The actor: A steadily employed character actor since the 1980s, Stephen Tobolowsky has an instantly recognizable face and voice that’s made him a memorable presence in such films as Groundhog Day—where he played the part of persistent insurance agent Ned Ryerson—and Memento, where he played the key role of Sammy Jankis. Tobolowsky can currently be seen on Glee and Californication, and the 200-plus credits on his IMDB page include everything from Mississippi Burning to Reba to Beethoven’s Big Break.
Recently, Tobolowsky has developed a second career as a storyteller. That career began with the 2005 feature Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party and has since expanded to the podcast The Tobolowsky Files for /Film. Developed and hosted by /Film managing editor David Chen, the podcast offers, as the introduction goes, “a series of stories about life, love, and the entertainment industry.” But Tobolowsky is more than an actor who likes to talk about himself. Alternately funny and heartbreaking, his stories collectively form a fascinating in-progress spoken-word memoir. (Those looking for a hopping-on place might do well to start with episode 44, “The Voice From Another Room,” in which Tobolowsky talks about his work on David Byrne’s True Stories and reveals a story from his past that gave Radiohead its name.) Tobolowsky recently spoke to The A.V. Club about some of his past work, including the brilliant madness of making Deadwood and an uncomfortable collaboration with Steven Seagal.
Keep My Grave Open (1976)—“Robert”
The A.V. Club: This is your first film credit. What can you say about it?
Stephen Tobolowsky: In Keep My Grave Open, I was directed by Brownie [S. F.] Brownrigg, who became somewhat of a cult figure in England. In fact, he directed several low-budget movies in Dallas, Texas in the ’70s. Keep My Grave Open was the fourth or fifth of the films, and it was one… The films were like Last House On the Left. I don’t think he directed that one, but he was of that genre. And they were all kind of slasher films. I played Robert, the stable boy, and I had a horse monologue in which I had to talk to Caesar, my beloved steed, and I was murdered with a samurai sword in the shower. And one of the wonderful things about this film is that John Valtenburgs was the cinematographer, who was the last living student of Sergei Eisenstein. When I saw the dailies of the film, it looked like a jewel box. I was going, “My God, this is beautiful!” Mr. Valtenburgs, he did this like reflecting light off of planks of wood to come into the windows to create a softer light, to be moonlight. It was beautiful. [Laughs.] A beautiful film. I also remember from that film that we didn’t have the conveniences that modern actors have. We had no trailers, no food, no bathrooms. So when we did a night shoot, we all huddled together in the corner of a barn and prayed that there wasn’t a snow or rain, and we’d turn Donner Pass on one another. But that was my first memory of that film. And it is a cult film in England now, I believe.
Swing Shift (1984)—“French de Mille/Documentary Narrator”
ST: Keep My Grave Open was right when I finished college, and Swing Shift–
AVC: Is this before you came to Illinois for grad school?
ST: No, that was after Illinois. At the time, the girl I was living with for many, many years, my girlfriend, was Beth Henley, who wrote Crimes Of The Heart. And Jonathan Demme, and Evelyn Purcell, who was his ex-wife but still produced and worked with him, they did Caged Heat. And Jonathan had just done Melvin And Howard, and was shooting Stop Making Sense, I think, around that time. He loved Beth’s writing. That’s how Beth and I got to know Jonathan and Evelyn. Jonathan ended up directing Swing Shift, and he got a part for Beth in there, as a Salvation Army person passing out Bibles on a corner. And this is during World War II, this movie.
I played Frenchie De Mille, who was the social director of the factory where all the women worked. And the kind of joke Jonathan etched into the film… Jonathan is extremely clever. He’s a lot of things. He’s a great filmmaker, he has a terrific sense of humor, plus he’s very clever. [Laughs.] He’d be a great computer-program designer, putting Easter eggs in things. He wanted to see if he could put me in more backgrounds of more scenes than any character in history. So I think he has me crossing the background of like 40 or 42 different scenes, where it would have been physically impossible for me to actually have done that. I didn’t have a big part, but I was called a lot to cross the background of the film.
Also, Swing Shift was the first movie where I had a make-up person start to draw in hair on my head because I looked too bald. I had no idea what she was doing, and she said, “Honey, I can see your skull.” And that’s when it dawned on me that I was going to end up being one of those bald character actors. But that was the first film where they started drawing hair. They still thought it was worth the effort to draw in the hair.
AVC: Was there a role when you realized you could use that to your advantage, not being the traditional leading man? At least as far as the hairline is concerned?
