Stephen Harold Tobolowsky is an American actor and author. He played annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson in the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day, as well as such television characters as Commissioner Hugo Jarry in Deadwood and Bob Bishop in Heroes. He has had recurring roles as Sandy Ryerson on Glee, and as Stu Beggs on Californication. In addition to acting, Tobolowsky does an audio podcast about once a month of autobiographical stories of his acting and personal life. He has also authored The Dangerous Animals Club and Cautionary Tales based on these original stories.
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My short bio: Hi Reddit! I've appeared in films and TV shows like Memento, Deadwood, Groundhog Day, Californication, and The Goldbergs. A couple years ago you helped me fund my own concert film, The Primary Instinct, which features me telling my stories in front of a live audience.
Today, that film is available to watch on Hulu!. I hope you have a chance to check it out. In fact, you may be able to finish the entire thing while I'm still doing this AMA interview. In fact, I challenge you to do this!
Those who live somewhere without Hulu can also buy the film on VHX.
Alright, I'm here for several hours. Ask Me Anything!
EDIT: It's 1 PM Pacific and we've been going for four hours! This is a lot of fun. I'll probably be around for 1-2 more hours.
Ned?! Ned Ryerson, I thought that was you!
What was it like having to repeat the same ramble so many times for Groundhog Day?
Actors always have to repeat scenes over and over again, so that was normal. What people sometimes don't know is that in Groundhog Day, every one of my scenes in Bill Murray was shot with a slightly different script, with a slightly different film technique. Sometimes steadicam, sometimes handheld, sometimes camera on sticks, sometimes dolly track, etc. So, each scene had a slightly different feel.
It's what we always do, all the time. Actors always repeat things.
When I was doing Hero with director Stephen Frear, we did over 100 takes of one shot.
Maybe without mentioning any names, have you ever been involved in a project that you regret? Either because of personal or professional reasons, or because you were unhappy with the finished product?
Yes. There are many ways a film can go wrong. Hundreds.
When an actor decides to take on a project, we never see those ways, those potential snares, those potential failures. When we see the finished product, we're often confronted more with the failings than seeing a movie that transcends our original expectations.
Notable exceptions to this for me: Memento, Groundhog Day, Deadwood, Californication (just off the top of my head). These were shows that when I saw them, they transcended even my earlier expectations of them working out well. Those are rare.
Thank you for the Tobolowsky Files David and Stephen!
What was your biggest professional mistake and what did you learn from it?
So many, but the one that comes to mind: I was called in to read for one of the main detectives on a TV show that was going to be called "Law and Order." And I'm thinking to myself, "Oh God. THIS again. Another cop show." And I did not work on my audition the way I should have. I figured it was just going to be another run-of-the-mill show.
This was not to replace anyone. This was the ORIGINAL Law and Order. I went in and did a so-so audition and kind of blew it off. I believe the role ended up going to George Dzundza. Now I pay penance every day, watching reruns of Law and Order and drinking red wine in my contrition.
Never take your work for granted. Never take the gift of being able to be in this business for granted. Take every job, every audition seriously. Give it your heart, your mind, and your soul.
What was the most unusual situation you have woken up to?
Here's two of them.
1) It was two in the morning when my 3-year-old son William came upstairs and woke me up and said "Daddy: Poo poo." I assumed he was telling me he needed a diaper change. I opened my eyes and there was a cat turd in his hand.
2) It was afternoon. I was lying in bed watching Law and Order reruns on television. I was alone in the house. I heard my back door open and close, and I'm thinking "WTF?"
I come downstairs to see what's going on and there are five firemen, completely dressed in fire gear and helmets, carrying axes in their boots, everything, coming into my living room. And I go, "excuse me?"
And they said "We hear you have a fire here."
And I said "Really?"
Then I hear a knock on my front door. I runt o my front door, and there are two police officers there, a man and a woman. And they say "Sir, is everything all right?" At which point, the policewoman pointed to her gun, unclasped it, and mouthed "is he upstairs?"
At which point I said, "Everything is okay. There's a bunch of firemen in the house, but you can come in if you want to have a look."
