The Method Behind the Monster: Q&A with actor Bill Oberst Jr
Bill Oberst Jr., the actor-come-independent horror icon behind characters such as Abraham Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies and The Facebook Stalker in Emmy award-winning Take This Lollipop, catches up with The Horror Hothouse’s Emma Knock to talk about the inspiration behind his roles, his admiration for Lon Chaney Sr. and his penchant for playing a sexual menace.
Hi Bill, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Firstly, can you give us a little background on yourself and how you became interested in acting?
Well first, Emma and Luke, I must thank you for the invitation to chat with The Horror Hothouse! My step-mum is from London and I have family in Hampton Hill (shout-out to the Duke Of Clarence on High Street.) I’m quite interested in coming over to do a film on the Pendle Witches case, which horror photographer Amanda Norman in Manchester turned me onto and which I think would a great high quality terror film. I’ve checked out both of your “Horror No-Nos” on the site and while I have not violated Emma’s pet peeve of scampering about with ghostly children, I must admit to having been party to my share of Luke’s big no-no; throat slitting; most recently in the film Scary Or Die. Sorry about that! [It’s ok, we forgive you, Luke will just have to turn a blind eye momentarily.]
To answer your question of how I became interested in acting – it was purely in self-defense. I learned early on that if you entertain people, they will not hit you.
What key ingredients does a film have to have in order to attract you to a role – can you share with us your selection process?
Yes. This has actually changed for me since director Jason Zada’s viral Facebook ap Take This Lollipop, in which I play The Facebook Stalker, won an Emmy Award last year. When the Academy Of Television Arts & Sciences gave the 2012 Daytime Emmy for “New Approaches In Daytime Entertainment” to Take This Lollipop (the competition included The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Today Show) it gave the careers of everyone associated with the project a boost, including mine. Before Take This Lollipop I took almost every job. I’ve been a working actor for 18 years (13 on the stage and 5 in film) and when you make your living in a business with a 98% unemployment rate you aren’t inclined to turn down work. But thanks to Lollipop granting me a bit of notoriety on international news outlets like CNN, and with the help of my marvellous manager Matt Chassin, I am able now to be a little more selective.
Now I look for conflicted bastards with a propensity for violent behavior and a dash of sexual menace. That type of character is the gold standard for an actor like me. Those are the characters people say they enjoy seeing me play. And I certainly enjoy playing them.
You have a back catalogue so long that it would make even a well-seasoned actor like Anthony Hopkins seem like a rookie! What do you think has been the secret of your success?
The grace of God, a supportive family and an amazing manager. People in the film industry have been very kind to me. I suppose being sort of an underdog has helped, looking the way I do. A very kind casting director here named Billy DaMota told me once that “Hollywood is a meritocracy;” that if you are tenacious, do good work and treat others the way you would like to be treated, you’ll be noticed after a while. He was right. That’s not the glamorous version of how to succeed in Hollywood, but it has worked for me.
We’ve read that you lived in isolation during the filming of your role as cult leader Simon Leach in Children of Sorrow. Do you normally prepare for your roles in such a way?
Children Of Sorrow (Watch the trailer on YouTube) was the first film I did that for. The results were good and it has since become my regular practice. There is a peace and a freedom to going off the grid, shutting out the world and doing one’s work. I seek not to be connected to anything or anyone when I am working – except the character. That’s the only connection I want and the only one I need. Actors are inherently selfish, you know, but perhaps the ability to concentrate exclusively on the work at hand is an upside to that character flaw.
We’ve recently seen The Beast and interviewed writer, director and producer Peter Dukes and he couldn’t have been more complimentary about you! What first attracted you to the role of the father in that short film?
Oh, I love that script. Peter Dukes has a sense of fantasy that can make us feel like children when we watch his films. I think he is quite brilliant. The question facing my character Michel in Peter’s The Beast (read our review here) was one that any parent will instantly identify with: if your child did something bad, how far would you go to protect them from the consequences? I loved that universal appeal. I love werewolves with all my heart. And I love classic horror films, to which this little piece was an homage. So it was a role I salivated over. The fact that it was set in the UK was just icing on the wolfen cake for me.
You’ve become well-known as somewhat of an indie horror icon. What is it that attracts you to the independent horror genre?
I love horror because fear is the stuff we are made of. We fear each other. We fear the unknown. Mostly, we fear death. It is the great elephant in the room of modern life. We will go to any lengths to avoid the fact that, as the old haiku goes, “Death is a partner that dances with everyone, time and place unknown.” Horror allows us to face that shrouded reaper and to laugh into his cowl, at least temporarily. I love big studio horror movies when they are fresh ideas, but we are lucky to live in an era when independent horror filmmakers can arise from anywhere.
