Bill Oberst Jr. is a film saver. Each role of his I’ve seen, he always completely commits to the performance, whether he’s playing a redneck cannibal, a cyber stalker or the 16th President of the United States. His most recent film, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, is a bit of a mess, but none of that lays at the feet of Oberst, whose Lincoln is powerful, noble and pretty damn badass with a scythe. Oberst Jr. is on the cusp of becoming a very known quantity and has a very good chance at becoming America’s next boogeyman. I had a chance to chat with Oberst Jr. through email, while he is in Los Angeles prepping to start shooting four movies in June. Here was our conversation.
Jared: What drew you to accept the role of Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies?
Bill: I’ll tell you the honest truth. I didn’t ask for it. I knew about the role and Lord knows I have loved Abraham Lincoln since I was a boy and had played him onstage in the 90’s, but I didn’t pursue it. I didn’t think I was right for it. Lincoln is such a specific role which carries so many expectations and his face is so well-known, you know? I figured there were dozens of better actors than I am who specialized in playing him who could do a bang-up job. Then I got a phone call from David Michael Latt, the co-founder of Asylum. I said “David, I’m not right for this role. Why would you want me? I don’t look like him, I haven’t even read the script and I was terrible in the last movie I did for you.” He said “I want you to do this.” People do not generally say no to David Latt. So I got my ass on a plane and went to Savannah to play Abraham Lincoln.
Jared: Are you talking about your work in A Haunting in Salem that you’re unhappy with? What do you feel the problem was?
Bill: Yes I was. I was awful. I damaged the film and let down the rest of the cast by not connecting with my character. The reviews of my work in it were brutal and well-deserved. I spent months analyzing what I had done wrong. When I figured it out I wrote a mea culpa blog post called “Goodbye Normal”
as an apology to the fans, the other actors and the crew (I am German so I tend to go overboard with the self-flagellation.) I would not have hired me again after that performance.
Jared: Well, it didn’t seem like you had any trouble connecting with Lincoln. What was your process for getting into the head of such a culturally significant figure?
Bill: Lincoln’s soul is complex and frequently dark. Lincoln broods and says things like “I see the storm coming, and I know His hand is in it.” Lincoln is melancholy and loves poems about death. Lincoln’s personality is dripping with regret. He is up to his over-size knees in angst. And he loves to tell off-color farm jokes. How could I not be in his head? He is me. He is America. He is what makes us a great nation and a dangerous nation, all wrapped up in one man. The fact that he ever, ever became President is either a freak accident of history…or destiny; God’s providence to America. Those are all of the thoughts that I carried in my head and on my shoulders on the set of this zombie movie. It didn’t matter to me if he was fighting Mary Todd or Robert E. Lee or zombies. He was Abraham Lincoln. And he would be respected.
Jared: Because you had such a solid grasp of Lincoln, was it easier to ground him in such an outlandish situation?
Bill: Yes! All you have to do to be a camera actor is tell the truth. The situation is irrelevant. Lincoln could be on the moon. He’s still Lincoln. I used to tour with first-person stage portrayals; Jesus Of Nazareth, Mark Twain, JFK…sometimes I’d be in a gym; sometimes on a huge stage; sometimes in a community center. But if the character is present, the historical anomalies don’t matter. So Mark Twain reads from Huckleberry Finn next to a Pepsi machine – so what? Maybe he would have liked Pepsi! So Abe Lincoln beheads the living undead – so what? He would surely have done it resolutely and with mercy. Then he would have told an off-color farm joke. While wiping off the blood.
Jared: Was it sort of a running joke on set about your film’s similarities to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or are you guys just too busy working to really focus on that. Obviously, The Asylum is in the mockbuster business, but does the other property ever cast a shadow over the day to day?
Bill: There were jokes on the first day about the ridiculously monumental budget difference. Someone calculated that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’s breakfast catering budget was larger than our entire movie budget…that sort of thing. But then we got too busy making our movie to think about anybody else’s. I’m going to see it. Of course it will be tremendous. I am sure Benjamin Walker has no idea I exist. He’ll be a terrific Lincoln, with all the darkness and atmosphere that money can buy.
Jared: At what point did you realize acting was what you wanted to do? Your IMDB credits only go back to 2007, so what other jobs were you doing in order to support your acting?
Bill: I haven’t had a day job in 18 years – have been a full time working actor since 1994. I had a 14-year career in professional touring stage on the east coast before I switched to film and moved to LA in 2008. I love the stage and left it reluctantly, but the first film role I ever did (General Sherman in the docudrama Sherman’s March) had gotten a write-up on the front page of The Wall Street Journal and my father’s marketing genes kicked in. I knew if I was ever going to come to LA that was the moment. Sherman got me an agent.
Jared: Despite being such different mediums, do you have a preference between acting for the stage or screen? If you had the chance would you like to get back to theater?
Bill: It’s the difference between two different kinds of sex. The live audience is a blind date. The camera is a hungry lover. One wants to be wined and dined and seduced and then decide where the evening will go. The other knows how it wants to be touched, wants it now and can damn well tell if you are lying about it. Both are fickle. Both feel good. Depends on your mood.
