Because of my friendship with actress Ellen Dubin and my association with Kyle Hester and the indie horror film The Chair, a certain actor’s name kept popping up in my feed about whom I knew very little–Bill Oberst, Jr. After a bit of research, I realized that much of his well-known work was in a genre I often tend to eschew–horror. While I do watch an isolated horror flick here and there depending upon the content and the cast and crew involved, it is not the genre I typically choose, especially because my time to watch movies is often after 11 P.M., and there is not much worse than watching a horror movie right before retiring! Regardless, as I began to do more extensive research about Bill, I discovered some truly intriguing items in his biography, and I decided to request an interview with him. He quickly agreed, and we covered a wide variety of topics–everything from why he is an actor, his notable works, and even an amiable nod to his two Hallmark films!
RH: Why did you decide to become an actor?
BO: Ruth, thanks for letting me speak to you and to your readers. I never consciously decided to become an actor; the desire was in me from my earliest memory and I just followed it. I think God gives each of us a calling–a vocation. The trick is to make your occupation and your vocation match up.
What is it that drew you to horror films and especially independent horror films?
I loved the classic Universal horror movies (Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, etc.) as a kid, but I never imagined acting in one. My interest was always in history, so my stage career was built on historical roles, which led to a TV role as General William Tecumseh Sherman in a Civil War docudrama called Sherman’s March on The History Channel. When I came to LA eight years ago, I imagined that I would be a character actor working in historical drama. Instead, I became a starving actor working in nothing. Until I discovered that I am scary. Then I could buy food, so I kept doing it. I do work in other genres, but my horror/thriller work seems to get the most attention.
I understand that your character on Criminal Minds is one that made history as far as ratings go. How did that role come about?
Matthew Gray Gubler, who plays Dr. Reid on the show, was directing an episode and asked me to play the serial killer. Matthew is a classic horror fan, and he wanted to create an homage to the genre with that character and the guest cast, which included Tobin Bell (from the Saw movies) and the wonderful Adrienne Barbeau. The character, written by Criminal Minds producer Breen Frazier, had a heartbreaking background that elicited sympathy, and makeup genius Christopher Allen Nelson designed a look that paid homage to my silent movie hero, Lon Chaney. That role epitomized the character type I love best within this genre – the wounded monster. CBS placed the character on their list of “The Most Terrifying Serial Killers In Criminal Minds History.” He was never captured.
Tell us about Take This Lollipop and your association with that work. I understand it won a Daytime Emmy.
Take This Lollipop is a terrifying little Facebook app which went viral (over 100 million views worldwide) and won a Daytime Emmy Award in 2012 The competition in its category that year was The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Today Show and The Bold And The Beautiful, so the win was a surprise, to say the least. Director Jason Zada created it with a team of producers and web designers, and I am the actor in it. If your readers want to experience it, Take This Lollipop is still online at takethislollipop.com. You have to give it permission to access your public Facebook profile (it is safe, I promise!)
My Hallmark readers will know you from The Shunning and The Confession. How did you get involved with these two Hallmark films? What was that experience like and what did you like about working with Hallmark? Was it a challenge to do something family-friendly as opposed to horror films?
Director Michael Landon, Jr. and producer Brian Bird, who helmed these Hallmark Channel adaptations of the Beverly Lewis books, are wonderfully gracious men. They gave an actor whose film resume was almost exclusively horror at the time the opportunity to play something close to his soul. I remember talking to Michael when he called to say that he was going to pitch me to the network for this role, and that he would go to bat for me because he believed, based on my audition, that I could play the type of paternal role I’d never been offered because of my rather harsh on-camera look. He did, and I am so grateful. Michael, Brian and the Hallmark Channel team are all the epitome of the class act. Working with them was a career high mark for me.
Ellen Dubin speaks very highly of you. I believe you and she did a “Suspense” radio broadcast together. Please tell us about that. When I interviewed her, she said she looks forward to the day when you and she make a movie together.
I love Ellen Dubin! In art, as in life, sometimes there is just a chemistry – although you cannot explain it, you feel it. In the recording booth in Hollywood for that episode of the radio revival of the old “Suspense” series, we both felt it. Strange. I, too, hope for a reprise.
I read something about you touring as Jesus of Nazareth in a production. Please tell us about that experience and how you got involved with it.
Yes, I toured in a solo recreation of the teaching of Jesus called Jesus Of Nazareth for well over 1,000 performances from 1994 to 2010. There’s a page on this on my website at http://www.billoberst.com/jesus-of-nazareth. I wondered what it would be like to hear the teachings of Jesus as fresh and revolutionary and surprising (rather than predictable, staid and boring), so I created this little touring presentation to find out. I’ve done it for people of every faith and for people of no particular faith. The astounding thing is how Jesus and His words unify and reconcile. His words liberate. A gruff old man (who, the preacher told me, had not darkened the door of that church in years) told me after one of these presentations, “I don’t give a damn for religion, but Jesus is all right.” Well, I say Amen to that!
