It seems almost unfathomable how an actor or filmmaker can maintain a sense of enthusiasm or insight after a couple of sequels – much less six of them. But on the eve of the release of 'Saw 3D,' the seventh installment in what has become the biggest and most successful horror franchise of the last decade, actor Tobin Bell, who plays iconic villain Jigsaw, shows only thoughtfulness, sincerity, and passion when asked to discuss details about his character. That his thoughts frequently returned to acting challenges rather than the films' logistical complexities reveals much about his resilient attitude: as long as there is something new to explore, the films never get old.
Cinematical caught up with Bell earlier this week via telephone to discuss 'Saw 3D,' which opens nationwide in theaters on Friday. In addition to talking about the ways the new film ties into its predecessors and wraps up its epic saga, Bell explained his ongoing approach to keeping Jigsaw interesting (for himself, at the very least), reflected on the experience of playing such a memorable villain, and offered a few reasons why he thinks that all in all, his character's behavior actually makes a lot of sense.
Cinematical: How does the new film fit into the existing mythology? One of the things I've been impressed by in the series is how the filmmakers reverse-engineer the sequels to fit into their predecessors.
Tobin Bell: I think it wraps up pretty well. I think it's – and I think that you'll feel the same way – that it's sort of a fitting ending to all of the storylines that have developed. There's a harrowing pursuit in this film that when I saw it four or five days ago I was sitting with an executive from Lionsgate. He said to me, "Tobin, this scene coming up is intense, so just be prepared." He said it to me maybe three times, and he was right – all of these scenes were just overwhelming. So in that way, I do think it's a fitting conclusion. I think it structures out real well, and I have to take these guys at their word that this is the final chapter.
Cinematical: It's kind of funny that someone would say to you, as the architect of these traps at least in the film, that something might be intense. Have there been things throughout the series that you felt was more intense or graphic than you imagined possible? Particularly since when you were describing your favorite sequences, they seemed to focus more on storytelling and character development than the traps themselves.
Bell: I'm naturally drawn to that. One of the things I've always tried to do with John Kramer is to layer the guy, and not necessarily throw to the traps or to the gore, but rather to give him a dimension that would in some way give the viewer a window into who he is. So you're talking to a guy who watched the Lone Ranger growing up, and there was always this first episode where you saw how he became the Lone Ranger: He's riding down this canyon and they get attacked by Indians and all of the Texas Rangers are killed off except him. He's badly, badly wounded, on the edge of death, and then of course this Indian comes along and drags him off to a cave and cleans him up and he becomes his kemosabe for the rest of the series. It's that kind of background stuff, the building blocks of drama, that I find most fascinating in any story. So yeah, I naturally gravitate toward that thing.
Cinematical: Speaking of which, people may come to define you as a movie villain after you play a role like this for so long and so effectively. Is there a sense now that you have to be deliberate in your choices so that you don't get typecast?
Bell: Yeah, you know, the best-laid plans of mice and men... I like playing bad guys, and I don't have a problem doing that. They're interesting characters, and there's as many different kinds of bad guys as there are good guys - they're rich, they're strong, they're powerful, and so that's fine with me. I'm much more interested in the drama, and if the writing is good, if the piece is good, and if the material is good, I don't care if I have four lines if I can contribute a powerful character that the story hinges on. I've long-since learned that's the case – it's where you appear in the story that's important. So am I aware that I've established this guy and people associate me with him? Of course, because that's the way Hollywood is; when they see you do something well, they want you to keep doing it over and over again. But there are thousands of other characters out there, and I have not yet really accomplished what I'm capable of, and that's very clear to me. So it's a great challenge and a wonderful journey how to figure out how to be an artist, and to carve my way. Is there anything wrong about having made Jigsaw such a strong character and is it a double-edged sword? Yeah, it's a double-edged sword, but both edges of the sword are good.
Cinematical: I really admire the intensity and specificity you apply to this character, because he is a more intelligent and sophisticated villain than your average movie monster.
Bell: Well, great. I've always tried to do that with him, and any time I get an opportunity to expand on one of the concepts that I think is most interesting in these films, whether it has to do with people who have everything but appreciate nothing, which there are a lot of people like that, or the treatment of the terminally ill by the medical community, that's something big on his mind. And I think all of these concepts resonate in the films when they're surrounded by such intensity, so when those concepts come up and he starts talking about Darwin and the Galapagos out of nowhere, it just kind of jars you into hearing it. So that's always inspiring and fun for me. But once again we go to storytelling rather than special effects.
Cinematical: Is there any aspect of the character remaining that you would still like to explore, or you feel wasn't addressed, even in all seven of these films?
Bell: Yeah, there's a multiplicity of them. There are a lot of considerations that come into play when you craft one of these 'Saw' scripts, and there's only so much you can put into them. But yeah, I have a whole host of them; I keep fairly extensive notes with each film that I do, and I know that I've got probably 20 or 30 things that I would like to talk about that I would like to flesh out more [in terms of] where he's coming from. The sort of socio-psychological motivation that he has, I think that is something that would be fascinating.
Cinematical: There's always a question, even with the most well-defined motivation, how much of a villain's behavior is truly justified. How much of Jigsaw's plans do you think are purely logical and appropriately motivated, and how much is just craziness? Is it 50-50? Do you think at all in those terms?
Bell: I don't think he needs 50 percent crazy and 50 percent justified. I think he's 90 percent justified and 10 percent crazy. All you need is the 10 percent, but it's what you do with it. It's like a seesaw, and when the seesaw tips, it doesn't tip until the last 10 percent, or 20 percent, and then it hits the ground and goes on to its full [arc] and it actually reaches the floor. So to me, he's a guy who lives on a frontier of his own. Would I do what he does? No. Do I think what he does is proper? No. But I try to find out what's going on inside his head, and make it as interesting and as accessible to the viewer as I possibly can.
It's like Marlon Brando in 'One Eyed Jacks,' a film they did in the '50s – Marlon Brando killed 80 people in this film, but by the end you understand something about what happened to him and why he does that. Or Gary Gilmore in 'Executioner's Song,' played by Tommy Lee Jones – the same thing. There's a window into the person's soul, and that's my job. As far as whether I think that socially, politically or any other way that this is the right way to behave, do I think the means justify the ends? No I don't. I mean, unless you're defending your family, or are under attack, I don't. That's what separates human beings from creatures.