For his turn as the serial killer John “Jigsaw” Kane in 2004’s surprise horror hit Saw and 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 Saw films’ 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.

“You don’t make any money doing off-Broadway theater, and you can’t support a family on $150 a week,” says Bell, who remains passionate about environmental causes (the National Resources Defense Council and the Audubon Society chief among them). “But at a certain point, I felt there was something unfinished for me in the theater. My mother was an actress, and acting was deep inside me.” So Bell quit his day job and got back on the boards, supporting himself with a variety of odd jobs (painting houses, washing dishes, parking cars) until the film director Alan Parker offered him a role as an FBI agent in Mississippi Burning and things finally began to click.

“All I can suggest for actors is if you don’t hang in, you’ll never know,” he says, reflecting back on it all. “No one should ever be embarrassed to be waiting tables. If you know why you’re doing it and it permits you to stay in the game, you could be a year away, six months away, 10 years away. For me, it was 15 years of hanging in before I ever really started to make a living. But there was some part of me that believed that somebody somewhere someday would see some value in me as a film actor, and that man was Alan Parker.”

Of Saw III, which neither Bell nor I had seen at the time of this interview, the actor promises a deepening of the relationship between Jigsaw/John and the former addict Amanda (Shawnee Smith), so grateful for her forced re-education in the original film that she has subsequently devoted herself to serving as Jigsaw’s apprentice. And of course, there will be buckets of blood. “He’s very physical in Saw III,” Bell adds. “You’ll be surprised that someone who’s as weak as that can go through what he goes through.”

As for the inevitable question of a Saw IV, Bell says he doesn’t worry about continuing to play Jigsaw, provided the filmmakers keep funneling new creative energy into the series. “As long as the movie is compelling and grabs you in a different way, introduces new thoughts, makes people think, that sort of stuff. It’s entertainment, but for me it’s also my craft, and so I try to embrace it in the deepest way that I can. I always try to make something as important as it can be for me. I have no control over the results — whether the editor edits it right, whether the producers cut my scenes out. All I have control over is how much I embrace the material and try to make it seem as if it’s happening for the first time.”

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