In Focus

Tobin Bell: A Pivotal Piece of the 'Saw' Puzzle

Tobin Bell's killer Jigsaw has become a cult icon, returning for
Tobin Bell's killer Jigsaw has become a cult icon, returning for "Saw IV," with Betsy Russell. (Lionsgate)

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By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2007

In the past 20 years, veteran character actor Tobin Bell has played all sorts of villains, from a relentless hit man chasing Tom Cruise in "The Firm" to "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski in a made-for-television film. But it wasn't until he was cast as terminally ill killer Jigsaw in 2004's "Saw" that Bell became a cult icon. "Saw IV" opens Friday (see synopsis on Page 35), and Bell, seemingly dead at the end of last year's "Saw III," is back and promising "a big ending."

Just don't expect it to be the end for him or what has reportedly become the most successful horror franchise ever, with worldwide box office surpassing $400 million and combined sales of more than 13 million DVDs (a director's cut of "Saw III" was released Tuesday).

Ironically, "before 'Saw,' I had never done a horror film," Bell says during a visit to Washington. He didn't even watch horror films. But, he says, "you can accomplish the same thing in horror that you can accomplish in any other genre if you're determined to write good drama with characters and relationships."

Indeed, Jigsaw may be a psychopath, but he has an exacting moral agenda: His victims are murderers, adulterers and addicts who don't appreciate the gift of life. They're brought to belated, inevitably grisly justice through elaborate Rube Goldberg-like torture puzzles. Games, Jigsaw calls them, and his rules of play are firm, final and fatal.

Like the character he plays, Bell has an unusually calm, unsettling voice (more so in context, of course). Unlike the unstrung silent types who populate "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" films, his Jigsaw is extremely talkative, full of judge-jury-and-executioner validations and potential movie tag lines such as "How much blood would you shed to stay alive?" and "Oh, yes, there will be blood!"

In the first "Saw," Bell says, his on-screen presence was small but central: He spends most of the film facedown on a cell floor until one of the most shocking movie twists since "Psycho." But, he says, "I saw how pivotal Jigsaw was to the story, that whatever was happening in the film, this guy made it happen. And I did not anticipate that last moment in the slightest."

"Saw" cost $1.2 million, grossed more than $100 million worldwide in theaters and gained massive continuing success on DVD. Profitable sequels have come out every Halloween weekend since, and Bell, his role wisely expanded and exploited, has become a pop-culture icon as a genre villain, something he never anticipated.

"I always saw myself as romantic leads, sweet, empathetic guys," a bemused Bell says. "Those were the kinds of roles I chose to work on, so this was somewhat of a revelation."

Bell, 65, studied with Lee Strasberg and Ellen Burstyn at New York's Actors Studio and spent decades doing theater in New York. In the mid-'80s, he says, "I was doing off-Broadway plays three nights a week, working on my craft. And a director at the Actors Studio said, 'You know, Tobin, you've been doing that for a while. I think you should go to Hollywood and play bad guys.' "

Why?

"I'm pale, not a lot of definition around the eyes, except the eyes themselves," Bell suggests. "If you have edge or power, that can be translated in a variety of ways. If people can't tell what you're thinking, they'll generally translate that into something negative."

Bell moved to Los Angeles, and in 1988, at age 46, he landed his first film credit as a nasty FBI agent in Alan Parker's "Mississippi Burning." "Not a big role, but it arrived just at the right time," says Bell, who adds that "before that I had probably done 60 films, doing background work and stand-ins. I learned a lot doing that. Others at Actors Studio thought it was stupid or degrading. I didn't feel that way. I was making money and getting closer to the camera, where you get to see what people have to do, what's required of them, what the technical restraints are. I wanted to be close to the real thing because I always thought my future was in film."

Recognition and fame may have come late, but Bell knows how to parlay them in unusual ways.

"I coach fifth- and sixth-grade flag football," says Bell, who has a 12-year-old son. "We'll be in a huddle, working on something, and the kids'll go, 'Tobin, can you do the 'Saw' voice, just one time. C'mon.'

"So I'll do, 'Suffering? You haven't seen anything yet.' "

In that moment, he's Coach Jigsaw. Seems to motivate them just fine.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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