Tuesday, 13 May 2008


Stephen Tobolowsky is supposed to be the actor everybody knows the face but ignores the name. Although to know his name is more than a duty, it's a privilege. Great Balls of fire, Groundhog Day, Memento... more than 100 movies in his filmography. A long list of participations in productions for television. And of course, Theatre.

Stephen Tobolowsky is actually one of the most brilliant and interesting American actors. In front of the camera of Robert Brinkmann, he invites us at his home to listen him telling stories about his life and his career in the movie documentary Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party.

Could you please tell us a few words about your life before your years in university and about your family.

Stephen Tobolowsky : I was born in Oak Cliff - 22 miles outside of Dallas, Texas. It was very much like Provence but without the mountains. We had forests, streams... and critters. We have four kind of poisonous snakes in the United States and all four lived in our woods! Along with scorpions (like Provence), tarantulas, leeches, and centipedes. Billy Hart and I formed the « Dangerous Animals Club ». Our goal was to capture all the deadly creatures that lived in our woods. We did pretty good, too.

My Father was a pediatrician. One day, when I was twelve, he came home flushed with emotion and said: « Now I know why I became a doctor. I saved a baby's life today. Nobody could figure out what was wrong with it. I saw that he had pneumonia. I got him on the right medicine and he is going to live ». I told him a few years ago how moving that day was and how I saw what it meant to achieve and have a calling in life. He said, « I have no idea what you're talking about ».

Your aunt, Hermine Dalkowitz Tobolowsky, was an important personality in the history of the State of Texas.

Stephen Tobolowsky : My aunt Hermine was real real hero to me. She was a woman of courage, intelligence and compassion. She was one of the authors of the Equal Rights Amendment for the United States. She was a State Senator in Texas where she wrote and passed the Equal Rights Amendment for the State of Texas.

She was shot at, humiliated, and verbally abused - but she stuck to her guns and changed our country. And she had pear trees in her back yard and on Sundays she would give me a paper bag and I would fill it to the top.

When did you first consider the idea of becoming an actor?

Stephen Tobolowsky : I always wanted to be an actor. When I was young other children played Cowboys and Indians... I wanted to play Making Movies. I would fight with myself. I would shoot myself, strangle myself, fall off cliffs... More seriously, I always acted in plays.

When I was eight I won Second Place Best Actor in the Pee Wee Division. I played Hansel in Hansel and Gretyl . I had to kiss Marsha Housewright while she fed me a strawberry before we were rescued by the honest woodsman. Ironically, my bedtime was eight o'clock so I was unable to stay up for the awards portion of the program. I never got to make a speech. And I always wondered who won first place.

Actually, I thought if I became an actor I would have experiences. I would fight dinosaurs, I would fight in wars (back then it was a fun thing), I would fly into space. Little did I know that when you are REALLY an actor you sit in a trailer all day and often do nothing.

You studied acting at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. One of your fellow students was a wonderful actress called Patricia Richardson.

Stephen Tobolowsky : It was an extraordinary class at SMU. You mentioned Pat Richardson. Really a wonderful actress. She was my sister on Broadway in The Wake of Jamie Foster. She was my wife in the film In Country, with Bruce Willis. I directed her in The Miss Firecracker Contest in New York.

She is crazy! In New York she was pregnant and was afraid of getting overheated. I came into the theatre one afternoon and she was nailing thermometers all over the stage so she could tell how much heat she was actually being subjected to. That night I saw her sway around the stage... acting away and at the same time checking out the hidden thermometers.

Don't forget some of the others from that era at SMU. Kathy Bates... I've had the pleasure of doing three films with her since our SMU days. Powers Boothe. I have re-united with him currently on Deadwood. Designers John Arnone (Tony Award winner), Francis Aronson, Robert Blackman, Joe Tompkins. Pulitzer Prize winner Beth Henley, Playwright James McLure... my roommate.

Jack Clay was one of your teachers at the SMU. Why did he mark you and for which reasons?

