SANTA MONICA, California — We’re often quick to label some people as “actors” and others as “guys in movies.” Sir Laurence Olivier was an “actor”; Ben Stiller is a “guy in a movie.” This decision is typically based on whether a person appears in awards-worthy dramas or in some combination of blockbuster fluff, silly comedies and bloody horror flicks.
Recently, I received a phone call. On the other end of the line was the unmistakable, spine-tingling voice of the Jigsaw Killer from the “Saw” movies. “I’ll pick you up at 11:30, outside your office,” the voice said. “I’ll be in the gray Volvo.”
When I went outside, a car pulled up, a door swung open and I found myself sitting next to a man I’ve seen torture, taunt and slaughter dozens of human beings. If this were a “Saw” film and I got into a car with Tobin Bell , I’d wake up a few hours later in a dank dungeon with a steel trap affixed to my face; instead, we were going out for grilled-cheese sandwiches.
“I write all kinds of stream-of-consciousness things that help me,” Bell explained, spilling out a series of tattered notebooks onto the biggest table he could find at a nearby Santa Monica cafe. “This usually starts to happen right after I’ve read the script and goes on through filming, up until the final shot. I have a shelf full of these books at home, for every role I’ve ever done, each with the name of the film written on the spine. I ask myself five questions all the time: ‘Who am I?’ ‘Where am I?’ ‘What do I want?’ ‘When do I want it?’ ‘And how am I going to get it?’ ”
These “Jigsaw Journals” are Bell’s attempt to extract those answers from the mind of Jonathan Kramer, the recently deceased overlord of what has become the most financially successful horror franchise of all time.(Take a look at Tobin Bell’s journal entries and photos from all four “Saw” films.)
Dressed in a T-shirt, sport coat, slacks and sneakers, the affable Bell took big bites of his sandwich between pages, revealing his personal notes for the very first time. Once again, Jigsaw was determined to make filmgoers question everything we think we know.
“It’s not Tolstoy, but it helped the performance,” Bell said of the books, filled with scribblings, sketches and never-released details about his character’s tragic upbringing. “If nothing else, it helped me feel confident that I wasn’t off-base in terms of the facts. That’s important to me.”
Inside the frayed cover of the “Saw II” journal, a twirling structure on page one plays like the Ten Commandments visualized as the nine circles of hell. (Check out the journal’s first page here.) The actor frequently refers back to this page that he scribbled years ago, with its darkly inked “Liars, Hypocrites” circled in the middle, surrounded by the unfortunate life choices that inevitably bring a victim into Jigsaw’s predatory sights.
“Those without the will to live don’t deserve to live,” he reads. “The very things you do will turn back on you.”
“Everyone has their own way of working,” explained the veteran character actor, who has spent time onscreen alongside Clint Eastwood, Russell Crowe, Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman and even Chuck Norris. “I got into [keeping journals] because I found a long time ago that if I’m thinking about things, they tend to be left vague. I remember Ellen Burstyn saying to me once, at the Actor’s Studio on [New York's] 44th Street, ‘How much did you work on this material that we just saw?’
“She was sitting in Lee’s chair, because Lee was dead,” he continued, recalling his days at Lee Strasberg’s legendary breeding ground for icons like Paul Newman, Al Pacino and James Dean. “I said to her, ‘Well, I worked on it a lot, but then I got confused between the “Who am I?” and “Where am I?” Sometimes they seem to run into each other, so I stopped worrying about it.’ She responded, ‘Well, that’s just laziness.’ ”
Decades later, whether he’s working on “Mississippi Burning,” a “Saw” movie or “Boogeyman 2,” the words of the six-time Oscar nominee still ring in Bell’s ears. “I learned that I could not do enough work; it’s always incomplete,” he sighed. “When you ask a question, the answer will raise four more questions, and those four will become eight. Where am I? I’m at my house in Santa Monica. But what does your house look like? How did you get your house? Was the guy who sold you the house tall? Fat? Nice? Mean?”
When you fork over your 10 bucks to see “Saw IV,” which hits theaters Friday, you’ll expect to see some mangled flesh and buckets of blood. But in a coffeehouse just like this one, on any given day, a professional actor like Bell scribbles away in notebooks, obsessed with the sort of minutiae that transform clichéd serial-killer characters into complex human beings. Without such groundwork, there’s simply no soul behind the story.
“I had 15 years of study. I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse [School of the Theatre in New York], and Sandy Meisner had a different way of working,” Bell said, describing a second phase of his early career, working with the teacher who also had Robert Duvall, Jon Voight and Gregory Peck as his students. “[Meisner] was a contact guy. Moment to moment, playing off your partner. You do all these notebooks, all this work, and then you put it aside. Then, on set, it’s just the moment.”
It is these moments — Jigsaw’s shocking rise at the end of the first film, his banter with Detective Matthews in the first sequel, his off-kilter relationship with Amanda in “Saw III” — that set Bell’s franchise apart from many other horror movies. You may not know who Jigsaw bought his house from — or whether that man was skinny or fat — but Tobin Bell knows, simply because he wants that intelligence behind his eyes in every frame.
“Everybody has a different way of doing it,” said Bell, whose preparation for “Saw IV” will likely once again please as many “Saw” fanatics as it will displease critics. “This is just my way.”
As Bell ate his lunch and continued to flip passionately through his journals, I couldn’t help but wonder why so many dismiss someone from “Saw” as a “guy in a movie” while an A-lister uglying himself up for Oscar bait is celebrated as an “actor.” Take a look at the Jigsaw Journals for yourself, and see if you don’t also end up developing a deeper appreciation for the game.
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