INTERVIEW: Bill Oberst Jr.
You may have noticed over the last few months, dear readers, we’ve gotten quite close to our next guest here at The Slaughtered Bird HQ.
Mr Oberst Jr. is not just a fine actor, he’s also the nicest man I’ve had the pleasure of conversing with since creating this website and the most forthcoming with any info we may request, big or small.
The support he’s given the site since we’ve been friends is priceless and we hope you enjoy reading the following interview as much as I enjoyed getting it. The “nutty fucking fruitcake” is here…
Need I say more?
Q: Mr Oberst Jr., thank you very much for your time and agreeing to answer our childish questions! How’s things?
A: Greetings from Hollywood. Childish questions? I think not! Of course, I play for a living, so my perspective on maturity is a bit skewed. But I love The Slaughtered Bird and I thank you for this chance to get into your seriously twisted minds over there. In answer to “How’s things?” may I echo the sentiments of the Rev. John Graham, my favorite Presbyterian pastor and an Englishman, who habitually replied with the phrase, “No just cause or reason for complaint.” That is just my case. God is in His heaven and I am making movies, so things are good.
Q: You’ve been talked about as “America’s next boogeyman” and someone who could give “Hannibal Lecter a run for his money”!.. So, ‘Princess And The Pony’???!!!
A: Ahem. For readers of The Slaughtered Bird who may not be familiar with that title, The Princess And The Pony is a movie for children in which I played the villain. In my defense he was a nefarious carnival owner who says to the titular 10-year-old Princess at one point “Perhaps you would be a bit more cooperative if you were a bit less conscious.” So he was quite evil, but in an over-the-top way. Boris Karloff played Captain Hook in ‘Peter Pan,’ so I refuse to apologize. Mothers wrote to me and said things like “My 6-year old daughter absolutely loves to hate you!” So there. I’ll thank you, in my prickly and self-defensive tone, to stop busting my balls!
Q: Seriously though, some cool people have said some ace things about you over the years, including John Landis no less! Did you set out to become a go-to sinister fucker?
A: Yes, I did. If I wasn’t sinister I’d be just another middle-aged actor with bad skin and mixed reviews. Without a sense of menace I’d be doing background work, hoping to plucked out of the crowd by a sympathetic director and possibly allowed to say a line. I’d be dead inside. I might actually be killing people in real life to vent my frustration. 6 years ago, when I came to Hollywood to do film after a 14-year stage career, I quickly learned that I could either adapt to what the camera wanted from me or I could starve. I adapted. I wanted to be a sinister fucker; I worked to be a sinister fucker and I’m lucky to be a sinister fucker, but only onscreen. Offscreen I am a polite man. A polite man shell seething with latent anger at virtually all of modern life, but polite nonetheless.
Q: How does Mrs O Jr. feel about living with “one scary badass”? (My missus is quite scary when I don’t wash the dishes properly. Especially glasses. She hates me washing fucking glasses)
A: My family rolls their eyes at my supposed badassedness. Isn’t “Yes dear” the only phrase a man needs to live in peace?
Q: Why acting, and why mainly horror?
A: Acting because it lets me not be me. Horror because it lets me face death a little early.
Q: Which films/performances inspired you when you were starting out?
A: My first inspirations were comics and mags. I grew up in the world before video and internet, so well before I ever saw a horror movie I was an avid reader of Famous Monsters Of Filmland magazine, reprints of the old EC Comics (Tales From The Crypt, Vault Of Fear, Haunt Of Horror) and the Warren Publishing line of mags (Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella.) So by the time I was allowed to watch TV shows like Tales From The Darkside and Night Gallery I was already a very hungry boy.
There were two films and performances that influenced me strongly:
– The Night Stalker with Darren McGavin as Kolchak (I remember writing a letter to my father asking to be allowed to stay up and watch it) and
– Lon Chaney’s 1925 Phantom Of The Opera (which I first saw on 16mm projected onto a sheet in a Mason Hall at Halloween.)
Without seeing those two I doubt if my life-long love of horror would have taken full root. I was in heaven with my monsters. I loved them. Still do.
