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The actor: Tobin Bell started in acting relatively late—he was 46 before his first big project, a small role in Mississippi Burning. His career is riddled with cop-types and bad guys, including a notable appearance as the Unabomber in a 1996 made-for-TV film. But his name didn't become synonymous with horror until he stepped into the Saw franchise's role of Jigsaw, a brilliant cancer patient/serial killer who creates elaborate traps for his victims, in the hopes that they'll gain a new appreciation for life—if they survive. Bell has signed on for six Saw movies, the fifth of which hits theaters this week.
Mississippi Burning (1988)—"Agent Stokes"
The A.V. Club: How did you get hooked up with the project?
Tobin Bell: [Director] Alan Parker saw my headshot—and here's a good comment regarding having a good headshot: The more specific, the better. I don't know if mine was unusual or what, but it stood out to him. He brought me in. He doesn't even have a casting director in the room. He sets up a video camera and he talks to you. It was slightly embarrassing, because Alan would say to me, "Tobin, don't act." He was looking for somebody who, under pressure, could do something minimal. The camera sees everything. He had me do this a number of times, and disappeared to Los Angeles, cast the rest of the film, came back to New York, and brought me in again. Then same thing, except he read me for a different part.
AVC: What was the first part you read for?
TB: The one Brad Dourif eventually played, the deputy. I didn't have enough credits or experience, but he wanted to read me for something that had a number of lines. The part I eventually had had very few lines, but good lines.
AVC: He knew from looking at your headshot that he wanted you to have a bunch of lines?
TB: He knew from looking at my headshot that I had an edge. And I eventually played a guy—you know, [Gene] Hackman tries to get [Willem] Defoe to do it his way, which is to get down and dirty, like the client. Defoe wants to do it by the book. And so Hackman finally convinces them when they're failing halfway through the film, and Hackman pointed out three guys from Washington, FBI agents, who know how to kick ass. And I was one of those guys. So I guess it was something about the headshot that was kind of edgy.
AVC: Do you remember what it looked like?
TB: Yeah, my hair was slicked back and I had this striped thing on. I had this look in my eye that was somewhat threatening. I've played a lot of guys who have edge on one side or other of the law.
AVC: Did you know that when you took your headshot?
TB: No, I always thought I was going to play romantic leads. I honestly did. I still don't think I've played the role I'm destined to play, one that shows a wholeness. I've appreciated all the roles I've played, but I mean a role that shows the fullness of my personality, not just that power guy. I was doing a scene at the Actor's Studio in New York [in the early '80s], 150 people sitting in the audience. It was about Thomas Jefferson—very sensible, very intelligent, very classical kind of scene. I finish the scene, the director says to me, "Tobin, how's your career coming?" And I said, "Well, you know, I've been doing some plays, I'm doing one downtown." And she said, "No, but I mean, are you making money?" and I said, "Well, I'm plugging away, and I have since the mid-'70s. It took Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman 15 years before they worked." So she said, "You should go to Hollywood and play bad guys, that's what you should do." I was like, "What?"
AVC: That's probably not what people want to hear early on; they want to play leads.
TB: A lead, you know, the intelligent, sensitive… I've always appreciated bad guys. I mean, look at those bad guys in High Noon with Gary Cooper. Boy, do those guys add to that film. So to get back to Mississippi Burning, I really wanted so much to work with Alan Parker, and to get paid to go to the deep South where the blues was born, and the deltas. It was unbelievable. I was working in a restaurant, nights at the time…
Oh! This is embarrassing. As soon as I get to Mississippi, I go out into the boonies with a bunch of FBI agents. And we arrest this Klan guy at this shack that he's living in. He's out in the yard, so it's just a quick clip. I cuff him and I push him through this dirty laundry hanging on the line. As I'm coming through, pushing him in front of me, handcuffed, I give this little flourish with my shoulders. It was kind of like, "Yeah! I'm the man!" Alan yells, "Cut!" He comes over to me and he says [Adopts British accent.] "Tobin, Tobin, Tobin. That's the last little bit of acting that you're going to do in this film, right?" He spotted it. It was the smallest little shoulder, "Yeah, I got him," kind of thing, and he didn't want that. I thought, "Oh my God, he's going to send me home. I just did the very thing he's been telling me for three weeks not to do in New York. And I did it first thing." It's like a football player: You screw up the first play of the game, and you think you're gonna sit on the bench.
AVC: After the film got nominated for so many Oscars and even won in a couple of categories, did you think, "Well, there's nowhere to go but down"?