ST: I think I started realizing I was losing my hair when I was in Illinois. And it was traumatic. It was not something I had figured on in my life. And of course, nothing is what I figured on in my life. That seems to be a recurring theme. And I always figured that I was going to be in Shakespeare somewhere, that I was going to do roles on Broadway, and London, West End doing Richard II or something like that. Well, that was not to be. When I began losing my hair… With hair, you kind of have to roll with the punches. I think it’s a mistake to get a hair transplant. I think you’re in dangerous territory whenever they start cutting on you, because it will fundamentally change who you are. One thing I learned in New York… I did a play there in 2002 where I was lucky enough to be nominated for a Tony, and maybe lucky enough not to win it. [Laughs.] But you go to a lot of Tony parties where there are a lot of people with what they call “work” done, and the interesting thing about any kind of cosmetic surgery is that it almost makes whatever is worked on stop aging. So you would see people who’s face actually existed in four different decades. You would have a nose from the 1960s, ears from the 1970s, you would have a facelift from the 1980s and ’90s, and a hairline re-do from the year 2000. And everything else would stop. I was very careful just to go with it, and when I found out that actually I began working a lot when I lost my hair, it was great, and then I relaxed around it. In a way, I cared more about my working life than my private life. My personal life was all fine, with or without hair.
Alice (1985)—“Caveman Carl”
ST: That was amazing and nerve-racking. I mentioned probably to David Chen or some other places in my life that a lot of my jobs have been crimes of opportunity. Either I was somewhere at the right time, or someone got fired, or replaced somehow. I think Caveman Carl was one of those cases. They had someone playing that part, which was really like a Wolfman Jack character. Some of your younger readers may not know who that is. He was a wild and crazy DJ who [Imitates Wolfman Jack.] kinda talked like he had that raspy, crazy voice. Big pompadour. They got rid of their Caveman Carl the day before we shot, and they brought me in. It was one of my absolute first jobs. I was so nervous. I met with the producers on day one. On day two, I started rehearsing my part and shooting the show. And that was back when I was so idealistic that I even called up friends and got them tickets to come see the sitcom because I was going to be in it. I have long since quit doing that. Now I just get it done, get it out of the way.
I loved the people on Alice—they were just wonderful people. The show was pretty successful at the time. It’s easy for a cast to get very insular and not completely accept the new guest stars, just brush them off, it’s rain off a duck’s back. But the people at Alice were so giving to me, and of course I later found out that they were all theater people. Linda Lavin and I think Vic Tayback. Yeah, they were all theater people, so they were naturally kind of warm and giving to any new person on the show. It was a lovely, sweet experience.
Great Balls Of Fire! (1989)—“Jud Phillips”
AVC: What was it like working with Jim McBride in Memphis on that?
ST: I just saw Jim probably three months ago. In fact, I’ve written a podcast on this, which I’ve told David Chen I’m holding back because it’s good. It’s one of my favorites. First off, just the basics. Great Balls Of Fire! was the first picture I did where I got a run-of-the-picture contract, which emotionally, spiritually, morally, physically, was a huge deal for a young actor. I felt like I was on the ascendant. I loved Jim McBride’s work, I loved The Big Easy. Dennis Quaid, I’ve loved Dennis Quaid since Breaking Away. I always thought he had something edgy about him. I knew I loved Winona Ryder because when we were trying with Jonathan Demme and Evelyn, when we were trying to do Nobody’s Fool, we were definitely trying to get Winona Ryder, and we all knew her work very, very well.
I arrived in Memphis. I was gonna be there for two and a half months, and it was the only movie I was ever in that I saw every bit of film shot from the beginning to the end. Because I felt like “I’m here for the long term.” I went to every dailies. I saw everything. It was as a film… From the dailies, I thought, “This is going to be an extraordinary movie.” And I think the people—and now I’m speculating—the people at the studio saw the same things I saw, with Dennis’ and Winona’s performances, and thought, “This is an extraordinary movie. Let’s turn it into a blockbuster.” And sometimes less is more. Sometimes more is more. And sometimes you can break it. And I think in the studio’s pressure on Jim to alter and change what originally he had, which was a fairly dark film on this driven genius, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the tragic undertakings of his life, and a romance filled with this great rock ’n’ roll music… They—and by they, I mean the studio—they wanted to make it a light-hearted summer romp. So they cut out a lot of the scenes that had real gravity, and terrific performances by Dennis and Winona. They minimized all that stuff, and they wrote in and added new kind of goofy scenes of marching through the streets of London, and wackadoodle stuff to make it more—
AVC: There’s a very odd shopping scene.
ST: Yes! Goofy stuff, to make it a thing of shreds and patches. That’s what it ended up being. It wasn’t the film, I think, that Jim wanted to make, and it wasn’t the film I saw in the dailies. That’s what happens in big movies, especially movies where people think they can make a ton of money. But it’s very hard to keep all that influence out of it, because there’s a ton of pressure on you.
