Search This Blog

COMMITTED EXCLUSIVE: An Interview w/ A Haunting in Salem Star Bill Oberst Jr!!!

When I first heard the news that Bill Oberst Jr had been cast as Sheriff Wayne in A Haunting in Salem, I think the first words that went through my mind were, "of course." Bill had caught my eye earlier in the year as a shady carnival owner in The Asylum's family film Princess and the Pony, in which I compared his character to a PG-Daniel-Plainview for his easy maliciousness, an evil that fit his gaunt frame like a comfortable glove. In the months since, I've had the pleasure of corresponding with Bill, especially when Salem was in production. From what I've come to understand of the man, he's a deeply passionate, dedicated actor, thoughtful and meticulous when it comes to stepping into the skin of another. And I'm not the only one who thinks so, as evidenced by his bloody IMDB page.Despite his busy schedule, Bill agreed to an interview with Committed, which I'm proud to present uncut and unedited. So without further adieu, a conversation with Bill Oberst Jr, or as I think of him, the First Actor to Star in a Movie I Wrote:

COMMITTED: At what age did acting become your passion, and what were the films or who were the actors that inspired you to make this your profession?

Bill Oberst: Acting is all I've ever wanted to do and I have always loved scary movies. Famous Monsters Magazine was a big influence, and when I was a kid they were doing reprints of the old EC comics, so horror was my thing early on. I was a weird kid and films like CREEPSHOW and TV shows like KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER and TALES FROM THE CRYPT made me feel less weird. I used to sympathize with the monsters, you know? I guess I loved Lon Chaney best of all, even though I never actually saw any of his silents until I was in college, but just from reading about him and seeing the stills from the original PHANTOM OF THE OPERA I was mesmerized by this long-dead actor who could make his monsters sympathetic. I wanted to do the same thing. Like I said, I was a weird kid. 

C: You - like me - are from the beautiful American South; when did you leave her? How was the transition?

Bill: It's funny how we all identify with the land we are born on. It's all really an accident of birth, isn't it? But I am proud of being a Southerner. Lots of good ghost stories there. My hometown in SC was actually featured on the CBS News as the "Ghost Capital Of the South" because of the great number of ghost legends we had. Very romantic and very rich for the imagination; I grew up with tragic history everywhere and unseen things hanging in the air. I've toured the entire country with theater shows and now live in California, but the South never leaves you. My accent comes right back as soon as I get relaxed.  

C: The majority of your filmography involves horror films. Is this a genre you always saw yourself in? 

Bill: Yes, it is. And I had to make my peace with the fact that it is ok to want to be in scary movies! I mean, I was never a leading man-type and I didn't start in films until I was too old to be one anyway, but actors are supposed to enjoy a diversity of roles. Onstage I did play all kinds of roles, but in films I gravitate towards the intense roles. I like them and they suit me. Even the exception, my role for The Hallmark Channel in Michael Landon Jr.'s THE SHUNNING as an Amish father, had a hard edge to it. You wouldn't think a guy who toured as Jesus Of Nazareth for 10 years would end up being such a badass. Maybe my portrayal of Jesus had a bit of an edge, too, come to think of it. Certainly my Mark Twain and JFK did. Shortly after I got to Los Angeles 3 years ago a cameraman at an audition  took me aside and said "Dude, unsettling is your thing. Play it up." Good advice, and it secretly delighted the horror-loving kid in me. 

C: People make the occasional deal about the seeming contradiction between you being a horror actor and you also being a Christian. How do you explain to them your thought process in selecting a role? Does this cause an actual dilemma for you, or is it mostly just other people’s projections? 

Bill: Thank you for asking that. It's actually something I think and pray about often. Jesus is everything to me. I wish the word "Jesuit" wasn't already taken, because I prefer it to "Christian." Everyone eventually seeks something larger than themselves; outside of themselves; to make sense of life. It's one of the deepest human yearnings - the search for meaning in our existence. For me, Jesus of Nazareth; his teachings, his life, his revealing of God's grace and forgiveness; provides that meaning. It give me someone and something to live up to. I hope it makes me a better man. I know it gives me peace. As a follower of Jesus, my job is to be obedient to his way of living.

