it, and then it did very well and got a lot of attention, and then they decided to do a Saw 2. And then I had an opportunity to develop a character. And then, of course, we didn't even know we were gonna do a 3. And, yes, it did, because I was the central guy in the films. It gave me exposure, and I got an opportunity to help Lionsgate promote the films by talking to a lot of press outlets. So I became better known because of the popularity of the films.
RT: You became a staple in contemporary horror films.
TB: A staple? You mean like mashed potatoes? [laughs]
RT: Well, that can be just as scary, depending on the brand.
TB: Yeah right. A staple. Yeah.
RT: Do you not see yourself that way?
TB: No, I don't. I mean, I understand that people refer to me as an icon and that sort of thing because there are certain guys who play a certain role. And horror fans are very passionate people. They love their genre. And they love the Saw films. So the fact that I played a central role in those films, that puts you in a position where people... You know, the screen is sixty feet across, and people sometimes forget that you're an actor and you play... Because you become established as a certain kind of character. But in fact, we continue to try and occupy the skins of different human beings. That's what you get involved in being an actor for in the first place. And it was delightful to play -- although you might not attach the word "delightful" to a Saw film -- it was delightful to work with the people that I worked with, because the collaboration was so strong that we were able to make the films smart, and to develop some relationships and characters. The dialogue of the films was good in many, many instances. So I was able to create in John Kramer a multidimensional character. Not just an in-quotes "bad guy" or an in-quotes "psycho killer" or whatever people thought of him as. He was a guy who was very committed to what he did, and we had an opportunity to develop why, and what his values were, and what his greater motives and concerns were. Which made it very interesting. Then I got to work with good actors, like Donnie Wahlberg. And then my relationship with Amanda was very delicate, very rich in Saw 2 and Saw 3.
RT: That's why they're such good movies. We were able to follow all those arcs, and it wasn't like a regular slasher film. There was a bit of mystery to each one. And we felt a bit of pathos for...
TB: Right, right. Well, that's one of the things that, when people -- horror fans -- talk to me, it's like they were drawn in by John Kramer, as opposed to him just being another sort of Freddy or Michael Meyers. That's because the writing was better. So I appreciated that very much, because it gave me an opportunity to show more sensitivity. If you layer a film -- and not just be one thing -- if you layer a film, the audience gets more out of it. It makes them think. And the concepts that [writer] Leigh Whannell and [director] James Wan came up with were really good concepts, like the treatment of the terminally ill, and it comes up again and again. You know, survival of the fittest. And we had an opportunity to even talk about Darwin at one point in time. And how people... You know how people, when they would end up in these traps -- the traps in the best sense -- they were things that they had created in their lives. Then they came to reap the harvest. And that was early on; I think Saw broke ground in that way. There was a subtextual, philosophical point of view.
RT: We feel a fun sense of revenge when we watch it. We feel, "They're finally getting theirs too," and we don't always know who to root for.
TB: Right, right.
RT: And now Dark House...
TB: Yeah, now that we've talked about seven years ago, or eight years ago...
RT: I watched it and it's a lot of fun, that movie.
TB: It's entertaining, isn't it? I think it's entertaining, and I love Luke Kleintank and Alex Mckenna; I really think they're terrific. Alex plays Eve and Luke plays Nick DeSanto.
RT: It was very interesting, and it gave me some of the same kinds of thrills that I sort of missed from the 1980s. There's something just fun about it.
TB: Right, I know what you mean, yeah. I really kind of appreciated it on that level. I felt that people could watch it and follow the story easily and that it was kind of a visually interesting journey. We were down in the woods of Mississippi and interesting journey, different landscapes and the house is fascinating. I loved the biblical undertones of it and -
[Lots had to be edited here to avoid spoilers, but we discussed the characters, including Tobin's character "Seth", and the battle between good and evil that's going on in the world, as represented in the film. See the film for details.]
TB (cont'd): I loved that aspect of [the film], so I can't disagree with you about kind of a throwback to the '80s. And a film that lets you kind of sit back... Yes it's a scary film but it's not gruesome in that way. It doesn't push the envelope in the way some other films do.
RT: And what do you call that group of guys living there around the house?
TB: Oh, they call them the Axemen.
RT: They were so fun to watch.
TB: Yeah, weren't they? And I loved... There's something about the physical way that they moved. There's a subliminal comment. To me, when I look at that, I go, "Wow, this battle between good and evil has been going on since prehistoric times. It's been going on thousands and thousand of years and these guys who are [spoiler edit]." I think one of the nicest things is to find out that what you're seeing is not what you're going to get. I'm just talking out loud here, but I'm saying these kinds of things so that you get a little perspective on, when I look at the film, here's what I think is interesting. What interests me is what's bubbling below the surface in this film, but does not get stated outright. Although, hopefully, the audience will get it as it evolves.
RT: I had a good time with it. Was it a lot different from working on the Saw films? A different sort of horror film?
TB: You know, the process of acting, when that camera rolls, you're doing the same thing. You're trying to create that moment like it's happening for the first time. You're working on different material. I just did an episode of CBS' show Criminal Minds; I play a farmer from West Virginia. No matter what character I'm playing, I'm always trying to go the opposite way, because the script doesn't need me to do what's apparent and clear in the script. What it needs me to do is to fill this individual, this character, up with things that are not in the script, that make him multidimensional and more interesting as a result. So if the guy's written as a bad guy... I mean look at Tommy Lee Jones in Executioner's Song: This guy kills a lot of people, ends up getting executed, but Tommy Lee Jones makes him a sympathetic character. He's a real guy; he got executed in Utah. That's the job of an actor, to fill in what's not in the script because everybody has lots of parts of them, and that's what makes for an interesting character. Not a one-dimensional character but a multidimensional character. So, to answer your question, whenever I'm acting, whether I was playing this West Virginia farmer on Criminal Minds, whether I'm playing Seth in Dark House, or John Kramer in Saw, I always try to make him the smartest, most intelligent, sensitive... I mean everybody was a kid once. And so everybody has feelings. And just because the guy is now a certain age and wears scars, psychic scars and emotional scars, whatever the things are, you want to see that child. You want to see the value in that person. And if you can do that, then you're bringing an extra layer to the guy. And was I able to do that with Seth? Let me think about that. I didn't have a lot of what you call intimate scenes with anybody. I was, like, wresting Luke around the house, I was walking outside scaring the crap out of them all, I'm throwing axes. They needed me to be a force. If Seth ever were to get developed in a certain way, you'd probably learn more about him in the writing. But in the Criminal Minds I just finished, this West Virginia farmer, you learn a lot about him and who he is. He had done certain things that drive the story. Then you want to know more about his texture, more about his soul, more about the burden that he carries, because we all carry burdens and that's the way you identify with the character, by saying "Oh sh--, I know how that feels." It should be on in the next few weeks.
And in terms of other stuff that I've been doing, I did a film with a French director named Fabien Martorell, it's called Unbelief. It's a short, about fifteen minutes long. It takes place in Bryant Park in New York on Christmas Eve. I did a movie called Manson Family Vacation. It's a comedy, and I play a guy who lives in the desert. I not only live in the desert, I live on the property that Charlie Manson used to live on. I just did a film directed by Antonia Bogdanovich, called Phantom Halo, which is a really good script, a drama. It's the name of a comic book. I play a casino manager.
Also see Five Favorite Films with Tobin Bell here.
Dark House opens in limited release this weekend.