We’re introducing a new monthly interview series here at Collider, one I hope you’ll look forward to reading as much as I look forward to sharing it with you. Welcome to Character Actors Corner, where character actors of all stripes will finally step into the spotlight, share their stories, and receive the credit they so richly deserve. The goal, as with our Up-and-Comer of the Month column, is to introduce you to an actor or actress whom you don’t already know. Or maybe you do know them from some movie or TV show but you can’t quite place them. Or you know their work but not their name, or really anything about them. Aren’t you curious? We seem to know everything about our favorite A-listers these days thanks to social media, but I’m more interested in their lesser-known co-stars, whose work is often twice as good and receives half as much attention? It’s the underdogs of this industry who fascinate me, and I’ve found that the bigger the celebrity, the less candid they are. You can find media trained superstars speaking in soundbites all over the internet. With Character Actors Corner, we hope to go beyond a surface-level discussion and have a deeper conversation with actors about how they got their start, how they’ve survived in such a tough business, and what it really means to embark on an acting career and live the life of a performer. And with all that in mind, I couldn’t have asked for a better subject to kickstart this column with. His name is Jeremy Bobb, and you’ve probably seen him before, even if you don’t totally recognize him.
Bobb cut his teeth on the stages of New York, performing in front of live audiences like so many great character actors. His theater work led to an appearance on a soap opera and two episodes of Law & Order where he played unnamed characters known simply by their occupations — “Plain-Clothes Cop” and “Aftermath Uni.” However, it wasn’t long before Bobb popped up in a couple episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit… only this time, his characters had names. First and last, in fact. One small recurring role on House of Cards later and Bobb landed a sure-to-be breakout role as a regular on Steven Soderbergh‘s Cinemax series The Knick. The only problem? Not many people watched The Knick, and I regret to say that includes myself. My loss, right? And yet, despite his prominent role on a Soderbergh show, Bobb was still a bit of a journeyman in the eyes of the industry. He did an episode of Billions; an episode of The Good Wife; an episode of Mr. Robot; a couple episodes of Elementary. He was working steadily, but was destined for bigger things than a slew of TV guest spots.
For an audience to care about you as an actor, they have to care about the characters you play, and it’s hard to create that kind of bond when you’re fluttering in and out of shows all the time. Perhaps that’s why it took me three more years to notice Jeremy Bobb, who first came to my attention in Manhunt: Unabomber, which put him squarely on my Great Actor radar. The Unabomber series may not have been showered with awards like its true crime counterpart The Assassination of Gianni Versace, but it was every bit as effective and disturbing. Paul Bettany was great as Ted Kaczynski and Sam Worthington was the best he’s ever been as FBI profiler Jim Fitzgerald, but Bobb was the guy I found myself looking up on IMDb afterwards, wondering just where the hell he came from. As FBI agent Stan Cole, his talent leapt off the screen, and once I saw it, I couldn’t un-see it. Because he was following me. It seemed like every other show I got into, there was Jeremy Bobb, the chameleon.
See, after Manhunt: Unabomber, Bobb went on to co-star in Scott Frank‘s Netflix series Godless, HBO’s ambitious, multi-platform series Mosaic, which reunited him with Soderbergh, and Ben Stiller‘s acclaimed Showtime miniseries Escape at Dannemora. Those are some high-quality TV credits if you ask me. The truth is that I’ve wanted to interview Bobb ever since I first arrived at Collider, but the timing worked out perfectly a few weeks ago because he currently stars in the hit Netflix series Russian Doll, which I’ve determined to be a hit based on the stellar reviews of the show (96% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and the considerable buzz it has created on social media. It’s the latest Netflix series to feel like it has penetrated the culture, and while it’s 100% Natasha Lyonne‘s show and moment, Bobb is an essential ingredient to its success as Mike Kershaw, the college professor sleeping with Beatrice (Dascha Polanco) and who, with a mischievous smile, invites Lyonne’s Nadia to kindly ‘sit on his face’ in the pilot.
