By Amy Nicholson
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For his turn as the serial killer John “Jigsaw” Kane in 2004’s surprise horror hit Sawand its even more successful 2005 sequel, Tobin Bell has been showered with the sort of honors most performers literally never dream of. First, there was an MTV Movie Award nomination for Best Villain, then a Spike TV Scream Award nomination for Most Vile Villain and (lest we forget) a Fuse/Fangoria Chainsaw Award for Best Butcher. But for Bell, who reprises his role in the efficiently titled Saw III (which opens this weekend), the fiendishly clever Jigsaw is more than your run-of-the-mill, slasher-movie baddie.
“I view him as a person who is driven by his particular philosophy, who has decided that it’s not enough to ruminate on things, but rather acts on his convictions, as disturbing as those convictions may be,” says the tall and frizzy-haired 59-year-old over coffee at Shutters in Santa Monica, his imposing physique and hawklike stare giving way to a warm voice and gentle demeanor. “That’s not to say that I, Tobin Bell, justify what the man does. But I don’t think of him in terms of being a villain. As an actor, if you go in the obvious direction that a character is supposed to be , it’s not the most interesting approach. It’s more interesting to show the fullness of someone’s personality or character. We were all children at some point in time. We all have been held or not held.”
Indeed, key to the Sawfilms’ grisly appeal is the fact that Jigsaw doesn’t kill his victims outright; instead he submits them to elaborate, Rube Goldberg–like torture puzzles — a spring-loaded “reverse bear trap” wired to your jaw and triggered by a countdown timer, for example — from which escape is possible, but only at risk of life and/or limb. Nor does he choose his victims at random. To receive an invitation to his party, you have to be a drug addict, adulterer, white-collar criminal or anyone else who, in the opinion of this self-appointed judge, jury and sometime executioner, doesn’t fully appreciate the value of his or her own life. And unlike Seven’s biblically motivated madman, Jigsaw’s moral absolutism bears decidedly secular origins. A terminal cancer patient, he rages against insurance-company loopholes, industry profit margins and assorted other signposts of a society where self-interest triumphs over the greater human good. It’s a plum part — a horror henchman for the epoch of the Florida election and the Iraq war — and one that Bell has invested with an emotional and psychological complexity that takes the character well beyond gimmicky proportions. At a moment ripe with nihilistic movie bloodbaths, he’s given us that rare cinematic serial killer who may be more humane than most of his victims.
“I think it’s important that we know he decided to climb into the pit and to play by the same rules that some of the bad guys in this world play by, and to beat them at their own game,” he says. “We all have our gripes, but we don’t all act out on them in the way that he, in a very meticulous way, does. But that doesn’t mean that he’s coming from some ‘Boo! I’m going to get you!’ kind of place. He’s a scientist — a very methodical engineer.”
So is the actor playing the role. Talk for a while with the classically trained Bell, who studied Method Acting at the legendary Actors Studio in New York, and he’ll tell you about the deep preparation he goes through for any performance, like the time he wrote 140 pages of “background” for a supporting part as one of the shadowy figures pursuing Tom Cruise high and low in the 1993 film version of John Grisham’s The Firm.
“What logic puts a blond-haired Nordic guy in Memphis, Tennessee, as a tail?” he says, noting his own ability to stand out in a crowd. “How do I justify that? You see, you know everything you’ve done since the minute you got out of bed this morning. You know it because it’s real. You know that the car wouldn’t start. You know that you stopped for coffee and you ran into your old girlfriend and how that made you feel. Then you stopped to get the mail and the key was broken. All of that stuff is there. But an actor has to say a line as simple as ‘I’m exhausted’ — well, what does he mean by that? What kind of exhausted?”
In The Firm, Bell’s character was credited as “the Nordic Man,” which was perfectly in keeping with an early screen career in which the actor played such similarly anonymous roles as “Parole Officer” in GoodFellas, “Barman” in the TV movie Vendetta: Secrets of a Mafia Bride and “Hospital Administrator” in an episode of ER. But those parts were a godsend to Bell, who started out as a struggling off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway stage actor in the 1970s, only to eventually throw in the towel, get a master’s degree in environmental science and take a teaching post at the New York Botanical Garden. That’s right: Before he started scaring people for a living, Tobin Bell was trying to save the planet.
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