Jared: Have you found that your profile has gone up since the massive success of Take This Lollipop (which as of March has 13 million Facebook “Likes”)? You guys are up for a daytime Emmy next month, right?
Bill: Take This Lollipop was like God’s gift to me. In addition to being this history-making Facebook app it also turned out to be a demo reel for what I do that was seen by millions and millions of people. Any actor could have done it. I’m grateful Jason Zada put me behind that computer. It was Zada’s idea and his project all the way. Every ounce of credit is his. He’s a genius and one hell of a director. Take This Lollipop is up for a Daytime Emmy, right. It was nominated in the category of New Approaches – Daytime Entertainment. The competition is Ellen, The Today Show and The Bold & The Beautiful.
Jared: Have you found yourself getting noticed on the street more after the success of Take This Lollipop or are you still able to have some degree of anonymity?
Bill: Yes, Take This Lollipop did make that happen a bit but so what? Actors should not have an expectation of privacy anyway. I mean we spend all of our time and energy saying “Hey everybody look at me!” and then when they do look we want to say “No don’t look now, I mean when I’m ready for you to look!” Such bullshit. In the unlikely event that someone speaks to me in public it is my job to be gracious and grateful. I like it! This business has a 98% unemployment rate and I am lucky enough to be working regularly and who makes that possible? People who want to be entertained. They aren’t paying me to be a surly bitch. My sandwich can wait – I can take the time to be grateful. And I am.
Jared: On your IMDB page, it looks like you’ve got six projects in the can, four in pre-production and eight in post. What are you actually working on right now and what is next for you?
Bill: I have four movies shooting in a row coming up starting in June. All are features. All are leads. In order they are:
/director Trevor Juenger: Art-house horror. Nude chicks. Insect heads. Carnage. Man in dog skin. Wonderful.
/director Mike Bonomo: Gritty noir. Bad-assedness. Collie/Bruce Lee fight sequence (training for it now)
3. SCARE TACTICS
/director Gregory Blair: Old-school horror. Cabin in woods meets Hitchcock. Psychological thriller
4. CIRCUS OF DREAD
/director Mark Savage: Dark underground carnival horror. Freakery. Co-star Domiziano Arcangeli.
Jared: You’ve played a lot of very scary men and a few noble and heroic ones. Do you enjoy playing the villainous roles more than the good guys? Aside from The Shunning, a good majority of your work has been in psychological thriller, dark drama and horror. Do you see yourself as more of a genre actor or are you open to anything? What would your dream role be?
Bill: I love swimming in the darker seas, so even if I play a noble guy (well, like Lincoln for instance) I am pre-disposed to try and show the conflict; the regret; the less-than-perfect choices that any human faces. That’s what I like and it seems to be what the camera likes to see me do. Hell, even my Jesus Of Nazareth onstage
was dark and conflicted, and that was my dream role! I love the horror genre and I am not ashamed to be called a horror actor. It’s a genre that could use an injection of new life, to be sure, but I really believe in the power of darkness as a tool to reveal light. I’m too earnest, I know. People tell me to lighten up all the time but I think a lot about this stuff. It’s important to me. I want to be Lon Chaney. I want to be Karloff. I want to help people escape the mundane world. I want to make their skins crawl. And I want them to love it every bit as much as I do.
Jared: What’s the most disturbing thing you’ve ever done on camera?
Bill: You mean disturbing for me or disturbing for the audience? Disturbing for me: licking that poor girl’s face in Dismal. She twisted like an anaconda to get away and screamed like a banshee on crack because the director did not tell her that the creepy guy was going to lick her face. He got the shot though, I’ll give him that. Disturbing for the audience: Gosh there are so many contenders….gutting and eating a raw squirrel on 1,000 Ways To Die comes to mind (where the hell did they get a warm dead squirrel in Burbank at 10 o’clock in the morning?) And shoving that nun’s face into the mirror in Nude Nuns With Big Guns is up there on the Disturb-O-Meter (am I the only actor in LA who hears “this scene would be really disturbing if you weren’t wearing clothes”?) Lemme see, I’ve eaten human flesh, kidnapped children, raped a dead woman, blah blah blah. All grist for the mill. But a film I play the lead in that comes out later this year, director Jourdan McClure’s Children Of Sorrow, may render all of the above answers obsolete if the early cut holds for the final. Very unsettling stuff. Wow that was a long answer, but disturbing is my thing! It’s like asking Simon Cowell the meanest thing he’s ever said. There’s a lot to choose from.
Jared: Lastly, is there any piece of advice you can give someone looking to make a living as a working actor? Something you wish someone had told you 18 years ago?
Bill: If someone asked for advice on being an actor I’d say “Don’t. It’s a hard life.” And if they walked away I’d be happy to have spared them years of misery. But if they answered “I don’t care. I have to do it!” then I would say this: Take every job. Learn everybody’s name. Show up early. Know who you are and know who you’re not. Stop dreaming and start trying. Ask questions. Listen. Be quiet. Be willing to make a fool of yourself. Be willing to be completely exposed and to give all you’ve got and to be rejected for your troubles. But expect magic to happen. It just might. And don’t worry about winning the audition, just win the room. I think that’s all.
Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies is all up in Redbox now!