Emmy and Lon Chaney Award-winning actor Bill Oberst Jr. is without a doubt one of the hardest working and incredibly talented actors to ever come out of the modern day era of horror. His intensity and dedication to his craft elevate any production that he’s a part of to a higher level. After Bill made a comment on one of my posts I decided to reach out to him for a couple of questions and lo and behold he said yes. Not only did I get (in my humble opinion) an excellent Q & A, but a new friendship was formed and my respect for this man grew even stronger. The only thing that Bill asked for was that I put up a link to his official website at www.billoberst.com. How easy is that?
Let’s start with an obvious one, Bill. Your IMDb.com entry lists a whopping 157 credits since you began with Sherman’s March in 2007; or was it Gilded Cage, which has no year of release? Where did it all begin and more importantly how did it all begin?
The History Channel docudrama Sherman’s March (2007) was my first on-camera role. For 16 years prior I was a working east coast stage actor with no ambition to be on-camera before I stumbled into the boots of General Sherman. On the first day of shooting I fell off my horse. A very kind director, Rick King (of Shark Week fame) helped me look reasonably heroic, and the program was highly-rated and well-reviewed. On the strength of it, I came to Los Angeles in 2008 for a two-week stay to see if I could land an agent. I ended up staying for 8 years and killing many, many people. It has been a bizarre and wondrous experience.
Ha ha. People unaware of your chosen profession might raise eyebrows at that next to last statement, Bill. You came to the audition for Sherman’s March in an authentic Civil War uniform. In addition to that you were spat upon and assailed by passersby when you wore an SS uniform for your audition as Adolf Eichmann for The Glass House, also in 2007. Auditions, Bill! What inspired this dedication to your chosen craft?
Acting is a personality disorder disguised as a profession. One of the less-toxic symptoms of this disorder is a compulsion to play dress up. In my case, it’s history that I get off on, so for any role involving a distinct time-period I am compelled to dive in wardrobe-wise. The fact that this comes across as dedication to craft is a fortunate occurrence.
Like all actors, I am dedicated to the idea of escape from the reality of actual life. Welcome to the curse. It is not curable.
You remind in a lot of ways of Christopher Walken. He’s said in interviews that he’ll take any role that’s offered him and with your immense list of credits it seems you may be the same way. In addition your dedication and preparation brings to mind actors like Robert De Niro, an actor well known for the lengths he would go to to become the characters he’s portrayed; driving fifteen hour days in a taxi and studying mental illness for Taxi Driver; living in Sicily for months for The Godfather Part II.
You’ve been described as gentle and with an interest in things spiritual in your personal life (I stole that from your IMDb page); quite a contrast to the menacing characters you portray in your films. How do you keep the two separate; or do you find that one complements or strengthens the other?
I think about this question often. This morning I go to church to hear about God’s love. Next week I start a film in which I play a man who sacrifices children. What to do?
My defensive inclination is to say, “It’s a job;” to absolve myself of any responsibility. But in my heart, I know I do have a responsibility. I’d love to play the angel, but if it falls to me to play the devil, I’m going to play the Devil with a capital “D” – the lying sonofabitch who said to Jesus, “Behold the kingdoms of the world; they are mine and I can give them to anyone I wish. They’re yours if you worship me.” I strive to play evil with conviction and purpose, because I know evil is an actual, living force in this world.
I want to disturb. I want to play the darkness to show the light.
End of sermon 🙂
I couldn’t hope for a better answer, Bill.
Before you stepped in front of a camera you were a stage actor. Would you care to tell me about working in theater?
Oh yes. Theater is a beautiful blind date. Every single performance is a new encounter with a collective stranger. You get to know the audience and to understand what moves them. When the time is right, you go in for a goodnight smooch, and (on the magic nights) part ways with a little yearning still intact in both parties. It’s a very chaste thrill. The camera, on the other hand, is a voracious lover who demands that you touch it in the way it wants to be touched by you. If you don’t get that touch just right, the camera happily looks at someone else. A wronged theater audience may deny you a goodnight kiss, but a wronged camera will take cash out of your wallet, laugh and toss you outside naked. In both cases, it’s your own damned fault.
Please pardon the sexual metaphors. They keep me honest. This profession is prone to pretensions.
That’s perfectly fine, Bill; you’re giving me your most honest and personal answers and how you see fit to do that is alright with me.
Were you often the villain or heavy when you were onstage; or did that evolve during your time in front of a camera?
An evolution, and a welcome one as an actor. It took several failed attempts at playing the villain to realize that the old quandary “I do not understand myself, for the good I want to do I do not do, but the wrong I hate, that I do” applies to all of us. It is interesting that the word “heavy” is used to describe these characters – it actually is a physically heavy feeling to live inside them. It feels isolated and very alone. I think that a lot of what we call villainy springs from being alone; from seeing our desires as the center of our universe. After playing these people it is hard to get back to being a part of a community again. Loneliness and isolation are very seductive and very dangerous – bad for the soul.