Q: Before film you toured for 10 YEARS playing Jesus – er, WHAT?!
A: I love Jesus, too! I’ve been in love with him since I was a kid. I try to follow him and his way every day of my life (often unsuccessfully, but I’ll never stop trying; or loving Him.) I find the stories about Jesus and his words, in particular, powerful and moving and challenging. Yet, when his life and his words are preached, Jesus often sounds often boring (or worse) completely irrelevant to actual life. This is because the things he said sound deceptively simple and humble, and humans feel the need to dress the words up in robes of long-winded profundity, to fit our notion of what a message from God should sound like. What utter bullshit!! A flower is a message from God; a stranger’s smile is a message from God; WE are a message from God! So I wanted to strip away the crusty layers of endless talk about Jesus and get to the talk OF Jesus; to simply say what he said as he might have said it with no explanation or dissertation. That stage show, titled Jesus Of Nazareth, was my attempt to recapture the freshness and challenge and energy of his words – to try and hear them as his original hearers might have. Now, I’ve just used 210 words to explain why I did a touring show as Jesus; whereas he only used 70 in what we call The Lord’s Prayer…His Sermon On the Mount can be read in 12 minutes, about the same as Churchill’s We Shall Fight On The Beaches speech. Jesus wasn’t boring. One old man who came to one of the many hundreds of performances I did of this piece waited around afterwards to talk to me after my make-up was off and he gave me the best quote I could have hoped for: “Well,” he said, “I don’t give a damn about religion, but Jesus is alright.” Amen.
Q: You’ve also been praised for your stage portrayal of John F Kennedy by many, including a lady who apparently worked as a secretary for the man himself. I bet that was quite surreal…
A: It was. She told me that as a member of the White House secretarial pool (and a lowly member, she took pains to say) when Kennedy came into office, she was given the task of finding something that might be able to hold his unruly hair in place. He was having problems with that famous Kennedy hairdo coming undone, but didn’t want to use hairspray. She said she called around to defense department contractors and finally got hold of a chemist who told her about a prototype of something called gel of diethyl phthalate; a clear lightweight binding agent. She had some sent over and the President himself came down and actually asked her to rub some onto his cowlick to see if it would lay down. So here’s this 21 year-old secretary rubbing a handful of experimental goop into the head of the President of The United States. She said he smiled and leaned over so she could reach his head. The stuff worked. A few years later it became available to the consumer market as something called “Hair Gel.” She laughed and cried while telling me this story, and I with her. Kennedy was a great man.
Q: I haven’t got the balls to stand on stage or in front of a camera, yet you do this for a living AND performed in several one-man shows! Do you get nervous about keeping that intensity and interest without other actors there to bounce off?
A: Let me use a sexual metaphor to answer your question (I find sexual metaphors to be helpful in almost every area of life, anyway:) being onstage alone is much more like a date than masturbation – the audience is your companion for the evening, so all the time you are learning about them and how to please them and of course you do wonder what they might be like in bed (metaphorically speaking.) As things progress you get into synch with them and then, just as you and they are nearing the culmination of closeness, you say goodbye and the tension is released in a chaste but satisfying good night kiss in the form of that final applause and bow. Quite nice. Being in front of the camera, on the other hand, is much more like sex without the formalities – it can either be a cheap performance of no great satisfaction to either party or a deep and sweaty revelation of truth.
Q: So, Jesus, Mark Twain, Abe Lincoln, JFK – that’s quite a formidable list and you’ve played them all! Do you think it puts you in good stead to play ME when Guillermo Del Toro/Ben Wheatley come knocking for the rights to my autobiography?
A: I accept that challenge! Of course, there is the issue of language. You say “Fuck” almost as much as I do in ordinary conversation, so we’d have to decide whether to present you a tad varnished (as I did the famously profane Kennedy and Twain) or as nature intended (ala the melancholy Lincoln or the blunt Jesus Of Nazareth.) I’d vote for unvarnished in your case; if audiences didn’t like it we could invite them to fuck off. It would, no doubt, be a sensation.