TB: No, no, no, no, not at all. I always felt that if people saw me, if I could emerge from obscurity, I could show what I could do.
False Identity (1990)—"Marshall Errickson"
AVC: You're a Johnny Cash fan. Were you aware that the director, James Keach, had such a strong Cash connection?
TB: No. I mean, I'm aware of Walk The Line [which Keach co-produced]. What's the Johnny Cash connection?
AVC: According to the IMDB, Johnny Cash is James Keach's sons' godfather.
TB: Oh well, he's got twins. Oh, so that's how Jimmy got the rights to Walk The Line. From that closeness. Jimmy's a great guy. Not only did he give me my first role in Los Angeles playing Stacy [Keach]'s brother in False Identity, but we were rival Little League baseball coaches in Los Angeles.
Goodfellas (1990)—"Parole Officer"
AVC: Do you have any Scorsese memories?
TB: Yeah: "Lose the cigar." I only had this little bit, and I kept saying to myself, "What can I bring to this? I know it's not a big part, but what can I do to make him specific?"
AVC: Is it a challenge to differentiate tiny parts—especially with generic roles like police officers and lawmen?
TB: As you know, there's as many different kind of police officers as there are tap dancers or mechanics. There's this conventional idea of a mechanic, but go into any shop, and the mechanics come in all different shapes, sizes, colors. I don't think about how I look, necessarily, I think about what's going on for this guy and what he does and why he does it. And I ask myself a whole bunch of questions, and I try to answer those questions so I can ground myself in the reality of what he does. You're surrounded by the physical representations of what you do.
So I try to think of acting in terms of thinking and doing. People think of it as, "Oh, let's get inside this guy." They think that acting is being, or feeling, or emoting. It's as much doing. One of the first things you do as an acting student is ask, "Can you say words and do a task at the same time, like sweep a floor?" That's what's so beautiful about New York. You get to see people. You see people unloading trucks. You get to go on the subway and see people who've been working all night falling asleep in their seat. Couples who are in love, couples who are arguing. You get to watch the human condition, and there's always a "doing" aspect of it. This couple, they're carrying backpacks, where are they going? Students? Or are they carrying instruments? They're musicians, or they're on their way to a rehearsal, or they've been up all night playing at a party. Whatever. It stimulates the imagination. So acting is doing… and I forget how we got off on that.
AVC: Scorsese memories?
TB: Right. After all the work came the cigar. I don't know, I just thought, "This guy, he's a parole officer, he smokes. He's got a cigar." I get the smallest cigar I could—it ain't a cigarette and it ain't a cigarillo, it's a cigar. And I show up on the set. Scorsese's there, De Niro's there, and we kind of go through the scene. And he's okay with everything we're doing. But then he walks past me and goes, "Lose the cigar." And the cigar was kind of the crème de la crème of what I had thought was specific about this guy. Of course I lost the cigar, quick. You do all this imaginary work in your head and think you know where you're going. But you're not watching yourself; someone else is watching you. And when Martin Scorsese's watching you and he goes, "I'm seeing yellow, I really want green," hopefully he can convey that to you. And so he thought the cigar was over the top. If anyone's gonna smoke a cigar in a Scorsese film, it's gonna be De Niro. Or depending on whether it's a Goodfellas film, maybe they'll all smoke cigars. So I don't know. But it certainly wasn't the parole officer.
So that was weird. I felt a little like… it was kind of the way he said it, too. He didn't give it a thought. It was sort of a dismissal. He didn't come over and say, "Tobin, here, can I talk to you for a second? The cigar was an interesting choice, but…" He just walked past and said, "Lose the cigar," with a certain tone in his voice, and I knew it was wrong.
The Firm (1993)—"The Nordic Man"
AVC: Was Sydney Pollack more open to your ideas?
TB: Well here's a perfect example: Why is a long-haired blonde Nordic guy functioning as a tail, standing out like a sore thumb? The only blonde Nordic guy in Memphis, Tennessee, for a law firm with Wilford Brimley? There's an odd couple. But so what? Life is stranger than anything you can write. And so I had to come up with reasons why this guy was there. What were his strengths? What could he do that no one else could do? How did Wilford know him, and hire him? And how could I answer that question? What is a long-haired, blonde-haired Nordic, the only non-lawyer in the film, doing hanging around Memphis, TN, standing out like a sore thumb? I have 45 pages of background about how he ended up in Memphis and how he ended up doing this job and why. None of it's in the film, except it made me feel more comfortable. I tried to get Sydney to stick me into another scene leaning against a building, backpack on, looking at a map, like a city map. And my theory was, the way this guy blends in, he looks like a tourist. Looks like a Scandinavian tourist who's touring the city, you know? And there's this scene where Tom Cruise walks by, and I tried to talk Sydney into panning past me to establish what my whole cover thing was, and he said, "It's not necessary." And you accept that. And you know what? He was right. It wasn't necessary. Your subtext doesn't necessarily end up in the film.