What about influences? There must have been someone, actor or otherwise, that has influenced you and inspired your performances.
My earliest inspiration was Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Forrey introduced my generation to the old masters of horror and, above all, to Lon Chaney Sr. In those days, the only way to see these performances was to order 8mm clips by mail, so I was introduced to them all in silent form projected on a sheet in my bedroom. I was mesmerized by their movements: (Boris) Karloff’s Monster reaching upwards towards the light; the wounded rage in the unmasked face of Chaney’s Phantom; the play of (Bela) Lugosi’s fingers as he pushed aside cobwebs. I studied them and ignored my homework.
Even today, my favorite moments on camera are the ones alone and with no words. That’s why Take This Lollipop will always be close to my heart; it’s my little contribution to that tradition of non-verbal horror.
I just had to click on the link for Take This Lollipop and now I’m afraid to step outside my door for fear that you are waiting menacingly for me, Bill! To be honest I get the feeling that the man you portray in that short interactive film would not let doors stand in his way at all.
On the subject of scaring people my wife and I watched your performance in the ‘Blood Relations’ episode of Criminal Minds. As soon as I saw your name in the credits I told her that we were in for a treat. With the show over I asked for her thoughts and all she could say was “that man scared the hell out of me!”. I told her “you have no idea how many people this man has scared.” Do you find that you get a sort of, and this is for lack of a better word, perverse satisfaction out of scaring people or creeping them the hell out?
Tell your wife that my Criminal Minds killer just needed love and he’d have turned out better!
Seriously, I hope she was able to feel some empathy for him. That is what I strove for in that characterization, as did the whole team behind creating that poor little killer – director Matthew Gray Gubler kept encouraging me to be more childlike in speech and movement, and Dayne Johnson and Christopher Allen Nelson, who created the make-up, were influenced by the humanity-infused monster make-ups of Lon Chaney Sr. I consider the character to be an homage to Chaney. The series’ producer and writer Breen Frazier signed my script “To the most heartbreaking serial killer ever.” That meant a lot.
I had a hard time getting a handle on the Take This Lollipop guy. Without Jason Zada, who wrote and directed it, I would have been over the top. But Jason kept whispering in my ear, “Just go darker into that basement of the mind. Go deeper.” There, too, we tried to lay in some bits that would create an empathy; moments where you see him trying to resist the compulsion. I must agree with you, though: doors wouldn’t stop him.
Sorry for the prelude there.
To your question: Do you find that you get a sort of, and this is for lack of a better word, perverse satisfaction out of scaring people or creeping them the hell out?
Yes. I personally hate roller coasters, but I see the perverse pleasure that people who know this get out of trying to goad me onto them. In the same way, my skill set as an actor includes a bit of knowledge about what makes people’s skin crawl and I justify my enjoyment of it by thinking “Well, it’s good for them to be scared – it makes them feel alive,” which is the exact same rationale my friends use to justify trying to terrify me! Boy, humans are just nefarious by nature, aren’t we?
You ask me that question and today I might agree with you and the next day I may not or be on the fence. I guess I am of the opinion that there are good people in this world capable of doing bad and vice versa. Does that make sense?
The main reason that we came into each other’s radar is because of your role in the excellent short werewolf film, The Beast; how did you become involved with the project?
I feel very fortunate to have been involved with The Beast. I loved werewolves so much as a kid that I used to sneak out of the house late at night and ride my bike out to the railroad tracks where I could safely howl at the moon, just to know what that felt like. They remain my favorite classic creature. I met Peter Dukes, writer and director of The Beast, online and then went to his house to read for him. Peter said “We’re going into the woods for one night with very little money, but with a group of pros who love old-school horror…and werewolves.” We shot it in one crazy night. I was really blown away by the intensity of Peter and Alexander Le Bas, who remain the only father and son acting team I have ever worked with. The Beast is an example of extreme class in a small-scale production.
Werewolves have also always been my favorite monsters so I can perfectly understand wanting to howl at the moon, Bill.
To me, The Beast was a perfect example of a group of people with a passion for a project-and werewolves-that used that passion and their imaginations to make a twelve-plus minute film on a low budget seem more alive than a lot of the feature-length movies that Hollywood is passing off on us.
I’ve posted nearly fifty short films since I began my Short Film Saturday showcase at Written in Blood. I’m leading to a question and I guess what it is is do you feel like short films are a good way for up and coming independent filmmakers to make their mark and get a foot in the door, so to speak?
Yes, and the shorter the short the better! When people see that video load bar go past the 10 or 15 minute mark, you lose them before you’ve grabbed them, The three shorts that I’ve been involved with which have gotten the most attention and have won the most awards – THE BEAST, ASSASSINS and HEIR – were all under 15 minutes. There’s little money in a short, but if you do it right and tight there’s a lot of potential for making a mark.
I get what you mean about losing your audience for a short film. I’ve skipped over quite a few films because they were 20-30 minutes long and I didn’t have the time (or patience) to give them my full attention.