A giant hook and ladder truck stopped in front of my house and more firemen got out.
The policemen then told me they got a call from downtown that I was in a hostage situation. The firemen told me they got a call from downtown that there was four-alarm fire at my house.
It turned out to be my alarm company had tested an alarm for a building downtown to make sure everything was working, but they put in the wrong code and sent everybody to my house.
Hey Stephen, shows and movies are always better when you appear!
Can you tell us how you fit into the connection between the Talking Heads and Radiohead?
When I was in college courting my girlfriend Beth, I had some unusual psychic experiences. I could hear "tones" coming from people's heads, and i could tell them about their lives. Beth thought this was a great cash machine and in the theater department, she would charge $0.25-$1 for me to read people's tones.
This turned out to be not as much fun as we thought it was going to be. I began telling people real things that were happening to them. Horrible things. Exciting things. Tragic things. It began to scare me. I stopped doing it.
Fast forward fifteen years to the BBQ with David Byrne in my backyard. David was explaining the idea behind True Stories of people who have incredible lives (that are true). Beth said, "You should talk to my sweetie, he can hear tones."
David found this amusing. I found it somewhat embarrassing. I told David the story of my college days. In the rewrite of True Stories, David added a character that could hear tones, and wrote the song Radio head (I believe when David originally did the song, it was two words) for that character to sing.
In 1991, a few years after the movie True Stories was released, a British band called On a Friday, changed their name to Radiohead because they were big fans of David Byrne.
I always wondered if Thom Yorke knew the genesis of the name of his band was a 19-year old boy in Texas charging $.25-$1 to tell you your future.
Can you share your favorite behind be scenes moment on set?
I was shooting Thelma and Louise and this young actor Brad Pitt was sitting with me off stage. Brad turned to me and so kindly said, "Mr. Tobolowsky, would you like to sit in my chair? It might be more comfortable."
I said, "It's alright, Brad."
He said, "You know, I'm going to get some coffee. It's a little chilly. Mr. Tobolowsky, could I get you some tea?"
I said, "It's alright, Brad. I'll get tea later."
I never felt so old and ugly in my life.
What was it like working on Big Time In Hollywood FL ?
It was more fun than just about any show I've ever worked on.
Alex Anfanger and Dan Schimpf are the real thing. We'll hear a lot from them in the future.
Do you remember any stories from Sneakers that you can share with us? I love that movie with a passion.
Also, you've been my favourite actor since I've had favourite actors (some time in the previous millennium). Thank you for the AMA. *_*
Sneakers is another example of actors expectations when they read a script. When I read Sneakers, I remember calling my agent up and saying, "I just read what a hundred million dollars feels like." And this was in 1990 money.
It was brilliant.
However, even those high expectations did not compare to the film when I actually saw it on the screen. It's one of the most clever caper films ever made. Proof of this is that it's a techno-thriller with cradle modems and it still works.
A couple Sneakers stories: Phil Robinson the director said that Mary McDonald (who I go on dates with in the movie) was a little bit uptight on set and he gave me permission to say anything I wanted in the scenes to make her laugh. We had so much fun, all three of us.
Another interesting Sneakers story for fans of The Tobolowsky Files: In The Tobolowsky Files, I've often mentioned my dear friend Bob (US marine, actor, wisest man I ever knew). In the scene of Sneakers where I'm on my first date with Mary, there's a kung-fu class going on in the background of our scene. As it turns out, Bob's son, Matt, was the stuntman hired to do the martial arts in the background of that scene. Didn't find out until afterwards.
Hey there Stephen. With the announcement of a Deadwood movie today are you excited to be back on the set for the movie? Also when will there be new episodes of the podcast? You are an inspiration and your stories are breathtaking. Thank you for all that you have done.
Phone's not ringing with a Deadwood movie offer yet.
As for new eps of the podcast, I have several in the pipeline. Looking for a moment in which David and I have a break to record them.
What shot had 100 takes?
The dolly shot that introduced my character and Chevy Chase. It was a shot that moved through the entire room and picked up bits of dialogue from everyone.
