Stephen Tobolowsky is probably a little too good at acting. Despite his above average height, his recognizable features and his slight Texas drawl (he's a Dallas native), the 61-year-old is probably better known for the names of the characters he's played.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Tobolowsky
He was the annoying "Needle Nose" Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day.
Tobolowsky was also the troubled amnesiac Sammy Jankis in Memento, whom even fellow amnesiac Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) pitied.
He can also be great at villains. Tobolowsky scared the hell out of me and my college buddies in Mississippi Burning as KKK leader Clayton Townley.
This guy could frighten Jason Voorhees.
He's also been on hundreds of TV shows from Justified to The Mindy Project to Glee.
Inside his current hometown of Los Angeles, however, Tobolowsky is known for his ability to deliver autobiographical stories that often sound better than the scripts he's had to recite. The 2005 documentary Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party features some of his greatest hits, and you can catch some of his podcasts at The Tobolowsky Files at SlashFilm.com.
Some of the more intriguing tales from his life are featured in his new book The Dangerous Animals Club. Part of the joy or digging through it is that many of Tobolowsky's best tales don't involve theater or Hollywood. Much of his onscreen charm can probably be attributed to the fact that he's had an eventful life and that he can be engaging company. Answering my questions by e-mail, he describes how he's managed to keep his head above water on camera and in print.
How did you decide which of the things that have happened to you were worth setting down in print?
Some stories are just naturals-getting held hostage at gunpoint, trying to outwit a professor who is aggressively trying to throw you out of school, catching tarantulas in Texas, falling in love for the first time. Others present themselves more subtly. Those are the fun ones. They are the ones that come to you at three in the morning. You have to listen for them.
Have you ever tried screenwriting? Your first story, "The Dangerous Animals Club," is remarkably cinematic and would probably make a decent film.
I was one of the screenwriters of True Stories with David Byrne and Beth Henley. I have written and sold screenplays in Los Angeles that have never been made. That is a popular pastime out here. I agree that "The Dangerous Animals Club" and several of the stories are cinematic. I am happy right now for the movies to exist in the readers' heads.
How do you actually write? Do you do it by hand or do you type?
I've tried them all: long hand, old-fashioned typewriter, and computer. I have found it's not the method but the rhythm. Each mode has a certain flow. Regardless of how you put it down, rewrites are always tough.
What's it like to depend only on your words? Much of the fun of listening to your podcasts is hearing your tone of voice and your timing, and those are missing from the page.
Live performances of a story are the most forgiving. Podcasts live in the middle somewhere. Written stories are the greatest challenge. The word is the word. That is the beauty of a book. The reader can get ahead of the storyteller much faster than the listener. What could pass as charm in a live performance quickly becomes tedious on the page.
When you recount working on Mississippi Burning, you describe how you chose not to play the character as overtly scary and that he saw himself as Abraham Lincoln. You still scared the crap out of me and all my buddies who saw the movie in theater. Why do you think that is?
I think what scares us the most is encountering a different value system. Science fiction films can do this easily by having the aliens eat people. Mississippi Burning is really a monster movie in disguise. It depicts two ideologies battling for control of the future. Scary.
You have a lot of great stories about events on a set, but The Dangerous Animals Club doesn't feel like a "tell all" book. How and why did you develop that approach?
I hate gossip. It has three things going against it. Gossip has a short shelf life. Tell-all stories may be accurate to a point, but they are never truthful. When you gossip your world-view becomes smaller. I wanted the stories to be bigger, more universal.
Even though your tales are first hand, why did you choose to avoid a conventional memoir format and go for stories instead?
We have a strange relationship to time. We think of it as a straight line of past, present, and future-but we don't experience it that way. Our recollections zip back and forth across decades to make sense of important moments in our lives. I wanted the book to work like human memory. By writing individual stories of true events, the reader can enjoy each story on its own, plus get an additional kick out of putting the pieces together to see a bigger narrative take shape.
Your account of seeing how AIDS devastated Los Angeles in the late 70s and early 80s was really moving. Was it tricky to get the wording right for those passages?
Always. The key to that story was fear. I was so afraid at that point in my life: coming to Los Angeles, trying to be an actor, trying to find a job--and then, suddenly, death was everywhere. Coming to grips with fear is always a powerful theme. Meeting the young man in the barbershop was the revelation.
One thing that is fun about the book is that you are forthright in letting readers know which of your appearances aren't for the ages. Were some of the lesser roles easier to write about than others and if so, how?
When you are a young actor in college you see acting as a noble calling. You study Shakespeare and Shaw. Chekhov. When you arrive in Los Angeles, you see what being a professional actor really is: auditioning for the role of "unconscious man," doing a commercial in Japanese when you can't speak the language, acting in a special effects movie before the effects have been added. Nobility is gone. I try to write about the lesser roles that illuminate this enormous gulf between the dream and reality. It always makes me smile.
It's a little distressing to hear that you broke your neck around the time you were working on this book. How well have you been able to heal?
Breaking my neck was essential in writing this book. After my injury I was unable to do anything. I was motivated by boredom and the realization that in that instant, when I fell, I could have never seen my boys again. I wanted to write stories so they would know who their dad was. What he was like when he was little, when he failed, when he fell in love. I have healed beautifully. The only residual effects are that I can feel the weather coming.
Now that you have a couple of gigs, which would you say was harder to land: acting jobs or getting a book published?