Jigsaw’s back… and to coincide with the release of Saw III EMB caught up with Tobin Bell, who plays the malevolent torture artist in the hugely successful horror franchise.
It was at the end of a long day of interviews and press junkets and Bell was friendly but clearly exhausted. And that voice! Bell’s slow, deliberate delivery sounds as distinctive and spooky in real life as it does in film – although not as creepy as it did when I played back the Q and A on my Dictaphone, alone, back at my flat.
Bell himself is an erudite gentleman, happy to talk about a range of subjects, from the current situation in North Korea to his feelings about MTV culture and the relationship between violence in society and violence on film. We didn’t talk much about Saw III as no previews were available, but we did talk about Jigsaw’s morality, ‘hating’ horror movies and “sophisticated ways of perpetrating shit”.
EMB: Jigsaw has probably become one of the iconic horror villains of the modern age in a way that Freddy or Jason were in theirs. Did you anticipate the phenomenon he would become?
Tobin Bell: I never saw it coming at all. None of us did. Personally, I tend to approach one role at a time, so with the first film I was simply prepared to be a guy in the middle of the floor with a gun in one hand and a tape recorder in the other. I looked at it like a three character play, and saw the whole situation as very theatrical. I didn’t care that you didn’t see the character talk until the end. I liked the power that he had – the power of his silence. Although of course you’re not aware that he’s had that power until the end of the first film.
EMB: Your voice is used throughout the first SAW of course, without us realising who it actually belongs to.
TB: Yeah, I liked that the only way you found out what this guy was really thinking about was through the tape, through the voice. As an actor you find out so much about where a character is coming from through the voice.
So when Jigsaw talks about people, the way he talks about them and how they throw things of value away – the way they treat people in their lives as though they aren’t important – that was my key to understanding him. So I found the character through a voice, I didn’t think of him in visual terms the way you do those other characters you mention, not in the first film anyway.
EMB: In a way he’s almost a moral figure isn’t he? He never actually lies…
TB: Exactly. He seeks the truth on a certain level, and whether you agree with that or not – obviously I would never actually agree with his actions or believe what he does is right – I have to support him, support his point of view and his perspective, the way he justifies what he does. And actually when he talks about multiplicity and about the way that life has now become survival of the mediocre, rather than survival of the fittest, well, some of that stuff I can empathise with (laughs).
It’s fascinating y’know. I have had kids come up to me, 15-year-old kids, skaters come up to me and tell me how much they love the character and I’m like why? And they say ‘because he stands for something’. One kid ended up quoting back to me the line about ‘if you knew the exact moment of your own death how would it make you live life differently?’ And so you realise that kids of a generation that has grown up with a lot of vacuous stuff – a lot of self-indulgence and materialism – they’re attributing a certain kind of meaning to it, which is really powerful, also a bit scary!
Don't hang around...
EMB: Do you draw from any real life cases of sociopathic behaviour in preparation to play him?
TB: No not at all. Of course I draw from the world around me. But approaching this character is all about the details. He’s a very specific, detail-oriented person – a thinker, educated, well read. He’s a philosopher but he’s also a practical man – an engineer and a scientist. He’s not frivolous.
There's a lot of back story involved. As soon as you begin to answer one question about a particular scene or moment, that question opens up two questions. And those two new questions pose four new questions. So I work as hard as I can to know what he knows. I ask myself as many questions as I can and we go from there. There's a lot of work to be done.
EMB: An exacting process…
TB: There is no end to it really!
EMB: What are your feelings about him personally? Do you like him at all? Do you understand why he does what he does?
TB: I both like and understand him.
EMB: I read somewhere that you are not – and never have been - a fan of horror. Is that true and if so how do you reconcile that with being in one of the most sadistic horror series ever made?
TB: Its funny, I said that once somewhere – I think I might’ve done it as a bit of a joke, and it’s interesting that the quote has lived as long as it has.
I appreciate the potential that horror has to provoke and disturb. If a horror has a good script and great characters you can create a really powerful experience, like Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist – quality movies that are crafted and smart. I have to be drawn to a strong interesting character, otherwise I don’t care. I’ve never been a huge fan of going to a movie theatre just to be scared or terrified but if terrifying or scary things are happening to characters I’ve invested in, that’s different.
It’s like with Science Fiction, a film like Star Wars, I understand why people like it but it’s vacuous to me, as I don’t really care for Luke Skywalker. Close Encounters on the other hand – Dreyfuss, I identify with. So it’s about the level of characterisation and quality. When I said I don’t like horror maybe I meant I don’t like bad horror!
Working on the chain gang...
EMB: The series is known for its cruel sadism and torture. The last one had an almost medieval relish for the torture stuff and I’m guessing Saw III is even more out there. Why do you think audiences are responding to this kind of cruel horror these days?
TB: I think the resurgence in this kind of horror is because well, for one thing the technology has changed. So instead of bad special effects and laughable situations you have intricate, sophisticated effects and sequences. Basically there’s more sophisticated ways to perpetrate shit! And that’s what filmmakers are doing now. People have always wanted to see extreme stuff and now they can do more onscreen, show more intense material.
EMB: Does that element of the series disturb you at all?
TB: How do I feel about it personally? Well I don't think it’s an actors job to moralise about this stuff – I’m much more concerned about the real violence that goes on in the world, the brutality that’s perpetrated around the world and why that happens. I don’t however think there’s a connection between this kind of cinematic violence and real violence.
EMB: Maybe troubled times equals troubled movies? The resurgence of horror seems to have come at a time when a lot of scary stuff is going on in the world.
TB: I don’t know if I would make too much of that. To be honest I think a lot of the current vogue goes back to Blair Witch. Y’know a bunch of kids make a scary movie and the whole thing blows up, and suddenly everyone wants to do horror again, but they want to top what went before.
The internet contributes a lot too and I know that with Saw III the internet fan base and the responses from fans have fuelled some of the content – the traps and devices Its about topping what went before.
Tobin Bell as Jigsaw
EMB: Without giving too much away is this the last we will see of Jigsaw?
TB: I don’t think so. I don’t know exactly, but I don’t think so, no.
EMB: And finally - in one line - why should we see Saw III?
The traps man. The traps are amazing!
Saw III is released in UK and US cinemas on Friday 27th October 2006. Click below for trailer links.