Exclusive Interview – Stephen Tobolowsky

     January 25, 2009

Written by Matt Goldberg

In my book, Stephen Tobolowsky is legend. He’s one of the most recognizable and reliable character actors working today and you can tell who’s a devoted film fan and who isn’t simply by asking if someone knows his name.

When I told friend that I would be interviewing Tobolowsky, the general response was, “Get him to say ‘passport’.” He’s not just in memorable movies but he is memorable in them. And to prepare for the interview, I checked out “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party” which is him just telling stories for ninety minutes, and it’s absolutely terrific. Some people are just born storytellers and he’s one of them. It was a lot of fun talking with him and hearing him recall stories of working on Groundhog’s Day (check out Dre’s review of the new Blu-Ray edition of the film here) and how he’s become recognizable the world over for his tremendous body of work.

So I heard that you were horseback riding and were injured and broke your neck in…let me see if this correct…five places?

Stephen Tobolowsky: This is a true story. I teach a class in improvisation and I always start off and say I’m going to tell three stories and you tell me which two are true and which one is not. The first story: I’m changing light bulbs in my living room and I fell. Second: I was filming “Beethoven”, and this part is true, they have three dogs—one to bark, one to jump, and the wrong dog jumped on me and I broke my neck. The last one is I was riding a horse underneath an active volcano in Iceland and a wind picked me and the horse up off the ground and blew us off the road. And I have people guess. And they always guess either “changing lightbulbs” or “jumped on by Beethoven” but it was the horse in Iceland—five place. I was in a neck brace for three months-plus. It was an amazing point in my life. Made me appreciate every day.

How is your convalescence?

Tobolowsky: [laughs] My convalescence is great! Because right before I broke my neck, I had surgery! I had to be silent for two months because I punctured one of my vocal cords; I had a growth on one of my vocal chords so I thought I was going to die, but I didn’t. But one of the things I had to do was be absolutely silent, so I set up these projects that required absolutely no speaking. I was going to learn three piano pieces. I was going to read certain books. I had it all laid out for me about how I was going to live this silent, monastic life. And one of the things I did was at the end of my two months was to go fishing in Alaska, but the problem with that is that when you catch a fish, you scream out, “Yes!” And the other thing I thought would be silent would be to go horseback riding…and that’s where I broke my neck. So then I spent three-and-a-half months in a neck-brace so it was one heck of a year. I learned a lot in that period of time. Are you located in LA?

No, I’m actually based in Atlanta.

Tobolowsky: Well in LA, people would pay money to some guru-type guy to do what I did, so I feel very lucky.

I was actually watching “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party” last night and you have all these great stories and a couple of them are from your work on movies. I was wondering if you had any good behind-the-scenes stories from working on “Groundhog’s Day”.

Tobolowsky: I actually do! Now some of these things, I don’t know if they’re stories or just oddities but I’ll bring one up. The first day I’m on the set and there is David Nichols. David Nichols had been hired as the production designer on “Groundhog’s Day”. David Nichols, in high school, was the man who directed me in my first play in Oakland, Texas. He directed me when I was fifteen in a production of Moliere’s “The Miser”. And David Nichols is the guy who taught me a lot about comedy technique and here, for some reason, he was the production designer of “Groundhog’s Day”. It was enormously coincidental.

[laughs] This is again, another “event”. One of the extras in “Groundhog’s Day”, she asked if she could have her photo taken with me. I said, “Sure.” And then she asked, “Could you have the photo taken with me over at my house?” And I was kind of going, “Well, I’m not sure about that.” And she says, “Well what if I were to add that if we had the photo taken with you in thumb-cuffs?” And I went, “No! Not getting the photo of Ned in thumb-cuffs.” And this was before the Internet was enormously popular but I can imagine photos floating around with me, Ned, naked and being whipped by this woman in thumb-cuffs.

On “Groundhog’s Day” when we shot the movie, it was incredibly cold. The whole thing, I remember, was like an army experiment. We had to keep these hot-packs and cold-packs in our pockets to keep from freezing and then we had to warm up our mouths before our takes because when it’s cold your lips start to chap and it’s difficult to talk. But that’s one reason why Bill was such a grumpy, grumpy Gus when we shot him stepping into that puddle of water, you know, “Watch out for that first step, it’s a doozy,”? But he had to wear, when he stepped into the water, they wrapped his foot in saran-wrap, then they put one of those frog-man sleeves on his foot, like that neoprene stuff, then three socks, then his shoe, and after each take, it was like torture, putting his feet in that water. He was not enormously happy that day, I recall.

I think the big, unusual story about “Groundhog’s Day” is that Harold Ramis wasn’t sure what kind of day it was. When you do a story when a day is repeated, then, duh, the day has to be the same day. You can’t have one scene shot in sunlight and another where it’s cloudy and another where it’s raining. It also has to be the same exterior over that time and he wasn’t sure what the character of that day would be. A lot of people don’t know that we shot that street scene many different times with many different camera techniques, but we shot in every kind of weather condition. We shot in the sun, we shot it in the rain, we shot it in the snow, and we shot it cloudy. And after Ramis had shot most of the movie, he decided that the repeated day would be a cloudy one. And when the snow fell, time would start again. That’s why the evening scenes, with Bill and Andie McDowell, they’re lying in the snow, suddenly it start snowing and time starts again. For people watching the movie, we were very mindful of putting together a lot of cloudy scenes but there was one day we could not get the cloudy day on and that was when Bill kidnaps the groundhog and drives off, it is actually a sunny day in that scene.

