We checked in with the Queens native who plays Jigsaw in all those Saw movies to see how he's spending Halloween.
Tue Oct 21 2008
Currently creeping the bejesus out of people on the Saw V poster, Tobin Bell has a famous face (even if it is now a mask for some other dude) and an instantly recognizable voice, like sandpaper on gravel owned by Rod Stewart. Christopher Moltisanti on The Sopranos was a fan; so are hordes of horrorheads who have helped the franchise gross more than a half billion dollars worldwide. The Queens-born, theater-trained Bell, 66, chats about NYC, movies that scare him and how Jigsaw is spending Halloween this year.
Do you ever find yourself back in Queens? Were you a Mets fan?
Actually, we moved to Boston when I was five, so I became an American Leaguer.
Of course, I was rooting for the Mets this year, and I hated seeing what happened to them.
Torturous, wasn't it? Heh.
It was great drama.
Do you miss New York? You spent years here when your career was starting, in stuff like Tootsie and Goodfellas.
Immensely. The time you spend in Southern California is largely spent inside a car, so it's not the same thing. In New York, you can get on the subway and watch all of these slight variations in human behavior. But don't let them know you're observing them. If you stare, you're taking your life in your hands.
Now we're talking. Why do you think you've become the go-to guy for spooky?
I'm not sure that's necessarily the case. Although I've played antagonists in a lot of films, I don't really approach my Saw character, John Kramer, from a spooky point of view.
Do you view him as someone who's been wronged?
Not more than you or I, really. He's had his share of sufferings, sure. But I don't think he looks at himself in the mirror and sees himself as any spookier than Dick Cheney does. Or Donald Trump.
The Donald is pretty scary, hairwise. Would it bother you if you were always known as the Saw guy?
If you can get people to recognize you—as the fat, funny guy or the handsome leading man, whatever—you're ahead of the game. The people in this business who pay the bills, they're not terribly imaginative. They want to see you do the same thing over and over. So you have to figure out how to change. But I consider Saw a blessing. For whatever reason, it's what the universe had in store for me.
Do you even like horror movies?
When they're good, yes. I like them when they're smart.
Oh, that's an awesome one.
Yeah. I don't know if you'd call it horror, but at the time, it was a very scary film. The writing was superb. I'll give you another one where the actor thoroughly made the difference: The Dead Zone, with Christopher Walken.
That's one of my favorite movies, period.
Take Walken out of the equation, and you've basically got a guy who looks at things and sets them on fire with his eyes. How far can you go with that? Not far. That's a B-movie concept. But Walken clued you in so completely into his pain and suffering that it made the whole thing work.
Walken is another Queens boy. Meanwhile, do you get recognized a lot? Are screaming girls chasing you?
I was once on a field trip as a chaperone with my twelve-year-old son, and we're sitting in the cafeteria and a bunch of girls come over, and I think to myself, Ugh, here we go. And one of them says, "You're the guy...from Charmed!" [Laughs] I was like, "Yes! I am the guy from Charmed. "
Cute. But seriously, do you ever use the Jigsaw voice when you're not getting your way? Like on your kids? Or in line at the supermarket?
Not really. I coach teens in flag football. They goof around a lot in practice, and it's hard to control them. Sometimes, I'll get them in a huddle and one of them will say, "Tobin, do the Saw voice." So I'll pull them all in and say [Affecting Jigsaw's voice], "Stop goofing around. Live or die, make your choice."
And then they run away. What do you make of the global phenomenon?
I can't explain it. I think it's more visceral than anything else. I can only tell you what people tell me. Once I was on the cage of a baseball field and a bunch of kids rolled up on skateboards: "You're the Guy, aren't you?" And I say, "Yeah, I guess I am." So I ask them why they love the Saw movies. And a little kid down at the end of the row says, "They teach you stuff."
Okay, that really scares me.
Wait, let me go on. "So what do they teach you?" I ask. And he says, "About appreciating what you have. And about the way the medical community treats people." Seriously. I believe those anxieties are being heard.
Maybe they view Jigsaw as Daddy in same ways.
They're not stupid; they know what the guy does. But they're talking to each other about it. I'm not suggesting that Saw is some sort of moral lesson, but it is what it is.
A lot of critics were finding significance in the Saw movies as unintentional reflections of Abu Ghraib. Any value to that connection?
I honestly have not made that connection myself. Do I read the newspaper? Of course. But human beings have a long history of torturing each other, and stupid people will be stupid people whether they're Chinese or Australian or American. It doesn't matter.
What is torture to you?
There's an element of torture for the child that grows up in an abusive family. Childhood is when torture begins.
Way to kill the mood. So how does Tobin Bell spend Halloween?
I have some close friends out here, and every Halloween we go to their house and have dinner. Then, the boys want to go out, so we put on our hoodies and walk with the kids and enjoy the fun.
Ugh, you're killing us. That's so not scary.
Then we come back home and have dessert.
Saw V opens Oct 24.