The Only Tobin Bell Interview You'll Ever Need

You might know Tobin Bell from playing the brilliant Jigsaw in all six Saw movies (despite having died on-screen a while ago, Bell's still managed to keep reprising the character and does so again in the installment out next Friday), but there's more to him than that role -- a lot more. As it happens, the Actors Studio veteran has built an interesting career out of small parts in some of the biggest movies and TV shows of the last few decades (including Tootsie, Goodfellas, The X-Files, ER, and The Sopranos), and as a natural raconteur, he's got a lot of stories to tell about each of them.

When I had the chance to interview Bell, I asked him an obligatory few Saw-related questions (for those, stop by next week), but what I really wanted to talk about were his on-set stories from some of those pivotal productions. As it turns out, that's what he wanted to talk about, too.

You've done so much more than Saw. Tell me when you got started.

I played background parts in New York for thirty years. In the the late seventies and early eighties, I played background roles in thirty movies...Woody Allen movies, Scorsese films, you name it. Whatever was being shot in New York, I was doing stand-in and background work because I wanted to be close to the camera, I wanted to see what was going on. For example, if you look at Sidney Lumet's film The Verdict, I worked for two weeks as a courtroom reporter in the trial. There couldn't have been a better opportunity to watch Paul Newman, James Mason, Sidney're sitting there twelve feet away from these people!

So that was a great opportunity, it was like watching theater. They built this courtroom in Queens, and I would take the subway out to Queens every day and sit and watch these guys work. Sidney Lumet talking to Paul Newman, "When you say that, I want you to turn this way, but not too much. Make sure you've got your light." You learn a lot watching that, because so much of what you do in film and television is technical. You could go to acting class until you're blue in the face, but when it really comes down to it, you'd better have that acting training where so much of what you do is actually technical.

Did it demystify the profession to see Paul Newman hitting his mark and executing camera turns?

It doesn't, because the trick is for Paul Newman to be able to be Paul Newman and do all those things at the same time. All it does is it teaches you how to be able to juggle. Actors have seven tracks going in their minds: They've got all the research they've done for the part, then they have whatever the director asked them to do, then they've got what the departments like special effects need them to do. Being there didn't take anything from me, it gave me an idea of what to expect. I've seen perfectly good young actors come onto set, and they just get eaten alive by the absence of freedom.

You also had a very tiny role in Tootsie, which was a famously contentious set. What was that like?

What's interesting is that you can have a set that's very calm, very smooth, very cooperative...and end up with a terrible movie. And you can have a set that's really horrible as far as relationships and volatility, and come up with a great movie. Sometimes that energy gets infused into what ends up on film -- it's interesting in that way. Sydney Pollack directed Tootsie; he also directed The Firm, in which I played the Nordic. You know, when you're talking about Tootsie, it's the tip of the iceberg, because those other twenty-nine films I did aren't even on the IMDb.

So how did Tootsie end up there?

I think Tootsie is listed because if you ever look at the film, Sydney used me for one very long cross where I walk up next to Teri Garr. He wanted to get from one side of the ballroom to the other, so he used me to carry the shot: He tracked with me through the crowd, past the principals, through everybody. Frankly, I had never seen the film -- I mean, I saw it when it came out, but that was so long ago. I said [recently], "I've got to look at Tootsie again," and I saw how long he used that shot for and how featured I was in it. I understood why it ended up on the IMDb thing.

Were you there for any of the arguments?

My experience on that set, I wasn't privy to any of that contentiousness. The contentiousness that you're talking about is the kind of thing that makes for a great film, because most of what you're talking about happened between Dustin [Hoffman] and Sydney. Dustin is very demanding, in a good way. He's a perfectionist and he has very strong inclinations. Part of the reason that film was getting made was because he was in it, and he took responsibility for what he was doing. So he and Sydney got into it sometimes about certain interpretations.

How did you find Sydney to be?

Sydney Pollack was a fabulous director and actor, so when he called my agent and offered me the part of this Nordic guy in The Firm...I knew that he knew my work, because I'm a member of the Actors Studio in New York and I've done a lot of work there. He'd seen me in Mississippi Burning, and although I didn't have a big part, it was a pivotal role. He tended to reuse people, and since he had used me in that long tracking shot in Tootsie, he must have remembered it! In the editing room, you look at that stuff a lot.

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  • NP says:

    Wow so interesting! Great interview.

  • Seren says:

    What a genuinely interesting interview! It really illuminated what makes an actor like Bell so memorable, even when he's just walking down a hall. It sounds like he brings a careful intelligence and devotion to craft to even the smallest moments on screen. Thanks, Kyle, for doing such an outstanding job as interviewer!

  • SunnydaZe says:

    What an interesting person! I wonder if he teaches acting? If not, he should. Lots of strong advice about things most acting teachers never even mention. (the technical side of being on a set)

  • sweetbiscuit says:

    What a humble guy, a true working actor. I love that he kept calling it "the IMDB thing."

  • Tabish Faraz says:

    Wow, what an amazing guy, and a great great actor indeed.

  • SunnydaZe says:

    The similarities of the above comments plus the fact they were all sent with-in an hour and a half of each other is kinda freaky.

  • Tabish Faraz says:

    A lot of people are visiting my blog from my comment above and just came back to see how this article is doing and saw your comment above, Sunnydaze. Well, can't say about others...mine was honestly genuine, and those words of mine about Tobin came straight from the heart - "great great actor indeed".
    Loved his acting in the saw series. Right after watching the first saw, I was telling everybody "hello detective Robert, i want to play a game" even though none of those everybody's name was can imagine. i am not even a playful character, rather a sober kinda guy, believe it or not.

  • SunnydaZe says:

    Yeah, I believe we were ALL genuine and somehow mystically chose to use similar wording, which is what makes is freaky! (in a good way)

  • Tabish Faraz says:

    I see. Yeah, freaky in a good way is cool :). The use of similar wording is not that mystical to me though, as it does happen after watching some movie or reading some writing that similar kind of feelings develop in the audience/readers and so the comments are quite likely to be similar if written straight from the heart, without taking into account if the comment will look similar to any of the ones given already. Just a little observation of mine about people and their reactions. Have a good day.