SANTA MONICA, California — His weathered face and vapid stare have come to symbolize death for an entire generation. His measured, nihilistic whisper is enough to make grown men wet their pants.
For the third straight Halloween, millions of people will look to Tobin Bell and the “Saw” franchise to scare the bejesus out of them, and perhaps fans will wonder the very same thing that dozens of onscreen victims have just before their time ran out: Who is this guy?
The Jigsaw Killer, believe it or not, is a Little League baseball coach. His story of triumph comes after two struggling decades in everything from a Ted Kaczynski biopic to a comedic role on a sitcom about nothing. He has a wife, a kid, rarely puts real people in head-crushing steel traps and says he doesn’t use his blood-curdling voice to order pizza. And before he plays another game with you this weekend, Tobin Bell wants to make sure that you know exactly who it is you’re up against.
MTV: The timeline of these “Saw” movies is hard to grasp. How much time has gone down between Jigsaw’s cancer diagnosis and the events of “Saw III”?
Tobin Bell: The writers intentionally leave that ambiguous. I’ve heard them say three months, I’ve heard them say six months, I’ve heard other actors say, “Well, it must be at least a year because of this.” … But from the time of “Saw” to the time of “Saw III,” there is at least a couple of years, in my belief.
MTV: As Jigsaw gets closer to the big torture chamber in the sky, he’s getting more desperate. We also learn a lot about what went on behind the scenes of the previous killings. Besides the tortures, what secrets are you eager to have “Saw” fans finally discover this weekend?
Bell: You find out about Jigsaw’s relationship with Amanda [Shawnee Smith]. You begin to sense how important she is to him — not just as a gofer, but as someone who swims in his sea. … There has been a lot of talk about me lying on the floor for three weeks for “Saw” in a pool of blood, and now you’ll see the moment just before I lay down on the floor. We filmed that and included it in “Saw III,” and I think it is a revealing moment about how he laid there for three hours. What made that possible? How did he time out the amount of time it would take? Physically, how does one keep one’s body still over that period of time while still keeping one’s consciousness awake and alive and aware?
MTV: It gives you that “Star Wars: Episode I” flashback feeling, but without any of the Jar-Jar side effects.
Bell: There’s some nice stuff in “Saw III” that I really appreciate. I remember liking “The Lone Ranger” as a kid, and the episode I liked the most was the one where you saw how he became the Lone Ranger, where they ride into the canyon and get ambushed and he is found by the Indian. I think people like that kind of stuff.
MTV: Nowadays, you scare a lot of people every Halloween, but did young Tobin Bell spend the holiday running around in a Lone Ranger mask?
Bell: Cowboys were important, yeah. I remember that, I remember how much I wanted the cowboy six-shooters. I remember when I worked on [1995's] “The Quick and the Dead” and the first few Westerns that I did, I had the opportunity to put on holsters and work with the armorist. Learning how to wear guns and 1840 revolvers — that was a lot of fun for me. I was raised on Westerns. They were part of what going into the movies was.
MTV: After 20 years of Westerns and dramas and comedies, were you surprised that the roulette wheel of fame landed on horror?
Bell: No, because it is a hard business. I am not surprised. There is a bigger plan than anything I can try to control, or some agent can try and control. … I take every minute thing that happens, whatever it is, as an opportunity. Sometimes the things that you want — the things you hope for — are crap.
MTV: That sounds like something Jigsaw might say to someone just before he tells them that there’s a key buried behind their eyeball.
Bell: Well, there’s some of me in him, and some of him in me.
MTV: Jigsaw “helps” people die because he sees them as wasting the precious commodity of life. Has there ever been a time when you’ve wasted life?
Bell: I think that I no doubt have. That is a part of being alive. … One tends to appreciate things the older one gets, and you don’t minimize simple things. Watching a child first learn to crawl on a carpet somehow has more significance to you as you get a little older. Perhaps it is that you have suffered more.
MTV: Most “Saw” fans would be shocked to know that Jigsaw appeared in an episode of “Seinfeld” as a record store owner who Kramer tries to sell an elderly person’s albums to. What was it like to be on that show?
Bell: It is one of the greatest and most truly rewarding experiences that I’ve had, and the one of which I feel most proud. … The beauty of “Seinfeld” was that the actors were producers, so they were close to the production team. Larry David was there too, and we would be going down a certain road and any of them could say, “You know something? That’s not funny, but you know what would be funny? It would be funny if we did this,” and it would change just like that. … This was an enormously creative environment, as you can see when you watch the show.
MTV: But now people know you — and your famous voice — as anything but funny. Is it hard for you to call people up and just do something normal, like order a pizza?
Bell: [He laughs.] No, because that’s not my voice. That man is not well, and it is something that subconsciously has come out of me to, you know, represent him. I’m a Little League baseball coach. I don’t talk like that.
MTV: How does the team react when they realize that a serial killer has been putting them through base-running drills?
Bell: [He laughs.] Well, they have much more experience with me catching pop flies than they do [from the movies]. Most of them haven’t seen it, some of them have. I’m always surprised when parents let their 12-year-olds see this kind of stuff, but you know, it’s up to parents to make that decision. I ask them, “Were you afraid?” and they say, “Nah.”
MTV: Tell us something about Jigsaw that even the most die-hard fan doesn’t know.
Bell: In my point of view, Jigsaw … was not as sick as he looked — in fact, he was in remission — in “Saw II.” You saw his hair had grown back, that all those machines he was attached to were there as a smokescreen to make Detective Matthews [Donnie Wahlberg] think he had a dying person on his hands, and so the police officers and SWAT team members would not remove him, because he was attached to IV machines and life-support systems.
MTV: So he was just using the cancer to mask the fact that he was actually getting strong again?
Bell: Yeah. All of those medicines in those cases, and all of those IV bottles and all those heart-rate machines, they captured the eye when you came in there. Otherwise, [Wahlberg] would’ve had me in the paddy wagon on the way to the station in five minutes, and I would have had no move. There would’ve been no game — and Jigsaw wanted to play a game with this f—er. All of that stuff was all Halloween, that’s my view.
MTV: This will most likely be your third straight Halloween spent celebrating the #1 movie in America. So what does the scariest man in the world do on the most terrifying day of the year?
Bell: [He laughs.] What we actually do is, for the last three years in a row, we’ll go to a friend’s house close to home and have some dinner. Sometimes we’ll go for a walk on the beach. Last year, my son dressed up as Billy the puppet [from "Saw"], and he had the mask and he wore a black tuxedo and a little red bow tie and sneakers and everyone knew who he was.
MTV: You must have been proud to have him looking up to Dad like that.
Bell: [He grins.] Yeah. He liked that people knew [who his father is], and there weren’t any other Billys, because I’m the only one who had the mask! This year, there will probably be more, because I’ve been giving masks out to some kids.
MTV: Is Halloween your favorite holiday?
Bell: Halloween is fun, but it wasn’t always my favorite holiday. I think Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.
Bell: [He laughs.] Football! I love football.
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