Bobb has practically conquered prestige TV over the last several years, and he just started shooting the Jason Bateman-produced HBO series The Outsider, based on the book by Stephen King — but he’s also about to get more reps on the big screen, too. He recently shared a tense scene with Naomi Watts in The Wolf Hour, a drama that recently premiered at Sundance, and he’s totally unrecognizable as an elderly songwriter opposite Andrew Garfield in David Robert Mitchell‘s kooky thriller Under the Silver Lake, which we discuss below. He also plays Elisabeth Moss‘ husband in New Line’s upcoming crime drama The Kitchen, co-starring Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish. It’s a movie about three badass women who take over their gangster husbands’ business when they get locked up, but seeing as Bobb reminds me of Philip Seymour Hoffman as an actor, I hope they leave him some screen time to shine. Then again, that’s what the best character actors do. They make the most of their moment, no matter how big or small that moment may be.
Speaking of moments, I made the most of mine here. Bobb and I were only slated to chat for 20 minutes but he ended up staying on the phone twice as long, and you guys are the ones who benefit, as our extended interview revealed some illuminating truths about making a living as an actor. Get to know Jeremy below, and be sure to follow him on Twitter at @JeremyBobb. And remember to keep an eye out for more Character Actors Corner entries in the months ahead. For now though, enjoy!
Collider: What sparked your passion for acting and made you want to get into this crazy business?
Jeremy Bobb: When I was in high school I played baseball, and I just wasn’t ever super-great at baseball. I was alright, but I wasn’t in the starting lineup, y’know? And a buddy of mine was a little more adventurous than I was and was like, ‘hey, I’m going to audition for Romeo and Juliet. You wanna come?’ so I was like, ‘yeah, alright.’ So we auditioned for Romeo and Juliet and I played the apothecary, and I just had a lot of fun playing a little part in this play. That was sophomore year, and so I really got into it after that, so then junior and senior year I did a bunch of plays and musicals in high school, and I think a big part of that was our theater director and teacher there. We had a great facility there and he was also pretty ambitious about doing a bunch of stuff, stuff that people don’t always do in high schools. I remember doing a John Guare play in my high school theater program, which doesn’t really happen very often. I had just never liked anything so much as I liked doing that, and when it came time to start thinking about college and things, I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ My career interests were always kind of all over the place.
So I auditioned for some colleges in Ohio, where I grew up, and got into a small college outside of Columbus, and went to college studying theater. They had a pretty decent outreach program by the end of your four years, and I got a little agent out of a showcase that we did in New York, and you know, went from there. I moved here to New York when I was 22 and just started kicking it around, trying to get hired to do anything. I did a whole bunch of free theater in the basements of New York City and eventually started getting some paid work. I got my first Broadway play maybe about four years after I moved to the city, and since then, I did another, probably, six years of just mostly doing theater, and then started getting some more TV and film work. I don’t know, it’s not really a very ‘lightning-struck’ kind of story.
But that’s what I’m looking for. A real story, about what it’s really like for an actor getting their start in this business. It’s funny, your theater work doesn’t show up on IMDb, but when I was researching you, I wasn’t surprised to learn that you’ve done a lot of theater, because you remind me of Philip Seymour Hoffman in many respects.
Bobb: Thanks. That’s a really big compliment. I do think my theater teacher from high school was probably my biggest influence in getting into it. He definitely was. My parents weren’t involved in the business at all and I had no other way into doing it. I was lucky though. I suppose my parents were a big part of it because they lived in an area that had enough tax income to fund an arts program at the high school. That was such a big part of becoming who I am. If you do very much thinking about that at all, you start to see what a stroke of luck it is, sometimes, just to be born into the family you’re born into, or things you could never control or choose that have such a huge effect. That was definitely a big part of the privilege that I enjoy, and a big part of being the person I am is that I just happened to have parents who lived in that area and we could go to a nice school that had a really great theater program. I’m not sure how else I would’ve gotten into it.
Did you have to work any odd jobs in your twenties while you were trying to make a name for yourself doing these low-paying theater productions?
Bobb: Yeah. The list isn’t super-long, I sort of stuck with the things I did, because they’d let me out for auditions and things. I never did the restaurant thing, but I did some office temping. I worked as a maintenance guy at a church in Midtown, just totally by coincidence, not through being a congregant or anything. I worked the front desk at a gym in Queens. That was my weekend job. And then the biggest one, which was also the one I did the longest, is that I worked for an archiving company. At the time, Mayor Giuliani had pretty recently stepped down after finishing his term, and they had all his mayoral records that had to be filed and archived. Usually that was done within the city by the city archives employees, but because he was the first guy to have really had an enormous amount of email records, the volume of records was huge, so they hired a private company to assist with that, and this was the company that I stumbled into working for. I worked there off and on for two or three years maybe, and I’m still friends with a couple of the people I worked with there.
