Stephen Tobolowsky is a busy man; of that much, I am certain. His is a work ethic that puts most of us to shame. With a constant stream of projects, Tobolowsky has spent the last four decades building an enviable résumé of roles in some of the most beloved movies and television shows of all time, and he did it all without ever becoming a household name.
Talking to him, you get the impression that fame and its trappings were never a concern for Tobolowsky, whose face you surely recognize even if the name rings no bells. For him, it’s never about the limelight or the A-list. No, it’s about the quality, and the quality of his work always ensures the quantity of his jobs.
With over 200 roles to his name, Tobolowsky has been in more than a few of your favorite movies and TV shows. Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day; Sammy Jankis in Memento; Principal Ball in The Goldbergs; Stu Beggs in Californication. I could go on; to call him prolific would be to scratch the surface, but regardless the size of his role, Tobolowsky brings every ounce of talent to the character that he can possibly muster, proving the old adage that there are no small roles, there are only small actors. Tobolowsky enters every role he takes with consummate professionalism, creating memorable performances that range from the side-splittingly hilarious to the horribly tragic.
Most recently, Tobolowsky joined the cast of Silicon Valley, now in its third season, as new Pied Piper CEO Jack Barker. As ever, Tobolowsky adds an exciting and hilarious element to the show—which has never shied away from the need to shake things up—and creates an interesting foil for the original cast. In just two episodes, the actor has brought an entirely new dynamic to Silicon Valley, portraying everything we hate about CEO’s while bringing a new depth to the absurdity of the satirical series.
I had the chance to speak with Tobolowsky about his role on the series, and over the course of the conversation I was taken on a journey through the annals of Hollywood history as we discussed his career, his works, and to some extent his philosophy on both acting and the art of storytelling. It was an enlightening and charming discussion, to say the least, that offered keen insights into the Hollywood machine and a glimpse inside the mind of one of the industry’s most talented, hardest working professionals.
James Roberts: First off Stephen, I appreciate you taking the time out to speak with me tonight. I know you’re a busy man.
Stephen Tobolowsky: It’s been really crazy. We’re working on this One Day at a Time for Netflix with Norman Lear and it really is a very consuming process. Because unlike shooting Silicon Valley where you have a little movie and you shoot that every five to eight days, this is a little play and you have to extra challenge that it’s constantly being rewritten and reblocked while you work. So everything you do on day one, you get a new script the next day. So the things that are the same get better, then there’s always new stuff. It’s a challenge, it’s been consuming.
So is that an interesting process, recording something for Netflix? I’ve always wondered what that’s like as an actor.
I don’t think it’s Netflix specific, I think it’s sit-com specific. Anytime you do a sit-com, which is becoming a rarer and rarer animal. When I first came out to LA, there were a couple dozen sit-coms. Tons of them. A lot of them were Norman Lear sit-coms, All in the Family, One Day at a Time, just terrific shows. Then over time, I guess [in] the last ten years, the sit-com diminished because it is expensive to do. It’s much cheaper to do reality TV, it’s much cheaper to do game shows. It kind of has gone out of favor. I guess the last one I did was I did a small part on Dr. Ken last year, and before that I had not done a sit-com since The New Adventures of Old Christine. I did two or three of those, and that was a lot of fun, but it’s a whole different animal doing those [versus] doing something like Silicon Valley or The Goldbergs.
I’ve actually been doing a lot of talking and a lot of thinking about the changing landscape of TV comedy, especially in the last ten years. I feel like it started with shows like Malcolm in the Middle and Scrubs and Arrested Development, and that just seemed to change the game as far as how TV comedy is produced.
You could probably turn it back a little more to Seinfeld. For example, if you want to talk about the landscape of it, the typical situation comedy, or if you want to take a look at the one camera comedy of Malcolm in the Middle, sit-coms and shows used to have 4, 5, 6 scenes. Maybe 7. Then came Seinfeld and they had 47 scenes in a 30-minute show. It exploded the structure into having 40 little scenes, cobbling together this mosaic of the show. So that kind of blew the structure of comedy out of the water. Malcolm in the Middle was more traditional. Certainly they had crazy characters, they threw everything on its head narratively, you are 100% right, there. But Seinfeld turned things on their head narratively, too, in terms of “we’re going to do a show about nothing” that they had very few stories or plots to that show. That was really kind of an odd, breakthrough show that people responded to. In a way, Silicon Valley kind of goes back to the more of the classic roots of television comedy, with an act one, an act two, and an act three in one show. Each show has an arc, and then the entire season has a very well-crafted arc which makes it kind of special.
Speaking of Silicon Valley, I was curious about Jack Barker and his place at Pied Piper. What can you tell me about his arc, if anything?
