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Actor Stephen Tobolowsky on Nailing the Role of Jack Barker in Silicon Valley

Stephen Tobolowsky's strength as an actor is that he finds complexity in all of his characters; he doesn't believe stories can always be reduced to a struggle between good and evil. Take, for instance, the Dallas native's role as "Action" Jack Barker in the current, third season of Silicon Valley, the HBO comedy created by fellow Texan Mike Judge that looks at the ever-morphing tech industry.

Barker, a heavy hitter in tech, is hired to replace the freshly fired Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) as Pied Piper's new CEO. Initially, Barker sets himself up as a mentor to the easily discouraged Hendricks and his band of programming misfits, who've built a potentially huge music app using Hendricks' groundbreaking compression algorithm. Barker even refuses to take the CEO offer if Hendricks won't be part of Pied Piper. 

However, Barker changes his tune after Hendricks agrees to stay. He blocks Hendricks' efforts to turn his algorithm into something more meaningful, on the scale of the next iPhone, in favor of a bland storage unit boringly dubbed "The Box" that will be easier to sell and therefore help the company earn stock points. Soon Hendricks and his team are scheming to stop Barker's "Box" from selling out the company's original vision.

Tobolowsky's IMDB page is a mile long. He's also been in shows such as The Goldbergs and Californication, and films including Thelma & Louise, Groundhog Day and Memento. His vast experience allows him to operate Barker's emotional states with the ease of pushing buttons on a universal remote. Barker switches from caring and concerned one moment to cold and downright cross in the next. When he screams at fellow board member Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller), it's enough to make you squirm in your chair. 

Silicon Valley this year has a great balance between challenge and triumph for Richard," Tobolowsky says, "and that’s why I find this season very suspenseful and also very rewarding and just thrilling.” It's easy to label Barker a villain, but Tobolowsky says he's not sure Barker earns the title.

"Rather than seeing Jack as a villain, I really see him as a shapeshifter," Tobolowsky says. "One thing I told to Mike Judge — and again, not a spoiler — but I never lied to Richard ... I never said the timeframe. Richard says, 'How can he stab me in the back?' and Bachman says, 'He stabbed you in the front.' I didn't stab anybody anywhere. It was attention to detail. I forced Richard to have attention to detail to where he is able to confront me and says, 'You can't do this because you can't' and now Richard has the detail and he comes at me and I smile at him and go, 'What do you want?' and in a way, I'm proud of him that he has evolved."

What makes Silicon Valley captivating is that it is the hero's journey and we see ourselves so much as Richard because he has created this unique bit of genius," Tobolowsky says. "He has created fire and everyone around him is either envious of the fire, wants to support him and the fire or wants to steal the fire. So you are looking at all of the forces around him and the pressure those forces put on him, forcing him to evolve, and it's his evolution that we find so interesting."

Tobolowsky says that when he got the call to audition for the role last summer, he had never seen a single episode of Silicon Valley. So he bought the first two seasons on Blu-Ray and binge-watched them to get ready for the audition. He loved what he saw but that presented him with a serious obstacle. 

"I absolutely fell in love with the show," he says. "It was spectacular and this is a problem because you don't want to be a fan of the show you're auditioning for. The kiss of death in any audition is the smell of desperation when an actor walks in and wants it so badly. That stench of desperation gets even stronger when you're a huge fan of the show. I'm not saying you can't be a huge fan of the show. You have to quell your enthusiasm before you go in. You have to keep your mind on task." 

It took a few months to get a callback and it came right as Tobolowsky was about to present his latest storytelling documentary, The Primary Instinct, at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas. (The film follows a performance in Seattle, built from stories he wrote while recovering from a near-fatal horseback riding injury.) Judge and company were ready to bring Tobolowsky on board for season 3 but he had also already booked a couple of movie projects while he waited to hear back about the Barker role. 

"They said don't worry about it," he says. "We'll work around your schedule. So they began shooting their season and were off and running, and when I finished the second movie, I came back. I want to say something like the second or third week of October I went back to LA and they shot my first four episodes and my scenes in only 10 days. ... For those 10 days, I realized what it was like to be David Duchovny, where you are in every scene all the time of whatever project you're working on. So it was very intense, very concentrated, very exciting and a tremendous amount of fun.”

Tobolowsky says he's already hard at work on making his IMDB page even longer, most notably as a cast member on Netflix's Latino reboot of the classic sitcom One Day at a Time, helmed by legendary TV pioneer Norman Lear. "He is 93 years old and still as brilliant as can be and as sharp as can be," he says. "When he gives us notes, they're brilliant and they're great." 

The schedule for One Day at a Time is more fast-paced than a traditional movie shoot or even his stint on Silicon Valley since it's being shot as a 13-episode season sitcom in front of a live studio audience and released all at once on Netflix's streaming platform. "It's like shooting a play," Tobolowsky says. "You have a live audience and you have three days to rehearse the show, one day to rehearse the show with cameras, and on the fifth day, they bring in the audience. The next day, you start all over again with a new script."

Another project on the horizon is the impending movie based on Deadwood, the gritty HBO western starring Ian McShane as the swear word-slinging entertainment entrepreneur Al Swearengen. Movie news rags reported in January that it was officially underway.

Tobolowsky, who played commissioner Hugo Jarry in nine episodes of the acclaimed three-season series, says he hasn't received a script and it's not on his shooting schedule at this point in time. "The last I heard, it was off," he says. "Now it may be on again but the last I heard is that it was off. I don't know though. I'm not the first one who gets the phone call on that one." 

But Tobolowsky says he'd love to return to the role of Hugo Jarry in the big screen continuation of the dark and muddy drama. "There are a lot of people they need to get a hold of before they get to me but if they were to ask and if I was free, I'd jump on it," he says. "I love Deadwood."

The Tobolowksy name has made headlines in Dallas recently for a tragic reason. Local lawyer Ira Tobolowsky, Stephen's cousin, was gruesomely murdered last month, likely over a dispute related to the execution of a will. Stephen Tobolowsky says his projects keep him so busy that he hasn't often been able to return to Dallas to visit with his family.

When he does visit he tries to catch productions at the local theater institutions where he initially honed his craft. During one recent stay he saw shows at the Dallas Theater Center and Dallas Opera, which he described as "just a really phenomenal theater experience." 

He's impressed with the caliber of performers that Dallas produces and how its arts community continues to grow. "Joe Nemmers is a Dallas actor, but they are talking about him here in LA," he says. "That guy's fantastic, but there are so many great actors in Dallas that I've seen, like at the Kitchen Dog Theater. There were so many terrific actors there. There is a huge base in Dallas of really superlative talent." 

Of course, Tobolowsky says that the only way these performers can grow and theaters can attract more talent is if people are willing to pay them to perform. "It's great to have world-class facilities, but you have to give money to the artists, writers, directors and producers that put shows in those facilities, because with art, if you build it, they will come," Tobolowsky says, "and by build it, I don't mean the building."
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.