It was also the film when I got to Memphis that my girlfriend, at the time, called me around Halloween to tell me she was pregnant. And she was working in Alaska, and I had a few days off from the film, so I flew up to Anchorage to visit her, and that’s when I came back and realized I was going to be a father. And so I got married during Great Balls Of Fire!, because her parents wouldn’t let me stay at the house unless I had married her. I didn’t want to tell them that the horse was already out of the barn. We got married on December 28, and we did two months in Memphis, and then we came home for about three weeks, and then we went to London for two, three weeks. And it was in that period of time in between that I got a phone call from our accountant, and she was in tears, telling me that Trey Wilson was dead. Trey played my brother, Sam Phillips. So when I went to London, one of the first things I had to perform was a scene with Trey. He had already filmed his side of the scene when he was in Memphis, because it was a phone call. So they put the film of Trey on the screen, and the crew just starts crying. It was a very dramatic moment.
The only other passing note about Memphis, it was the film which I worked the least on, for the longest period of time. I think they gave me the award of having the least to do on the film. I think I worked once every 12 to 13 days, so I had a lot of days off in between. So I spent that time listening to blues and playing golf, and watching wrestling on TV, smoking incredibly powerful marijuana. At that point in time, it just seemed like the right thing to do, and it’s certainly not the thing I would do nowadays, but I recall my time back then of just listening to music, playing golf, and thinking, “Oh no, I have to work this week!” and dragging myself to the set, where I would have to play Jud Phillips for one scene. Oh, too many memories on that one. I could go on for hours on that one.
Basic Instinct (1992)—“Dr. Lamott”
ST: I had auditioned for Paul Verhoeven three months before to play some different part in the movie. And Howard Feuer, the casting director who did Groundhog Day and cast me in In Country. He was also the casting director of Basic Instinct. Again, in terms of a crime of opportunity, Howard Feuer called me up at home and said, “Stephen, are you a fast study?” and I said, “I think so,” and he said, “Well, we have this part that shoots tomorrow, and we have no one to play it. Mr. Verhoeven liked your original audition three months ago for some other part, and said it would okay if you could play it. Can you come in and read this part for Paul Verhoeven again and see if he okays it?”
So I drove over to the studio, and they threw the part at me, and it was a huge kind of expository speech, and whenever I get those things, I try to channel Robert Duvall, because he is the greatest expository actor that ever could be. I don’t know how he’s done it. He’s done it for years, where he gets all of the speeches where he kind of explains to Michael Corleone about how the laws work and everything like this, and it’s fascinating. And this was a speech that said basically nothing, as I recall. I think I say that the principal, Sharon Stone, was either a murderer pretending to be crazy, or that she was crazy pretending to be a murderer. The speech didn’t make a ton of sense, but I think that’s what it was, and I tried to channel Mr. Duvall. I don’t remember a lot about that film. [Laughs.] Except I was doing another film, and that was one of the few times I did two films in the same week. I did that movie on Monday, and then on Wednesday, I did Where The Day Takes You.
Where The Day Takes You (1992)—“Charles”
ST: My first pedophilic role. First of many, with Balthazar Getty. I worked with dear [director] Mark Rocco, who also has passed away now, way too young. And he also cast me later in Murder In The First, another crime of opportunity, because Oliver Stone didn’t show up to do a stunt-casting role they had had for him in the movie Murder In The First. So Mark called me up that morning and said, “Can you get to the studio and play Oliver Stone’s part? We shoot it today.” So I ran over there and tried to learn the lines, and shot what we did that day.
Where The Day Takes You was unusual, because I remember I told Mark, “Well, you know, I play the piano some. What if I do a scene with Balthazar Getty where I kind of play the piano and do the scene talking to him?” not knowing the hell I just volunteered myself for, of having to do the scene from many different angles, playing the piano and having it land at the same time. Mark was a pretty inventive filmmaker, and he got around it somehow, because I certainly wasn’t good enough to act and play the piano exactly the same way in every shot. So Mark cut around that and made it work, and I think it is a great scene in the movie. That’s one of those “Where are they now?” films. We had Ricki Lake before she had her talk show, and we had Sean Astin there before he went off to New Zealand. Also Balthazar Getty. It was a phenomenal cast.
AVC: You could keep going. Will Smith was in that movie, I believe.
ST: Will Smith was in the movie. I think it was his first film. When he was a rapper. And you’re right, you could keep going. It was splendid cinematography for that film. We did the entire film for $2 million. It was far richer and more troubling… I mean, it’s a very worthwhile movie. And again, it makes me think of poor Mark Rocco. Way too young. Way too young, my goodness.
ST: Yeah, anybody want to kick me in the ass, right now? I’ll pay you 50 cents. Just kick me in the ass. Joss [Whedon] called me and said, “Stephen, we’re just shooting Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and there’s the part of the principal that I think you’d be great for,” and I said, “Well, that’s terrific, but I’m under contract to ABC for another series,” and he said, “Why don’t you come down and do the pilot?” I was in Canada doing the pilot of The Pretender, playing an alcoholic heart surgeon. He wanted me to come down, so I came down and did the pilot, flew straight from Canada, spent a couple of days there, and then I started the series for ABC like two days later. Well, the series for ABC, I believe, lasted for nine shows, whereas Buffy The Vampire Slayer lasted for years. It could have made life so much sweeter through difficult times to have a steady paycheck, but that’s the way the chips roll.
