How Hall of Fame Character Actor Stephen Tobolowsky Approaches Each Role
Forty years ago, a young character actor named Stephen Tobolowsky left his childhood home of Oak Cliff, Texas, and arrived in Los Angeles seeking to transform his love for performing into a viable career. One of his first brushes with the bright lights of fame came when he attended a taping of the Norman Lear sitcom One Day at a Time, starring Bonnie Franklin and Richard Masur. Appropriately enough, he scored his seat in the audience thanks to another Texas-born character actor, K Callan, who had a role on that episode, and whose father knew Tobolowky’s dad through the Oak Cliff branch of the Lions Club. As Tobolowsky tells it now, that behind-the-scenes experience only burnished his desire to be acting in front of the camera. “I got to see Norman Lear do the opening speech, and also met Bonnie and Richard,” he tells Yahoo TV. “It was so affecting for me.”
Cut to four decades later, and, in an “only in Hollywood” plot development, Tobolowsky is now a cast member on Netflix’s revived One Day at a Time, also overseen by Lear and starring Justina Machado and Rita Moreno. And it’s not a one-episode guest spot either; as Dr. Berkowitz, he’s central to the action as Machado’s employer and Moreno’s love interest. He didn’t pass up the opportunity to tell his new boss about their previous encounter. “I told Norman that story [recently], and he remembered K! It was wonderful. The wisdom you get from this man just by shutting up and listening to him and watching what he does or what he laughs at — it’s amazing.”
In between those Lear-created bookends, Tobolowsky has amassed some 250 credits on the big and small screen, ranging from Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day to Jack Barker on Silicon Valley. That productivity, and instant recognizability, has made him the face of modern character actor-dom. In fact, the words “character actor” prominently appear in the first sentence of his biography on his official website, and he hosts a monthly podcast, The Tobolowsky Files, filled with memorable stories about the many sets he’s worked on. Over the course of a freewheeling, nearly hour-long conversation with us, the newly inducted member of our Character Actor Hall of Fame shared some of those tales, and plenty of actorly wisdom.
Not everyone appreciates being labeled a character actor, but you seem to have really embraced it.
Well, you know, sometimes you have to play the cards you’ve been dealt. When I was 25 years old in graduate school, I wanted to be a leading man. I wanted to play Hamlet. But when my hair fell out in the shower one afternoon — and I mean all at once, like plutonium poisoning — I thought, “That’s it for me!” I had to choose to be a character actor or go back and get a degree as an accountant. And that curse turned out to be a blessing, because when you lose your hair and you wear glasses, your looks kind of stay the same for a long time. That helps develop an audience identification with you, which helps when you’re a character actor. For a long time, I would go into auditions and would hear one of two things: “Oh, it’s the guy from Groundhog Day!” or “Oh, it’s the guy from Groundhog Day…” And based on that, I would know which way the audition was going to go. [Laughs]
Having worked steadily in both film and television, have you generally seen more positivity toward being a character actor in one medium versus the other?
We’re in a whole different era, so I don’t think you can just say that it’s TV versus film. Now you have to make a differentiation for the thing that has become cable television, and the thing that has become Netflix and Hulu. That whole genre is very different from film, and very different from what television has been since its inception. From my viewpoint, TV used to always be episodic, and movies used to be about a big event. There’d be a big story in which the character actors always played the buddy or the cop or somebody trying to move the plot from Point A to Point B, or, in my case, from Point R to Point S, depending on when I entered the story.
But now, with this new genre that either comes out on the computer screen or on television, you have novels — visual novels being created either in 10, 12, or 13 installments. So there’s tons more character acting roles in that genre, because it’s not a genre that necessarily favors the visual panorama. And there are so many interesting roles in that brand of television that I don’t think have ever existed before. I’m thrilled, for example, to work on One Day at a Time or Silicon Valley, which are novels for television.
You appeared on classic examples of episodic television like Knots Landing and Cagney & Lacey early on in your career. How did those shows differ from contemporary series in terms of production?
Time is a big difference. Take Thirtysomething: I never did an episode of that show, but Timothy Busfield [who played Elliot Weston] was a friend of mine, and he would tell me that they did 14 days for a one-hour show. Fourteen days! It was very much like a movie, making Knots Landing and those kinds of shows, except with less visual fanciness. But we had time to shoot and time to rehearse, so those early shows were more like miniature movies than the way TV is filmed now. Now, everybody shoots in HD, so one chip can last for 50 minutes of shooting, as opposed to [those earlier shows] where the largest roll of film you could stick into a camera lasted 11 minutes, and you were always changing rolls or checking the gate. That also means that there’s a lot more improvisation. When I did Californication, we would have two cameras set up and do the scene as written. Then we would do it again, and just start making s*** up, and they would keep the cameras rolling.