Stephen Tobolowsky : I was thrown out of the Professional Acting Program my third year in college by a teacher with a grudge. To this day I have no idea why she disliked me so much. I was no worse than the other fools in my class but I was advised to leave acting and take up another career. I was no longer welcome.

Well... I thought about quitting. And then I got mad. I thought... Hey, I'm paying their salaries! They are not the gatekeepers of my dreams! (or something like that). So I signed up for a third year in the drama program. But no one would teach me. I was never spoken to. I was never given a scene or a test. No one answered my questions. It was the silent treatment on a grand, spineless, academic scale. I kept working... to no avail. And despair set in.

Then, one day, as I was sitting in Jack Clay's class, unprepared, he turned and called on me. WHAT? HE CALLED ON ME? I got up and stumbled through the assignment. He stopped me and with great disdain said, « Tobo, sit down. Never come into this class unprepared again ».

I didn't . He called on me from then on again and again. He gave me twice as much work as any other student. He gave me more CONSTRUCTIVE criticism than anyone had ever done. He pushed me like no one in my life. He made me care again. He was a great teacher and I will always be grateful to him.

What did you retain from this period that you still use today?

Stephen Tobolowsky : From SMU I learned to never give up. If they say no, if they turn their back on you, if they tell you you're nothing... keep going.

What were your first engagements just after SMU?

Stephen Tobolowsky: I was being frozen out at SMU so my Junior year started acting professionally in Dallas... which made the faculty members who felt I couldn't act really furious. I was a matinee idol in town, I was young and had hair. I played Jesus in Godspell, Algernon in the The Importance of Being Earnest... Girls would ask for my autograph at laundrymats. Life was very good.

I then heard a professional film was being shot in Dallas produced by Martin Jurow, who produced Breakfast at Tiffany's and had worked with Marlon Brando!!! This project was not those, this was called Keep my Grave Open. I played Robert the Stable Boy and I was seduced and murdered in the shower with a samurai sword. One of the great side lights was the cinematographer of this film was John Valtenburger, the last living student of Sergeï Eisenstein.

As an actor you have been blessed enough to appear in more than 100 films and an impressive number of TV productions, from drama to comedy, giving equally the quintessence of your talent to the most plausible characters and to the most hilarious comic figures. What do you try to bring to each of these roles, even the most caricaturals?

Stephen Tobolowsky : People think they are complicated but they are only inconsistent. They usually think of themselves like a snapshot: I like this, or I don't like that. I am good at this and not so good at that.

If I can find these elements about a character it doesn't matter if it is a drama like Mississippi Burning or a zany comedy like Groundhog Day. The task is the same: To keep it simple and true. If the answers you come up with are inconsistent... you have complexity. If I can describe my character in one sentence I have done my work.

Talking about Groundhog Day (1993), in France you are particularly known for your participation in this monument of poetry, invention, and humor. Could you talk to us about the way you did approach the subtile construction of these scenes when preparing them and with director Harold Ramis?

Stephen Tobolowsky : Groundhog Day was special in so many ways. It turned out to be a really wonderful film even if it didn't really start out that way. The original script was a rather formulaic Bill Murray project. Bill was in a situation where he had no consequences and the original script featured him sleeping with numerous women, committing crimes, being wild and crazy to no purpose.

After we started shooting half the script was tossed. Harold Ramis went back and asked himself what would really happen if a person had all the time in the world. What would he do? What would he feel? The result : Bill committing suicide was moved from the end of the movie to the middle. Scenes were added: Bill saving the Mayor, the child falling from the tree, piano lessons, etc... The movie became a Zen Buddhist poem on What makes a Man. It was lovely.

Interesting side note! Harold Ramis had not decided what the « day » of the film would be. So we not only shot the scenes over and over again, but we shot them in every weather condition... rain, snow, sun... In the end, Harold decided the « day » of the film would be cloudy and time would start again when snow started to fall. So we shot the whole movie about four different times.

You are one of the key elements of Memento (2000). How did you work with Christopher Nolan on your character?