Stephen, you are consistently working although many agents would consider you a "niche" actor. How much of your work is you doing the leg work/connections from past gigs, and how much is your agent/publisher booking you gigs?
I'm kind of 50/50. 50 percent offers. 50 percent auditions.
So much of casting depends on the chemistry of production, and that is out of my hands. I like to audition. It enables me to know the people I'm working with.
When you get offered parts is when you get fired on the first day, because no one has seen you do what you're going to do. So they're judging you right when you arrive on the set.
How was your experience on Community? Who was the boss?
What's the role you'd most like to be remembered for?
I will always remember shooting Community. It turned out to be one of the most important roles of my life. I'd just had open heart surgery six weeks prior. I was stapled together still.
All of us live in dread of having a major medical thing go wrong, but as an actor you don't realize one of the big fears is "Will I ever work again?"
The people on Community contacted me and said they wrote this episode for me. They knew all about the heart problem. I showed up on set with my wife Ann, with my medicine, with my blood pressure cuff, my blood oxygen indicator, etc.
The director came into my trailer and said "Stephen, don't worry about anything. Today is just about you. If you need to rest, if you need anything, just signal me. No one knows what you've been through. Just me and the producers. Just signal one of us and we'll take a break."
I shot my four scenes that day, and left. I realized I'd been given the gift of a lifetime.
Any thoughts on voice acting?
Also, Tom Hanks was supposed to send me a toast for my wedding this past October, he didn't.
Like so many people, I thought voice acting was easy, because "Hey, I got a voice!"
Then I got some voiceover jobs and began working with really brilliant voiceover people like Pam Adlon (for example). And I saw how incredibly skilled these people and how incredibly difficult it is.
What is difficult is that the arena is the space between your lips and that microphone. The arena is five inches. Within that five inches, you have to create a complete person, you have to create rhythm, and pacing. You have to create the entire world in that space. And the people who are brilliant can really do it.
Actors always like to go to acting class to feel like they are working on their chops, but voice actors don't necessarily feel like they need the same workout. I think if you want to be a voice actor, you need to work on it every day, with a microphone and a computer. Record your voice. Get copy from newspapers, magazines, TV shows, etc. Take ads and read them. Read bits of stories and see how your voice sounds. See what you can do with your voice.
Work. There are no shortcuts.
Man, I miss Big Time In Hollywood, FL. You were hilarious on it.
Did you crack up when you had to get rid of your erection before answering the door, or was that just another day at the office for you?
I didn't crack up getting rid of my erection. In fact, it was rather painful.
I did crack up constantly during dinner scenes listening to Alex and Lenny improvise. I was very bad.
What is your favorite role that you consider to be underrated or under appreciated by the general public?
A film called Pope Dreams, with Julie Hagerty. It was a wonderful movie that I don't think anybody saw. A surefire great film. Great script, great performances all around.
You were hilarious as Ned Ryerson, what is your favorite memory from filming Groundhog Day?
So many favorite memories. This morning, my favorite memory would be finishing that first scene on the first day with Bill Murray, and sitting with Harold Ramis. Harold looked at me with a big smile on his place and started talking with me about comedy. It was a great moment.
Do you like cats ?
Cats are a way God tells us not to value any personal items here on Earth.
We have three cats, three litter boxes. One of our cats started "thinking outside the box." So we've gotten a fourth litter box. The cat continues to "think outside the box." Ann and I are considering just putting sand on the floor of our house like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
In your experience, is there ever such a thing as "starting too late"?
Yes and no. You can take a look at actors like Dabney Coleman (who was a lawyer) and Ken Jeong (who was a doctor), both of who changed professions with great success.
It depends on WHAT you are starting too late. What steps are you holding back on in your start? Fear is always an element in starting late, so it depends what you're afraid of.
It's one thing to not get into a movie by the time you're 40. But it's another thing to not begin until you're 40 because you're afraid you're not good enough, you'll be rejected, you won't get parts, etc. If your fear is not being famous, etc. then yes, there is such a thing as starting too late.
But if you try and continue to work and continue to do what you love, then there's no such thing as starting too late because you've already started.
How did you come to work with David Byrne on True Stories?