I heard that they re-shot the pilot, got a new principal in there, and that Joss was very happy with the new principal, and in fact he could have not been very happy with me. [Laughs]. But it was an interesting experience, in that I did not exactly know the tone of the pilot when we did it. And it’s tough on those things, because I felt the tone was far more comedic than the series ended up being. The series ended up being a little more horrific than I imagined it to be. So maybe the tone I brought to the show was wrong, frankly, and maybe it was a good thing that they cut me out of it and put somebody else in.
AVC: That character was killed off early, if I’m not mistaken. So it might not have been that steady of a paycheck after all.
ST: Yeah, you know, you can’t tell on those horror shows. When I did Heroes, I was really thrilled, and then you realize, “Oh.” They always had some strange kind of clues in Heroes as to which way the plot was going to go, and how three of the heroes were going to be murdered by the end of the season. And that’s when I realized that the only reason I was promoted into having a superpower was so they could murder me later and not kill any of the real regulars of the show. So I could turn things to gold, but it was just a ruse so they could kill me off.
AVC: You were on for most of the second season.
ST: I was called Scotch Tape. I was, again, channeling the great Robert Duvall, trying to do exposition. This time, though, I had the disadvantage of not knowing what I was doing. We actors were kind of in the dark, because we never knew what we were doing. And I would ask… They would never show us scripts in advance. I would ask the producers, “Am I a good guy, or a bad guy?” And the literal answer that I got from Allan Arkush, who was one of the executive producers, and the director of [Rock ‘N’ Roll High School]… I mean, I’ve worked with Allan many, many times, and he’s terrific. And he said to me, with a smile on his face—which says the level of sadism on that set—he said, “Stephen, think of it this way: You’re a good guy pretending to be a bad guy, who may actually be a good guy, who probably is a bad guy underneath it all.” And I go, “ I don’t know what that means.” And he goes, “Nor we. Ha ha ha ha ha.”
Of course, the show was such a phenomenon, they didn’t want any of the plots to get out, so they kept the actors in the dark. So we never knew what we were doing. And it led to even greater abuses further on. Like, we would be shooting for episode 10, and we would get a new script for episode five. And they said, “We’re going to go back now and reshoot several of your key scenes in episode five, changing what you did.” Of course, you based your performance in episodes six, seven, eight, nine, and 10 on what you did in episode five. So now they’re going back and reshooting what you were in episode five, making the other elements of the script not make any sense.
So Heroes was always a very difficult show to do, simply because you recognized that what moves an actor through a script is what he wants. They used to say in the ’50s, your motivation. And if you don’t know what you want, and you don’t have a motivation, it’s very difficult to move reasonably through a script. You have to kind of approximate values of some sort, which is difficult to do. But that was my job in season two, was kind of to do exposition tying different groups of plots together, not knowing what any of the plots were at this time.
AVC: That’s not an enviable task.
ST: No. And it began to wear on the fan base. And I mentioned this in the podcast: It’s always easier in television to continue act one. Act one is always the easiest thing to write, because we are introducing characters. We are introducing the situation. We are introducing crisis. And we don’t have to be responsible for answering any of it, because that comes in act two and act three. So season one of Heroes was amazing. Because you’re introducing these phenomenal characters. It’s so exciting. You have a terrific villain. You have this deadly virus, and you don’t have any idea how it plays into anything. You have all the balls up in the air. When we got to season two, the issue was “To be or not to be? Do we move at all into act two, or do we reintroduce act one?” And they kind of stuck with that second plan. Introduced new heroes. Kind of just reconfigured, reworded what the problem was, and never really advanced the issue of the story. They just kinda reworded act one. And eventually, you have to get act two and three.
But when you do that in TV, that’s when the show ends. So when you have a successful show, you don’t want to do that. This is why, I think, on The Office, it was absolutely brilliant the way they kept the Jim/Pam relationship floating in the air for so long. I mean, it was brilliant. It followed a commedia dell’arte formula from the 1700s, 1600s, in that the lovers carry the issue forward and the comedic characters surrounded them. And so they used Jim and Pam to carry the import of the story forward, where Michael and Dwight and all those people could be crazy all around them. And I don’t know why I’m talking about that, but it was brilliant writing.
I think you have two choices: You either have to plan forward with the complications you have previously set up, or you can take a view from the side, a side-view of the parallel story that was happening that’s going to eventually impact your main story and affect it. Those seem to be two easy tactics to do. Another thing you can do is just cut forward in time. So, like, two years later. Like Deadwood did. You know that one season where they just said, “Now we’re cutting ahead. So we’re doing geological core samples of a bigger story than what we’re telling. And what we’re gonna do is, we’re gonna jump forward now and pick it up from a new beginning. And you’re going to have to, as an audience, catch up with all of the new characters in it that you missed over the intervening period of time.”
