Bosco’s Interview: Bill Oberst Jr.
If you’ve heard of Bill Oberst Jr., you’re probably a huge fan of indie horror. Labeled as the “Best Actor You’ve Never Heard Of”, Bill Oberst Jr. might also be one of the hardest working men in Hollywood. With 15 films in either pre, post, or in-production, Oberst Jr. is the definition of a dedicated actor. After doing some PR for his new film, Scare Tactics, I was able to catch up with Bill a little bit to talk about horror, his life off-set, and how he prepares for his emotionally heavy roles.
Contrary to what his characters might lead you to believe, Bill is actually one of the nicest guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. I had a great time talking to him and I hope that you guys enjoy this interview as much as I did. Feel free to click the deliciously highlighted links throughout the interview to get a fuller view on Bill, his life, and his craft. Enjoy!
Q: You recently starred in the new viral video, Take this Lollipop. How did the role come to you and how did you feel about the innovative, albeit terrifying, way that the filmmakers incorporated the user into the video?
A: It creeped me out when I let the Take This Lollipop ap open my own Facebook profile! I mean here’s this sweaty son-of-a-bitch looking at pictures of my family and pawing the screen. It was not like watching a clip of me at all. I didn’t do it twice.
People ask how actors get roles. Here’s how I got this one…my manager Matt Chassin pitched me and got me a read for Jason Zada, the mastermind behind Take This Lollipop. Zada says to me, “I want subtle. Most actors I’ve seen for this have gone overboard. I want small but intense.” So I was nervous right off the bat. I went through the actions but it wasn’t clicking. It felt fake. Zada said “Go darker.” Tried again. No good. So he says “Try it shirtless. Feel the creepy.” And that did it. Sitting there uncomfortable in an audition room in Santa Monica, looking at a blank computer screen and getting fidgety because the freaking air conditioner was freezing my nipples off…that’s how I found the Facebook Stalker character. We didn’t shoot it that way, of course, but it burned the character into my brain. That’s why Jason Zada is a brilliant director. He made Take This Lollipop happen. I was lucky to work with him.
Q: Your appearances as a motivational speaker in churches and schools is fascinating considering the genre of film you’re known for. How difficult can it sometimes be to balance the actor persona and the persona of someone whose job it is to inspire people? Do you ever find that they are sometimes conducive?
A: Most of what holds us back in life is fear. Actors have to face fear every day. And I work in a genre that’s all about fear. So all of those things together make me a good candidate to say “Don’t be afraid.” And that’s what I say when I speak. “Fear not. It’s ok to be yourself. It’s ok to be who God made you to be.” We are all afraid that people won’t like us if we show them who we really are. It’s a universal fear. Yeah, I’m a weird mixture of dark & light, but so are we all, right? It is scarier to be yourself and risk rejection than it is to face 1,000 monsters. But if you do it, you’ll feel a weight come off. You’ll smile more. You’ll accomplish more. I’m a big fan of being a little odd. We are all odd. We are all a mess. Admitting that is the beginning of being happy.
Q:. How do you prepare for some of your more intense screen characters that cross the line into psychopathic or insane?
A: I allow them to be born inside of me, to live as long as they need to live, and then let them die. We are all capable of madness and murder and carnage, just as we are all capable of joy and forgiveness and kindness. It is just a question of what we give the space inside over to. I hate to admit how much I enjoy it, once I’ve given myself over to that kind of character. I think if I were not a believer in God that it would be difficult and even dangerous for me to do this with some of these characters, but He made me suited to show the dark side of humanity, so I trust Him and I do it. It is cathartic. I like monsters. Maybe a little too much. But I am at peace about it.
Q: What is your position on the horror genre as a whole? Some say its talented directors are a dying breed, but do you feel like there’s more to the genre than people generally allow themselves to believe?
A: I love horror, man. I was a weird kid. I felt like a monster, so I loved seeing monsters. My sympathies have always been with the monster. If horror is missing anything, it is that sympathy with the monster, in my opinion. If we can’t see a little of ourselves in the eyes of the bogeyman in the closet, then he is just the bogeyman in the closet. But what if the bogeyman wants to come out of the closet because he is lonely? I mean he’s still going to tear you apart, but he’s doing it because he is lonely? I think that is way more frightening, because we get lonely too. We can see a fragment of ourselves in the eyes of the beast. Or the demon. I always try to play evil with an undercurrent of sympathy. We are the monster. The monster is inside of us. That’s real horror.