A BBQ in my backyard. My girlfriend at the time, Beth, was going to work with Jonathan Demme on a potential screenplay project. Jonathan had just finished shooting Stop Making Sense and introduced us to David Byrne.
David was shooting a video of the newest Talking Heads song "Road to Nowhere" and he asked if Beth and I had a swimming pool. I told him "Yes." He asked if he could shoot some scenes for the video in the pool. We said "Of course."
Note to the world: If you go on YouTube and look for the video for Road to Nowhere, the swimming pool shots were done at my home in the Hollywood Hills.
After the shoot, David stayed and I BBQed. At dinner, David talked about a new project he wanted to work on, a movie called True Stories. Beth and I ended up getting the job to write the first draft of the movie.
Your character in Californication seems radically different from your past work. How did you prepare for all the machismo in Stu?
The way you prepare for the machismo is that there's a man who was one of the tailors on the show, and he was an underwear stuffer. He has stuffed the underwear of some of the greatest actors in Hollywood. He came into my trailer with a series of artificial penises and asked, "Which one do you want in your pants?"
I picked the biggest one of course. But it didn't fit in my pants. So I ended up going to the next biggest one, which also didn't fit. And on and on down the line until I got to the smallest one, which ALSO didn't fit.
So, the way I ended up preparing for Stu was this guy rolled up two gym socks into kind of a sausage configuration and stuffed them into my underwear.
There were decided drawbacks to playing Stu Beggs. For those who haven't seen the show, Stu was a producer who was "well endowed."
My wife Ann and I were eating lunch at California Pizza Kitchen when an adult woman in her mid-20s came up to the table and said, "Excuse me, you're Stephen Tobolowsky?"
And I said "Yes."
And she said, "Is your penis as big as they say it is on Californication?"
This is while we were eating Kung Pao Noodles.
Ann leans in and looks at her and says "Yes!" And sent her back to her seat in shame.
Recently a short video of you sharing your experiences working with Stephen Segal came out.
I honestly couldn't stop laughing.
I have to ask, what was the biggest meltdown/temper-tantrum you've seen a actor throw on set?
Has there ever been a part you regret turning down (or taking)?
Biggest temper tantrum I've seen an actor throw: It was ME.
I was in a production of The Glass Menagerie. I was playing Tom. I was rehearsing the drunk scene and I kept hearing noise in the audience. I asked if the folks out there could be quiet; we were working on stage! Kept going through the scene, kept hearing noise. Finally I yelled, "WOULD YOU SHUT UP OUT THERE, WE ARE WORKING."
We continued working. The noise continued.
I picked up a chest of drawers from the stage and HURLED IT INTO THE AUDIENCE. It crashed into the empty seats. The noise stopped. We continued.
I later found out the noise was the actress who played the part of Amanda Wingfield giving the director a blow job. The director later told me when I hurled the chest of drawers into the audience, it almost had cataclysmic consequences for the rest of his life.
(We're all still friends, BTW)
Thanks for doing this AMA! I am a big fan and I love when I'm watching something and you pop up its always a treat.
Kind of a random question, but you were on a very early episode of Seinfeld as a holistic healer and your character has always cracked me up. Any specific memories from that gig??
Two big memories.
1) How I got the part: I was working at the time on a film called Calendar Girl at Columbia, playing a gangster with a brother who was deaf/mute. I had to learn sign language for the part. Marc Hirschfeld (Casting Director at the time) called me up and said he was doing a TV show called Seinfeld, and he wanted me to come in and see if I could make this character "Funny."
I went in and met with Marc and Jerry, and they showed me the part of Tor Eckman. And I said, "What if everything he did had sign language attached?" And I used some of the signs I was learning for the movie, plus made up stuff in the room. Jerry and Marc felt it was funny, so that's how I got the part of Tor - from using those sign language lesson.
2) How hard everybody worked: I have never before or since worked on a sitcom where the actors, directors, and writers worked so hard on an episode. We shot the show without an audience (before they came in). We shot the episode WITH the audience, often doing scenes twice with the audience. After they left, we shot the entire show again, and we did pick-ups. We finished at around 1:30 AM.