While I have not seen The Chair yet, I know you play a prominent role in that. Please tell us about that work and why it is so significant.
The Chair is an adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name by Peter Simeti. It’s a mixture of a death row prison movie and a horror film. Chad Ferrin, the director, asked me to play the warden of the prison, who appears in two different versions of reality with two distinctly different looks. I wanted to work with Chad, and that duality appealed to me. As an added bonus I got to work with my pal Ezra Buzzington (of The Artist, the John Malkovich series Crossbones and dozens of others) and Natalie Grossman of American Horror Story, who plays my mother in flashback sequences.
What other upcoming/current works can you tell us about?
TV-wise, I’m on my way to Germany and the Czech Republic soon to play SS General Hans Kammler for Austrian director Andreas Sulzer. Hans Kammler was Hitler’s head of weapons development, was in charge of the German effort to develop an atomic bomb, and disappeared rather mysteriously after the war.
Film-wise, I have a feature shoot in South Africa playing a ghost later this spring.
Stage-wise, I’m developing a new project about my favorite author, Ray Bradbury, and I’ve just started touring a solo performance of The Gospel Of Mark.
If you were cast in a horror remake, what iconic character would you be honored (or terrified) to play?
Erik of The Phantom Of The Opera. In the 1909 novel, Erik was not disfigured as a result of an accident – he was born that way. He is a misfit, a freak, an outcast from the moment of his birth. Yet he is, in reality, bent and twisted not by genetics, but by the cruelty of mankind. That cruelty is, I think, innate and inescapable. It is original sin. It is the most persuasive argument for redemption. The 1925 Lon Chaney film version is faithful to this interpretation. In the unmasking scene, Erik rages over the terrified Christine, “Feast your eyes! Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!” but it is Christine, who seems the real monster. She loved only what she imagined was outwardly beautiful. I salivate for that role.
Your bio on IMDB mentions your being a person of faith which is in contrast to your macabre on-screen characters. Some might question how you are able to remain true to your faith and still act in horror films. How would you respond to these potential critics?
I’m a Christian believer. What that means to me is that I am a follower of Jesus. I’m in love with Him. I have been since I first heard about Him. On my end, my relationship with Christ has been, by turns, faithfully devoted and willfully obstinate. On His end, it has been unfailingly faithful. He has never wavered. If I want to work on camera, because of my outward appearance, I will be asked to play evil. The camera plays to our mental archetypes. But if the Lord, after I have asked Him to have His will and His way in my life, opens a door to me to portray evil, I am going to portray it with conviction and purpose – that purpose being to make the viewer feel a chill. I won’t make a joke of it. I’d love to play the angel. But if I am called upon to play the devil, I’m going to try, with God’s help, to do it so as to make hell tremble. I’m going to call the devil out. And I’m going to do it in the name of Jesus.
Is there is anything I haven’t asked about that you’d like to add?
Thank you for asking. I’m sometimes asked what films I am most proud of having been a part of. One of those is The Retrieval. It’s a coming-of-age story set in the waning days of the Civil War. It’s an American story and it’s a soul story. It’s available online. There are links at http://theretrieval.com. I commend it to your readers and especially to young people, for the message it contains
I think it is safe to say that God does indeed move in mysterious ways. I went into this interview thinking, “I’m going to interview a horror iconic actor, and that will bring a different flavor, and thus, different visitors to my site.” Little did I know that God had other ideas in mind. On the day I first reviewed Bill’s answers, I was incredibly overwhelmed with the uniqueness of his testimony and his boldness in speaking forth the truth of salvation while still adhering to what some would call an unusual calling in his life. A few years ago, I would have been the one criticizing actors and other industry professionals who are committed Christians, but work on projects that don’t appear (on the surface) to correspond with their espoused beliefs. I used to be a rather judgmental believer before God decided to allow a few harsh lessons that knocked me around and showed that I was not the paragon of virtue who had the right to judge other believers in areas such as this. While that disparaging nature still crops up now and then, by the grace of God, it is all but eradicated from my life.
As for Bill, I am eternally grateful for his pragmatism, his frankness, and his sincerity in answering every question with grace and fervency. There is no doubt in my mind that God has called Bill to the profession in which is blessed to work, and his influence is far-reaching on levels of which he may not even be aware this side of eternity. While I may still avoid some of the works he has done as they are not my cup of tea per se, I can rest in the knowledge that Bill is pursuing his passion with unmitigated and God-imbued giftedness, deep humility, and an intense conviction concerning the work he is privileged to do. I greatly anticipate looking up some of his works (I think I may have to go back and watch those Hallmark movies again as it’s been awhile), and God only knows what the future holds for a man of his unique and exceptional talents. I would ask that everyone check out the links listed below as I believe there is something there for each of my readers to spark an insatiable interest. Furthermore, I invoke God’s blessing on Bill’s works as he depicts the unfathomless depravity of sin in mankind in hopes of leading one and all to the only Light that can rescue humanity from its horrendous fate.
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