Tobin Bell is pitching the idea that casting him against type — as, say, a doctor, a lawyer, a nightclub owner or an orchestra conductor — would be cool.
"An orchestra conductor," he enthuses. "Thank you."
Not that he's not grateful for the work that has come along. He was a 60-something character player from The Actors Studio when fame came in the form of a low-budget horror movie that launched a genre, "torture porn," and a franchise. Tall, blond Bell, with owlish eyes and a judgmental whisper of a voice, has been John Kramer, aka "Jigsaw," in seven Saw movies since 2004. Saw 3D opens Friday.
Bell, now 68, plays a wealthy, dying man who conceived elaborate tortures for people he deems unworthy of life, putting each person in a deadly dilemma that requires them to do something awful to themselves or someone else as a way to teach them to appreciate life. The films have been so successful, coming out just in time for Halloween, that the little matter of Bell's character dying in the series hasn't slowed them down.
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Those "essential Saw moments" are flashbacks," Bell says. "They fill in the story. In Saw III, there was a flashback to the moment before John Kramer lay down on the floor in the pool of blood. Fans tell me how much they look forward to those, trying to work it out."
The middle films in the series earned awful, even derisive reviews, but The Boston Globe praised Bell's "nasty moral philosopher and judge" in Saw VI.
"Saw has been a puzzle," Bell says. "It doesn't play out in a linear way. It goes forward and backward, and sometimes what you think you're seeing, you're not really seeing. Piecing it together has been a real challenge for every filmmaker they've brought in to do these, making those pieces fit."
Tim Anderson, a writer for the horror site Bloodydisgusting.com, says Bell "really understands how to intone the moral certainty of the character ... sympathetic yet fearsome. Bell sitting across from Donnie Wahlberg in Saw II and just talking for the entire film is a mesmerizing performance."
Bell knows he has been typecast. He'd been a struggling actor on the New York stage for years, when his Actors Studio mentor Catlin Adams decided to have "the character actor chat" with him.
"She said, 'You can take this any way you want, but you should go to Hollywood and start playing bad guys. You'd be good at it.'
"I was astounded. I thought I was going to play sensitive, intelligent romantic leads."
But Bell has no complaints: "Saw has been a great blessing for me."