Deadwood (2005-06)—“Hugo Jarry”
AVC: How did you get involved with it?
ST: I have no idea. I did NYPD Blue, which David Milch was the executive producer on. I played a pedophile! Interesting. My first experience with David Milch, he was a writer on L.A. Law, and I did L.A. Law. And then I did Murder One. I did three shows with them, and then I did NYPD Blue, in which I did the show and told my agent/manager, “What a group of people. I loved it.” And then three weeks later, I got a phone call from Rick Overton, a comic actor who was also in Groundhog Day with me. He said, “Tobo! Man, what did you do?” And I said, “What do you mean, what did I do?” “Tobo, you’ve been fired. They, like, hired me to redo all of your scenes in NYPD Blue.” And I go, “What?” He’s like, “Yeah! I’m shooting tomorrow. I’m just wondering what you did, so I don’t make the same mistakes.” [Laughing.] Brutal! So I thought, like, “I’m done with David Milch, I guess. I stepped in a huge stinky turd, and now I’m done with David Milch.”
And then I get a phone call, I guess near the beginning of the second season of Deadwood, and they wanted me to come in and do a one-day part. I had two scenes. The first scene, I come in on a stagecoach and then I walk into a bar and they grab me and throw me out of the bar, into a stagecoach leaving town. And that was my part. So I showed up. They refused to give me a script. I had no idea how wacky that whole set was gonna be. I drive out there and see this town built in the middle of nowhere, this Western town. Two hundred extras camping out with campfires. Cattle roaming around the trailers. Horses, buggies, and I’m going, “Where am I?” I was in a whole different place and time.
We rehearsed the first scene, where I came in on the stagecoach, and then David Milch pulled me aside after we rehearsed the scene. And it was a big scene! Stagecoach, cattle, the works. Prostitutes, I mean, we had everything in this scene. We rehearsed it for 30 or 40 minutes and David pulled me aside and said, “Stephen, I want to show you what we do here.” And he took me to a trailer and showed me some scenes from previous episodes of Deadwood. And I’m going, “This is unbelievable.”
And he said, “Just so you know, we’re not shooting what we just rehearsed.” And I said, “We’re not?” And he said, “No. In fact, you’re not gonna shoot today at all.” And I said, “Okay,” and they sent me home. And I ended up doing, like, nine shows that season. And three shows the third season. And you never knew what you were doing. You had to go out at dawn to rehearse, because David liked to shoot with natural light. So you rehearsed in the dark at 5 a.m. in pitch black. You rehearsed with the director of the show, and then David would come in and see the rehearsal. And then he would throw something to the director like, “Maybe instead of doing the scene this way, we could do it during a cattle stampede. Or, “Stephen? Why don’t you do that scene, but instead, do it as if you were a bird.” And I said, “What?” “You know, a bird. With wings.” And I said, “I know what a bird is, David, but I don’t know exactly what you mean.” He said, “Just when you do it, pretend you have wings and could fly and squawk. Do whatever you want to be a bird.” And he would throw these little things at you. We never knew what we were doing.
And just because the scripts were so complicated, there was never enough time to really learn the lines. And then David was always rewriting. I always mention that I’ve been in movies, some of those 200 movies or whatever you have on that list, where the shooting schedule for a feature film was 21 days, one 24 days, one 27 days. The final episode of season two of Deadwood, we shot over 30 days. We shot with some of the same camera crew that shot Mississippi Burning. It was a stunning, stunning experience.
I think, in my life, there’ve been three times I’ve broken down into tears on a set because I was happy. [Laughs.] I think two of those were because of Deadwood. Everything was beautiful. The sets. The costumes. The storylines were so powerful. The acting. The actors we worked with were so good. Powers Boothe, Brian Cox, Ian [McShane] and Tim [Olyphant]. You could go down the list of that show. It was an experience… Jim Beaver. It was an experience I will never forget as long as I live. The trauma of it, the terror of it, and the beauty of it.
The Glimmer Man (1996)—“Christopher Maynard”
AVC: So trauma, terror, and beauty. I’m not sure which of these apply to this one.
ST: [Pause, then laughter.] Let’s put in trauma and terror. Let’s scratch beauty, put in confusion. I had to audition for Steven Seagal. I was playing the serial killer in the movie. John Gray was the director, who I’d worked with before. I first met John Gray right after Mississippi Burning, in a yogurt shop. And he came up to me and said, “I really loved you in Mississippi Burning.” And I said, “Well, thank you, sir.” And he said, “Well, actually, I’m a director. John Gray. Hopefully we’ll be able to work someday.” And we did, on a TV movie called The Marla Hanson Story. She was a model who got cut with glass by her boyfriend. It was terrible, but it was a TV movie at the time, and John… Great director. Very accomplished guy. He called me and said that I had to audition for Steven for the part of the serial killer.