Stephen Tobolowsky : I read the script and loved it immediately. My agent said the role of Sammy was small and I said: No, it's crucial... the death of Sammy's wife is one of the most gut crunching moments of the film. I met with Chris and told him that he may see a lot of other actors for the part but I would be the only one that actually has had amnesia! I had surgery a few years before and they gave me an experimental anesthesia that doesn't make you sleep but forget. For three days after the operation I had full blown amnesia and it was terrifying.

Sammy was one of the most difficult roles I ever played. We improvised a great deal in the scenes. I realized that what drives an actor through a scene is his goal or purpose. So what happens if you have amnesia and can't remember your purpose? The scene dies. I had to decide in the moment to let it die.

Half of my brain had to remember what I had done so the scene could be covered from different angles and the other part of my brain had to forget everything I did.

How did you work with Guy Pearce?

Stephen Tobolowsky : Guy Pearce was a wonderful spirit on the set. Fun loving, as was Chris Nolan. The project was a great pleasure.

You have directed a movie, Two idiots in Hollywood (1988), considered cult in some circles for its satire. It was based on your own play, written in 1984. How came the opportunity to adapt this play for a movie?

Stephen Tobolowsky : I worked with a large group of actors and writers called Canyon Pictures. The group included writers Fred Bailey and Beth Henley and actors like Kurtwood Smith and Mike Gainey. We even used dancer Bonny Oda Homsey of the Martha Graham dance company. I wrote Two Idiots for this wild group.

It was an event involving about twenty five actors. There were scenes in the theatre, in the lobby, outside the theatre, and on Melrose Boulevard. We were sold out from day one and we had great reviews, except for Variety that proclaimed that the humor in the show was « beneath the dignity of nine year olds ». I took this quote and had it blown up on a banner and strung it across the front of the theatre. With that move our success was sealed.

A producer came to see the show and asked it I wanted to turn it into a film. I said sure. He gave us two million dollars to make the film. Robert Brinkmann was our cinematographer. But both production companies that backed the movie (Film Dallas and New World Pictures) went bankrupt before the release of the film so we were stranded.

Can we consider that the play was, in some ways, ahead of its time, paving the way for comic duets like those of Bill & Ted or Wayne's World?

Stephen Tobolowsky : The plot of Two Idiots was about two complete morons who do nothing but sit on a couch and watch television and eat. All they want to do is get laid. This was years before Beavis and Butthead.

The similarities are striking. As are the similarities to Wayne's World and Dumb and Dumber. Two Idiots certainly predated all of these films and was successful in its own right, but it may be a matter of the 100 Monkey Theory. We all could have been answering a larger evolutionary call that the world needed more stupid comedy.

You have worked with important directors like John Carpenter (Memoirs of an Invisible Man) or, among many others, Ridley Scott (Thelma and Louise). What did you learn from these experiences and these directors as an actor and as a director?

Stephen Tobolowsky: You always learn. When you work with great directors you learn a lot. To generalize: Great directors appreciate the input of others. The lesser talents are defensive and try to force actors into certain choices. Those sets are always tense. Alan Parker and Ridley Scott are great generals. They have vision, clarity, and GREAT PREPARATION. They all have a great support system: great editors, great gaffers, great cameramen. Great directors are unafraid of surprises, they use them. There is a sense on the set that we are all on the same team.

A side note: a love letter to Alan Parker. I was supposed to be on Mississippi Burning for two weeks. Because of weather I was there ten weeks. Alan came up to me and said that he understood that I was interested in directing... would I like to follow him around and watch him do what he does. For two months Alan took me into camera meetings, design meetings, editing rooms, even advertisement meetings.

He would quiz me. He would ask me to map out the camera plot for scenes... and then he would patiently explain to me where I was wrong and what I should have done. At the time I had no idea the gift I was receiving. This stands in my life as one of the greatest learning experiences I have ever had... and the most generous.

The first movie of cinematographer Robert Brinkmann, Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party (2005), is a documentary about the art of storytelling using you as a medium, filming you at home telling your friends and us of your own memories and misadventures. How did this great simple idea emerged and how Robert Brinkmann, his partner Andrew Putschoegl and yourself worked to materialize it for the big screen?

