He’s baaaack! John Kramer (aka the Jigsaw Killer) has more life and death lessons to teach in Jigsaw, the eighth film in the Saw franchise and the first in seven years. Tobin Bell reprises his iconic role as the killer who devises ingenious deathtraps for those he feels do not appreciate the value of their lives. In Jigsaw, a new series of murders carry Kramer’s distinctive stamp; a neat trick seeing as how Kramer died in Saw III.
Bell spoke to Redbox about reviving John Kramer, his own love of radio, and what Jigsaw and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri have in common.
Redbox: Were you surprised there would be a new Saw film after such a long break?
Tobin Bell: I wouldn’t say I was surprised because, frankly, I’ve been very impressed with the level of fan enthusiasm for the franchise. Even over the years we weren’t making the films, fans seemed really rabid about wanting more. So I was gratified they decided to give it a shot and even more gratified that fans responded to Jigsaw the way they did (the $10 million film earned more than $100 million at the box office worldwide).
Redbox: What drew you to playing John Kramer?
Tobin Bell: James Wan and Leigh Whannell (who co-wrote the original Saw) had very specific (themes) that we’ve held to as the films have progressed, like being grateful for one’s existence, or the treatment of the terminally ill by the medical community. They weren’t satisfied to just make a scary movie, and I wanted to honor that.
Redbox: How do you approach fleshing out a character over the course of eight films?
Tobin Bell: I keep a journal. I go into a CVS and I buy the kinds of composition books you used back in middle school. They travel well, I must say. I fill them with notes. Questions about a character prompt other questions, and hopefully I have enough answers so I can play this guy and be credible within my own skin.
Redbox: With the success of the first Saw, you became one of those overnight sensations who had actually been making films for 25 years. Do you think it benefited you as an actor to have a chance to develop your craft in the trenches rather than achieve instant success your first film out?
Tobin Bell: A resounding yes. I have done major motion pictures, but you learn a lot more doing crap. When something is not particularly well written, you have to work harder and smarter. It’s like playing tennis. You play on (lousy) courts with terrible nets and bad equipment, but once you get on a good court, you know how to make the most of an opportunity.
Redbox: You’ve had great opportunities, appearing in some of the best films of the last 35 years: Tootsie, The Firm, and In the Line of Fire, to name a few. Is there an experience among these that stands out for you?
Tobin Bell: Working with director Sidney Lumet on The Verdict. I played a courtroom reporter so I got a first row seat (in the courtroom). I could listen to what Sydney would suggest to Paul Newman or James Mason. I was there two and a half weeks, and I learned a great deal. I was a member of the Actors Studio and had worked in lots of plays, but my dream was to be a film actor. So I thought the closer I got to the camera, the more I would be closer to the day-to-day reality of what that kind of work is.
Redbox: Your mother was an actress and your father was in radio. With your distinctive voice, did you ever consider a career in broadcasting?
Redbox: Yeah, I did! My father used to do an early morning radio show on a small station in Massachusetts. He got up at four in the morning and he was on the air by five. There were times they didn’t have anybody who would get up at that hour, so sometimes he dragged me out of bed, threw me in the car, and drove 30 miles to the frickin radio station to do his new breaks. I was 15 years-old. I love radio. All the (musical) greats like Bob Dylan learned what they learned listening late at night to (out-of-state) stations. When I went to camp I would listen to Red Sox games under the covers on a portable radio.
Redbox: The movies have given us Freddy vs. Jason and Alien vs. Predator. How do you think Jigsaw would match up against those move monsters?
Tobin Bell: (Laughs) I have absolutely no idea. I have met Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger). What a great guy.
Redbox: The Oscar nominations were just announced. Do you have a favorite film from this year?
Tobin Bell: Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri. I absolutely loved it. I love the performances, but most of all, it comes down to the writing. I hate to make this jump, but I thought Josh Stolberg’s writing on Jigsaw was very strong. I’m so excited that Millennials will be able to add it to their Saw collection.
Redbox: If there is another film in the series, do you want to play Jigsaw again or are you ready to pass the torch?
Tobin Bell: I pass no torches! John Kramer is a huge character, and there are nooks and crannies that have not been fully explored. Lets talk about the origins of (the puppet) Billy, for example.