Should the Cowboys draft a quarterback?
We're witnessing the theory of slope. Things fall apart faster than they build up. I expect the Cowboys to trade maybe for RG3 or Johnny Football as a backup for Romo.
What is the secret to staying married for almost 30 years?
The secret of any love relationship is recognizing that the other person is holy. By holy, I mean: Love is an honored guest. If you ask it to pay rent, it will leave.
Also: Try not to fight. Pick up the check.
have you seen the episode of the league where Kevin says he has Th Stephen Tobolowsky of dicks? Did you find it funny?
Also, who was the hottest woman on Californication?
Regarding The League: Yes, I've seen the episode and I found it to be one of the greatest compliments I have ever received.
I loved The Primary Instinct but I'm dying for a DVD (with, one hopes, the additional part of the show you recorded!). Are there plans for a DVD release?
YES. Kino Lorber has graciously agreed to manage our DVD release. You can pre-order it here.
what's it like being awesome?
Here's awesome: Going to a Scotch tasting. I was sitting next to someone on the bus on the way there, and he asks me what I do for a living.
I said, "I'm an actor."
And he said, "Well, what do you do for a living?"
And I said, "No, really, I'm a real actor. I work a lot."
He said, "Well, I work in the entertainment industry too, and I don't know you. I work at Paramount."
I said, "I worked at Paramount! I did Glee."
He said, "Well, I don't remember you from Glee."
I said, "I've done a lot of different things..."
We get off the bus. Walk into the Scotch tasting. STEVEN SPIELBERG walks up to me and taps on the shoulder and says "Stephen! I can't believe you're here. you have to come over to our table and tell them the Groundhog Day stories."
I said "Sure Steven, I'll be right there."
Steven leaves. The guy who was talking to me says "That was Steven Spielberg wasn't it?"
I said "Yes."
He said, "I guess I was saying things that were pretty stupid..."
I said, "It's okay. It's okay."
That is awesome.
Stephen, what's the update on your next book? I believe you called it "My Adventures with God"?
Still working on it with Simon & Schuster. I'm cutting it down to "fighting weight." It has some good stories in it.
Hi Stephen! I'm a big fan of Cut Video for the "interesting" content they create. What was it like working with them? Did they make you smoke weed at any point?
What do you look for in a script?
I look for surprise. I look to be surprised as to what happened.
I'm starting to think that all of drama is a reveal of what is hidden. The quality of a screenplay will depend on what that hidden thing was. Bad screenplays: it's something ordinary and even illogical. Good screenplays (e.g. Emma Donoghue's Room): It's something life-changing and transcendent.
I love, love, love character actors. What a great AMA.
In no particular order:
How did your mission as an actor change as you developed your craft? Did you always or soon into acting want to be a character actor or was it an adjustment?
What's working with Mel Brooks like?
Is Bill Murray like he seems to all of us in pop culture? Like, is he like that in real life?
As a fellow bald man I'm fascinated by the hair choices of other bald men. I notice you rock the horseshoe, growed out a bit, in many of your roles. Is this your normal way of wearing it or off camera is it different? Facial hair?
My mission as an actor changed when I lost my hair in graduate school. It happened almost overnight in the shower. Handfuls came out like I was exposed to plutonium. It was tragic. I realized at this point I would never play Hamlet. I would never play any of the great romantic leads.
After the hurt of it passed, it became a blessing, because once you lose your hair, you look the same for a long period of time. And that enabled me to play many, many character roles.
Re: Bill Murray - I don't know the answer to either of these questions because I don't know how seems to us in pop culture and I don't know what he's like in real life. But I can say this: Bill Murray is one of the greatest actors I've ever worked with. I expect him to be a wild and crazy guy like we knew from SNL, but Bill Murray was 100% committed to every take, to every shot in Groundhog Day. He took every moment we had in our scenes like it was the most important scene he ever shot in his life. He took it all very seriously. It was exciting and thrilling working with him.
Re: Mel Brooks - it's been said before, I'll say it again. He's a genius to the second power. I'll never work with anyone with as much energy, with as much insight, and with as much knowledge of comedy and craft as Mel Brooks.