You talked about how modern shows like Silicon Valley are like novels, so you often come into them knowing that you’ll be appearing over multiple episodes as opposed to the one-shot appearances on episodic series. Does that change the way you approach the character?
Well, when you have multiple episodes, you don’t necessarily have the same writers. So your character could be written by different people who have a different take on your character, and there could be a fundamental, existential difference in the way you see your character [evolve] over several episodes. Your character could be making a severe change, and you may have to talk to a producer and say, “Wait a minute. How does this jive with what we did a little while ago?”
It’s always nice to feel like you’re part of the bigger story, but here’s something story-wise that I found to be true. Even back in Shakespeare’s day, the idea of dramaturgy, the idea of story, is that there’s only one character in a story, and everybody else is a force. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is the only one who changes and goes on a journey, whereas everyone else in that play is a force. And in Groundhog Day, Ned Ryerson is very much a force. Bill Murray is the only real character in that movie. And before Bill meets Ned, he’s the antagonist; but once Bill starts to meet Ned repeatedly, he becomes the protagonist. The whole movie switches, and from then on Bill is the victim of being caught in time and we root for him.
It’s strange to think of Ned as a villain, but it’s true — in that moment his aggressive niceness grates.
I don’t think anybody dislikes Ned, but boy, he certainly can be irritating! [Laughs]
You’ve spoken before about how Groundhog Day was a major turning point in your career and became something everyone recognized you for. Did you have any sense that the movie would have that kind of impact?
Oh God, no! It’s the law of inverse dynamics. Whenever you’re on a movie or a TV show and you think, “This is a hit. This is fantastic,” it doesn’t always work out. When we did Groundhog Day, it was a war to make that movie. Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin were rewriting it constantly as we shot; we were getting pages hot off the press and going, “What? This is the scene now?” When I did Thelma & Louise, it was the same sort of thing. Nobody knew what we had.
Lately, I’ve been getting recognized a lot for One Day at a Time. People come up to me in theater lobbies and give me testimonials about that show. And I’ve never received that kind of fervor about a show. That’s something you usually don’t get to feel — that you’re a part of something that makes the world a little bit better. So often when you’re in entertainment, you have to think, “Am I a part of the solution or a part of the problem?” Take a look at Deadwood; it’s a magnificent piece of television art, and one of the first shows that really jumped off the high board when it came to cable television. There’s almost nothing like Deadwood. But then you go, “Well, is Deadwood making the world a better place?” In terms of being art, it does help, but I can’t imagine watching Deadwood and seeing someone pull someone’s eye out with their thumb and thinking, “Yeah, I feel like I could take the world now.”
Speaking of Deadwood, that series is very much removed from the comic roles that you’re often recognized for. Do you enjoy exploring that kind of territory?
As a character actor, you kind of have to look at drama and comedy as being the same. You have to play them both as if you really mean it, and as if there are real stakes. The difference is, when you do comedy, the stakes are usually, “You’re making something important that should not be important.” The example I give is from Meet the Parents, where Ben Stiller spray-paints the tail of a stray cat to make it look like Robert De Niro’s cat. Stiller has to approach that as if it’s the most important task he’s had in a long time, because otherwise he’s in danger of losing his love and of De Niro killing him. Whereas on a show like SVU, the stakes are, “I’m arrested for being a pedophile.” And in that case — spoiler alert! — I was a pedophile, but I was innocent of the crime, and I end up getting killed anyway. In both cases, the stakes are real and require your complete investment. But in a comedy, the worldview is skewered a little bit.
Thanks to shows like The Sopranos, we’re in an age where character actors can get their shot at being the leads of a series. Do you have that desire to be a main character or are you happy not to have to carry a series in that way?