Q: We’ve recently spoken to some mates of yours at Return Of The Living Podcast and they said you guest on their show from time to time. How do you find the whole podcast world?
A: I really enjoy the podcast interviews. I’m kind of a hermit, so it’s a chance to talk to real human beings, which helps keep me sane….sort of.
Q: We’re thinking of venturing into it ourselves soon, can we pencil you in as a guest?
A: Of course! But you’ve got to promise to open the window and let me hear the sounds of Liverpool. It’s like an old Ray Bradbury story that I love, titled Calling Mexico, about a man who calls loves the sounds of Mexico City that he calls once a year and pays someone to open the window and put the phone receiver on the ledge.
Q: You seem like a fan of social media and use Twitter, Facebook etc to speak to fans (which is seriously great)… then you go and take part in Take This Lollipop and scare the SHIT out of everyone! I’m not on Facebook, so I missed out – could you tell us all about it? It’s sounds ACE!
A: You’re not on Facebook? I am so envious of you for that! I’ll confess that my distant retirement dream is to hit “delete account.” BUT it is really worth creating a FB account, or borrowing someone else’s, just to take the Lollipop. The ap is still up at www.takethislollipop.com It’s won a dozen awards including an Emmy. It’s been viewed by over 100 million people worldwide. I am not going to tell you again – create a fake FB account and watch the damn thing…NOW! Believe me, you wouldn’t be the first person to create a FB account just to use the ap. People have created accounts featuring pictures of their asses, and Elmo The Muppet, and obese cats and all sorts of things. You need a few family pictures in the account and some posts for it to be properly spooky. It creeped me out when I did it on my profile. I was like, “That perverted son-of-a-bitch!” Then I remembered it was me. I think there is a movie in there someplace.
Q: What has excited you in horror recently?
A: The trend away from found footage….OH WAIT THERE IS NO TREND AWAY FROM FOUND FOOTAGE! I hate found footage now; I really, really hate it. Ok so let me cite find a positive trend: the increasing use of psychological horror to drive stories instead of just evisceration and dismemberment. Not that there is anything at all wrong with a stout cup of good old-fashioned evisceration and dismemberment! But I think William Henry Pratt (aka Boris Karloff) was right in what he said about the difference in horror and terror: “Horror means something revolting. Terror means something fearful.” I prefer terror.
Q: I loved Coyote, it had everything an indie horror should have (including an EXCELLENT, shocking final scene). Did you have any creative input other than playing the lead character? Did Trevor Juenger just tell you to go for it or was there a rigid script?
A: Thank you for saying that and for reviewing the film (http://theslaughteredbird.com/coyote/) For your readers who have not heard of Coyote, it’s a micro-budget movie blending arthouse and horror; a very bizarre little film from writer/director Trevor Juenger. After it was banned at some festivals and won awards at others, Wild Eye Releasing picked it up for worldwide distribution. Should be out this year. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2385041
To answer your questions about Coyote; did I have any creative input? Yes, Trevor Juenger was quite open to ideas, although he was the final authority, as he should be on his movie. He sent me the script saying that he had written it with me in mind and he named the character “Bill” so there was a lot of me (my neurotic side) in there. Trevor brought out the worst in me, mentally – he amplified the voices in my head. We shot in the midst of the worst heat wave St. Louis, Missouri had seen in decades. Most days it was near 100 degrees (37 Celsius) so our brains were all a little fried by the end. It helped.
Was there a rigid script? Yes, absolutely. There was only a bit of improv, 90% of the movie was exactly as scripted. I’m proud of that. Trevor has the gift of creating a script that plays out as if it were happening inside someone else’s head. That sense of mental claustrophobia is something I’m a very big fan of; which is why I am a very, very big fan of Trevor Juenger. He has a touch of genius. And another of madness. It’s the dream combination for true cinema, as opposed to just movies.
Q: You also produced it too – how did that come about?