Re: Baldness - I have no preference as to how I wear my hair. I usually let it grow out until my next job and then let the hair and makeup people cut my hair the way it needs to be for that job. It'll usually exist that way until the next job.
Hey Stephen, thanks for your fantastic characters.
What's Tom Kapinos like? Any stories about him or Californication in general that come to mind?
Tom Kapinos was the executive producer/head writer of Californication. He's a rare breed, even for hollywood. We were shooting Californication and my father in Dallas fell and broke his hip and needed surgery.
I called tom up and told him, "I think I need to go to Dallas to be with my dad to be with him in surgery."
Tom said "Go. Go. Stephen, that's life. This is a show. We will pick up whatever scenes you miss next week. Don't miss out on your life for doing a show."
Great man. Love Tom.
Hello Stephen! Two-part question here..who got to keep the Marcy sex doll after Californication was over? Have you found someone in your life that lights your spark like Marcy did?
1) There was actually a great controversy as to who would get to keep the Marcy sex doll. Various producers and writers wanted it. Showtime wanted it, in that the Marcy sex doll cost FIFTEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS. I did not ask for the Marcy sex doll. I have enough stuff lying around my house.
2) Yes I've found someone in my life that lights my spark like Marcy did. I married her!
How do you live a life worth telling stories about?
I take tons of notes. When I've talked to people, they tell me ordinary things that happen in their life, and the stories are extraordinary. I think remembering your life is essential to telling stories of your life. But I think forgetting your life is essential to for being able to deal with regret. You gotta be able to forget and put things behind you, or it becomes overwhelming.
What was it like writing your first screenplay?
Writing screenplays is an interesting exercise in the absurd. I got paid for my first screenplay ($3500) as a co-writer of a film called Nails Gregan and the Lady of the Lake (don't look it up. It's not there). I thought, "Screenplays get made!"
After that, I wrote screenplays the same way people look at high mountains and think, "I'm going to climb that." I have a closet filled with written screenplays that have never even been read by other people.
When David Chen and I performed The Tobolowsky Files in Seattle at the Neptune Theatre, one woman in the audience asked, "Well, the logical next step in your storytelling is turning one of these stories into a screenplay, right?"
I said, "Are you out of your mind? It is no logical step to write a screenplay. Most of them never get made. If you write something you love, there's a good chance other people will be brought in to take it away from you and re-write it. Very rarely does a screenplay end in the same form it was in when you first envisioned it."
So, it's a difficult and frustrating pursuit. It's a lot like sperm fertilizing an egg. A lot of them die along the way. Very few of them make it to the promised land.
We loved seeing you at The Fringe this year. How is performing in a small venue like the one in Edinburgh different than the larger shows (like the ones we enjoy in Seattle)?
(My neck is much better now. If we get to see you there again, I promise not to distract you by almost passing out in the front row.)
It's always interesting shifting venues when you do a one-man show. You can play in front of two thousand people or you can play in front of twenty people and the feelings and difficulties are the same.
I was enormously concerned about you on the front row in Scotland when you passed out. I thought you were dying on me. I believe I was telling the story of my broken neck, so there was a bit of irony there. But, no matter where you perform or how big the venue, where the performance always exists is in between the stage and the audience in mid air. There has to be a little fire burning there for the performance to work.
That's why things like people dropping dead in the front row are dangerous because it tends to kill the fire. Glad you're okay.
Hello, Stephen. Thanks for doing an AMA.
What do you think of the theory that in Groundhog Day, Ned Ryerson was pulling an Inception on Phil Connors to get him to buy insurance? Seems like all the elements are there -- Phil keeps living the same day over and over again, until the day he buys a full boat of insurance from Ned.
Ned: I have not seen this guy for twenty years. He comes to me and buys whole life, term, uniflex, fire, theft, auto, dental, health, with the optional death and dismemberment plan, water damage. Phil, this is the best day of my life.
Phil: Mine too.
Absolutely true. No question about it. This is the untold story of Groundhog Day.
Hi Stephen! If you could swap out one of the stories from The Primary Instinct, what story would you replace it with?