Whilst pretty much all of your work has been in front of the camera, you also have a couple of producing credits. Would you like to do more production work or try your hand at any other aspect of filmmaking?
There is a great temptation to look at other people’s jobs on a film set and to think “I could do that!” because a pro always makes what he or she does look effortless. That said, I am fascinated by both the production and directorial aspects of the business. Without producers nothing gets made. Without directors, nothing gets shot. In fact, of all the people you will find on a film set, the actors are the most interchangeable and expendable! Hmm, maybe I am on the wrong side of the camera…
Out of all of your roles, which have been the films that you have been most proud of and why?
The film performances that I have felt most satisfied with tend to be the ones that were the most challenging: Father Simon in Jourdan McClure’s Children Of Sorrow, because Jourdan allowed me the terrifying freedom of essentially playing myself; Amish father Samuel Lapp in a non-horror film for The Hallmark Channel entitled The Shunning, because director Michael Landon Jr. insisted upon a certain emotional pitch for the piece which was out of my normal comfort zone; the American Civil War General W.T. Sherman in The History Channel docudrama Sherman’s March, because it was my first film role and I was inwardly terrified while outwardly playing a fearless warrior; Abraham Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln Vs. Zombies because I admire Lincoln and did not want him to be a joke; and The Facebook Stalker in Take This Lollipop, because director Jason Zada wanted me to go dark and dark and darker while looking at a blank computer screen and having nothing but my imagination to create the reactions he wanted. Harder is generally better.
Was Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies as much fun to film as it looks like it would have been?
Yes! I could not wait to get to work every single morning of that shoot. Richard Schenkman, our writer and director, created a script that was imaginative, historically interesting and fun. The Asylum made it possible for that script to be produced as a film. I felt lucky and very happy to be there.
You’ve received a lot of praise for Take This Lollipop, an interactive film in which you play a Facebook stalker that is watched through an application on Facebook so that it pulls up the viewer’s home address and find it on Google Maps – that is a TERRIFYING and truly genius idea. What was it like to be involved in something so innovative?
Jason Zada, who created and directed Take This Lollipop (and is also the creator of the popular Christmas web ap Elf Yourself) personally cast the role, which was listed as The Collector, not the Facebook Stalker – the fact that it was to be a Facebook application was not revealed until after we had shot it. So I had no idea what I was supposed to be looking at on the blank screen in front of me. I only had Jason Zada whispering in my ear “Go deeper. Go darker” and the beautifully dark cinematography of Mihai Malaimare, Jr. I take no credit for that performance. Jason and Mihai created the visual framework in Los Angeles. Then Canadian web developer Jason Nickel and Jason Zada created the ap using Facebook‘s guidelines for new applications. Take This Lollipop didn’t violate any of the guidelines for Facebook aps; it just pulled and integrated information from user’s profiles that other Facebook aps have access to but don’t need or use, like our status updates and pictures. It has had well over 100 million views and still going strong. I will admit to you that the ap creeped me out when I first let The Facebook Stalker peruse my own profile.
I’ve heard from thousands of users. I posted a bunch of these reactions here.
From the looks of your IMDb you must be working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – what projects do you have in the pipeline currently that you are really excited about?
I do have that German work ethic thing going on. It’s my curse. And my blessing. May I encourage your readers to hit my IMDb page and check out what is coming up. I have about a dozen films in pre-production or development and if I start going on about why I am excited about each one I’ll never shut up. I will mention Circus Of Dread as a very unique script and a dream project that director Mark Savage is putting together. The logline is “Two brothers – one a career criminal and one a priest – find bloody salvation in a mysterious underground carnival.” I’m cast as the brother who is the criminal. Check out the poster from the director’s personal blog. Mark Savage is an Australian filmmaker who is known for controversial and explicit cinema. Circus Of Dread will be his masterpiece. It’s a tender, brutal, jaw-dropping story incorporating a subject both Mark and I have a deep fascination with, the history of the display of human oddities.
If you could work with anyone in the industry who would it be and why?
A man who has been in his grave for 80 years – Lon Chaney Sr. As much as anyone, Chaney created the concept of human monsters in the movies. I (and every other actor who stumbles along in his broad footsteps) owe Chaney a debt that cannot be paid. I’m reading Stephen Jacob’s biography of Boris Karloff, More Than A Monster, and he tells the story of Chaney at the height of his stardom giving a ride to the struggling, hitch-hiking Karloff in Hollywood. Karloff asks for advice. Chaney says “The secret to success in movies lies in being different than anyone else.” That’s the gospel. In my dreams, I get to play Lon Chaney one day. Those are happy dreams.
Finally…what’s your favourite scary movie?
The Exorcist. Because I believe in such things.