A: Trevor and his wife (and producing partner) Carrie were kind enough to offer that credit to me, although my contributions were minimal. I did provide the boxer shorts. And the haircut…I went to the barber and said “Can you make me look mentally retarded?” He said “Oh yes!” and went to work. I know I am supposed to say “mentally challenged” or “intellectually disabled” but come on, you saw the movie….that guy was just plain…c’mon, say it….
Q: Well, in my review for Coyote I commented that nobody plays “nutty as a fucking fruitcake” quite like you.
A: Yes, that’s what I wanted to hear “Nutty as a fucking fruitcake!” THAT’S what that guy was!
Q: Are you actually insane? (By the way, I meant it as the HIGHEST possible compliment)
A: Only after the sun goes down. Mark Twain said it so well “Night brings many a deep remorse…from the cradle up I have been like the rest of the race, never quite sane in the night.” I think sanity is an idea we cling to a little too tightly; a little too desperately; sometimes. It’s ok to admit that we aren’t really rational beings underneath it all. To me, that confirms something Paul said in the New Testament: “I have the desire to do good but I cannot do it – the good I want to do, I do not do, and the evil I do not want to do, I do. Oh wretched man!” And what he is really talking about is our condition…the human condition…the heredity of…call it sin or call it evil or call it what Poe called it in his short story The Imp Of The Perverse; that flaw in the ointment of humanity that drives us to do precisely that which we know will lead to shipwreck on the rocks of life. Am I mad to think on such things? If so, then mad be I (and, I suspect, you as well.)
Q: As with most actors/directors, some of your films perhaps haven’t quite hit the heights of others, yet you always seem to completely commit to all your performances and hit that same, intense level – what motivates you?
A: That is an excellent question, my friend, and I’ll give you the honest answer: it is the actor disease that motivates; the crippling, driving, common-to-the-craft need to please and be approved of. I work hard because I want to make people happy. I want to make them happy because I want them to like me. I want them to like me because I fear their disapproval more than death. That’s why we act. It’s a personality defect disguised as a profession. The thought of not giving 110% to a role terrifies me. I fear failure, yes, but I fear rejection and scorn more. That is the dark truth, rarely spoken.
Q: Speaking of motivation, your film choices are usually of the ‘independent’ variety (which is why we’re your mates and biggest fans!) and perhaps not the most lucrative, even though your ability and calibre is very highly thought of and could presumably command a higher fee – is it because you love indie cinema like us? It is isn’t it?? TELL US IT IS, BILL??!!
A: How do you see into my soul, man? You keep asking these questions which compel me to tell the truth! Ok, so here’s the deal: all actors are part whore and part artist. The whore wants to be paid. The artist wants to be satisfied. In the same way that spirit wars against flesh, whore wars against artist. Hollywood is not kind to those that deny the whore entirely, so I do try to get pitched for the higher-paying roles. But my heart is not always in it. I’m a rather cold, dispassionate man in my personal life, so I crave passion in my artistic life. Independent films are dreams that ride on the waves of passion. Look at a film like Coyote; what Trevor Juenger did would have been insane on a big budget film. No one would take those kinds of cinematic chances with a pocketful of cash. Only a man with nothing to prove and nothing to lose would make that kind of movie. So I’ll keep getting into bed with indie cinema, even if the whore turns my head. I’m a guy; I’m gonna look; but my heart is with the underdog. It always has been.
Q: Is mainstream cinema stifling indie cinema?
A: If anything is stifling indie cinema it is fear; the fear of not being seen in this distracted and fragmentary marketplace; that drives independent directors and producers to make poor copies of big-budget works, rather than trusting their instincts. When that happens, indie cinema is stifling itself. I believe that we’ve got to stop trying to guess what the audience wants. We’ve got to stop playing it safe. We’ve got to make the movies we want to make and telling the stories that are on our heart to tell. If you do what you love, the money will follow. It always does. Then again, what the hell do I know? I’m just an actor.
Q: I believe you’ve recently written your first feature, Lord Bateman – any details you can share?