Q: This year, you’re starring in a film entitled Abraham Lincoln Vs. Zombies produced by a company called The Asylum which is known for creating “mockbusters”, or, rip-offs of popular films being released close to the same time. What drew you to the role considering the notorious reputation that The Asylum has with films like Titanic II and The Battle of Los Angeles under its belt?
A: I like working for The Asylum because their films get distributed. That’s the name of the game in this business. I’d done two leads for them before; I was decent in one and sucked in the other. They asked me to play Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln Vs. Zombies and the title made me smile, so I said yes. Same reason I did Nude Nuns With Big Guns. I like to be associated with a title that I know is going to get people talking. And in this case, I think the movie may actually be fun, too. We had fun making it. Nobody there had any illusions that we were making high art, you know. I just wanted to make Lincoln look badass, because he’s one of my favorite Presidents. If people say Lincoln looked badass, I will be happy. If they say he looked like a wus I’ll crawl in a hole and die. For awhile. Sweet Lord please let Abe look badass. Amen.
Q: You also had a role in the 2008 film, The Secret Life of Bees. What was it like working on a production with a larger budget than most of the films you star in?
A: The catering budget on a big studio film is more than the entire budget of many indies, so it is a different world. Food is good. Pay is good. Lots of lights. Nice sets. Good work. What you don’t get on a huge set is that personal relationship with the director and that passion of teamwork against the odds that you can get on a small film. It’s good to do both, I guess, but if I had to choose between prime rib on a big set where I’m a number and Subway on a small set where there’s passion, gimme the sandwich.
Q: Your claim to fame was through a series of one-man shows you’ve done onstage. How did your work in cinema start, and what was it like transitioning from onstage to in front of the camera?
A: I did east coast stage for a dozen years and had a good career in it; made a good living and never planned to do anything other than theater. Then I submitted on a lark for the lead role in Sherman’s March, the docudrama about General W. T. Sherman, and booked it. I knew nothing about the nuances camera acting, but Sherman was a big personality, so that helped me be decent in it coming from a professional stage career. The Wall Street Journal liked it and said so on the front page. I came to Hollywood and got an agent; moved out in 2008; discovered that the camera sees me as a scary guy and and left the stage behind. Camera acting is a very tough beast to master. The one thing you cannot do on camera is lie. Well, you can, but you’ll suck. I’ve learned that the hard way. I’m still learning.
Q: Have you ever given thought to doing more comedy-oriented films more akin to roles you’ve played in films like Nude Nuns with Big Guns?
A: Totally, yeah. But dark comedy, because my face works best in roles with an edge. Normal is the kiss of death for an actor like me. Gotta have some weirdness there. Brother John in Nude Nuns With Big Guns was a comic-book character, like something out of a graphic novel, and that’s why I liked him. He thought he was badass but he was just a silly punk. And he died a silly punk’s death; dragged off a screaming nun by her pimp and beaten down bareass like a little bitch with a baseball bat. Is that comedy? I thought it was funny. But then I always liked The Three Stooges so maybe my tastes in comedy are abnormally violent.
Q: When you’re offered projects, how do you choose the ones that you have interest in? Do you sometimes have trouble discerning what has potential and what doesn’t?
A: I have only recently reached the stage of being able to turn down anything at all! Film is a brutal business to make a living in. But now that I have a tiny bit of freedom to be selective, I look for characters that have something off about them and for scripts that surprise me. There’s a lot of the same stories being written and filmed over and over again, as you know. I think about something like the first A Nightmare On Elm Street. That was an original idea; something new. If you had read that script back then, you’d be saying “Oh shit!” under your breath a lot. That’s what I am looking for…the “oh shit!” moments. If a script doesn’t have any, it isn’t for me. I’m not much for normal. I’m a weird and dark actor and I am know what I am and what I am not. Like I am always preaching: Be yourself. Be who God made you to be. There are no guarantees of any film being a hit, but if I am playing a lie in it, there’s no chance in hell of it happening. Camera hates lies. Lying is bad for the soul and bad for business.