Well, I can’t tell you a lot about it because so much of Silicon Valley is based on plot and I don’t want to give too much away because it’s so delightful. But what I will tell you is this: Jack Barker and what his role is at Pied Piper is very surprising. It’s very surprising more than once [laughs]. It twists and turns and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying it moves the argument forward for Richard. This is the way I look at Silicon Valley. [It’s] the story of Richard, who has discovered fire. He has found something that, not only changes computers forever, but changes the way the world would work. And that is the kernel of Silicon Valley in which you have all sorts or criminals and heroes and villains and sycophants and people either trying to steal Richard’s idea, try to sabotage Richard’s idea, ride Richard’s coattails to success.
Each season, Richard has been presented with a series of challenges which he has had to change who he is, right? At the end of the first season, Richard has to step up and do the public presentation. He has to step out of who he is and become something more than what he’s always been, which is an engineer. Now he has to become a public figure. At the end of season two, he is challenged beyond what anyone could imagine, and that is he is almost destroyed by his very success. Which, again, if we’re dealing with the fairy tale that he discovered fire, these are all things that happen in our lives.
All of us have to sometimes step up out of our comfort zones and become more than we are. All of us sometimes find that some of the most difficult things to deal with is our success, and not just failure. Sometimes failure is comfortable to deal with. Sometimes it’s hard to deal with rising expectations. Take me on Silicon Valley. I love that show and I didn’t want to be the guy that joined the cast and took that show down. I didn’t want to be the guy that ruined Silicon Valley. I remember I asked Mike Judge when we finished, I said, “Is it okay?” And Mike laughed and hit me on the back and said, “Oh no, it’s better than okay. It’s terrific.” Which made me feel good. The scripts this season are phenomenal and the challenge for Richard grows exponentially due in large part to Jack Barker and the challenges Jack throws at Richard.
Is that difficult as an actor to come into a show that’s such an ensemble like Silicon Valley? They all have such great chemistry and are well pretty well-stewed together at this point, is it kind of weird to be the new guy?
One-word answer? Ab-so-lute-ly. Very difficult. It’s like they’re already playing Red Hot Pepper and you’re standing outside that jump rope thinking, “How am I going to get in here?” Before Silicon Valley, that same year, I was brought in to work on The Goldbergs. Now when they asked me to come in as the principal, that was a pretty easy task even though that show is also hugely successful and very funny. The reason it was simple was everybody on that show is so funny. I said to myself, “What this company needs is a straight man.” I went in and I thought, “Let me approach this part where I am the audience, I’m just the Greek Chorus. I’m listening to these people and I am responding to their insanity the way the audience is.” And it worked. It worked as an energy level to join with that company, that cast.
Silicon Valley is completely different because everybody in that cast, especially that core, those five guys—just spectacular actors and improvisers—they each play straight men, if you think about. They’re all playing straight men, except for Bachman. T.J. Miller is kind of the one who’s really super extreme. But they all have their own extremities in very non-showy ways. Like Martin Starr is so much the very deadpan Satanist from Canada, so what it is and what he does is extreme, but the way he plays everything is so subtle and small. Zach Woods, everything he does is so small and subtle in support of Richard, even though his character is so idiosyncratic. Kumail [Nanjiani], playing Dinesh, he is probably, in a way, so showy. We get the idea that he and Zach are probably the biggest losers, like never been with a woman ever, that they’re so into their coding and all that, but still everything is played very close to the vest. Everything is underplayed. So it was more difficult to find the space of where I would enter that company. That’s the difficult thing. I think it was George Bernard Shaw said that when he writes a play he thinks of it as a string quartet, or a quintet. You have all the instruments that make that musical ensemble group. Well, Silicon Valley had the perfect ensemble. It makes beautiful music every week. So I had to [laughs] cross my fingers and hope that, with the writers and with the help of Mike Judge and Alec Berg, they would be able to help guide me through the treacherous shoals of striking a false note on the show, which I did not want to do. So, yes. One-word answer. Absolutely.
How did that dynamic for you, as an actor, help your portrayal of Barker? To me, like you as an actor are coming into this ensemble, same as Barker is with Pied Piper. Did that influence the way that you played the character?
Well, as an actor, you always look at what your task is in the scene. What are you doing and what are you hoping to accomplish, not as an actor but as the character. I see in week one—and again, I’m trying not to reveal too much—that I have a very specific trait, which I cling to throughout the season. It’s one thing that I think I kind of hold to more than almost any other character on the show. That defines who I am in scene after scene. I just look at it and I go, “Okay this, I know what this is and I can play this.” So as an actor, I kind of go from scene to scene and show to show, and if some of my behavior is contradictory, that becomes one of the delights of the show. Who is Jack Barker and what is Jack Barker? So it’s very entertaining.
So switching gears, because obviously there’s not much you can say about Silicon Valley so early in the season, your one-man show, The Primary Instinct, is streaming now on Hulu, and I was wondering about the evolution of that.
The Primary Instinct was probably the most difficult thing I ever did, and one of the few things I am most proud of. January of whatever year we did it, I think it was like three years ago, David [Chen, co-host of The Tobolowsky Files podcast] says, “What if we did a movie of a live show?” And I go, “Sure, David, yeah.” So I began writing stories for Primary Instinct and putting together a series of stories for a live show, plus ended up contacting the radio station in Seattle to start running The Tobolowsky Files to gin up enthusiasm and maybe a crowd. We do Kickstarter and raise something like $51,000, knowing we needed at least $40,000 to shoot the movie.
I always say Kickstarter is like a financial example of a bad relationship—you don’t ask for what you need, you only ask for what you think you can get. Because on Kickstarter, if you don’t get the amount you say you’re aiming for, you get nothing. You get zero. So we were asking for $40,000 and we got $51,000, which meant we ended up with something like $46,000, because Kickstarter takes a bit, and some of the people renege on their pledges. We put up some advertisements to shoot in this giant theater, and we sold 1000 tickets! Unbelievable! So we had an audience and one of the difficult things about doing a live show, and I don’t want this to be a spoiler for other live shows you see on HBO, rarely are those shows shot in one show. What happens is the performer dresses in the same clothes for a week and they shoot in the same venue for a week and then afterwards the director puts together the best bits of the same show, and it looks like it’s [one] show because the actor’s wearing the same clothes. We didn’t have the money for that. We had one show. One shot at it. Bang. Which makes it remarkable because any mistake is going to be in the show. Any mess is going to be there. I think it gives it a certain kick in the pants. I think it gives it a certain excitement. We were so lucky on so many levels. It is a wonderful and entertaining film. It’s a lovely show.
When you watch it as an audience member, there’s an arc to the stories. Did it always start out that way or was there a point when you were writing it where you realized there was a larger theme that you could tie together?
I started with the theme. That is, let’s do a story about telling stories, where storytelling comes from. That led to the overall arc. It just so happened that David and I performed outside the Seattle area a year or two before and the kid asked me the question, why do people tell stories. Which turned out to be the jumping off point for it. I wanted to like I do on The Tobolowsky Files, tell true stories from my life and not do stand up and not do anything clever. I wanted to just tell true stories, and I feel that the family story I tell in that show is something that I wanted to really tell. I think that kind of gave the extra energy to put the stories together in such a way and it fit the arc very nicely. It worked. It worked well.
Between your books, and The Tobolowsky Files, and now The Primary Instinct, you’re clearly a natural born storyteller. It’s odd to me that you don’t have more screenwriting credits. Is there a reason for that or is that just something you’re not interested in?
Screenwriting is a whole different animal. I know like with The Tobolowsky Files, right now I have 71 hours of stories. Somebody once asked me [if] the obvious next step was just to turn one of these stories into a screenplay. I said, “Well, not really.” Writing a screenplay is an intermediate part of the artistic process when you do a film. You write the screenplay, you have the blueprint. But then it gets rewritten and rewritten and then actors improvise over it and producers come in and change the ending on you, and then they run out of money and they shoot it a different way and you don’t get the people you want in it—so when you write a screenplay it can be a very frustrating process. Because you’re at the very beginning-slash-middle of the process. When you write a book, when you write a story, you are the beginning, middle, and end of the process. I can write a Tobolowsky Files podcast, I can put it out on the internet and it is there and it is done. People can hear it and listen to it and enjoy it and it is done. It is rare [that] you do something like Primary Instinct and can write a show, shoot it, and get it out, and the story is still intact. That just doesn’t happen anymore. Usually when you write screenplays, that doesn’t happen. That’s tough. I guess I’m just saying I’m not hot to write screenplays or television shows because there’s so many other creative forces that jump in onto that and you can never really get your vision back.
I have to ask, as kind of a tangent on that, but we’re coming up on the 30th anniversary of probably your best known screenplay, True Stories. Do you know if there’s any kind of celebration for that at all?
I don’t know if there’s going to be any celebration. A couple of years ago we had a big presentation at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis/St. Paul. We had a beautiful screening of True Stories. It was the first time I’d seen it in several years. I got to tell you, that movie holds up. It is wonderful. I think David Byrne is a genius. I think it’s just wonderful what he did.
I grew up in Dallas and I love watching True Stories because I have these vague memories from my childhood where Dallas looked that like that. There’s that one shot I think of the 35/635 change over, and every time I would drive past there I would think how much the city’s changed. I’ve honestly kind of always wanted to see a modern sequel to True Stories, either spiritual or otherwise.
I don’t know about that. It’s so difficult to do. You know sequels are very popular now. Everybody’s into sequels because of the comic book nature of so many films. It’d be very, very, very, very tough to take something that David wrote as a single expression of ordinary people and their quest to be extraordinary. It was written as a single expression of that idea and to now do it again? That isn’t the way it was written.
Now what Hollywood does is they look for the franchise. Of course, the benefits of that, if they’re characters you love, like Iron Man, you get to see them in many different shows. The downside is that undercuts narrative. It’s very difficult to come up with a really good story when you have your eye on the sequel. And the audience is thinking about the sequel from the very beginning. So you know there’s going to be a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” somewhere at the end. You know that the hero isn’t going to die, they’re going to come back. It eliminates a lot of important narrative ideas. All sorts of things that tie stories together are gone. It just becomes a series of CGI scenes and fight sequences. It’s like the old Bubsy Berkeley musicals. People would laugh when they watch those old, old musicals from the early 30’s, where there doesn’t seem to be much of a plot. It’s just one big fancy dance number and then a new girl comes into the show and then another fancy dance number. It’s like what is this? That’s kind of the way a lot of film has become now. It’s become Bubsy Berkeley. Big set pieces, action set pieces, stitched together with clichéd plot ideas. Nothing unique. Nothing original. Now we’re waiting for this speech, now we’re waiting for that speech. That’s why movies like Room, I voted for that for best picture because it’s something that is so remarkable in terms of storytelling on every level. Nobody is looking for any sequels. Nobody wants to see the sequel to Room. They don’t. We got it. We got everything there is to get. That’s kind of the problem with a lot of writing today.
How frustrating is that for you as an artist?
It’s part of the business of being an actor. Sometimes you’re in shows that are perfunctorily written, sometimes you’re in shows with unique voices. Goldbergs is unique. Certainly Silicon Valley is unique. Primary Instinct is by definition unique because it’s my one voice. It panders to no other voice. You have to kind of think [that] the sequelization of things is not a new idea. It goes back to at least to commedia dellle’arte in the 17th century, probably even before, where you had set characters and set scenes that you shuffled together and made new plays with. So you realize that sometimes you are playing that commedia part, you are playing that kind of set character. Then you are a role player. You figure then you’re on a basketball team. They made need someone to rebound, so then you become Dennis Rodman for a little while. On some shows, they may want you to be the guy to shoot, they may want you to be the guy who scores the points, then you have to take over that job. So you have to be very adept at understanding what role you have to play in various films.
As prolific as you are, most of your roles are smaller parts and side characters. I’m curious if you’ve ever been interested in taking more of a leading man position in a movie. Was it a conscious choice to be a character actor?
In plays, I play leads. In the theater, I’ve played plenty of big, big, big parts. It’s never really my choice, it’s the casting director’s choice of what they want to see. And always the choice is based on who is relevant now to play the lead of this movie. I was in a couple of movies with Chevy Chase, and he was enormously relevant at the time. He was a big, big star. Mel Gibson, huge star. As time goes on, those people who played enormous parts and were the biggest stars in the world, now do other things. Mel Gibson seems to do more directing. Chevy Chase was doing Community and ended up settling there. Every actor’s roles kind of change throughout their career, so in my life I’ve been fortunate to play a lot of supporting roles. I’ve been fortunate in that they’re not all the same part. They’re not all Ned Ryerson. Sammy Jankis in Memento is not the same as Ned Ryerson. None of that is the same as Jack Barker and none of that is the same as Dr. Berkowitz that I’m doing on One Day at a Time.
So I’ve been very lucky in that I play a lot of smaller roles, but the roles have a lot of variety. Which I think has been a great challenge and a lot of fun. When I do theater, I still play big parts. But the size of the part is not that big of a deal for me. I’m just thrilled that I’m still working. What’s always happened is that the finances of the film, they tie those to the people who are the leads of the film. If the film tanks financially, it hurts the credibility of the person who plays the lead. You have people who were big stars or were very hot, and then the finances of the film tank, people don’t go see it at the box office, and then it’s difficult for that person to get jobs again. I can be in those same movies that tank and I still get hired because my part is usually small enough to where I am not tied to the success or failure of the film.
Sounds like a great position to be in.
I think so.
You can see Stephen Tobolowsky Sunday nights on Silicon Valley on HBO. His one-man show, The Primary Instinct, is now available on Hulu, and you can download his podcast with David Chen, The Tobolowsky Files, on iTunes.