A: You know, that would be a great project to shoot in Liverpool! We want to shoot it somewhere in Europe – the story is set there. It’s about a man who keeps seeing himself as demon and becomes convinced that he is actually turning into one. Demons are a great fear and fascination of mine; the story came from a nightmare I kept having. Director Joe Hendrick and I are working on a first draft of that script in between our respective projects. It will be a 2015 or 2016 shoot.
Q: Any parts available for inexperienced, part-time writers from Liverpool?
A: You write? I did not know that! Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmm (three Hmmm’s are the universal symbol for piqued interest.)
Q: Resolution: one of my favourite films of the last few years. We’ve spoken to Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead on the site a few months back – what attracted you to the project? ‘Byron’ scared the shit out of me even though he never really moved from his seat!
A: I beg your pardon!? Byron was a charming chap and a damned hospitable host who, if I may speak in his defense, offered a stranger hot tea, engaging conversation and exotic psychedelic hallucinogens (the latter quite summarily and, if I may say so, rudely rejected,) all out of the goodness of his heart! Maybe if people spent less time judging Byron and more time imbibing, inhaling and actually listening to what he has to say, they might learn things that would help them but NOOOO everybody is scared of him just because he lives in a trailer on a remote hilltop in the middle of nowhere, is not a looker and spouts complex didactic metaphors that take more than 30 bleeding seconds to digest because that’s all we have to give to anybody or anything (besides ourselves or the omnipresent phone-appendages that we pay more attention to than our own, or anyone else’s genitalia) in this petulant, distracted, self-absorbed, socially-autoerotic and cyber-masturbatory world!
Sorry. I tend to be a bit defensive of my characters.
In answer to your question about what attracted me to the project, it was the writing. That was a mentally complex, 7 minute scene. The directors let it play out and breathe. I did it in 3 different accents at audition and each time, I found the words to be like rich cheesecake on the tongue and good wine on the brain. Only confident filmmakers would dare to plan a long dialogue scene like that for their movie, much less let it play out as written.
Q: Alongside Coyote and the equally powerful Children Of Sorrow (where you play yet ANOTHER snidey crackpot!), Resolution encapsulates independent cinema, tackling subjects and breaking boundaries which a lot of mainstream flicks tend not to do – do you sense that during the shooting of such films?
A: Yes. That is an astute question…it makes me want to read your writing, actually. No one has asked that before. The answer is yes; you really can feel the ship heading out into uncharted waters. The freedom is exhilarating and the further you head (metaphorically) out to sea on such a shoot, the more you begin to question propriety in art. You begin to ask “Should cinema have boundaries?” Should art?” “If so, why?” Believe me, these are not questions that come up on the standard indie shoot where everyone is just trying to make the day’s shots. It is only the occasional project (and you are exactly right in identifying Trevor Juenger’s Coyote and Jourdan McClure’s Children Of Sorrow as examples of such) that prompts such dangerous pondering. I say “dangerous” because too much of that kind of thinking and we might all stop aiming to make money and instead aim to make art (which would in turn, because it is infused with passion, make money.) We can’t have that. A return to cinema as Méliès saw it; to cinema as a palette for the imagination? Shocking! I pay obeisance to directors (like Trevor Juenger and Jourdan McClure) who take chances. We must! Otherwise, what’s a heaven for? (my apologies to Browning.)
Q: Bearing that in mind, which director has been the best to work with (and why)?
A: The ones who stand out are the ones who become so absorbed in the work that they voluntarily lose all sense of the world outside of the story we are telling; you feel that intense, passionate focus like a force-field spinning all around them and it draws in and energizes the whole set. I’ve been a lucky bastard – I’ve had a lot of those. A recent example was Matthew Gray Gubler on the set of Criminal Minds for CBS-TV. I did a guest star role on an episode he was directing and someone asked him how long we had been working on a scene. He said “I have no sense of time in here.” And he was absolutely right to say that; in the middle of shooting a scene, a director really shouldn’t have a sense of time outside of the world we are creating. That’s not his job. Nor mine. I turn off the phone and never look at the time once a shoot day begins. There is no time; there is no world outside of the world we are all agreeing to inhabit when that camera rolls. Of course, that’s a big and well-staffed set with many people to make the train run on time…sometimes indie directors wearing many hats don’t have the luxury to disconnect like that. But I still think they should try. Getting lost in the work is part of the work. It’s like falling in love. You die inside if you are no longer capable of doing it.
