In Character

Oh, that guy: Stephen Tobolowsky

It's the actor's dream, to have more work than there is time to do it. At times, it may not all be the most pleasurable work, but for every paycheck there is the payday of working with a Ridley Scott, a Michael Mann, a Harold Ramis, a Norman Jewison, a Christopher Nolan. Kimball High School and SMU grad Stephen Tobolowsky, still in his early 50s, is the sort of actor you can trust; you see his face and know he will not disappoint, he will give his all no matter the quality of the piece, be it a Memento, in which he played Sammy Jankis, the product of Guy Pierce's lost memory, or a Country Bears, which he insists ranks among his best experiences making films. "When you act, there's no middle gear: It requires an enormous amount of energy and concentration to do it, so you always give it your best," says the man who has substantial roles in Thelma & Louise, The Grifters, The Insider, Groundhog Day, Sneakers and Mississippi Burning. "When you start getting to that jaded point where you go, like, 'Well, I'm not going to read the script, I'm not going to learn my lines, I'm going to give it 50 percent,' you might as well just quit."

Long ago, Tobolowsky was a guitarist in A Cast of Thousands, among Stevie Ray Vaughan's earliest bands ("Stevie Ray was much better than I was," says the man who does not possess a bluesman's last name) during their tenure at Kimball. Where Vaughan would move to Austin, Tobolowsky moved to Los Angeles, where he began taking bit parts in film and TV in the late '70s; by 1984 he had a small role in Jonathan Demme's Swing Shift and would accrue a filmography that would span from Seinfeld to Spaceballs. A recent Tony Award nominee for his performance in Morning's at Seven, Tobolowsky will be in his hometown April 26 to attend the USA Film Festival--as both a juror for the National Short Film & Video Competition (along with his friend Mary Kay Place), and as an honoree. The fest will fete the actor with a highlight reel of his work, followed by a post-screening Q&A; not for nothing has the festival subtitled its homage, "You know, that guy..."

It's interesting that in the press materials, they refer to you as, "You know, that guy."

I'm shooting Garfield, and some of the younger people on the set said, "Gosh, you look familiar. Were you in this? Were you in that?" You know--they can't quite place it, but then it's like, well, I've done 90 movies and something like 130 sitcoms and something like 60 or 70 one-hour shows. It's enough to make you want to scream. After a while there's good and bad about it all. I remember there was a period of time when I would go in to audition and the casting director would either say [excitedly], "Oh, you're that guy!" or they would go [disappointedly], "Oh, you're that guy." It's a blessing and a curse, but it's certainly better than the alternative of not having done anything.

When you were at SMU could you have believed you would end up working so much?

It's funny; when you're at SMU, studying acting is studying Shaw and Shakespeare and Chekhov and Ibsen. Then you leave SMU, and you never see that stuff again. I mean, that's it. When you're doing stage, you're dealing with some of the world's greatest literature--at least for the last 400 years--and when you're doing film and television, like yesterday I did CSI: Miami with David Caruso, and you're going, "We have the prints from the lab? OK, I'll get back to you."

Did your studies mean anything, then?

I called up Jack Clay, my old teacher from SMU, a couple months ago. He's like 76 years old now and in Portland or Seattle and one of the big actors up there. I was just telling him--besides, "Thank you for all the good stuff at SMU"--about how all the stuff that we learned really does come in handy, but not in the way you think it will. There's a lot of repetition in Shaw, and Jack would say, "You have to find a different way of saying this each time, because it's a motif in the script and each thing that's said, you have to come up with a new way of doing it." And now when you do sitcoms and you're being the dad who's barbecuing hamburgers and you come in, "Now, who else wants a burger?" and have to say that three times, you have to find some way of making that different each time. It's not exactly what you learned, but it comes in handy.

You've worked with an impressive roster of filmmakers. Still, I assume there are those you'd still want to...

Steven Spielberg! I was over at Amblin the other day, and Steven walked in and he says, "You know, we haven't worked together," and I said, "I know, sir." And he says, "Well, we've got to do that," and I said, "You know, I'll even wash your car. Whatever it takes." But you're right, this has been an enormous education, and one thing I've learned is, no matter who the director is they almost always save the most dangerous thing, where an actor could get killed, for the last shot.

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