At the time, I looked at that like they were subsidizing my career by allowing me to work there and allowing me, if I had something during the day, to duck out for it, to go audition for such-and-such at a regional theater, which was most of the appointments I was getting at that time. They would let me do it, and I’ll always remember when I got my understudy job in a Broadway play. One of the people I was covering got fired and I had to replace this guy at the drop of a hat. I think I had two weeks, at the end of the run of the play, to play this part. At the time, the little agent I’d gotten from my showcase had dropped me, and I had been going to open calls and stuff on my own, which is how I got the understudy job. I got it from an open call. And I remember the woman who ran the archives company, I’d gotten her tickets, and she came the same night that my parents came to see the show. My parents flew in from Ohio to the show and I remember introducing her that way. I was like, ‘This is Linda and she is a big part of the reason I can be here and I’m able to do this. She’s essentially subsidizing my ability to stay in this city and do this work,’ and I’ll always be grateful for those jobs. Nobody thinks about that stuff. You have to stay here. You have to be able to stay here.
So what do you consider your big break that allowed you to stop going to those day jobs and focus on acting full-time?
Bobb: It was that Broadway play, Translations. I was an understudy and I covered four people in the play. I don’t think they ever expected me to go on, but there was an issue in the cast and somebody had to leave, so I took over this part. What money I did have I spent buying tickets for as many agents as I could get to come, ’cause like I said, I’d recently been dropped by my other agent. I got a new agent that a friend of mine knew, who I’d contacted and gotten to come, and they picked me up, and to my great fortune, I haven’t had to work outside of the business since then. That was mid-2007.
And then it’s not too long before you find yourself working with Martin Scorsese on The Wolf of Wall Street, right?
Bobb: I challenge you to find me in that movie. You could not visually find me in that movie. I worked one day. I did not want to go, because my family was going on vacation and my girlfriend at the time and I were going to drive down and meet them in North Carolina, and this thing came up. I think it was like, three lines or something, and I was like, ‘what difference does this make? Why do I need to do this?’ And my agent was like, ‘well, this is about a casting director who’s trying to throw you a bone, and who likes you, and maybe this part isn’t what thrills you, but down the road, something will come up probably that you will want to do, and she’ll be at the helm.’ And I think she has cast me two or three other times, so my manager was right. She was really good to me and has been really good to me — Ellen Lewis.
She ended up casting Godless, and she cast The Drop, this movie I had a small part in, but it paid out. It happened to come at a time when maybe things were a little thinner and a paycheck for two weeks on a movie was a nice boost. She’s really been great to me since then, so my manager was right. This is about a relationship with casting. So I got to the set that day and of course they were dragging ass really slow, and you’d see Scorsese coming in and out of his video village tent. I didn’t ever meet him or anything, but they had some additional police officers that were there, and they wound up putting me and this other guy in a different car, so my lines were given to somebody else. I think you can see the back of my head clearing up some stuff off the sidewalk, but it was a day of work and then a night of driving immediately afterwards.
Are there any actors you admire, or whose careers you’d like to emulate?
Bobb: Pretty early on, I remember having my eye on Philip Seymour Hoffman, certainly. That guy, I really thought was doing something special. My brother and I always really loved his stuff. I always loved the Coens, especially by the time I was in college. When you see Philip Seymour Hoffman show up in The Big Lebowski, that’s a great example of doing as much as you can do with a supporting character without distracting from the story. I felt like that guy really understand how to add to the story without making it about him, and it was just so perfectly executed. But that whole crew of guys in there were so great — John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and Jeff Bridges.
I always loved Ed Harris a lot. I remember when I was really little, oddly enough, begging my mom to let me watch Cocktail, because I’d seen Tom Cruise in the trailer on TV throwing those bottles around. She finally did let me watch it, but of course it was with her sitting next to the TV, blocking the screen when he and Elisabeth Shue would do naked things. My uncle was a Navy jet pilot, so we loved watching Top Gun. That was awesome. I actually met Anthony Edwards for the first time at a cast dinner. He and Mare Winningham are an item, which I did not know, but Mare is in this show [HBO’s The Outsider] that I’m doing now and he showed up to dinner and I was like, ‘holy shit, man, that’s Goose!’ My brother would freak out to meet him because he’s so cool.
Who else? Chris Cooper’s a guy I’ve always admired. Especially after Adaptation. I was so impressed with him. He’s really great. And I’ve always loved John Malkovich. I played Pale in Burn This in college and I remember thinking, ‘oh, Malkovich did that. Wow, that’s awesome.’ He’s one of those people, him and Gary Sinise, who you look at when you start to learn about doing plays and theater. You get that Samuel French published play and you look who the original cast was and you see those names and you go ‘oh, wow! Who knew that fill in the blank did this?’ He was one of those for me for sure. Those were big moments to be able to go into the drama bookshop and see your name in the published script. That was a big milestone, you know?
What has been the biggest pinch-me moment of your career so far?
Bobb: There’s a couple. It’s tough to pick one, but the first huge one of those was probably after that Translations experience, when I was cast in a Broadway play the next season. And having an opening night on Broadway, with my parents in the house, you just don’t forget that. It was amazing. We played the Lyceum Theater, which might be one of the oldest houses still up. Man, what a cool thing that was! But quite a bit later, I definitely remember meeting Sam Mendes, who hired me to go on The Bridge Project’s tour of Richard III, with Kevin Spacey playing Richard III. Obviously, that was before all the what-have-you that’s going on. But meeting Sam Mendes and then having him actually hire me was like,’oh, wow, what a brilliant man he is!’ You could tell right away in the audition what a brilliant person he is, and to watch him run a rehearsal and watch him give a speech to the company when you’re opening at the Old Vic, to play London and all those old ghosts that sort of float around in that town. Those two are the theater moments that really blew the lid off for me. I mean, wow! What an amazing experience in these amazing cities of the world.
And then I would definitely say when my manager called and said I was getting the job for The Knick, that was a pretty big pinch-me moment. I had to go to a bar in Chelsea and meet Steven Soderbergh. By then I’d been around enough people who were famous or whatever that I wasn’t super thrown by that part of it, it was more about having that pinch-me moment of, ‘holy shit I can’t believe this. I’m going to have this part on this show!’ I’d auditioned for two other parts, and I think that part that was the first one I auditioned for, and it had been like, three months before, and then I auditioned for two other smaller parts that I didn’t get, so I figured I was just dead on the project, and then to get the part and go meet him and have this series of meetings before we started, it was just like, ‘this is definitely the coolest project I’ve been on’ at the time. Yeah, that was definitely a pinch-me moment.
Yeah, when I told my colleagues at Collider I was interviewing you, a lot of them were fans of The Knick.
Bobb: Yeah, that’s a special show. It’s funny because, in the business, I don’t go to very many sets on other projects where people don’t ask me about what it was like to work with him on that. But not a ton of people outside the business saw it. Some people are like, ‘hats off!’ but if you mention that to somebody who wasn’t in the business then they have no idea what you’re talking about.
What’s the key to longevity in this business?
Bobb: Well, certainly a big one I’ve been reminded of lately, and working with Steven, you’re reminded of it, too, but I’m working with Jason Bateman right now and he’s such a big believer in kindness, and being kind to one another. He doesn’t really have any tolerance for people being shitty, and that leadership really trickles down. Whether it’s good leadership or bad, it affects the whole company. We’re just getting started on this thing but you can see it already, that’s a big theme and it really matters that you can make people feel good when you work with them and you can treat people well. And that’s not always easy to do. Sometimes things go wrong and it’s hard, but as a priority that should always be there. I think that’s a big part of it, treating people well.
But I also think that a big part of it is that you can’t ever really let it stray too far from being about the work. You have to stay fascinated with doing the work, and if too much of your attention is turned away from that, you kind of lose the thread, and all that other stuff is the stuff you can’t control. You can’t really get your grip on that fully, not ever. It just always seems like whatever that brand of attention is, it kind of comes and goes. I suppose if you have representatives and publicists and things, you can do things with that, but it’s not really fully up to you. Certainly, we knew Russian Doll was going to be a cool show, but we didn’t know it would be the number one show everyone’s talking about. Everyone’s talking about that show, and I think it’s a really special show, it’s one of my favorite shows I’ve done, but why is that this a big popular thing, and then I Love Dick on Amazon, which I thought was a brilliant show, is now buried on Amazon and they’ll never make another one. You can’t really put your finger on that, so if you’re paying too much attention to those reactions and that stuff, you get kind of swallowed up and you lose the thread.
I think trying to hang on to what you really think matters about this and what you love about it from the beginning, I think that’s a really big part of it. If you love to do this work, that means every opportunity you get you’re trying to make use of it in a way that’s craft-related. I’m always trying something, I’m always wondering… I want to make this choice with that character and see if I buy that from myself, and when I watch this in six months, we’ll see if it worked. But I’m not going to try to strike the same nail head over and over again. If you’re fascinated with trying things, and stretching yourself out and trying to get better all the time, that’s what the work is. If you’re learning how to do it better all the time and it stays fascinating to you, that’s a huge part of sticking with this and making it last, between that and treating people well.
I was watching Under the Silver Lake and noticed that you played The Songwriter. How and why did David cast you in that part instead of an actual old man, and how long did it take to get you into that makeup?
I’m so glad you asked about that job. I probably will never have an acting challenge that unique ever again. I asked the same thing when I was sent the material to prepare and make the tape. I was like, ‘what the hell? What is this?’ I just didn’t understand and I didn’t want to do it, but my manager was like, ‘yeah, but this guy’s cool and this director’s really interesting’ and my agent said the same thing. She was like ‘you should really make the tape. Just shut up and make the tape.’ Sometimes they have to say that to me. I think it usually means, ‘it’s not gonna make sense to you no matter what we say, so just shut up and do it. Trust us, this is a good thing to do.’ So I made some tape, but I was kind of just sitting there thinking, ‘they should just try to get Jeff Bridges to do this. It’d be really cool if they aged him up a little bit and he played this guy.’ But whatever, I made the tape and then I forgot about it. And then they said, ‘they want you to make another tape.’ I was like, ‘uh, okay.’ I just assumed I’d never hear about it again.
I think I was flying out to New Mexico to do Godless but I hadn’t yet left, so I did a Skype interview with David Robert Mitchell, the director, and he was telling me about stuff and what he wanted the next tape to look like. And I was like, I don’t understand, ‘I was surprised you wanted me to read for this. I’d love to get this tape right for you so let’s figure this out.’ And basically, that guy is the best kind of weird. He’s weird in all the coolest ways. His mind and his writing is weird in the best way, the way you wish everybody was weird. He’s like, ‘I don’t really want him to feel like a person of an age who could exist very easily. I want him to feel ancient and almost timeless and I want him to feel scary and off-putting in a way that is almost otherworldly.’ And I was like, ‘oh… okay.’ So the feeling you get from a person who is my age, and this was a couple of years ago, so a person in their mid-30s, who appears that way, there’s a certain energy that those two things combine to create, that is what he was after. That’s what he wanted.
So I made another tape I think in my hotel room in Santa Fe with a castmate, and then the casting director called me and said, ‘we want you to make another tape.’ And I was like, ‘ok… I mean, I’ll make these tapes all day, but maybe I’m just not the guy for this.’ He called and said, ‘I think maybe I misdirected you a little bit.’ I don’t know, I can’t remember, but there was a call with the casting director at one point, who’s another guy who has been so great for me, and he said ‘make a few versions of it. If you have ideas for it, just do them.’ The guy who Bob Dylan stole “House of the Rising Sun” from, he’s in that documentary that Scorsese did, and I always remembered him and how he had this weird little way. So I did this impression of him that was lifted from that documentary, and I did a version of what I’d already done, and then I did one other one. And then I think David and I talked. So I made three tapes for it, two of them at the direction of casting and the director, and then I got the part.
So I had to go out there and work with a musician, and coordinate the piano playing and what the songs would be, and which songs he could afford to buy the rights to that I would play throughout the scene, and I had to learn the dialogue with David and Andrew Garfield for a couple days out there, and then I flew back to New Mexico to finish Godless, and then shot a couple days right before the holiday season out in L.A. I had to work with the prosthetics guys and get my face molded. The people at SNL molded my face and then sent it over to those guys and they built the makeup from the mold. So yeah, I had to do a whole makeup test day when I got back out there to shoot. This guy Jason Collins, he owns Autonomous FX, the makeup studio out there that did it, and that was like half the performance, it was so awesome. It was like having your head in a bucket of rubber.