Q: Have you ever scared the hell out of another actor on set with your intense portrayals of your characters?
A: Twice. Last year I worked with Robert Loggia, one of the screen’s all-time-great bad guys in a movie about the life of the Apostle Peter. Loggia played Peter and I was a demon taunting him in his cell. I had one scene where I got to hiss in his ear and tell him he was going to hell. When we cut Loggia turns to me and says in front of the whole crew, “You just scared the shit outta me!” That was nice of him to throw me that bone. I was one proud demon, too! The other time was the first horror film I ever did, Dismal. I was playing a cannibal. The director wanted me to lick a female co-star’s face…without telling her I was going to do it. I licked. She bucked and twisted in my arms like a bronco but I held on and licked. The scream was real. we got it in one take.
Q: Have you ever given any thought to writing or director your own films?
A: Absolutely yes. But I’m not ready to do it yet. There is much to learn. I like to keep my mouth shut and watch and listen on set. Amazing what you can absorb when you’re quiet. I have ideas. I’m getting there.
Q: What can you tell me about your upcoming role in the Gregory Blair film Scare Tactics?
A: I play the lead role of a famous horror writer who wakes up in the hospital and is not sure which memories are real and which are not. He goes to a friend’s isolated cabin to recuperate. Never a good choice! It’s a psychological thriller. If Alfred Hitchcock had made a cabin-in-the-woods movie it might be Scare Tactics. Blair cast me as the victim, so I’ll be the one terrorized for a change. It is one of four feature films I am doing this summer, including the lead role of a weary hitman in director Mike Bonomo’s thriller Assassins and the lead role of an insomniac whose hallucinations lead him to extreme violence in director Trevor Juenger’s art-house horror filmCoyote.
Q: As a child, what kind of films were you really interested and at what point did you realize you wanted to be an actor?
A: I can’t remember a time when I did not want to be an actor. I loved two kinds of films and two kinds of books; horror and fantasy. I built a mad scientist laboratory in my dad’s tool shed out behind the house and used to pretend I was making Frankenstein movies there. I had glow-in-dark-monster kits all around my bedroom. I had the posters. I had the magazines. I was Little Mr. Horror. I used to creep out at night when everyone was asleep and go walking in the woods, pretending I was a werewolf. They’d put me on medication today, I am sure, but back then I was just considered one of those weird kids. I spent a lot of time alone with my books and my monsters, and all of was fantasizing that I was somebody else. 10 years later I was on the stage and now on the screen. Acting is all I have ever done and all I have ever wanted to do. I’m grateful that God has let me do what I love for a living. There’s nothing better.
Q: Finally, in your opinion, what makes a great horror film, and what are some of the best you’ve seen in recent years?
A: You know Joey, it is sad when you can think of more bad horror films you’re seen in recent years than good ones, but High Tension has to be on the list of bests…loved Let The Right One In…Drag Me To Hell was good…I actually liked The Devil Inside…Insidious…and even though it is not strictly horror Willem Dafoe blew me away in Antichrist. I have seen a lot of unforgettable indies that never get beyond festivals, too, because they were more complex than just tits and blood. That’s the heartache of this business; good movies that fans would love don’t get distribution if they don’t match the usual formulas. What makes for a great horror film? Fear. Scare me. Hard-ons are great but try to engage the big head as well as the little one. Real fear is mostly in the mind. Don’t be afraid to be intelligent. Then, when you have my full attention, rip the rug out from under me. And watch me squirm. That’s a great horror film (see The Exorcist for a textbook example.)
Q: Thanks again, Bill! Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?
A: Just want to thank you for the chance to talk to your readers, Joey. I like the no BS approach you take. I’d be honored to have any of my upcoming releases reviewed on Bosco’s Grindhouse. My IMDb is http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2454994/ if folks want to see what I have coming up. My site is http://www.billoberst.com. There’s a new section there called The Anatomy of Fear about the body horror genre, which interests me because I have this whole creepy torso thing going on in a lot of my roles. I’d be interested in what horror fans think of the new site. Nothing makes me happier than feedback from horror fans. They are my bosses. That’s who I work for.