I’m happy right now not having to carry a series. From my little time working with Vincent D’Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe on Criminal Intent, I could see how they were run ragged. They were doing 14-hour days! And when I was doing Californication, David Duchovny would be there at 6 in the morning and leave at 10 at night and was in every damn scene. I would say to him, “David, man, how do you do it?” And he told me he did it by only eating enough food to stay alive and sleeping whenever he could on breaks. It’s wonderful if you could create a great character like Tony Soprano, but there is a price to be paid. James Gandolfini had a difficult time overcoming that role for the rest of his career, whereas if you’re like me doing a regular role on shows like Californication or One Day at a Time, you can still move on to other things.
And then there are character actors like Steve Buscemi who was able to star in Boardwalk Empire for five seasons, but that role didn’t define him.
Right. Steve Buscemi was a lovely and versatile actor before Boardwalk Empire, with a lot of comedy and lot of varied roles under his belt. So I could see how he could survive playing that role for so long. And certainly Christopher Meloni, too. He left SVU and went to True Blood. So he moved genres, and also moved from network television to cable. So he was able to bypass that, but it’s difficult sometimes for a character actor.
Between One Day at a Time, The Goldbergs, and Silicon Valley, you’re currently on several shows that reach a wide variety of audiences. We hear a lot about how fractured television viewership is these days. Have you noticed that in terms of what people recognize you for?
I think [the audience] is fractured, and that gives the character actor more opportunity than ever before. It’s always been easy for the character actor to be stereotyped, but now we have the ability to play several different roles at the same time. So the fractured audience is your friend. In addition to acting, I’ve written two books of short stories. I was at a restaurant the other day, and a woman came up to me and said, “Excuse me, are you Stephen Tobolowsky, the writer?”
I’m not sure if you have any Method tendencies in your process, but have you ever done anything particularly out there to get into the mind of one of your characters?
Well, the first thing I do is ask myself: “What is my greatest hope?” And then, “What is my greatest fear?” Usually, I’m able to define 99 percent of any character I play by answering those two questions, because all of the logic comes from there. Occasionally you will get a script where you cannot figure out who you are and what you’re doing, so in those cases I ask myself a series of trivial questions like, “Jog or lift weights?” “If I came to a dinner party, would I bring salad or dessert?” By answering those questions, you can get a real sense of who you are.
Here’s something stupid I did for a part. I was in a TV movie with Veronica Hamel called Deadly Medicine, and I played a district attorney. This is one of those movies that’s ripped from the pages of a newspaper, so it was supposed to be true. I was a force in that movie in that I was Mr. Exposition, explaining to the audience on Page 55 of the script what they were going to have to do at trial to bring the real culprit to justice. So basically saying what’s going to happen in the second hour.
Watch the Deadly Medicine trailer below:
Anyway, I called up the real lawyer my character was based on. I tried to do my question thing with him; the question I would have asked was, “Am I a good lawyer or a bad lawyer?” But you can’t do that! So instead the first question I asked was, “Did you always want to be a lawyer?” And he said, “No. I wanted to be a country western singer. In fact, I always have my guitar with me whenever I interview people. It helps me think; I’ll just pluck at the guitar and ask them about the case.” The next day, I went to set with my guitar and told the director and the producers, “I just talked to the real guy, and he says he plays the guitar while he interviews.” So for this deadly boring scene I had with Veronica, I played the guitar!
Later on in the movie, I went on a date with Veronica, which was very unusual for my type of character. The director asked, “This is going to be a wide camera shot from when you park the car to when you ring the doorbell, so can you do something to pass the time?” And I said, “I’ll just sing a song.” They said, “We’ve got to get the rights to the song,” and I told them, “No, this is the song I wrote in the office when I was interviewing Veronica! This is my song, so there’s no copyright.” So that’s an example of something crazy I did, but it all comes from the logic you would use as an actor. It’s more about being a detective than anything else. You have to define the world you’re in and what you’re doing in order to be any good at it.
Was the lawyer pleased when he watched the film and saw that you had included that little detail?
I never got his reaction. I hope so! I think it went something like [singing]: “Are you still home tonight? Are you still mine? Or at a honky-tonk drinking wine?” It was a pretty moving country song. [Laughs]
Needle-drop to the 53-minute mark on the full version of Deadly Medicine to hear Tobolowsky’s original country song composition, “Honky Tonk Angel.”
Read more from Yahoo TV’s Tribute to Character Actors:
• TV’s Top 20 Character Actors Working Today
• How Margo Martindale Became ‘Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale’
• How Dylan Baker and Becky Ann Baker Became Mr. and Mrs. Character Actor
• ‘This Is Us’ Dad Ron Cephas Jones Talks His TV Takeover