As an actor my job is to put myself in the service of the story I've committed to tell. That's all movies are - stories. Every story needs an antagonist; even Jesus' parables had villains; and I seem to have a knack for playing them. Those are the doors God opens for me continually so I walk through the open doors and I give every role I get everything I have; all of my body, all of my mind and all of my soul. The guys I play are cautionary tales, guys wandering around in the darkness who just can't seem to find their way into the light. I think of my dark characters as being lost in a desert, seeing mirages of things that aren't really there. After awhile it gets hard to tell what is real and what is not. That's where the bad stuff begins. 

We all have our demons. I think we all wrestle with our demons. I have mine. I seem to be called to play souls who are wrestling, too. I'm not ashamed of this. It's a big part of who I am both as a human being and as an actor. My job is not to pretend; it's to be honest. The camera hates liars. So my own weaknesses and my own dark nights of the soul are an asset when I am helping to tell stories that are violent and raw. People need the catharsis those stories bring. And those are the roles that come to me. But I hope that by showing the darkness I can suggest that the light also exists. What can I do? God made me a little bit strange and a little bit dark. I guess He knew what He was doing. And after all, it's only a movie, right?  

C: Okay, I’m dying to know, what was it like on set for A Haunting in Salem? What challenges did the 3D process present?

Bill: Horror films are made by a bunch of highly-intelligent misfits coming together to create something scary and fun, so most sets are pretty stimulating. A HAUNTING IN SALEM was like that, too. Indie horror is a small community, so the first day is spent realizing that you all have worked with the same people, then it turns into a lovable but bizarre temporary family. You get close real fast; there's not a lot of personal space. You can always tell the actors who have worked in horror a lot because they are the ones who could care less about the lack of private space (having to strip off bloody clothing and scrub down with paper towels and a jug of water by flashlight in the desert tends to peel away modesty.) The real stars of the set were on the production side, though. If people like A HAUNTING IN SALEM, they should give the credit to the people they don't see: the writer H. Perry Horton, the director Shane Van Dyke, the Director Of Photography Alexander Yellen and a whole crew of professionals doing their best work under a lot of pressure. Actors are really a very small part of the team.   

As for 3-D filming, the main challenges of it are for the camera and lighting crews. For the actors the differences are in blocking and set-up time. Blocking gets precise because there is a set point of convergence for each shot and if the actor moves any part of the body (or an object) in front of that plane it appears to be leaping out towards the viewer in 3-D. So you have to be more mindful of movement in a scene than you normally would. If you point with your finger too far forward, for instance, you have an unwanted 3-D effect. And time becomes an issue because the camera's alignment has to be tweaked each time it is moved for another shot. Everyone waits for the Stereographer to tell the Director Of Photography when the shot looks perfect for 3-D before we can roll, and that takes extra time, so the actor has to be patient and not lose the emotion of the scene while the camera is being adjusted. A HAUNTING IN SALEM, by the way, had the distinction of having Hollywood's first female Stereographer on a feature film, Shannon Benna. There was a write-up in Screen Magazine about her.

C: What can you tell us about your approach to your character, Wayne?

Bill: I was surprised to be cast as Wayne in A HAUNTING IN SALEM, and I'm not at all sure if I played him well. I won't know until I see it with an audience. What I tried to do was to bring a little nervous tension to his character, since his last chance at a good life for his family is falling apart.  It's impossible to judge your own performance, so I never try. That's the audience's job. If I missed the mark they'll let me know and I'll try to hit it next time. The audience is the boss, always. 

C: Often you’re the “horror” in the film; what was it like on the other end of that spectrum, being a “victim,” so to speak? 

Bill: It was weird! But fun. Not a terrible stretch either, as everybody I play is tormented in some way. I still got to get bloody, so that made me feel right at home.

C: You’ve got no less than TEN films coming out over the next year; what can you tell us about them?

Bill: Well I'd send anyone interested in what I'm doing to IMDb to check em out:  My roles in the stuff I have coming up are my usual rogue's gallery: a demon tormenting Robert Loggia, a sociopathic cult leader, a murderous xenophobe, a shadow creature, a creepy French hermit, a half-naked drug dealer, one suicide, some murders, a few rapes, a little self-mutilation; just another day at the office, you know?

I am grateful to be working a lot. Making a living doing what I love (especially in a field with a 98% unemployment rate) is a blessing and a gift. Life is hard and people need an escape. My job is to entertain them and to help them forget their troubles for awhile. No matter how bad things are, I hope they can look at me onscreen and say, "Well it could be least I'm not that guy!"  That's my job and I'm very grateful for every opportunity to do it.

1 comment: