“Don’t criticize yourself, just do it and you’re already in the top 5%” – Stephen Tobolowsky on Acting
Even with over 300 credits to his name, character actor Stephen Tobolowsky isn’t afraid to admit that he still gets nervous before the cameras start to roll. “I think it was the last time I shot something,” he said. But, the prolific character actor has turned that nervousness into a positive. After receiving some advice from a friend, he now thinks of it as “just the body saying all of me is available for the task at hand.”
In the new film, Strange Nature, Tobolowsky plays the mayor of a town that’s experiencing strange deformities with frogs and other animals, which leads a single mother to start questioning why.
In this interview, he talks about his role in the film and getting a chance to put a spin on an authority figure, his advice to actors and coping with acting nerves. Tobolowsky, who’s a great storyteller, also talks about working on Deadwood and why you should never film in the woods.
I enjoyed the film. I thought it was fun!
Stephen Tobolowsky: That’s good. Thank you. You know, [Director James Ojala] worked on it for years. I was thinking about it, I think I did my scenes… I’m betting it had to have been four years ago? I guess I kind of came to Strange Nature in a typical LA way, at a dinner party. My neighbor is Jeff Passero, who was the casting director and he cast me in a few movies over the years.
That’s a good neighbor to have.
Stephen Tobolowsky: Yes! I just thought of a horrible story. The movie, Black Dog. Do you remember that film Black Dog? Patrick Swayze was in it. It was his last film.
Okay, yeah, yeah.
Stephen Tobolowsky: Jeff handed me that script over the back fence and said, “Will you read this and see if you want to do this movie?” And so I said, “Well, sure.” And my agency was William Morris at the time and Jeff said to me, “Well, we’ll cast you in the film and I think we can pay you about $25,000 a week. Is that okay?” And I said, “Well, sure Jeff, that’s great. Thanks.” That’s the way that deal went down.
I get a phone call two weeks later from my agent at William Morris. He said, “Steven, I’m working on something big for you. It’s the movie Black Dog. I’m going to try to keep you from going in on an audition on it. I’m going to see if I can get you an offer. So just hang tight.” And I’m going, “Huh?” And I’m telling you this story anyway. And then the next day, the agent at William Morris called me. “Steven, good news. I got you the offer for Black Dog, 15 grand a week.” And I’m going, “Uh-huh.” He says, “But I’m going to hammer them and see if I can get you a little more.” “Okay, great. Thank you. Thank you so much.” And he goes back and he goes, “Steven, great news. Got you $17.5.” And I’m thinking like, “You dog.”
And you know what they do? They, being the production end of things. They work on other deals. So, this is speculation. I’m speculating that he may have thought that he could get another one of his clients on the movie but they had to get more money for them from somewhere else, so it was going to come from my $25. But he didn’t know that Jeff gave me the script over the fence and made the deal with me. It’s a terrible business.
Anyway, so I was at the dinner party with Jeff and Jim was there, who wrote and directed Strange Nature and he was talking… and Jim’s specialty is he’s a special effects guy. And I already have a soft spot in my heart for people when they come from other specialties and they move into directing. Like a special effects guy I worked with, Dick Armstrong, who was the stunt coordinator for Indiana Jones, I worked with him. Ridley Scott, Alan Parker. They were visual artists before they went into directing. When you work with those kind of people, I find that they view working with actors as collaborators. As opposed to antagonists. And I’ve always found it to be a good experience. Like when a lighting guy moves up and becomes a director, good things happen. In a way, they direct as if they’re the audience.
