Bell continues to conquer in 'Saw'
"I am so ready to play a gay nightclub owner, a man who dances and has this great joie de vivre."
Tobin Bell is pitching the world's movie makers, tossing the idea that casting him against type — as say a doctor, lawyer, nightclub owner or orchestra conductor — would be a pretty cool idea.
Not that he's not grateful for the work that's come along. He was a sixtysomething character player from The Actor's Studio when fame came calling, in the form of a little low-budget horror movie that launched a genre — "torture porn" — and a franchise. The tall, blond Bell, with his owlish eyes and judgmental whisper of a voice, has been John Kramer, aka "Jigsaw," in seven "Saw" movies since 2004. "Saw 3D" opens today, but was not screened for critics.
The movies cast Bell, 68, as a wealthy dying man who conceives elaborate tortures for people he deems unworthy of life, putting each person in a deadly dilemma that requires them to do something awful to themselves or someone else as a way of teaching them to appreciate life. The films have been so successful, coming out every year just in time for Halloween, that the little matter of Bell's character dying in the series hasn't stopped them, or even slowed them down. His tape-recorded messages, his acolytes and his menace live on.
Those "essential 'Saw' moments" are flashbacks," Bell says. "They fill in the story. In 'Saw III,' there was a flashback to the moment before John Kramer lay down on the floor in the pool of blood. Fans tell me how much they look forward to those, trying to work it out."
Though the middle films in the series earned awful, even derisive reviews, "Saw VI" provoked praise for Bell's "nasty moral philosopher and judge" (The Boston Globe).
" 'Saw' has been a puzzle," Bell says. "It doesn't play out in a linear way. It goes forward and backward, and sometimes what you think you're seeing you're not really seeing. Piecing it together has been a real challenge for every filmmaker they've brought in to do these, making those pieces fit."
Tim Anderson, a writer for the horror site Bloodydisgusting.com, says Bell "really understands how to intone the moral certainty of the character ... sympathetic, yet fearsome. Bell sitting across from Donnie Wahlberg in 'Saw II' and just talking for the entire film is a mesmerizing performance."
Bell knows he's been typecast, thanks to "Saw." But he knew that upon coming to Hollywood. He'd been a struggling actor on the New York stage for years, when his Actor's Studio mentor Catlin Adams decided to have "the character actor chat" with him.
"She said, 'You can take this any way you want, but you should go to Hollywood and start playing bad guys. You'd be good at it.'
"I was astounded. I thought I was going to play sensitive intelligent romantic leads."
But even if life isn't working out as he'd planned, Bell has no complaints. Strap him to one of Jigsaw's torture gadgets and Bell justifies himself this way — "I coach my son's Pony League baseball team, I hike the White Mountains, I play guitar. And I work.
"Remember what John Kramer always says. 'Appreciate your blessings.' 'Saw' has been a great blessing for me."