It's difficult to answer this, because Primary Instinct was conceived as a whole where all the parts connect. Thus, removing one story removes a lot of connections.
What do you miss (and not miss) about living in Texas?
Miss: Barbecue on a regular basis.
Don't miss: Texas drivers. Question: Where are all you people going so quickly? I've lived there. You can slow down. It'll be there when you arrive.
I thoroughly enjoyed you on Kevin Pollak's podcast and the stories you told there, as well as on Californication. I seem to remember you talking about wanting to film another podcast style show where you would recount other crazy stories from your past, has that happened yet and where can I find it?
EDIT: I read an answer in this thread about other crazy situations and the alarm company dispatching firemen and police to your house. How the hell does all this stuff happen to you? Has your life always had odd mayhem in it?
Program alert to all people who heard that Kevin Pollak podcast. I have the end of the story.
The story I told on Kevin Pollak's show was about a fax I received a few days before 9/11 that was in Arabic. I didn't think anything of it. We had received 2-3 faxes in Arabic that year. But the timing of it was odd - three days after I received this fax, 9/11 happened - so I called the FBI and I said "Dear sirs, this is Stephen Tobolowsky. I received a fax in Arabic shortly before 9/11. I didn't know if someone there should see it."
FBI officers says to me, "So, are you regularly exchanging faxes with someone in Arabic?"
"No sir," I said. "I got this fax. I don't know why I got this fax. But I thought someone in the FBI should look at it."
FBI officer says "So who do you know that speaks Arabic?"
"No one. This came to me by mistake. Can I send it to you?"
The FBI gives me a phone number to send a copy of the fax to. I put it in my machine and pressed send. But it did not send - instead I received stuff. I began receiving page after page of top secret information from the FBI that said, "For your eyes only." Lists of terrorists, locations of agents, etc. FIFTY PAGES of top secret FBI information.
Now it was my turn to call the FBI. "I tried to send you a fax and by mistake, it looks like I've received fifty pages of top secret FBI documents."
"Mr. Tobolowsky, will you please stay on the line? We'll have a special agent talk to you."
I start getting grilled by a different agent at the FBI, asking why I had their top secret information, and who I knew that spoke Arabic.
I said, "LOOK. I'm just an actor. I want to give you all this information back. Just tell me one thing: Are you guys gonna have to kill me because of this?"
They said, "Mr. Tobolowsky, do you have a shredder?"
I said "Yes sir."
They said "I want you to shred every single piece of information in those documents."
I said "We will not look at it. Can I send you the Arabic fax anyway?"
I try to send it to them. Never heard back from the FBI.
Cut to earlier this year. I was working with the actor Ali Saam (if you saw the movie Argo, you remember the actor Ali Saam as the brilliant head of Iranian secret police). Ali is a phenomenal actor. I told him the story and he asked me to bring him the fax so he could translate it.
So, here's the other shoe dropping. Ali Saam translated the fax and said it was someone who was buying computer equipment in Iran, left Iran and came to America without paying the bill, and the Arab fax says they are going to begin legal proceedings to recoup their money. This was their last warning.
So that's what the fax was. UNLESS IT WAS ALL IN CODE.
PS here is the fax: http://imgur.com/ld5P12b
Cake or Pie?
Difficult question. Early years: Pie all the way. Now? I'm down from a hot lava cake.
Apart from learning the lines, what does your preparation for a role typically involve?
I ask myself a series of questions:
Is this something my characters does all the time? Or is this something new? I'm currently working on a film where I play a psychiatrist and a patient pulls a gun on me. So the question is, "Is this something that happens to me all the time, or is it new?"
That affects the energy, or what people who love Stanislavsky would call the "subtext" of the work.
Another question I ask is, "What is my greatest hope? What is my greatest fear?" And the line between those two points can describe every character that has ever been written.
I've loved your work ever since I first saw you in Momento.
And now I notice you popping up in just about every film I watch.
Can you share your experience working with Christopher Nolan?
Also, remember Sammy Jankis?