AVC: Sounds like you enjoy burrowing deep into your roles.
TB: I don't wanna become a madman. One can become quite mad from saying lines that you don't know what they mean. Every once in a while, you have to do that, 'cause you're either unprepared or something gets thrown in at the last minute. You do the best you can, and hopefully it'll play. But I always try to know, "What the hell is this guy talking about?" If someone came into your office right now and you said, "Madeleine, I'm talking to Tobin… Oh, he just called? Tell him I'll call him back after I'm done with Tobin." You know exactly what the background was to that, you know exactly why this guy has been trying to reach you for a while. It's something that's really important. You know it's been going on for two days now. You'd know all the details of that, you said, "Madeleine, if he calls, I don't want to miss that call." It's all filed away in a computer in your head, because it's real. But with an actor, you're trying to create life, and there is no life.
Unabomber: The True Story (1996)—"Theodore Kaczynski"
AVC: How deep were you willing to go into somebody who was notoriously hated?
TB: Ted Kaczynski does not think of himself that way. Ted Kaczynski thinks of himself as a scientist, a philosopher, and a politician. I always try to get on my character's side; I'm not concerned with what the country thinks about me any more than Tommy Lee Jones was concerned with The Executioner's Song, what the country thought about Gary Gilmore. He's coming from his point of view. Bad guys don't think they're bad, necessarily. As a matter of fact, most of the time they don't. They think they're justified. The word notorious doesn't even come into play when I'm playing a guy like that, because the script is gonna show what Kaczynski did, and you make your own judgment about that. What I can bring to the humanity, some sense of "This guy was a kid once, too"? This guy had a mother, this guy grew up, you know, he had aspirations, that's what—[Speaks away from phone.] Yeah, come on in. I'm on the phone. I'm having an interview. [Pauses.] Yeah. Good. I got your message. Good.
AVC: That happened exactly the way you just described it.
TB: I know exactly what that guy is talking about. He's talking about drywall.
So you know, that's what creates layering. You know what's interesting about a film is if you do more… if Saw does more than scare you, if it makes you think, then… Wow. Or if it gives you a little window into the mind and the feelings of someone who is willing to perpetrate those acts. That's a bad, mean, mean man. You know? That's only one level. You want something that's more complex than that. At least I do.
Saw–Saw V (2004–2008)—"Jigsaw"
AVC: How long did it take you to perfect Jigsaw's voice?
TB: It came quite naturally to me. They liked it, so I kept it. You know when we're actually shooting the film, when I read the script, he says one thing. But with the tapes that the people find, they change what I say. By the time they get [those segments] to editing, I'm saying something else. And by the time they get to final cut, I'm saying something else. So the voice is something that really gets whittled and changed all the time. I've fallen kind of naturally into his… you know, I started doing it on Saw I on the set, they would bring me onto the set and push play on the tape recorder, and I would do the voice. But then after a while they started recording some of the stuff. That's how rough it was then—I'd be standing there, dripping blood, saying, "Live or die, make a choice."
AVC: What did you tell yourself when you were lying there, face down, throughout the first Saw movie? Or was it a dummy most of the time?
TB: Always me. There was no dummy or nothing. When they were shooting close-ups on the other actors and you couldn't see me, I'd get up off the floor, the blood would drip down, I'd wrap myself in a robe and be able to get off the set temporarily. Lying there, I was thinking, "I'm going to have to get up off this floor in a few days." I did that movie because that was such a fascinating moment, and I had not seen it before, where the guy is in front of you the whole time and you're sure he's dead because half his head is blown off. And he's got a gun in his hand. You're sure he's committed suicide. So, "I'm gonna have to get off this floor in a few days," and, "How would he get up off the floor?" And, "Don't move." That's the other thing I'm thinking. "Don't move, don't breathe." So kind of, "What's the guy really feeling as he lies there on that cold floor?"
AVC: So it never stops for you. Even when you're lying motionless on the floor, you're making character decisions.