So there would be a musician playing the music, but for sound you couldn’t have it in the room. So he had this mansion on a mountaintop out in Silver Lake, so he was on headphones and an electric piano in the next room, and then Andrew and I each had ear pieces so we could hear the music, and then I would coordinate my movements on the keyboard to him through the earpiece, but then my ears were kind of blocked with these fake prosthetic ears, so I could only hear Andrew at a compromised volume, because I had one ear that was only half-open, and the other ear was listening to the music in the other room. I could almost not hear myself. I kept saying to David, ‘hey, you’ve gotta check in with me, man, because I can’t hear myself entirely. If this vocal choice is working then great, but just keep telling me.’ I don’t usually ask for that but I really couldn’t hear what was happening, and then I had these contact lenses that literally clouded my eyes, so it was like this sensory deprivation thing while trying to keep all these production pieces straight and then play the scene with this other actor. Imagine that! What a thrill it was to try to make tjhat all work. I only recently saw it and I love the movie and I love the feel of the movie. I was pretty happy with the scene. I wasn’t sure how it would work. I thought it looked good. Thanks for bringing that up, because boy, what a wonderfully weird experience that was!
Do you get stopped in the street these days by people saying, ‘hey, aren’t you that guy from that show?’
Bobb: Very rarely. Every now and again it’ll happen, I sometimes wonder when people look at me for a while on the train, but I don’t know, that’s one of the thing I’m fascinated with, trying to zig zag as much as I can, I try not to play the same thing as often as I can. I like to think maybe they can’t quite place me or aren’t sure. It’s also possible that they have no fucking idea who I am and I just have shit on my face and they’re staring at me for that reason or something.
You recently shared a great scene with Naomi Watts in the indie movie The Wolf Hour, which just premiered at Sundance. Did you go to the festival, and if so, what was that experience like for you?
Bobb: Yeah, I did [go]. My girlfriend lives in Salt Lake City, so I was out there anyway. We just took a 20-minute drive up the mountain and went. I’d never been before, and, well, that town is too small for that event, so there’s that. I think if I was like, in my 20s, if it was 10 years ago, I think I would’ve probably been like, ‘oh my gosh, how do I get a pass and go to all these things?’ But I was more in the mind of, ‘I’m curious to see this movie, so let’s go see it and then let’s get the fuck out of here.’ You go to these premieres and they’re all pretty similar to each other. You do the little press thing and then you go watch the movie, and maybe you saw it before and maybe you didn’t. In this case I hadn’t, so I just enjoyed watching the movie, and it was the first one of those events my girlfriend’s gone with me for, so that was kind of cool just to be in that environment with her.
But I shot in Park City with Soderbergh on Mosaic, so I knew the area pretty well and it’s definitely cooler when it resembles an old mining town than it is when it has 30,000 hipsters from L.A. waiting in line to get free wine at some party they don’t belong at. There’s not that many people there who actually have a reason to be there, is the sense I got. You’re walking around and it looks like a big frat party kind of thing. I don’t know, I’m not trying to shit on the event. But it’s like, ‘why are you here? You’re definitely not in any of the movies.’ I just can’t tell what this is. I don’t know, that’s just not really my vibe, not my scene. I was very honored to be there, and it certainly has the great reputation it has for a reason, and there are a lot of great movies there. It’s a cool event, no question. Maybe I’m just not the biggest event guy there is.
If you had a Russian Doll-esque experience, which part of your life or day would you want to live over again?
Bobb: Well, I guess the time I would want to live over again is one thing, and the time I’d probably need to live over again would be different. I’m sure we all have days when where we’re not at our best that we probably should’ve been, and hopefully we were taught a lesson about how to have been less of a rude prick that particular day. That would be a good one, sort of a la Russian Doll or Groundhog Day. I think reliving a day over and over, it would definitely involve some day of work where I really felt like I enjoyed doing it, or some character that I wish I’d tried something different with. There are definitely days on any job where I think, I wish I’d had a few more cracks at that, so maybe it’d be good…