Still living by his wits

Special to The Times

Tobin Bell plays Jonathan “Jigsaw” Kramer in the “Saw” movies, the newest installment of which, “Saw IV,” will be released Friday.

So a certain time comes when one must move to L.A. for his career.

My oldest son had graduated from U Mass at that point, and it seemed like a good time to make a move. I jumped in my trusty 1986 Chevette loaded with all my belongings -- and blacked out the windows so I wouldn’t be car-robbed en route.

In a Chevette you make about 55 mph. I drove down to Memphis and drove [Interstate] 40 straight across. I would just drive from dawn to dusk and get a Holiday Inn and start over the next day. I arrived in L.A. six days later. . . .


I think it was the right thing to do. I miss New York terribly. I just spent 12 days in New York. Generally, I stay at the W in Union Square, because I lived in the Village my whole existence there -- 9th Street, Astor Place. I feel like I’m in my neighborhood. . . .

When I left Boston University, I went to New York to become an actor. Twenty years later, I started to work. It takes a long time to get anything going. . . . I did everything that actors do, from painting the underside of staircases at $9 an hour to working in many, many, many restaurants. If you can make money, any kind of money -- if you can stay in the game, you have a chance. What people consider menial jobs are really blessings, because as soon as you give up your menial job and take some fat job for an insurance company, you’re not gonna show up, you’re not gonna be at any auditions.

I did regional theater, I did a lot of plays in New York and worked for $150 a week, at Theater for the New City, and Playwrights Horizons. But I always believed someone would eventually see some value in film and TV for me. Somewhere around 1986, Alan Parker came to New York for “Mississippi Burning.” . . . The first scene I ever had in a film was with Gene Hackman. So I was like, “All right. I’m where I belong!” It built from there. Then Sydney Pollack just picked me out of wherever he picked me out of for “The Firm.”

So when people make that transition from bartender to a 9-to-5 job, they’re out of luck.


Those kind of jobs, night jobs, part-time jobs, I loaded tractor-trailer trucks and parked cars in the Hilton garage at night and put Zip-Strip all over -- you know, a coat of turpentine and more Zip-Strip and hope you don’t breathe too many fumes. Those are the jobs that make you. . . . I lived in the Polish National Hall on St. Mark’s, which was a drug rehab, with the Electric Circus upstairs. It was a very heady time for St. Mark’s. It was a pretty happening place to me.

It’s a little drab now!

Well, the world is a little more drab now than in some ways it was then. We believed there was gonna be a revolution -- and not a violent one. The world was going to change. Instead the world assimilated the hippies.

Which might be the worst thing that could have happened.


I think about it sometimes too. Time, the passage of time, I’ll tell you what I mean: They’ve been trying to build a bridge from Connecticut to eastern Long Island for a long time. It comes up every 10 years in the Legislature. And every time it comes up, there’s a furor about it and they don’t build it. But they’ll wait. Until the time comes when there’s no furor. And it’ll get done. That’s the way things happen. In my view, the flower-power generation, they grew up, they became 30. They used to say, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” They got over 30 and they thought about supporting their families -- the same thing people always thought about. But it’s like the bridge. If you wait long enough, unless there’s momentum. . . . But anyway, all this is in some ways more interesting than Hollywood.

Well, they’re related!

And in some way what’s interesting -- have you seen the “Saw” movies? -- so this guy Jigsaw, he feels like the world’s going to hell in a handbasket. And he feels that for thousands of years it was survival of the fittest, and it’s become survival of the mediocre. And he feels people appreciate nothing and nothing about what they have; their blessings. So there is some crossover between the early part of our conversation here and what’s going on in [his] mind: There’s a price that people have to pay for their blessings. . . .

He has a laundry list of complaints about the world and about our culture. But he, unlike most of us, he not only complains but takes action. Very specific action. I’m not suggesting that what he does is in any way correct. People ask me, “How does it feel to be a famous villain or a horror icon?” . . . I try to stay on my character’s side and bring some kind of humanity. The script will lead me toward the deeds that must be done. Those deeds will speak for themselves, and people can draw their own conclusions.


But that’s not what’s most interesting. It’s my job to create as much delicacy as I can. . . . My experience is that it’s rare that someone who’s on the wrong side of, say, the law thinks of themselves as a dastardly person. To survive that experience, they need to feel justified on some level. I don’t think of him as a horror icon or a “villain.” I think of him as a person living his life by his wits, the same as I’ve seen when I walk out of my apartment house in New York I see people with blue hair going one way and a poor truck driver going the other way, and a couple sleeping on the subway, or a musician with his trumpet, or a woman going to clean a house on Fifth Avenue, looking exhausted -- everyone lives by their wits.