So I show up at Steven’s home on Stone Canyon Road. My audition was at 10 a.m. And I sat in his living room, which was filled with saddles. Saddles. All over the place. Like, ornate saddles. And I waited until 12:30. Steven came downstairs. He had been asleep. And at that point, I was kind of… What do you call it? You know, when waiting to do an audition, you develop a certain amount of stress. Like athletes who build up lactic acid in their body. At that time, I was still with lactic acid. Or whatever. My body became a toxic-waste dump. So I really don’t remember the audition too much, because I was so traumatized—there’s the trauma—I was traumatized by waiting to audition. They wanted me to shoot one of the first days of shooting. They called me at 7 in the morning, which I’m used to, but the crew call was 9. So I came in two hours early. The reason they wanted me two hours early was that they wanted to discuss hair with the hairdresser. But because I was bald, the hairdresser didn’t come in, so I was stuck waiting in the parking lot for someone to show up for two hours.
When, finally, people showed up, John Gray came in and told me in a panic that Steven Seagal wanted to rewrite the script. He decided it was bad for his karma to constantly be killing people in movies, so he didn’t want to kill me anymore. And I said, “Well, it’s important in the script that he kills me, because I’m, like, a serial killer.” And he said, “Don’t get into it with him. He believes it hurts his karmic development if he were to kill people.” And Warner Brothers is furious, because they told Steven, “Steven, we hired you because you’re good at killing people. And you know, you dance with who brung you. We’re not casting you to do a peace-loving cop, we’re casting you to murder people.”
So we got in to rehearse our scene, and Steven says, “You wanna go over the lines?” And I go, “Sure.” “By the way, I should mention I think we should change the end, because I shouldn’t kill you.” And John Gray is standing behind us doing the ix-nay sign, with his finger going across his throat, like, “Don’t talk, don’t talk, don’t talk. Don’t say anything.” I said, “Steven, that is an amazing argument. I never really thought of that before. But coming from my character’s perspective, I am trapped in hell, being a serial killer. It is the worst thing that I could imagine. So if you were to kill me, you would actually be freeing me to come back in a reincarnational form as something better, and I would be able to atone for my sins here on Earth. So I think you would be doing me a huge favor.” And Steven said, “I never thought of it that way.” So we shot the scene where he shoots me. We put in the prosthetics where my whole chest explodes when he shoots me, and then he walks up with the gun smoking, and looks down at me. We do this whole scene where I hold a priest hostage. He looks down at me, smoking, and John patted me on the back, and he said, “Thank you, Stephen, for getting us out of that one.”
Fade out. Fade in. Two and a half months later, I get a phone call from John Gray. He said, “Oh, dear. We’re in trouble. Steven Seagal started ad-libbing in another scene about, “Thank God I didn’t kill the guy in the church.” So we have to find some way to add some lines to indicate that you’re not dead. So can you come in and look at the scene and see if we can put something into the film to indicate that you are still alive?” So I’m watching the film. Keenen Ivory Wayans walks in to watch the scene. We do the whole scene where I’m holding the priest, Steven shoots me, my chest explodes in slow-motion! I mean, the entire chest cavity goes! I fall out of frame, Steven walks up with the smoking gun. And John Gray said, “Maybe you can add a line off-camera here.” And I said, “Like what? What would I add? Like, ‘You missed me!’ or, ‘Thank God it’s just a flesh wound,’ or ‘Oh no! I’m injured!’” I mean, my whole chest exploded. Keenen Ivory Wayans just rolls his eyes and walks out of the room. So I added, off-camera, [Short, deep breaths.] “Finish me. Finish me off, you son of a bitch! Finish me!” [Laughs.] It’s ludicrous! And I don’t know what they ended up showing. I don’t know if they ended up cutting that entirely, cutting me getting shot, cutting what I said, but I knew we were in the area of high comedy at that point.
An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn (1997)—“Bill Bardo”
ST: [Whistles.] Man. Again, if you went down the cast list of that film, right? Terrific people, and Arthur Hiller directed, and I was very excited to be in the film working with all these great people. I remember shooting it, but I don’t remember what my part was. I remember thinking… Well, I was young, relatively young, and I thought, “Working with all these great people they all think it’s going to turn out okay, so I guess it will,” and that was kind of the of the feeling on the set, that it was all going to be fine, but I guess it wasn’t. That’s another one that I never really saw the final stage, or what you’d call the release print of the movie. I never saw it, so I can only imagine. But I know that everybody was trying to distance themselves from it as much as possible. When we shot it, we had a perfectly good time. I felt like I was really in the presence of greatness, I did, when we shot it. But I don’t know where the idea for that came from, and what they were aiming for.
