Madmen & Monsters: An Interview with Bill Oberst Jr.

Some of you may have stayed up a bit after seeing this…
Hey folks, as you know I’ve had several ideas I’ve been kicking around for new features at Slashers, Starlets and Sleaze and I’d like to thank Bill Oberst Jr. for agreeing to be the inaugural interview for Madmen & Monsters!  I’m sure many of you have seen him in Jason Zada’s Daytime Emmy winning interactive short TAKE THIS LOLLIPOP where he played the Facebook Stalker who obsessively stalked me via my profile but for some reason was intent on my tortoise judging from the picture in his truck.  But if you’ve paid any attention at all since about 2007 you’ll notice he’s popping up all over the place.  He’s been in everything from historical documentaries, film adaptations of prairie romances, many shorts  and even an HBO series that I’ve heard a couple of people really like…for the dialogue…

My first encounter with Mr. Oberst’s work was the History Channel documentary SHERMAN’S MARCH.  He played the titular role of the battle hardened and scarred general from Ohio with an understated intensity that would appear in later roles.  In LOLLIPOP understatement is not the issue as he delivers a paranoia inducing performance which is aided by all manner of devices to heighten the sense of impending dread.  I let that damn timer run down wondering if he was going to be knocking on my door when it hit zero.  I even received a heads up from the man himself when I mentioned I was going to hit up the RedBox to check out ABRAHAM LINCOLN VS. ZOMBIES.  Though I am of the mind that the zombie genre is beating a dead horse I enjoyed his performance as the scythe wielding 16th president.  

Mack: First off I want to thank you for helping me kick this aspect of the blog with an interview.  

Bill: Thank you Mack. Sorry I stalked your tortoise! You wouldn’t believe the profile pictures people created just to see the TAKE THIS LOLLIPOP stalker to tape it to his dashboard. My personal favorite was Elmo the Muppet (https://p.twimg.com/Acya47RCMAA41Kq.png:large) One woman tweeted “Lollipop man seems to be obsessed with my obese cat.” Guys took pictures of their butts just to see me stroke the screen looking at them. There were other variations that would make a nun blush. Of the 100 million people around the world who viewed the application, I’d say about 25% made it into a joke. The other 75% were genuinely terrified…and pretty damned open about saying it online (see http://justthatblog.tumblr.com/post/12136043813/take-this-lollipop) It has been a fun ride. But I actually love your tortoise. Really!


Mack: After storming on the scene and leaving Georgia in ashes you’ve barely taken a break.  That was in 2007 which is still a fairly recent entry into motion pictures.  Prior to that your stage career thrust you into the roles of several historic figures as you toured the South.  Many of your shows have been well received one man acts–as was your performance in TAKE THIS LOLLIPOP–was it difficult for you to make the change to working with an ensemble?

Bill: You know Mack that is a good question and I’ve never been asked it. Yes! I like working alone. I like being alone. I’m a hermit. So being a part of a team on a film set has been a tough change. Then again, being on set is my only social life so I secretly look forward to it….for the first few days of a shoot. After that when they yell cut I’m all like “OK I’ll be in this dark corner when you need me again.” 


Bill didn’t start out scaring folks. 
Mack:  You were the Hal Holbrook equivalent for Lewis Grizzard playing the part of the modern southern humorist for over 10 years in a one man show.  Being trusted with an iconic figure’s legacy seems no mean task; yet it is one you have embraced again and again for people long dead and in the case of Grizzard, those of recent memory.  How do you prepare yourself for a role in which you play a historical or well loved figure?

Bill: You gotta love them. I mean literally, you have to love them. You can do all the research and learn all the facts and copy all the mannerisms and speech patterns, but if you can’t find something to love about the guy you are playing, you’ll fail. Empathy. Not sympathy, but empathy. Grizzard was easy to love, because his life was so messy and he was so open about it all. He was a brilliant mess. That’s the best kind of human being there is. Maybe the only kind.


Mack:  On a side note, how were you received as a Southern man portraying the man who cut a swath from Atlanta to the sea?

Bill:I got hate mail. I know, I know, the Civil War was eons ago and who would think that in the age of American Idol anyone would care but it happened. I was raised in the South so I understand, but it surprised me that residual feelings about old Uncle Billy were still lingering. I heard from quite a few Southern guys (and a few women) who thought I played Sherman too sympathetically. Some were good-natured. A few made me glad they didn’t have my address. 


Mack: Having such a pedigree as a stage character actor what brought you to embrace genre roles?  It goes without saying that you’ve been extremely well received and your future projects are eagerly anticipated.  


