You might not immediately know the name Stephen Tobolowsky when you hear it, but if you’ve turned on the TV or gone to the movies in the last 25 years, you probably know the face. Yeah, he’s that guy.
Higher profile gigs on HBO’s Californication, the hit film Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party (2005) and his latest book The Dangerous Animals Club might threaten Tobolowsky’s sublime anonymity, but he hopes not. In a starred review, we called his book of essays, “a copiously examined life rendered with humor and heart.”
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Here, Tobolowsky explains why his perennial role as a supporting Hollywood player beats being the star of the show any day of the week—and a lot more.
Is your lack of name recognition something you embrace or wish you could change?
When I started off as a little kid wanting to be an actor, I imagined that I was going to be Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda, or someone like that. Instead, I’m Robert Middleton. He was my rabbi’s brother-in-law who was a character actor and did millions of things. My mother always used to say, “Stephen, maybe you’ll grow up to be like Robert Middleton.”
As it turns out, as you get older you kind of realize the benefit of being a Robert Middleton as opposed to being someone who has his name above the title. For example, one thing I think that’s led to the longevity of my career is that when you are a really recognizable star, a lot of times the success or failure of a venture will be pinned on you. So, if a movie does not do well, and the project sinks, guess who gets blamed for it? After that, it becomes very difficult to get work.
In a way, I’m very happy that I’ve been in great films and terrible films, and none of them really seemed to affect me. I was able to keep moving along under the radar.
With all of the success you’ve had acting, what compelled you to write?
That was a perfect storm of catastrophes. I ended up in a situation where I lost my voice. I couldn’t talk and I had to have surgery. I couldn’t audition. Then, after recovering from that, I broke my neck [while horseback riding]. I started to talk again but I couldn’t do anything else, and I was pretty much helpless. So, I started writing. All of my energies went into writing, and it dawned on me: When I broke my neck on that horse, it could have been the last moment I ever saw my kids again. So, I thought, why don’t I combine the fact that I can’t work with the fact that I am writing and start writing stories so that my sons will know who their father was?
Right at that time the managing director of [film blog] slashfilm saw a movie I did called Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party. He wanted to interview me about the movie and said, “Would it interest you to continue the movie?” I thought, well, this could be good in terms of the story I was writing for my kids.
How did you find the whole process of writing the book?
The hardest work I ever did was trying to lay sod in my backyard all by myself. The second hardest work I ever did was writing this book, because when you act on a television show, there is a discreet beginning and ending of the project. When you write, you never finish.
Now, there is a point when the publisher will say, “Hey, Stephen. This is the last rewrite. You’re finished, pal.” But you’re never finished because that story takes on a life of its own. It talks to you. It says, “We need to work here. And there’s a little thing that needs to be fixed there.” And so, it becomes very difficult to stop. But unlike laying sod in the yard, it is something that I will be doing again.
What gives you the confidence to be a good storyteller?
I trust that my instincts are pretty well common. The things that I find interesting, I think most people would find interesting. Surviving against adversity, stories of horror and hilarity that take you by surprise, people generally like those. I don’t think my taste is idiosyncratic.
I’ve also been a good reader in my life. So, I know the difference between a story and an event. I know that an event is like turning on a light. It is a one-time thing. I sat on an airplane next to Madonna, that’s an event. That’s not a story. A story has a beginning, middle and an end. And where you end up is not where you began.
Have you ever thought about writing a movie role for yourself?
I’m never shy about writing a role for myself. But I’m always smart enough to write a role for myself that’s a supporting character. I have not had the temerity to write a role for myself that’s the lead in a movie. I try to make sure that it’s a role that I might get cast in normally.
But writing a group of stories is completely different from writing a screenplay because when you write a screenplay, your work is never finished, and I don’t mean the rewrite. It might never see the light of day.
What’s your secret to instantly becoming so believable in any role you play?
Many times, actors will talk about their roles and they’ll go on and on. I’ve even found some that write journals about their roles. I try to do the opposite. I feel that if I can describe my character in fewer and fewer words, it’s more successful.
So, if I can get what my character is about in one sentence, then I feel like I know who I am.