So your performance in “Groundhog Day” is definitely in the “Stephen Tobolowsky Highlight Reel” but I was wondering, of all your performances, which do people seem to recognize you the most and which gets them the most excited?

Tobolowsky: It’s kind of a genre-question. For a decade I’ve gotten “Ned Ryerson”. I’ve gotten “Ned Ryerson” all over the world. I’ve got “Ned Ryerson” in Paris, France. I’ve got “Ned Ryerson” in Iceland. [laughs] I’ve got “Ned Ryerson” everywhere! But there’s a certain segment of the population that goes, “Oh my God, it’s Bob Bishop! Bob, can I have your autograph.” “Garfield” was big with the kids. Every five-year-old in the world saw that movie and consequently their parents did so there was a huge period of time where kids were running up to me going, “It’s Happy Chapman! It’s Happy Chapman!” For a brief period of time, people recognized me from “Memento” and they wanted to know what it was about. But I think the longest, most enduring recognition is Ned.

Do people every try to come up to you and joke with you and try to get you to say “passport” or “Remember Sammy Jankis?”

Tobolowsky: [laughs] Yes! That is one of the lines they try to get me to say. I just went over to England to do an autograph signing for “Heroes”. What everyone wanted me to do was to please say “Bing!” Another one they ask me is yours, can I say “passport”? I’m trying to think if they ask me any others, but it’s usually “Bing”, “Watch out for that first step it’s a doozy”, or “passport”.

You’ve been in so many different movies and TV shows, I was curious—what performances are you most proud of?

Tobolowsky: Well, certainly “Groundhog’s” and that’s one of the ones I’m most proud of and the reason for that is that it was a really difficult time for me. I was working on another movie at the time in Paris, California. It had the same line-producers so they could violate the SAG rules in terms of travel. So I was working on this film, they drove me to the airport, I flew to Chicago and had four hours of sleep then they drove me two hours out to the set, and I got in at 2 in the morning and they said, “You’re first up in a scene with Bill Murray.” And I was scared to death. And I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning so I had three-and-a-half hours of sleep and I looked at myself in the mirror and said, “You have to be ‘on’ now.” So I’m very proud that doing my first big scene with Bill, and it was good, and afterwards, I slept for a week.

I was proud of “Memento”. “Memento” was very difficult to do and the big reason, which was a shock to me because you’d think it would be easy, but when you have amnesia, you can’t remember what you’re doing, but as an actor, you always have to remember what you’re doing for when they do close-ups. So I had to completely not remember what I was doing and at the same time, remember what I was doing. It was an insanely difficult thing to do. But I’m very proud of that movie. I think it’s just about perfect.

I was very proud of “Mississippi Burning” and in terms of “Heroes”, I am still perplexed. I have no idea who I was on that show after doing an entire season! The producers refused to let me know who I was—if I was a good guy or a bad guy. Everybody always insists I was a terrible man, like a real villain and I always go “Why? What did I do? I’m not challenging you—I’m really asking!” Because the only thing that anyone ever really knew about me was what H.R.G. said about me, but he was my enemy! So you gotta consider the source. So I really enjoyed “Heroes” but I had no idea what I was doing.

Are there any roles you’d like to play but haven’t had a chance to for one reason or another?

Tobolowsky: Boy, now that falls into the realm of the theatre. I have theatre-training, I love doing theatre, I’ve done Broadway. I would love to be able to have the time and the money, that’s a biggie, to go back to Broadway to do a nice role in either Shaw or Chekov or Ibsen or Shakespeare which you don’t really get a chance to do in the real world. You do those plays in college and you do them on Broadway. In the spectrum in the middle, there’s really no place to do the classics. I did Uncle Vanya before in kind of an equity-waiver theatre here and just loved it. But that would be an answer to that question.

Oh, I have another answer to something I’m proud of! “Birthday Party”, “Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party”. That was remarkable in that you have Robert Brinkman, who directed it, and you have me, somehow, with no rehearsal, no nothing, no preparation, we put out a movie that’s not only good but has been all over the world and has been our ticket around the world! Like we went to the Buenos Aires Film Festival; we opened the Bologna Film Festival in Italy. The guys from Bologna called us up and said “We loved you guys so much, we loved the movie so much, that we want you back this year!” We’ve gone to London, we did sold-out shows in London. It’s been all over the world. For Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, let’s shoot a movie in my living room with no script! It’s remarkable so I’m very proud of “Birthday Party”.

You seem to take great joy in being a storyteller and I was wondering where that passion for storytelling comes from.

Tobolowsky: I don’t know. I think I was lucky in that I had, first of all, a good memory. Second of all, I didn’t mind telling stories to people growing up, whether it was in grade school or in storytelling contests. I didn’t mind public speaking. But also, I think in my life, there’s been a perfect storm of being in the right place at the right time. To be a part of or to observe certain things and then to report them. I think earlier in my life, I would have tried to fancy stories up or to doll them up and since I’ve been in my mid-40s, now I’m in my 50s, that I’ve recognized the truth is the most remarkable thing of all. And I think that really propels me in terms of storytelling—just really tell the truth. Don’t elaborate and it’s always more amazing than the stuff you make up. Stuff like the broken neck on the horse! Who can imagine that?

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