So, I already had a soft spot in my heart for Jim and I read the script. And I said, “Well, I love science fiction and I see that this is going to live in the realm of what his specialty is.” But I found something personally intriguing about it in that when I… many years ago one of my favorite writers was Loren Eiseley and you probably have not heard of Loren Eiseley. He was a scientist-poet who wrote a lot of work in the 60s and 70s. Short stories and basically what he would do is he would take three scientific stories and tell the kind of science behind them and then at the end bring them together with a poetic idea and show how these three completely disparate scientific facts had a through line. And one of the stories he told was called, “Dance of the Frogs.” And this was a story where Loren Eiseley goes to England and he encounters a naturalist there in England who takes him through the bogs, the swamps of England. The English scientist was saying to Loren Eiseley, “Everybody thinks the end of the world was going to come from out there,” and he gestured to the heavens and he said, “It’s going to come from the frogs.” He said, “The frogs in where it is. All life is based on frogs. They are the canary in the coalmine. They’re the first ones to get any kind of deformity. You can tell which way life, they eat mosquitoes and flies that carry diseases. So they keep human diseases in check by eating mosquitoes and flies and they are the food source for birds and other animals above them. When you lose the frogs. When something goes wrong with the frogs, there’s going to be disaster. It’s going to be the end of the world.” And I loved this story.
When I was working on Radioland Murders, George Lucas, another big techie guy, who produced that film, he ended up directing one of my scenes in that film. He showed up and we had a lot of fun working on that film together. And George invited me to his birthday party up in Norther California and I brought this book. The Loren Eiseley book. And I gave it to him and I said, “Listen, you love doing these science fiction films, read this book because it’s got so many great science ideas in it tied into a poetic thought. I bet you could find a film in here.”
And when I read Strange Nature, I thought, “It’s Loren Eiseley!” It was out in the ether somewhere and I’m sure Jim didn’t read it, so I knew that there was an element in it of more science than fiction. And it gave me a little thrill.
And I think I was going The Goldbergs at the time? I’m shooting a few TV shows and I had a 2-week period that was free. And Jim says come out to Duluth and we’ll shoot your scenes out. My wife and I went up there, she played a part in the movie and I played the mayor. We shot it out in a couple of weeks. Are you a big fan of sci-fi?
Stephen Tobolowsky: Okay, so you know the mayor scene? The mayor scene is the scene they always have in the science fiction film that’s always very boring and it has to be boring. And it has to be boring because the protagonist of the film always goes to an authority figure and tells them what their problem is and the authority figure poo poos it. But they have to do it so the viewing audience won’t go, “Well, why didn’t they go to the mayor? It doesn’t make any sense. Why didn’t they go to the General?” It’s like Steve McQueen in The Blob. He goes to the chief of police, dammit. You have to go to the authority figure. And I wanted the challenge of doing the mayor scene. I wanted to do that scene in the movie and try to do something different with it and have fun with it.
And for me it was mission accomplished because I felt a lot of it was Lisa [Sheridan] in that she came in and she was so earnest talking about her problem. The first rehearsal we had at the real mayor’s office in Duluth, I was so moved how upset she was and how scared she way. I thought, “Well, there’s no way I can’t believe her. I have to believe her but, wait a minute. I’m the mayor. It’s the mayor scene. I’m not supposed to really buy in to this.” But there was room in the movie for me to become kind of on her side. So, I really enjoyed that and enjoyed the time in Duluth doing it.
I was going to tell you, the mayor roles or the authority figures in these kind of movies, they’re always the worst kind of people. They don’t listen to reason, they’re like, “I don’t care what you say.” And the other person is imploring them to believe them. But your mayor was a 180 of all those characters and that’s why I loved you so much.
Stephen Tobolowsky: And you know, I didn’t quite know what we were going to do with it. But I just thought, “Well, it’s gonna be a lie if I don’t believe this woman because she’s so earnest.” The thoughts running through my head as we’re rehearsing the scene for the first time. I go, “Really what’s happening here?” Because if you or me were to go to Mayor Garcetti’s office, we would be sitting in the hallway for many days. So, the fact that she got to see me in my office was a big deal. And so my first thought as we’re going through it, “Well, I think she’s probably someone who’s mentally ill. So maybe I can help her. Maybe I can get her to a hospital or something. She could be dangerous.” I’m thinking all these thoughts. But then I thought, “How much would it cost me in mayor currency to believe her? What does that costs? Is there a positive here?” I thought, “It isn’t going to cost me that much to believe her. Let me at least extend a little something toward her.” And I felt, like you said, those guys are always such a jerk. I thinking especially in Jaws.