Stephen Tobolowsky : Robert and I became friends on Two Idiots. Whenever we had a party at my house, after a drink or two, I would tell some of the stories of things that happened to me. Robert approached me about fifteen years ago about doing a film of me sitting in my living room telling these tales.

It was around the time of the birth of my first son and so I thought: « What a great gift for my son. To see his dad young and in his childhood home telling about his life ». A great idea we both promptly forgot about it for the next fifteen years.

In the interim, National Public Radio had asked me to perform some of my stories live on the radio. I had agreed and saw how the stories worked in front of an audience, not just a bunch of drunk people in a kitchen. I began to believe there could be a theatrical validity to the form as a film. In October of 2003, Robert called me up out of the blue and said let's do the story movie. He was doing nothing... I was doing nothing... so it seemed like a good time.

It must also be mentioned that in the intervening years Digital has emerged. Robert always wanted to do the movie in 35 millimeter. He wanted it to feel warm and look like a real movie and not a home movie. Back in the old days the cost would have been prohibitive. With digital we were able to produce it ourselves and
Andy was the techno wiz that was able to edit much of the film on an Apple computer.

Let's talk about your stage work... The Wake of Jamey Foster (1982) is a play written by Beth Henley and directed by Ulu Grosbard, a marvelous director. You shared the stage with great actors Anthony Heald, Holly Hunter and Patricia Richardson.

Stephen Tobolowsky : I am often asked to discuss the differences in work on screen and in theatre. I have a simple position. When you do theatre you are involved with the likes of Moliere, Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams... in short, the greats of western literature. When you do a movie you are usually conveying plot points in a comedy or wondering if Spiderman will find love. Film may have visual merit but that's about it. An actor is always ennobled by working with the great writers and great words and ideas.

Jamey Foster was such a tremendous success at our try out run in Hartford, Connecticut. We had a sold out run, terrific reviews including Time Magazine calling it one of the strongest plays of the decade. We all anticipated a long, career making run on Broadway. I rented a hotel room for eight months.

After our first preview Patty LuPone came up to me on the street and hugged me, welcoming me to Broadway. We were a hit... until opening night. Terrible reviews...we closed in 28 days (the minimum). We were shell-shocked. What happened? I have no idea. Could it have been the new set? The relationship of the audience to the stage? The recasting? The tweaking of the script? Unnecessary re-writes? All I can say is I felt the magic was in fact gone. It wasn't just the critics.

In 2002 you have been nominated for the Tony award for the Best Featured Actor in a Play, for Morning's at seven, a play with a fantastic cast (Julie Hagerty and Christopher Lloyd among others).

Stephen Tobolowsky : Considering Jamey Foster, Morning's at Seven was the opposite experience. We were the toast of the town for eight months. Great reviews. Great audiences. It was magic! We, the actors, decided to end the show... we all had other projects to do and wanted to go home. We will never forget the experience that beautiful play brought to modern audiences.

We were nominated for more Tony Awards that any other straight play in history. We lost them all but we were smiling. We thought about running an ad in the NY Times... Morning's at Seven: Losing more awards than any play in theatrical history!!!

Julie Hagerty is extraordinary...

Stephen Tobolowsky : When you are on stage with Julie Hagerty, or Holly Hunter - it is like playing tennis with Andre Agassi. Every night a play rides the current of truthfulness, based on the audience, on you, on fate. As an actor you must step up to make it new every night. I remember one night during The Miss Firecracker Contest a man died in the audience during to very opening moments of the show. The play stopped. The curtain closed. I went backstage (I was the director) and asked Holly Hunter, my leading lady, how she felt about going on with the show. Holly never batted an eye. She said, « Let's do it ». Even though the entire first scene was about death and dying. Fearless.

Acting with Julie Hagerty consists in bringing every bit of your truth and energy into the mix. Don't be fooled by her wacky, stewardess persona from Airplane. Julie can play anything from Romeo to Juliet. Before I went to New York to start Morning's at Seven I was working on the script at a park near my home. An actor I knew saw me and strolled over, wondering what I was reading. I told him I was going to Broadway to do Morning's. He smiled and said, « Who's your Myrtle? » (my girlfriend in the show). I said Julie Hagerty.

