Interview with actor Bill Oberst Jr.June 15, 2016
Known for his many roles in the horror genre, Bill Oberst Jr. had enjoyed an interesting career in theater, television and movies that have seen him amass almost 160 acting credits to his name. Recently, we had a chance to talk to Bill about the life of an actor, the horror genre and his part in the movie Betrothed.
Was acting always something you wanted to do or did it kind of jump up and surprise you, like a happy accident so to speak?
Bill: Well, first thanks for asking me to chat with the GCE. I’m a big fan of cosplay, and I love that you guys support it! To answer your question, I was a fat kid, I loved books, I had horrible acne, and I couldn’t throw a football to save my life: I was the fat kid, the smart kid, the ugly kid and e the sissy kid, all in one kid. In the 1970’s, that meant you got the crap beat out of you a lot. My solution was the age-old mantra: “If you entertain people, they will not hit you.” Thus an actor was born. Thus most actors are born!
How hard was it for you, trying to break into acting and make it a career, and did you every think about walking away from acting and trying something else?
Bill: It was incredibly hard – the business has an average unemployment rate of 98%, and yes, my head told me to walk away many times, but my heart and soul said no.
You’ve done work in theater, television and movies. Do you have a favorite medium to work in or do you go where the work is?
Bill: What I get off on is transcending the repetitive banality of mere existence; firing the imagination to cut those mundane moorings and to go soaring. It’s rare to achieve that in any medium, but I’ll take any medium that tries, and I’ll try with it.
Where did the interest in the horror genre start or again, was it simply a case of you being offered interesting parts that just happened to be darker and creepier than most?
Bill: I’ve loved horror since I was a kid – the metaphors of night appealed greatly to my lonely-kid soul, but I had a 16 year-stage career on the east coast that didn’t involve horror at all. Then I came to Los Angeles, and discovered I was scary. LA (and the business in LA especially) has two settings for men: beautiful or scary. In retrospect, I’m glad I am not beautiful. My sympathies have always been with the monster.
What is it about the horror genre that lends itself to such a loyal fan base?
Bill: We will all die. This is a base truth of life, but we run from it. We fear it. My personal theory is that fear of death accounts for most of the real horror in the world; the cruelty, the coldness of heart, the emptiness of celebrity culture. The horror genre, and I mean when it is done right and with serious intent, does NOT lie about death. Horror says “Here it is. Face it.” Horror fans are people who don’t need the lies anymore. They have seen death and laughed at it. There’s a tremendous freedom in that. That’s why horror fans are so loyal, and that’s why this great genre deserves respect.
Do you think the horror genre gets the respect it deserves or do people tend to think of it as something that really shouldn’t be taken all that seriously?
Bill: Endless remakes don’t help much, do they? I’m a big advocate of finding new ideas from outside of the bubble. Great ideas for the horror genre are out there, in brains all over this wide world. Talent knows no geography and everything begins as an idea. I think of writers like Ray Bradbury, who I have been heavily influenced by, and The Exorcist, a film that defined the genre for me; but Bradbury was a young man striving for notice at one time, and that movie almost didn’t get made because it was considered too cerebral. The more new ideas (and the more intelligent ideas) we can bring to horror, the more respect we will get – and deserve.
Can you tell me a bit about the movie Betrothed and the character you play in the film?
Bill: I cannot describe it better than this synopsis from IMDb: “A trip to the store turns into a surreal nightmare when a college student is kidnapped by a deranged, dysfunctional family.” I play Lester Cooper, one of the twisted members of said dysfunctional family. Lester likes knives.
What was it about the character, and the script, that ultimately led to you signing on to be a part of the film?
Bill: I thought that Jeff Rosenberg’s script and Jim Lane’s approach to the material struck the right balance of dark humor and legitimate peril that a film in this genre needed. It was the right mix of guilty smiles and gruesome gasps. They made a fun film (and only in the horror genre could I call a movie about a kidnapped bride “fun” and mean it as a compliment!)
With the way the movie industry is going today, dominated by comic book films and Star Wars, do you think there is still room for smaller, horror themed films such as Betrothed?
Bill: Yes, on digital delivery platforms. Lucas is right when he says that the pathway to getting a movie into theaters is becoming smaller and smaller. Movies are only profitable to theaters now if they are “events.” The future for smaller movies on digital delivery platforms is bright, provided the filmmakers are willing to spend money marketing the movie. I know from personal experience that many fans are eager to find the unknown gems. Our job now in the industry is to make sure that they can.
Is there a part out there, horror or non-horror that you still want to hopefully play one day?
Bill: Yes, there is. I would like to play a priest. I’m a follower of Jesus, and I know how hard it is to live out my faith in my mundane, layman’s life. The challenges for a man who is looked to as a spiritual shepherd must be tremendous. I find that fascinating as an actor.
Who was your biggest influence growing up, either personally or professionally, that had a big impact on your acting career?
Bill: Lon Chaney, Sr. He died decades before I was born, and I never would have known he existed where it not for Forrest J. Ackerman, editor of Famous Monsters magazine, who introduced Lon Chaney to my generation. This was years before video and eons before YouTube, so there was no easy way for a rural kid to see what Ackerman was writing about, but the photos captivated me. When a group in my little town ran a 16mm print of the 1925 Phantom of the Opera for Halloween (on a double-bill with the 1922 Nosferatu,) I begged my grandmother to take me. She did. Sitting there on a metal folding chair in a community center, I saw the unmasking scene for the first time, and my life changed. When Chaney’s great-grandson Ron Chaney handed me the 2014 Chaney Award, I was suddenly 12 years old in the dark again. My knees were literally knocking together. I’ve never felt so alive.
Can you tell me what projects you have coming up next?
Bill: I have a new film out this week called Stressed To Kill starring Armand Assante that I hope people will check out. It’s from director Mark Savage, who I consider my twisted creative brother. I’m just starting to produce and narrate audiobooks, so I’m on the lookout for interesting books and authors to collaborate with, and I’m touring my solo stage show Ray Bradbury’s Pillar Of Fire to colleges and cons around the country. I invite folks to visit my site billoberst.com or my IMDb page and to give me a shout. I read my mail and I try to answer it all. I’m so grateful to this wonderful, warped world of horror for letting me in. It’s a surprising life, isn’t it?
I want to thank Bill for taking the time to talk with us