TB: What state is he in? Also, it's cold down there. As you know, cold air drops because of its weight. John Kramer [Jigsaw's real identity] is a scientist. He's a philosopher, he's a scientist. He's a very committed guy. He's a mechanical engineer. Those are the kinds of things that he manifests. He's a very critical thinker, very specific about everything.
AVC: Has the process of creating Saw movies changed for you with each one?
TB: No, I think the process remains the same. It's been a collaborative one. I work with the producers, with the set designers, with the different departments, that aspect is the same. I think more now about where we're going, and what's the big picture.
AVC: Saw III was intended to contain a scene where your character shows some regret for what he's done. Was it important not to tell that side of the story?
TB: I'm glad they cut that scene. This guy knows exactly what he's doing. Does he start off with a model, then refine it? Yeah, he probably does. But there are certain things that are interesting and advance the story, and there are other things that are basically sort of backstory, and you don't really need to know. In Saw IV, there's a scene with me and [Billy Otis' character] Cecil. It's one of the first times you actually see him there when the trap is working, except obviously in Saw I, he's inert. In Saw IV, it's one of the very first traps he's built, and when it was first written, [director] Darren Bousman thought it would be interesting if Jigsaw was kind of finding his way, you know, dissatisfied with the trap. And I was like, "Darren, I think he's quite sure-handed." So as it turned out, when we actually came to shoot the scene, the trap was not working the way it was. We had to reconfigure it from a dramatic point of view. So it was interesting that in real life we had to tweak it, as opposed to in the story. And that worked out really well. It's more an adjustment than, "Man, oh God, that sucks. I gotta redesign this thing." It just seemed kind of lame, you know? I think once we got further in and we got subsequent drafts of the script, they decided to lose that idea. I was glad they did.
24 (2003)—"Peter Kingsley"
AVC: Your role was short, and it ends at the end of the season. Is it helpful going in to know your character's entire trajectory?
TB: Here's what I get from the question: Since I was doing the last four episodes of the season, you'd think I would then watch the first 20 episodes to see what the storyline is. Didn't have a clue. Television happens so fast. I did my homework on those scenes and tried to create that character, but I had not a clue what led up to that. I don't watch that show. I don't watch television largely anyway, although I have great respect for 24. When I watch television, I watch sports, I watch documentaries, History Channel, National Geographic, and news generally.
TB: I loved working with those guys. I'm not crazy about working on sitcoms. I was a series regular in a pilot for a sitcom called Adam—I played a chef—and shooting that pilot was a nightmare, because everything is writer-directed. You come in one day and they take the backup sentence and put it as the front sentence, and it isn't necessarily funnier, it's just different. But on Seinfeld, the actors were producers—and even if they weren't, they had a lot of clout. So I'm doing a scene with Kramer and Newman, and Kramer says, "It's not funny. But you know what would be funny? If we did this," and they just change it. It was much more alive, much fresher, more creative than having to get the approval of four producers and a writer. I loved being part of that show. Every time I'm flipping through channels and I come to it, I'm totally taken with the simplicity of it.
Overnight Delivery (1998)—"John Dwayne Beezly"
AVC: To go full circle, this was one of your only romantic comedies. Was the experience everything you expected, from the days when you wanted to play romantic leads?
TB: Well, no, because in Overnight Delivery, I was… I'm trying to remember my character exactly. First of all, the scene was shot in an airplane, which is a nightmare. The only thing worse than working in an airplane is working in a prison—they're cold, and the clanging and the noise, it just gets under your skin after a week. On an airplane, everybody's jammed up, cramped up. It was kind of an interesting approach, because if I recall, you didn't know who I was at first in the scene. And then by the end, all of a sudden it dawns on the viewer that I'm this really murderous guy. Then we shot this incredible scene on a golf cart that is pulling a 737; we actually pulled this airplane down the runway. And that was the scene when I was like, "This is cool," because of the special effects, you know? And they cut it.
Let me tell you this: No matter what you do, no matter if the job is a piece of crap or it's Mississippi Burning, you learn a lot from doing schlock. The setup's the same, only you have to work twice as hard to make it the best as you can make it. And you know, a lot of acting is not about acting. A lot of acting is about technology. Are you standing in your light? Are you out of your light? And if the sound guy's near you, please don't put the coffee cup down at that moment, because you're covering your lines. All of that stuff's going on in your head, so you learn a lot by doing whatever. In my view, never worry that something's not prime-A, number-one stuff. Then when you get a good part, you're in a cobbler's shop with Alan Parker and you're feeling all that pressure, you won't be thrown off when they give you two technical things that you have to do.