He smiled again and said, « I just worked with her... Be careful, she'll wipe you off the stage ». Well, I don't like anyone to wipe the stage with me, so I was warned. As we rehearsed Julie seemed unsure, tentative, even insecure. When the producers from Lincoln Center came to the first run-though we were all nervous. I went out for my first scene with Julie and she turned on the afterburners and she left me in the dust. You must bring it all, every show, she never - never phones it in.

Does your almost ubiquitous presence (for our greatest pleasure) on the big and on the small screen leave you enough time to act or direct on stage?

Stephen Tobolowsky : I try to act or direct in one play a year to keep my stage legs strong. I love directing classics and new plays. Both are challenging.

You are a man of many talents. In 1986 you co-wrote with David Byrne (Talking Heads) and Beth Henley the script of David Byrne's movie True Stories. How started this collaboration?

Stephen Tobolowsky : Beth Henley and I were leaving exercise class and a car pulled up to us on Santa Monica Blvd. It was director and friend Jonathan Demme. He asked if we were doing anything and as usual, we weren't. He drove us over to the Academy to see a screening of his new movie Stop Making Sense. The only people in the entire theatre were David Byrne and the Talking Heads and Beth and myself.

We saw the movie (which was great) and then we went out to dinner. David was trying to pick my brain about things I didn't like about the movie. There were very few. Afterwards David asked Beth if she would help write a screenplay for a movie idea of his, True Stories.

Beth told David that she was better at dialogue than coming up with plots and structure and she suggested he speak with me. I went over the next day. David's house was completely devoid of what most people would call furniture. There were a few metal folding chairs, a guitar and an amplifier in the corner. There were about one hundred pencil drawings stuck on the wall.

David asked if I thought I could turn the drawings into a movie. We studied the pictures in silence for about two hours. He is a terrific artist and the drawings were evocative. I told David I would go home and try to come up with something. If he liked it he could hire me.

That night I wrote a thirty-page treatment for the movie. He liked it and I was hired. He also hired Beth to work on dialogue. Beth and I wrote a complete screenplay for the movie in 19 days!!! We gave it to David and heard nothing for about a year. One day, I saw him jogging one day down the street and he yelled out that the movie was happening and he had changed the script a lot. David made it his own but the spine is still what we originally conjured up. Some of the jokes and characters are the same. I am most thrilled that David wrote the song Radiohead based on the stories I told him of my psychic experiences in college.

Is it true that you played in a rock band with famous musician Stevie Ray Vaughan?

Stephen Tobolowsky : I was a senior in high school and I occasionally played with a sometime folk, sometimes rock band called A Cast of Thousands. We were picked to cut two songs on an album of Dallas high school bands. Five bands... two songs each. Bobby Foreman persuaded a fourteen year old Stevie Ray Vaughan to play with us. He was magnificent. It was his first recording. He was so good, lightening.

When I was in Memphis doing Great Balls of Fire I was out partying with the great Jimmy Vaughn of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. At dawn we stumbled into a diner and there was Stevie. I went up to him all excited: « Hey Stevie!!! Stephen Tobolowsky!!! Cast of Thousands!!! » Stevie looked at me with a doggy expression and came back very dryly, « Dude, no...don't go there ». We sat down and had breakfast and it was there that Jimmy and Stevie planned the double album which was to be Stevie's last.

On television, you are recurrent on two radically different series, Deadwood and CSI: Miami...

Stephen Tobolowsky : There is no way to compare Deadwood to anything else done on television. Shows like CSI shoot for eight days an episode. The final episode of Deadwood this year shot for a month. Deadwood often has two different directors and two full crews working simultaneously on different episodes. There are no scripts to peruse ahead of time. David Milch writes or re-writes as we go.

On CSI Miami, David Caruso likes to keep things alive and fresh. As a result most scenes are done in one take. This allows for more time for creative camera angles. Some mornings I would show up for work at 7AM and would have finished two scenes and my days work by 10 AM.