Q: You’ve starred alongside many weird and wonderful people in your time – I’m gonna list a few for our readers: Adrienne Barbeau, Jim Carrey, Tobin Bell, Malcolm McDowell, Ron Perlman, Hugh Jackman, Dakota Fanning, Robert Loggia, Paul Bettany… but who seemed the most star-struck to be working with Bill Oberst Jr.?!
A: Surely you jest. But I must say, I’ve never had anything less than a good experience working with movie stars. Adrienne Barbeau was quite kind to me; a wonderful woman. Jim Carrey could have had me fired when I clumsily knocked him down, but instead he got up and laughed it off. Dakota Fanning let me jerk her around like a ragdoll. Robert Loggia gave me acting tips and told me stories in exchange for my bringing him sandwiches. And Hugh Jackman sat on the floor off-camera and read his lines for my coverage in a scene that he wasn’t even on-camera in. I thanked him profusely. He said “My pleasure, mate. We’re all in it together.” Now that’s class.
Q: You must have some cool stories?
A: I try to keep my anecdotes to minimum. I work out at the Hollywood Y and there’s a group of older guys who have been in the business forever who work out around the same time and who are always telling anecdotes in these loud voices that ring out in the locker room. You hear things like “So I said Meryl, I thought we had a deal” or “I told Carson to shove it up his ass” or “So there’s Raquel Welch in my shower, right?” By my self-imposed taciturnity I’m training myself not to be those gentlemen in 20 years. Of course, by then I may have stories that are just too good to hold in.
Q: In your experience, and apart from yourself, who is the most mental cunt in cinema?
A: Well, of course one thinks of the late great Klaus Kinski and, in more contemporary terms, the marvelous Gary Oldman and Christian Bale, but of those actors I know personally I would have to say that Ezra Buzzington is admirably up there on the mental cuntography scale. See his work in Chad Ferrin’s Someone’s Knocking At The Door if you doubt me. Ezra is my buddy and he’s about to be a television star in the new John Malkovich series Crossbones on NBC-TV, but cinematically he’s every bit as nutty as a fucking fruitcake as I am, and would no doubt proudly tell you that himself!
Q: So what’s coming up? I’ve spoken briefly to Billy Pon about Circus Of The Dead, we’re really looking forward to that.
A: So am I. There are rumors of various cuts of the film (what we shot was pretty brutal in terms of violence and there was some female full-frontal) so it will be interesting to see what Pon settles on. I hear he has several distributors interested already just from the buzz he has created online; quite brilliant the way he has released various trailers and a multiplicity of artwork to keep fan interest high even before it debuts at Texas Frightmare Weekend.
I think the next worldwide release in the horror genre for me will be Coyote from Wild Eye Releasing and the next non-horror release with be the Civil-War-era drama The Retrieval. I’d expect Circus Of The Dead would have a wide release later this year, and I did a family Christmas movie with Dean Cain that I know will be out for Christmas (I play a very evil dogcatcher.) I’d invite your readers to drop in on my IMDb page for news about what is coming up and coming out. The link is http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2454994 I read all the messages left on that page, too, by the way, and I respond. It’s a great place to interact with viewers and have a conversation off the crowded social media grid.
Q: And finally, do you have any plans to visit these shores any time soon? (In particular Liverpool. More specifically The Slaughtered Bird HQ. Ideally the pub where we drink so we can have a pint with you)
A: I’d like to do all three! My Southern haunt is The Duke of Clarence on High Street in Hampton Hill….I have not ventured up to Liverpool but the opportunity to lift a pint with you bastards will put me on a north-bound train on my next visit over. Perhaps it will serve to settle once as for all the question of whether I am, indeed, “nutty as a fucking fruitcake.” I’ll look forward to it. Long live The Slaughtered Bird and thank you for the chat!