Yeah, that’s exactly the person I was thinking. And at least you managed to stay away from all the deformed frogs.
Stephen Tobolowsky: Oh God. And also, I did another science fiction like this in Jamaica. And I played a mayor figure but not a mayor. I played a scientist who wasn’t going to be involved with this, in a tuxedo, going to a party. And the protagonist approached me in an elevator, Jennifer Gray, I think was in that one. And she approaches me in the elevator and going, “You have to listen. You have to help us.” Again, I’m an asshole. I don’t listen at all. But the shoot was in Jamaica and just like Strange Nature, the real, real work in that film, in Strange Nature, does not happen in the mayor’s office but happens in the woods and night shoots. And I look at that stuff and I go, ugh.” When we were doing the film in Jamaica everybody got these pieces of paper warning slather your legs with deet. They have ticks in the woods that are called cow ticks. You have to put this other stuff on your ankles and make sure you cover up at all times. I’m going like, “Oh my God.” We love to make our movies but we don’t love to make them in the wild.
I had a discussion with my son about sex, he’s now near 30, but I had the discussion with him when it was appropriate. And he was being a sassy, smart ass teenager. And he said he was going out with his friends and some girls in the woods and they were going to make out. I said, “Listen, sex is not made to happen in nature. It’s not meant to be done in hot tubs with water or swimming pools. Sex has to be done in a room, with a bed. Preferably with a lock on the door, with an air conditioner and a TV with the TV changer within arm’s reach. That is the way you’re supposed to do sex. Don’t be out in the woods. Don’t be doing it in nature at night. Don’t do it on the beach. Oh God, don’t do it on the beach.” And these are hard thought lessons that we learn. But it’s the same thing in shooting movies. You don’t want to shoot any scenes by the beach when you’re an actor. You don’t want to shoot any scenes in the woods and you don’t want to shoot any scenes at night in the woods, especially.
I remember we did, My Father the Hero. We were at the Ocean Club in the Bahamas with Gerard Depardieu and my wife was in that film too. And we were at a party and we were shooting all night at the beach in the Bahamas at the Ocean Club, which was oh, so sophisticated. But at night there’s swarms of termites. They fly and they get in your fake cocktails. They crawl all over the plate of what you’re supposed to be eating for dinner. One of them flew up my nose and I had to pull the termite out of my nostril. And I had to put my fingers in my ears and not be too obvious in the background. I mean it’s horrible. You don’t want to shoot outside in nature. You don’t want to do it. So, maybe I’ve become a softie. Maybe I enjoy being mayors, principals, doctors. I enjoy being in the office.
I was in a movie and we shot some scenes in this big, remote field for days and days. And it was during a heat wave and this poor guy passed out from heat exhaustion. The director came up to me and said, “Hey, say his line.” And that was the only line of mine that made it into the film. So, thank you heat exhaustion.
Stephen Tobolowsky: Oh man, but that’s why we’re actors for those moments. I was doing the world’s hardest thing ever to shoot, which was Deadwood. We were shooting Deadwood and they never cleaned out costumes because David Milch wanted all the stains from week to week to week and year to year to be consistent because nobody had clean clothes back then. So, after about three or four shows, man, those things could stand up and walk out the door on their own.
David Milch, he didn’t care what the weather was. So, it was one of those torrential rainstorms and we were shooting at the Melody Ranch, which is out kind of by Magic Mountain. And I have to come into a bar, talk to Powers Booth and Garret Dillahunt. We were having a meeting about finding some way to plot against Swearengen, Ian McShane. We were plotting some hideous plan to kill him. So the scene was simple: I’m supposed to come in and then Powers has this monologue in which he tells each one of us what our job is going to be in the kind of coup to get rid of Swearengen. And so, I’m out in this horrible rain. I’m really up to my shins in soft mud. Soaking wet. And we shoot the first scene where I come in and the camera comes in and follows me up to the bar Powers does his monologue. The second time we shoot it, there was one of the horses in the background… David Milch just wanted wild horses roaming around in the background. But one of these horses couldn’t take it anymore. And so, when I walk into the bar, this horse walks in behind me. I go up to the bar and the horse comes up to the bar too. And Powers, who’s used to David Milch making last minute changes, thought that David Milch added the horse to the scene. So, Powers changed his speech and is telling everybody what to do and in part of it, he tells the horse what to do. “I want you to go over to the Bella Union and I want you to…” And part of his speech, he gives it to the horse who is now standing at the bar. And then they called cut and Powers came up to me and goes, “Tobo, did David Milch add that horse?” And I go, “No, Powers that horse just walked in there.” He says, “So, I just did part of my speech to a horse?” I go, “Yeah powers, it’s gonna be great for when we have the wrap party.” Nature is bad with acting. Nature doesn’t work with acting.
As an actor what was the last time you were really nervous?
Stephen Tobolowsky: Oh, I think it was the last time I shot something. You know, we’re doing One Day at a Time now and we do that in front of a live audience.
This is one thing I tell actors, one of the most important skills you have to have is improv. Because when you do regular acting class and scene study, that isn’t what’s going to happen. When you’re acting professionally, you don’t get the time you need and you certainly don’t get the time you want. You just get the time you get.
And with One Day at a Time, you’re doing in front a live audience and you have multiple rewrites of the script before you do it. You really are always fighting to know what you’re going to say or do. So, I get that heart rate up pretty high the first time I go in front of that live audience, still a little unsure as to what I’m saying or doing. And then after we do the first take, then I’m fine. But I’m always a little nervous the first time we shoot. Before we start, I’m always a little nervous.
I’ll throw this out there. I was in Iceland and I was staying with some friends and his dad is, World’s Greatest Horseman. In the Guinness Book of Records, he’s won more awards for equestrian riding than anyone in history. He has a warehouse filled with his awards. It was the morning of the horse show and his name is Didi and he came down and he said he’s so nervous he couldn’t eat. I said, “Didi, you’re nervous? You’re the number one horseman in the world. You’re nervous?” And he said, “Stephen, nervous is good because that is the way your body wakes up to say, all of me is available for the task at hand.” So, I tried to take Didi’s words to heart now whenever I’m nervous. It’s good, it’s just the body saying all of me is all available for the task at hand.
What is your advice to actors in terms of keeping up with your career or moving things forward?
Stephen Tobolowsky: My advice to actors is to do it. We’re living in an amazing age now in which everybody has a camera and everybody has a script and everybody has an idea of something they can do as a short film or as a webisode or doing plays in theaters. I teach at Kalmenson & Kalmenson. I teach improv and occasionally I teach comedy. Maybe once a year I’m able to do a six-week class there. And this is what I have learned over the 12 years of doing this class: Do it. Whatever it is, just do it. If it is a short film, if it is a play, if it is writing a screen play and shooting it with your friends with your iPhone. Do it. 95% of the people who are actors say they want to do it, but they don’t. 5% do it. Do something.
You learn by doing it and you never know what’s going to happen when you do do it. And you are going to be one of the top 5%, even if you do something and fail.
So, the important thing is to take those dreams, take that passion, take that idea and just do it. You are allowed as an actor to be your own tour guide through your life. Quite often, when you do projects you have to be your own writer, your own director, your own producer, your own motivational speaker but you are not allowed to be your own critic. And I have found that people’s self-criticism hobbles them. It removes the fire in their stomach and the dream in their heart and you have to just do it and understand that failure can be part of the good stuff. Failure is what moves us forward.
It was Eugene O’Neil, pretty damned good writer, who after one of his plays he was highly complimented and he said, “I only want to have the courage to move on to greater failures.” And that says it all in that he was going to do it and he was going to do it even if it failed and he was going to continue. And that’s my biggest advice to actors. Don’t criticize yourself, just do it and you’re already in the top 5%.
Strange Nature in streaming on most video platforms, including Amazon.