I got the script for Memento and I began reading it, and I remember halfway through I started cursing. My wife Ann came into the room and asked me what was wrong. I said, "The first half of this script is the best thing I've ever read."
She said, "Why are you cursing?"
I said, "Because I know the ending is going to disappoint me. No script can be this good all the way through."
I finished the script and threw it across the room. Ann said, "Terrible?" I said, "No. Best script I've read in my entire life."
I told my agent I had to meet Chris Nolan. When I spoke with him, I told him, "You're going to have a lot of people who want to be in this movie. A lot of people who want to be Sammy Jankis. But I bet you I'll be the only one you see who's actually had amnesia."
Chris found this amusing and asked me the circumstances.
I told him about how I had surgery with an experimental general anesthetic that did not put me to sleep but made me forget. And like all general anesthetics, it took several days to wear off. So for 3-4 days, I'd be in the house and I'd be "born" in a moment and not know where I was or what I was doing.
I'd be holding an empty glass and not know if I was thirsty and going to get water, or if I'd just drunk a glass of water and needed to return the glass. It was terrifying.
Told Chris the story. Got the part. At the time, I did not know Chris Nolan would become Chris Nolan. I thought he was just one of the writers of one of the best screenplays I'd ever read. And he turned out to be one of the most fascinating directors I'd ever worked with. Playing Sammy Jankis was one of the most difficult roles I ever had because I realized while I was playing him the one thing the actor relies upon is his memory. Not only as a human being, having learned the part, and remembering where they are in the script, but moment to moment as an actor, you rely upon sense memory of things you've experienced and bring them to the fore.
With no memory, it made acting incredibly difficult. And I asked myself a question: Are you going to pretend you have no memory (and make it look like a bad TV movie)? Or are you going to go for it and let memory go? Have no safety net and throw yourself out there and not remember what you're doing, when you're doing it, and disconnect yourself from your mind?
The latter was terrifying, but I thought, "Well, I trust this Chris guy. I'm cool. Let's go for it."
Hi Stephen! Love your work. For some reason I can recall many of your character's names. Ned Ryerson (Groundhog Day).. Sammy Jenkis(Memento).. Werner Brandis(Sneakers). Have you noticed that many of your characters have their full name stated multiple times?
It's an interesting point! I never really looked it at that way.
In The Primary Instinct, I do tackle the issue of the names actors get in movies (in the first 10 minutes). Every time I got a full name in a movie like Ned Ryerson, I got a non-name in a different film like "Security Man #2."
I remember there was a time when I was sitting in a hallway, getting ready to audition for a role called "Security Man #2" and one of the actors auditioning said, "Oh man, you're reading for Security Man 2? He does much more than my character. They wouldn't even let me read for that one! I'm reading for Security Man #1!" And then another actor said, "Oh yeah? I'm reading Security Man #3. He REALLY doesn't do anything."
As I mention in Primary Instinct, actors can tell a lot about their character based on what name the writers give them.
What's your dream role, out of an existing character or historical figure, to adapt and take as your own? Any character from literature, stage, film, radio, or a historical figure.
I always thought an interesting character that no one has ever really tackled is Thomas Aquinas. Here's a guy who had scientific genius for an age in which there really was no science. He had mystical genius in an age that was all about the unknown. He was brilliantly logical and ultimately mysterious.
One of the final moments of Thomas Aquinas is that he was giving a sermon. According to legend, he pause din the middle of the sermon, stopped, and then said "I just had a vision that changed the way I see everything in the world. And nothing I say can affect what I've just seen." And he walked out of the church and he never told anyone what that vision was and he never went back to church again. It was close to his death so there was speculation that he had some sort of stroke, or that he lost his faith. There was speculation he had seen something beyond what was in this world, and he realized was that the truth was something beyond what he could put words to.
Not sure it could even translate to film, but I always thought it was interesting.
I was just thinking, well at least he didn't name them, it took only a simple google search to find an old newspaper article with the name of both the BJ giver and the receiver. It was back in'87 I doubt they still care by now, LOL
That is actually incorrect. I've been in three productions of The Glass Menagerie. I won't say which one the above story describes, but it's not the one with Stein Winge in the article you link to.