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INT: Tobin Bell

10.28.2005by: Thomas Leupp

Horror fans can rejoice this week as the badass Jigsaw returns for another go-round in SAW II. Tobin Bell’s performance as the misanthropic puppet master in the original SAW helped establish Jigsaw as an iconic horror villain on par with Freddy and Jason. It remains to be seen whether SAW will be an enduring horror franchise like A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET or FRIDAY THE 13TH, but it’s already clear that the film has helped invigorate the genre.

Check out what Tobin had to say about Saw II.

Tobin "Jigsaw" Bell

What was the challenge of this role for you?

It’s the same challenge as any other role that you play.  I mean, all of you know what you’ve done since you woke up this morning; it’s filed away inside you.  You know the relationship with your mother, you know your relationship with your significant other, you know how much trouble you had parking the car, whether the shower was hot or not – it’s all just filed away.  Well, an actor has to say things.  If you don’t know what you’re saying, you can get away with that once or twice, but you need to know what he means by everything that he says.  When I say you can get away with it once or twice, suggesting something, but you’ll go quite mad if you try to make a career out of not knowing what someone means when they say they’re exhausted or they say they resent something or they say they’re in love or whatever they are.  What are they specifics?  Who are they?  What are they?  What do they want?  When do they want it?  How are they going to get it?  It’s that simple?

Do you relate at all to your character?

Yeah.  Jigsaw is a person who, like all of us, has some complaints about life and about the way human beings are to one another.  But he, for whatever reason, he’s a study in…we need to caution ourselves to not let our own concerns, our own perspectives affect our behavior in a way…whatever our perception of the world is and all that, you can take that to the nth degree or you can have some sort of sense of yourself, some sort of moral fiber that prevents you from crossing a particular line.  That doesn’t mean you’re not disturbed by what people do to one another or whether people appreciate their lives or people who throw their blessings away.  You notice those things and you see those things, but the way that you behave related to your resentment of that, most people have a sensibility of where the line is and they pull back from that line and realize that it’s not all about them and their perspective, that there’s a whole world out there.

When did you first realize that there was such a huge fan base for your character?

I don’t really think about that.  I suppose somebody said something to me like what you just said, like perhaps a producer or an agent...

You’ve never gone online to see what people say?

No.  I try not to dwell on that sort of thing.  There are some things that I have some control over and some things that I don’t.  And one of the things that I feel best about regarding this film is that when I was working on the film, I was having a particular kind of experience working with Donnie Wahlberg and that experience that we were having made itself into the film; it did not disappear.  And that’s the only thing I can do anything about.  The rest of it is up to somebody else.  Whether the film is a success or not a success – obviously I would like it to be.  People ask me questions like how does it feel to be an icon, like Freddy or this or that?  And that’s all kind of the business end of show business.  I don’t think of things in those terms; I think of things more specifically in terms of what I can get my hands around and how I can make a different.  Some of these things are fascinating; they’re certainly an interesting part of the business if you’re gonna be a producer or…

But does it scare you when fans come up and ask you about this role?

No.  It’s no scarier than…fans in general are really nice.  They are just great people.  They’re enthusiastic, they’re happy, they’re warm.  So I am grateful for their interest and affection.  Beyond that….I’m not one of these guys who brings a character home.  It’s not to say that that might not be appropriate in some circumstances.  I studied with Lee Strasberg and Ellen Burstyn at The Actor’s Studio in New York.  There are different ways of approaching roles.  Some people get involved in the emotional aspects of characters.  Have I given a great deal of thought to…of course Jigsaw doesn’t do any of this.  My subjects choose their own fate.  If they play the game by the rules, than they’ll survive.

How much input did you have into John’s backstory?

John’s backstory is entirely…there’s not a lot of discussion about that.  It’s like when I played the Nordic in The Firm.  You’ve got a long-haired blonde guy – the only non-lawyer in the film – who’s a tail.  He stands out like a sore thumb.  How does an actor justify what that guy is doing in Memphis, Tennessee?  It took me 130-something pages of hand-written notes to come up with why he’s there and how he got there.  Did that make it into the film?  Maybe the actor doesn’t look insane because he knows.

Did you do that for this film?

Oh, of course.  A good place to start is with the text, because you need to know what he means.  You come up with one question and that gives you an answer to that question, but it often actually gives you two answers.  It’s either this or it’s this.  And you choose one and that’ll pose two more questions.  It’s like a multiplying factor.  You start out with one question and it becomes two.  That becomes four and that becomes eight.  And so there’s never an end to the number of questions.  The questions just continue until the camera starts to roll.  And then you hope you answered enough of them so that you know where you’re coming from.

Would you want to do a Saw 3?

I want to do anything that’s well-written, that reveals something of the human condition, that provides growth for the material as well as the actors. Great opportunity.

Where would you like to see it go?

Well, I’d like to get the hell out of the layer. (laughs) Even briefly.

A road trip for Jigsaw?

A road trip. Jigsaw’s Road Trip – there you go. Me and Ken Kesey. 

Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at




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