Memento (2000)—“Sammy Jankis”
ST: The most difficult role I’ve ever had, but one of the most rewarding, was Memento. I’ll mention that because we had no lines in the script, and Chris [Nolan, writer-director] wanted us to improvise our part. I was playing someone with amnesia, which means you can’t remember what you’re doing, and Chris was going to cover it from different angles. So part of my brain had to remember what it was doing, and another part had to not remember what I was doing. And that was certainly the most difficult thing that I’d ever done. So that film was the most difficult, and in terms of script to stage, one of the most successful, in that when I read the script, I thought, “This could be the greatest scripts I’ve ever read,” and when I saw the film, I thought, “This is an absolutely amazing film, and it lives up to the promises of the script.” Ninety percent of the time, the final product of the film falls somewhat short of your reading of the script. And a few… Groundhog Day was an example of a script where I read it and the process and shooting of the film was superior to the original script. But Memento started off as a brilliant piece of writing, and ended up as a brilliant movie.
AVC: There’s an interesting connection there, where both Groundhog Day and Memento are about people unstuck in time.
ST: It is an example of Chris Nolan at his best, where his visual device, as powerful as it is, it does not overwhelm the narrative. If you take a look at The Dark Knight, as powerful as the visual of the film was, the most memorable scene in the movie, at least for me, was the talking scene between Batman and Joker. Two guys talking in an action film is the most compelling part of an action film. That’s Chris Nolan at his best.
Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party (2005)—“Himself”
ST: Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party was probably the most miraculous event I was ever involved with, in that the movie… Robert Brinkmann and I did that movie with no script, with no rehearsal, with no permits, with no nothing, and it was the beginning of what was to be the podcast [The Tobolowsky Files], and that film really holds together. It turns out to be a very compelling movie, and Robert did such a phenomenal job of directing, and Andrew Putschoegl of editing it, because there was no easy chore to do, because there was no script or rehearsal, nothing matched. So almost everything in the film is a first take. It’s just me telling true stories from life. Which I guess is a good segue for the podcast.
The Tobolowsky Files (2009-present)—“Himself”
AVC: When did you first realize you had an ability to tell stories like this, and that you felt comfortable sharing them on this podcast?
ST: It was an evolution. When I was a little kid, I told stories. Often, the stories were [Laughs.] made up. They were stories I would tell on the spot. I won an award for best storyteller when I was in sixth grade, and I always kept notes from when I was a kid. I think in The Weekly Reader, they had a piece of advice from when I was in fourth grade, “If you don’t want to keep a diary,” because I thought a diary was kind of a girly thing to do, “you could write notes about things that happened to you in your life, and you’ll be very happy that you can remember them later.” And so from early in my life, I wrote down notes about things that happened to me, just events.
So in a way, the research part of the process had already become a habit by the time I was in college, and I had pages and pages of notes and stories, and I always kept an eye out for things that happened to me in my life. So I still find these notes written on crossword puzzles and on the back of old test booklets from college, notes that I took down. I just found a book from 1995 where I wrote notes about a visit to New York, and another tablet where I found notes from my first trip to Iceland, and they’re always amazing.
After the research part of the thing kicked in, I think the next important stage was realizing that truth was better than clever. That was a long process that I developed as a theater actor, and recognizing that onstage, I used to be a kind of a clever actor, where I’d go out onstage and do things that I thought the audience would love. But I learned later, beginning in my senior year of college and going into graduate school through a teacher I had called Ed K. Martin—Ed said, “Throw it out. Throw everything out and just tell the truth. Telling the truth will be more compelling than anything you can imagine.”
I didn’t believe him at first, and then later in my theater work in Los Angeles, I started working with a director from the National Theater in Norway, Stein Winge. Stein Winge not only was of the school of the big theatrical gesture, but he really appreciated truthful play. Whatever happened, he wanted true. And over the years, I learned that true really does work.
So when we did Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, I was telling Brinkmann that the two elements that have to be in every story is that 1) The story had to be true, and 2) The story had to have happened to me. None of this “It happened to my babysitter’s boyfriend, and she told me, and it was an amazing story,” repeating the story somebody else tells me. That doesn’t cut it, because that’s how urban legends are built, and the only thing I could account for was my point of view that really happened to me. Now, that doesn’t mean that after a certain period of time, I have every fact right, but it means that my point of view on what happened is truthful, and as far as I recollect, the facts are right, because I took notes.
I remember the podcast began with David Chen, who was reviewing Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, which he loved. It was kind of one of these little sleeper movies that got great reviews and played in all the film festivals. We never really got a distributor, but we still get orders every week for it. David Chen loved the film, and said, “Let’s talk about it,” and afterward, he said, “What would you think about doing a Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party Part Two? As a podcast. Where you tell true stories from your life, I lead in or lead out, I don’t know we’ll evolve the format.”
So that was like stage two and stage three. Stage two was telling the truth. Stage three was having the platform, which David Chen provided. Stage four was the ongoing evolution of the podcast through the platform, and that happened around the fourth show. I remember I did the podcast for /Film, and I figured that David pretty much wanted straight-up film stories. But like I told Robert Brinkmann, film stories, everybody thinks they really like them and really want to hear them, but they’re on the short-shelf-life side. As soon as… even a great film like Groundhog Day, after a while, people… Either it becomes banal to them that they know it, or it’s classic, or they’ve never seen it. I run into people now who have never seen it, and they don’t care about the backstage stories for Groundhog Day. They’re not interested.