Bill: I am lucky to be working at all  in a field with a 98% unemployment rate. Film acting is a brutal business, much tougher to make a living in than stage acting. I made a nice living on the east coast stage for 14 years and when my first ever TV role in SHERMAN’S MARCH hit big, I thought I’d just transfer that success to Los Angeles. But LA has a way of knocking the wind out of you and it put me on my ass right quick. The first year was lean. I guess I have survived (and am beginning to thrive) because I have embraced the way the camera likes to see me. She is a fickle lover, the camera, you have to give her what she wants from you or she’ll turn away and look elsewhere. But if you give her all of you just the way she likes it from you, she’ll treat you right. If that sounds like an overly sexual metaphor, I mean for it to be. You really do have to make love to the camera on the camera’s terms. The lens decides what you are. The camera likes it rough from me, so I oblige. That means genre roles. I have a face made for horror and I am very OK with that. It just took me a year of starving in LA before I realized I was scary. Then I started working . 


Mack: I’m a fan of the body-horror sub genre by directors such as Stuart Gordon and David Cronenberg so I’m fascinated by your characterization of your craft as “The Anatomy of Fear”.  What is “The Anatomy of Fear” and where does it originate and why do you think body horror has such a primal and visceral effect on viewers?

Bill: So Mack, you ask deep questions, man! I get wound up about this subject so let me try to be brief. The human body is scary. I mean, we are trapped for life in these fragile shells of bone and muscle and blood, with all kinds of involuntary processes going on all the time without our knowledge or permission: flowing and pumping and churning and digesting and thinking and grinding….what do we really know or understand about our bodies? We paint our bodies and perfume them and try to shape them but ultimately we have no control over the fact that they will fail and we will die along with them. So I think there is a secret delight in facing our mortality through body horror; weird or odd or mutated bodies. I created a section on my website called THE ANATOMY OF FEAR and a little video to go with it (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXFACfKYfMM)  because I noticed that I would frequently be told I had a creepy body by film directors. And they would mean this as a compliment;  they meant that my body somehow reminded people of death, which fits perfectly with my bony scarred face. I had one director tell me “You are the whole creepy package.” So I came up with the term THE ANATOMY OF FEAR to play on that theme but also to seriously ask, why do we see certain bodies as creepy or weird? I have a lean ribcage with a little deformity (http://www.flickr.com/photos/billoberstjr/6075187242/ ) and that is part of it, I’m sure, but when you get told “You know Bill, this scene would be a lot creepier if you were naked,” you start to wonder just what it is about you that screams “death” to the camera. And you learn to play it up. Because the camera is king. I like the work of Cronenberg and Stuart Gordon a lot, too. I would have felt right at home in their body-horror movies. 


Mack:  You make no secret of your faith and how you embrace the duality of human nature.  We are creatures of light and darkness, spirit and flesh.  What purpose or effect do you think results from holding up a darkened mirror showing the tenebrous urges that can reside in the human heart?  

Bill: Tenebrous” is such a perfect word for that question. You make me think of Mark Twain’s great observation “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning” (and I only know that quote because I played him onstage for a decade.)  But I digress. Yes! We are made up of conflicting stuff. We are constantly and consistently at war within. If we think we are not, we deceive ourselves. Lincoln was speaking truth when he referred to “the better angels of our nature.” There are better angels. But we had better believe that there are worse angels, too! I believe that there is something cathartic and something honest about holding up that dark mirror. When it became apparent to me that my film career, if I was going to have one at all, would be spent in dark roles, I resolved that I would play that darkness fully and completely or not at all. I have stuck to that resolve, with a couple of sad exceptions where I was afraid to commit to the role. I’m not afraid anymore. I will play any variety of human weakness and play it for real, so that anyone who watches will see and sense the demons that lurk in all of us. Even the stories of Jesus had an antagonist. Vincent Price once said “When I’m on camera I feel almost as if all of the darkness of all of humanity is perching on my shoulder. It feels good.” An odd thing to say, but I can relate. 


Mack: Finally, what does the future have in store for Bill Oberst Jr.?

Bill: Oh my gosh Mack, I hate these actors who are always talking about what they have coming out next. If anybody is interested, I’d invite them to go to IMDb and have a look. I’m at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2454994/  I work a lot and that’s on purpose; as my father once said “Boy, if you  keep throwing shit at the wall, some of it is bound to stick.” He’s a wise man. 


Mack: Thanks again Bill for your time.  Not only are you one of the hardest working folks in Hollywood you are without a doubt one of the most generous to his fans.  I look forward to seeing your upcoming projects and wish you the best of luck in all of your endeavors!

Bill: Back at you Mack and I gotta tell you how much I love the vibe of SSS Horror Reviews. B Movies are made to be watched with a certain spirit of fun and you have that. I’d be honored to have you look at any of my work. All my movies may not be good, but I’ll sure try to be good in them.

Photos courtesy of Bill Oberst Jr.

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