Putting the pieces together

A compelling story and character are all `Saw' actor needs

Tobin Bell

October 26, 2007|By Brad Schleicher | Brad Schleicher,sun reporter

He plays the role of Jigsaw, the twisted opportunist who puts strangers into intricate death traps, teaching them to value their lives.

Actor Tobin Bell, with his piercing stare, worn features and menacing voice, has sent chills through even the most seasoned of horror-movie buffs in the first three installments of Saw. And he hopes to do it again as Saw IV opens today.

But Bell's off-screen demeanor is a surprising departure from his intense and self-righteous onscreen alter-ego. The 65-year-old is more like the wise, yet easygoing, uncle who'd slip you a few bucks for ice cream -- even when your parents said no.

His hobbies and family life help paint a picture of an average Joe. Bell, a nature-lover and married father of two, spends his spare time writing, coaching Little League baseball and reminiscing about his favorite pro baseball moments on his personal blog.

Audiences might identify him only with villainous characters such as Jigsaw, the Nordic Man in The Firm and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski in Unabomber: The Real Story.

But Bell has no fear of being typecast.

He looks at every role as a new opportunity to dive into the psyche of a very complicated character and "give the audience a window into their inner soul." Despite what audiences may think, Bell doesn't view any of his characters as villains -- not even Jigsaw.

"To play Jigsaw or any role, you need to view them as a human being," he says in a telephone interview. "Many villains don't view themselves as madmen or psychopaths."

The manner in which Bell approaches each of his roles is somewhat similar. He does a lot of background work by asking very specific questions such as, "Who am I?" and "What do I want?"

But no matter the role, Bell's experience with defining a character is a never-ending process -- even once the cameras begin rolling.

The method actor was initially attracted to the role of Jigsaw after reading the script for the first Saw. Bell recognized a great dramatic element that he remembered from horror films such as Jacob's Ladder and The Dead Zone.

"I was fascinated by the plot of the first Saw film," says Bell. "It seemed more like a theater piece because three characters were locked in a room and had somewhat limited but significant roles -- how often does that happen?"

Although Bell acknowledges that he's a fan of "thinking man's horror movies," as a child he was never drawn to the horror genre because of many bad plotlines and poorly written scripts.

But as he developed as an actor and an avid film-watcher, he learned to appreciate certain horror films, not so much for the way a killer holds the knife, but for the intricacy and delicate writing that goes into the films.

"You can accomplish as much in the horror genre as any other genre with a compelling story and good characters," he says. "The question is, do you care enough to write a brilliant script?"

Although Bell acknowledges he is no expert on horror films, he's quite knowledgeable about his audience. He says horror fans have the tendency to be fickle viewers who are quite critical, especially of sequels, and can be vocal when they feel the writers and producers have "dropped the ball."

Brilliant writing, a compelling plot and creative traps are what Bell credits to Twisted Pictures, the producers of the Saw films. Since 2004, a new Saw film has been put out each year to coincide with Halloween.

"What's beneficial is that a film was done year after year, giving the constant opportunity to perfect everything," he says. "It's like working in a theater company."

Bell is certainly no stranger to theater. Raised in Weymouth, Mass., the son of British actress Eileen Bell spent a large portion of his acting career in New York City, studying under Ellen Burstyn at the Actors Studio and appearing in Broadway and off-Broadway productions and in the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Ensemble Studio Theatre.

Despite his success with the Saw franchise, Bell considers his big break to have occurred almost two decades ago when he transitioned from stage to screen, appearing in his first film, the Academy Award-winning Mississippi Burning, in which he played an FBI agent opposite Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe.

"If I never acted in another movie again," says Bell, "I would have felt like I had made it."

At 65, Bell is a picture of humility, yet still possesses some stubborn itch to test his acting chops.

When asked what role he would like to play in the future, Bell responded, "A gay tap-dancing nightclub owner with joie de vivre."

brad.schleicher@baltsun.com

Not screened

Saw IV, the latest entry in the horror series, was not screened for critics.

ONLINE

Watch a preview of Saw IV at baltimoresun.com/saw

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