Interview: Stephen Tobolowsky Talks ‘Californication’, ‘Strange Nature’October 19, 2018
With over 240 acting credits to his name, it’s safe to say Stephen Tobolowsky has earned his title of character actor. Recently we had the chance to talk to Stephen about his wonderful career and a new film he has coming out called ‘Strange Nature.
So when did the acting bug hit you? Was it something you always wanted to do or did you discover it later on, like a happy accident?
Stephen: So, we’re beginning with the humiliating question? (Laughs) The truth is, the answer is somewhat embarrassing. The acting bug hit me when I was a little boy, probably around six or seven, when I thought monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, and Godzilla were real. In my mind, becoming an actor would allow me to hang out with monsters like Dracula and The Wolfman, so it was more of a friendship choice than a career choice. I pursued it my whole childhood, doing plays in the park, my elementary, junior high and high schools and then I got to college and lied to my parents, telling them I was in pre-law. At SMU at Dallas, Texas any subject you took you could say it was pre-law, so it was just kind of a half lie. I was a drama major and then I realized I wasn’t going to meet monsters or act with monsters but I thought acting was kind of noble, because of Shakespeare and Shaw and Chekhov, all of those great writers. However, then I came out to California and played Butt crack Plumber and realized that it wasn’t that noble but it had become a profession, a profession that I embraced gladly.
You’ve done a lot of work in television and movies, not to mention theater and voice work as well. Do you have a favorite medium to work in or do you simply go where the work is?
Stephen: The answer is, I do go to the medium where the work is, the medium requires you to do that, but I have found great advantages and disadvantages to every element in the acting game. There’s nothing like the experience of theater but you don’t get paid for it. With television, a lot of times you’re not working with the greatest scripts, you certainly aren’t working with enough time to do the things you want to do but they probably pay you better than any other medium, so it’s great if you need to get your kids through college. Movies are kind of the aristocrat of the entire field, very often you’re working with great people and a lot of times really terrific material, and you have time. The difficulty is a lot of times you’re away from home for much of your life and voice work is fantastic because, even though someone like me doesn’t get paid a lot, you can play many different parts in different sessions and because your face isn’t being seen, you can do many different things and not get overexposed. There are some gigs that are heart gigs because I love the material, some are art gigs because I’m working with some of the best in the business and there are some gigs that are money gigs.
The term character actor gets thrown around a lot in terms of describing actors and I was wondering, has that helped you in terms of getting roles or has it hindered you in some aspects?
Stephen: I think it’s helped me and again, the curse is the blessing and vice versa. I think, and at the time I wouldn’t have told you this, but losing my hair early in my life, and being nearsighted, has helped me, in that I’ve looked the same for decades. I’m now starting to look like a melted candle so I’m starting to show my age but people recognize me as the bald guy with glasses and that in a way has helped me. Sometimes when I walk into an audition the producers and directors the go oh, it’s the guy from Groundhog Day, and they can say that in an upbeat and positive way or a disappointed kind of way. You know, I was kind of a handsome lad when I was young and I always imagined I’d be playing Hamlet, leading me, all of that and it enormously traumatic for me when I was twenty-five years old and my hair started falling out by the handfuls and I thought, this is the end of my dreams, my life. As it turned out though, the fact that I looked like an ordinary joe has helped me greatly because I can play a scientist, criminals, morons, geniuses, it doesn’t matter.
You have such a huge body of work and some great roles but one of the roles I wanted to talk about was that of Stu on Californication. Can you talk a bit about that experience?
Stephen: We are talking about a total love affair. It is not the show I as Stephen would have watched on television because the material is too naughty and it’s way too out there for a stick in the mud like me. So I got the script to audition and I’m looking at it and I say, we’ve seen this guy before, this guy who’s the producer with money and the girls, same old, same old, and I’m reading the script, I’m on the first read-through of the first episode I’m going to do on it and at the time it was only two or three episodes, it really wasn’t going to be much. As I’m reading it Pam Adlon comes up to me and says, so what do you think Stu, what do you think of this part and I said Pam, it kind of seems like we’ve seen this before, doesn’t it? What do you think if it’s the real thing, if we fall in love and it’s not just a roll in the hay, but my last chance to fall in love with someone, and I really want to fall in love for real? So Pam goes ok, let’s talk to Tom about it, so Pam dragged me over to Tom Kapinos, the creator of the show, and Pam says, we’ve got a great idea, what if Stu and Marcy become the real thing, the last chance at love sort of thing, don’t you think that’s a good story? Tom thought about it, said hmm, yeah and Stu and Marcy became this great love story on Californication.
Doing that show, you really were working with the best and the brightest. People loved working on that show and I mean cameramen, the crew, prop people, everybody. We got some of the best in Hollywood to, instead of taking their vacation because we shot during vacation time in L.A. so we could get everybody, they gave up their vacations so they could work on Californication. This wasn’t just to make an extra paycheck, this was because everybody on that show we’re good people and every time we went to the set it was a party. You couldn’t get better than David, Natascha was such a magnificent person and of course Pam, it was just great from top to bottom. I think it’s the only show I’ve ever done in which a man knocked on my trailer door and said hello, I’m the number one underpants stuffer in Hollywood, you see, we got the best and the brightest. He opens up his case and there are a series of penii there, of all sorts of sizes, and he says, so which one do you want in your shorts and of course, being a guy, I picked the biggest one and I couldn’t fit it into my shorts. In the end, even though I had the best underpants stuffer in Hollywood, I ended up stuffing my underpants with rolled up white socks to be the overhung Stu. David, Pam everyone had a great laugh at me trying to find a big enough penis and really that was just the kind of show it was and people respond to it this day. I have a book out and when I do the book tours all over the United States, people come up and that’s what they want to talk about, Californication, so it was certainly an amazing show to work on and one of my favorite roles ever.
Ok, so let’s talk about the movie Strange Nature. I really enjoyed the movie for different reasons but what got you interested in the film?
Stephen: I was at a dinner party with Jeff Passero, who was going to be the producer of this film, and James Ojala who was the writer and director of the film, we were introduced at the party and at that point James was primarily a special effects creator and director. Jim started talking to me about the movie at the party and said, there may be a part as the Mayor for you in the movie, would you like to read the script? I’m a sucker for science fiction when there is science in it and I’m reading the script and it made me think of Loren Eiseley, who wrote books on poetry and science, and a short story of his called Dance of the Frogs. This was one of my favorite stories and I actually gave this to George Lucas when I worked with him, so I’m reading this script by Jim and thinking damn, I like this. Also, I have to say, I get offered a lot of little parts in movies and I loved the part of the Mayor, I love the way Jim treated it in the script and I thought, well this will be fun. I was regularly working on another project at the time, a TV show I believe, but I had a couple of weeks off together, so it was a chance to go to Duluth, Minnesota to shoot this and then get back to my other project. Not only did it turn out to be a fun gig to do but it resurrected an old passion of mine and that was my love for science and this story, The Dance of the Frogs, came back around to me and I was able to act upon it.
You had some great scenes with Lisa Sheridan who plays Kim Sweet in the movie, they came across very natural, very real. Did the two of you have a chance to practice your scenes or was there natural chemistry between the two of you?
Stephen: We did not have a chance to practice but what you say to me is the gold I took away from that movie, that being Lisa. Those scenes in science fiction movies, I get the necessity of always having to have someone coming to an authority figure, so we’re able to check that box off on the script list so it makes sense, like the Mayor in Jaws, and the authority figure never listens. It goes back down to the people and they have to fix their own problems, they have to deal with it in their own way. Lisa and I, we sat down and started going through the scene and I fell into her face. I mean, I looked into her eyes and she was so dear and genuine and when we started doing the scene to me, it completely opened up entirely what the scene is. It made it for me as an actor and as Mayor Paulson, so much more interesting than these scenes usually are in these movies, in that what do you do when you absolutely believe someone, that there is an issue with someone, yet at the same time what they’re telling you is absolutely unbelievable. It creates a sort of crisis of belief and I thought man, Lisa is bringing the goods in doing this scene and it totally for me defined what these scenes would be.
I will admit, the science and the tagline about mutant frogs is what initially got me interested in the movie but the story and performances are what won me over. What do you hope the audience takes away from this film?
Stephen: First of all, in all films like this, you hope they have a good ride, you hope they enjoy it. Then you hope they think well, maybe the frog thing is real but sounds kind of preposterous, and then they look into it more and discover that the downfall of man is not likely to come from outside of us but to come from unintended consequences. I was just talking with a nuclear physicist, he works at the Space Institute out here, and he was talking about the next big crisis that no one is talking about, and it has to do with the movie in a way too, and that is CRISPR. CRISPR is a new technology that enables doctors and scientists to go into a gene, a DNA strand, and snip out an individual gene. It has been heralded as the end of disease, aging, cancer and my son, who is in medical school now, does his research on CRISPR and he actually created a drug in his undergraduate studies that was sent to Stockholm and is being tested now as a way to eliminate cancer. However, the physicist that was talking to me said Stephen, no one knows what is on the other side, the consequences. We can see how we can make billions or trillions with this, and I know it isn’t as simple as pollution in Strange Nature, but it’s the same idea. Yes, you may end cancer by snipping out this gene but it might have functions we’re not aware of and we could be bringing civilization down on our head. This is what I hope for, in terms of people watching the film, to get curious enough to do some research and ask some questions and the thing I love about Strange Nature is what I said before, there’s real science in that fiction.
So what other projects do you have coming up next?
Stephen: Well just a few weeks ago we finished season three of One Day at a Time on Netflix, which is a spectacular show. That happens to be one of those jobs that has both been able to put my kid through medical school and I’m working with one of the best casts ever in television. It is hilarious, heartbreaking, I love everybody I’m working with on the show, I love the writers and it is an amazing job to have at this point in my career. I get to be the love interest of Rita Moreno, how can it get any better than that. Now on the last show Rita and I did a dance together, we’re at a big party and sitting at a table waiting for them to set up the cameras and Rita starts humming and singing songs from Finian’s Rainbow and I said what are you doing, and she said, these are the songs I used to sing to my daughter when she was little. Then Rita starts singing to me, in a voice that is still Oscar, Tony and Grammy-worthy and I thought ok, now I could die, so it’s that kind of experience. Upcoming, a have a few more book tour events that I’m doing, I love that I have time to write stories acting wise, I have some Goldberg’s and One Day at a Time drops in early February and hopefully, we’ll hear in March that we got a fourth season.
I want to thank Stephen for taking the time to talk with us