But if you tell stories about life, about your life that you know are true, you have a bigger chance of reaching more people. The first three podcasts were pretty much entertainment-related, and then the fourth podcast I wrote was about the passing of my mother, and I called up David Chen, and I thought he was going to not approve. I said, “David, this next show is about the day that my mom died, and it doesn’t have any references to film in it, or anything at all. I don’t know if you want to record it or not,” and he said, “Hey, let’s put it out there, you did it, and let’s see what the public says.” And we did that fourth episode, which is called “The Alchemist,” and the amount of response we got…
Well you know the Internet. You hear stuff from all over the world. Suddenly, we’re hearing things from Finland and Japan and Mongolia and from Australia and everywhere saying like… I actually got like four letters from people saying that they had to pull off the road listening to the podcast because they were crying too hard and they couldn’t see the street. And then the stories I got about people who had lost not only their mothers, but their fathers, or people that were dealing with aging mothers and fathers. I realized that they weren’t even talking necessarily about what my podcast was, but somehow the story touched something in their life, a story they wanted to share with me. I got some beautiful stories from people. I mean, unbelievable stories from people who listened to that particular podcast, and decided they would make amends with a parent, a mother or a father that had been alienated somehow, and they realized that time is too short, and they want to spend the remaining time telling them they love them, and not harboring any bad feelings.
It was amazing. That redefined what the podcast was, and after that, we alternated showbiz stories with life stories in a kind of non-sequential story, a memoir of my life. Of difficult times I had in college, which was episode 13, and then episode 10 was falling in love for the first time, and falling in love with music, and then episode 16 was working on Glee, and then episode 17, we go back in time to when my girlfriend Beth and I had no options and went off to graduate school in Illinois. I wanted the podcast to work like memory does, not like biographies do. [Laughs.] Nobody I know of thinks chronologically.
Memory works according to meaning, and when something is important to you, the Google in your brain brings it forward all of a sudden. So the evolution of the podcast was allowing whatever the last story was to inform what the next story had to be, and going with it whether it was part of a sequence of what happened to me in my life and loves, or sickness and children, success and failures, which you’ve [Laughs.] brought up quite nicely in this interview, as an actor. You have moments that you’re proud of, like Memento, and then moments you’re not so proud of, which there many that I have. Like shows where I was fired, or where I was replaced, or I didn’t do a very good job. You have a lot of those. I decided that whatever the story I told, whether it was about my life, or whether it was about show business, I guess the final incarnation of where we’re at now is that it has to illustrate a principle beyond whatever the story is. Whatever the story I’m telling is, there should be a unifying principle that’s bigger than the story, and I’ve found that to be really fascinating.
I don’t know if you know—maybe you know because you’ve heard a lot of the podcast—I just had open-heart surgery in January, which is one of the reasons why the release of the podcasts have been slower lately. But you know, I’ve worked a lot this year. It’s a whole other story, which I couldn’t tell because show business is tough on you if you’re ill in any kind of way. But I’m not ill now. I mean, I’m in great shape.
But I spent the last two weeks working on the next series of podcasts, about my heart surgery, and I realized it’s a whole other branch of something, because the one thing that I’ve found with the heart surgery is that it’s kind of like a Bat Signal. It’s a beacon to everyone else in the room. When I did, for example, Glee—I did Glee in February, like six weeks after my surgery, and the number of people working on the show was surprising. Choreography, and different people who came up to me and said, “What were your symptoms? You know, I need to know. I need to check myself out. I’m a little scared.” Different shows I’ve worked on now, people come out of the woodwork and say, “What did you go through? Tell me what you went through, because…” I went to buy clothes the other day, and one of the salesmen had listened to the podcast, and he came up to me and said, “I scheduled a visit to my doctor this week. Tell me what I should ask.” I felt like, “I have to write this now, about what the experience was of going through surgery and going through the recovery, because there’s a whole world of people out there that would be interested, and are probably also terrified, because they don’t know what they’re about to go through.”
That’s what I’ve been working on for the last two or three weeks. That’s what I told David, and he said, “Oh my God, maybe we should just publish it as a book and not do a podcast,” because it’s turning out to be several podcasts in a row. I figured I’ve done trilogies before, like The Illinois Trilogy, and The Buffalo Trilogy. I could do The Heart Trilogy. I figure people have the patience for that. And they’re also amusing, not serious, they’re kind of funny.
AVC: At this point, your audience will likely stick with you through longer pieces like that. Good luck with your recovery.
ST: You know, I’m past that. I’ve already done a naked sex scene on Californication.
AVC: That sounds like a fine litmus test.
ST: They are fitting me with a padded crotch for the next sex scene. So I am recovered, and now I’m dealing with the trauma, the terror, and the beauty of it all. Yeah. That’s what I’m dealing with now.