On Deadwood I have arrived for work at 5:45 AM , rehearse, go to the trailer until 3 PM... head to the set to find out that David has re-written the scene and you have to learn lines all over again. It's tough but the result is fantastic.

With your participation in a very impressive list oftv-shows how do you consider the evolution of the production of this kind of programs on the last 20 years?

Stephen Tobolowsky : It's odd. The shows that always do best are originals : All in the Family, Seinfeld, Law and Order. You would think in a medium that is motivated by profits there would be a high value placed on originality. But it is not the case, Television is still 95% derivative. Most people are in a hurry to ride the coattails of a successful show. You can bet no one will ever ride the coattails of Deadwood.

On what are you working currently?

Stephen Tobolowsky : Currently, I am working on my canter. I am horse back riding. My wife and I are going on a riding expedition in Iceland and we are training for the ordeal. Actually we love it more than about anything. Career wise I am promoting Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party at various film festivals and busy doing press. Summer is a quiet time for television here. All the execs are on vacation in France.

I plan on doing one or two small independent films at the end of June and July. I will direct Iron in the fall. It is a powerful play by writer Rona Munro. Deadwood has expressed interest in my return but we will have to wait and see if I survive the re-writes.

At this step of your rich and creative career is Robert Brinkmann's movie the greatest birthday present you could have wished?

Stephen Tobolowsky : Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party has been a great treat for me. I have been able to travel across the country and meet lots of people who have enjoyed the film.

As an actor and as a director, who are your models and influences?

Stephen Tobolowsky : As an actor I admire the work of Frederick March, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Jack Benny... gosh there are a lot of old timers, good old timers. There is also Robert Duvall, Robert Deniro, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon...

As a director I have learned the most from Stein Winge of the National Theatre of Norway, Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, The late, great Davey Marlin Jones, Jack Clay, and Lawrence O'Dwyer. All of them have taught me to think outside the box.

Could you please do a present to our readers and tell us an anecdote about your career you never told before, even in Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party.

Stephen Tobolowsky : When I first arrived in Los Angeles in 1976, my first thought was « Now that I'm here how do I get a job? An audition? » but I had no connections. It tends to make one desperate. I wrote a letter to tv producer Aaron Spelling, who lived next door to my grandparents in Dallas, Texas when he was 10 -a fairly pathetic connection. No reply of course.

I heard an agent was coming out from Dallas. Her name was Kelley Green and she was a part time agent who sold rain gear on commission at a department store for money. Los Angeles is a desert climate, so rain gear on commission made me wonder. But she came through!! She got me an audition with Dallas filmmaker Larry Buchanan who was visiting in L.A.

If you don't know Larry Buchanan he was the man who directed Mars Needs Women with former Disney star Tommy Kirk and Zontar, the Thing from Venus with the great Lyle Talbot. As to Mr. Buchanan's film output, I guess we can all count ourselves lucky that there were only nine planets in the solar system. Buchanan was trying to start up another film and I got a general audition. For those not in the biz that means I was not auditioning for a specific part, just meeting the director in an attempt to generally « impress ».

I waited on an old sofa for three quarters of an hour when Mr. Buchanan appeared and gestured for me to come back to his office. He closed the door and walked behind a large desk and settled in. He gave me a steely look, took a drag on his cigarette and exhaled. He began to speak: « So you want to be in a picture? »
- Yes, sir.
- A motion picture.... Everybody wants to be in movies.
- Well, that's why we move out to L.A., sir. They make movies out here »

Buchanan stared into space thinking hard about something.He mused, « Let me tell you something. I have done just about everything there is to do in motion pictures. I have written, produced, directed. Christ, I have acted, moved lights, even hauled cables. Done it all.
- Yes, sir.
- There's only one thing I don't know about...
- Yes, sir.
- I don't know about air conditioner repair. You know how to fix an air conditioner?
- Ah, no, sir. I don't know how to fix air conditioners. I just call a repair man.»

Buchanan sat quietly staring into space. He took another drag on his cigarette: « Yeah... You can go. »

And that was my first movie audition in Hollywood.

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