You might not know the name Bill Oberst, Jr., but I can guarantee that you’ll recognize his face. Bill has been involved a huge amount of films, shorts, theater and television roles, and Facebook apps. There’s really not much this man hasn’t done. In his travels, he’s played a Nazi war criminal, a determined detective, a pedophilic monster, Abraham Lincoln, a Civil War general, a nihilistic clown, an animated bull, an obsessed prison warden, and a slightly psychotic news reporter, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Here at PopHorror, we’ve discussed his films Circus of the Dead (2014), Heir (2015), Monsterland (2016), Ayla (2017), Hunting Grounds (2015), After Hours (2016) and the upcoming Nick Hunt feature, Safe Place. In the ten years since his first recorded role as General William T. Sherman in the documentary Sherman’s March (2007), Bill has been in over 160 past and up-and-coming projects, most of them horror. When I had the chance to chat with him, I realized that Bill was not anything like the terrifying characters he’s played over the past decade. As a matter of fact, Bill Oberst, Jr. is one of the most kind, self-effacing and spiritual men I’ve ever had the pleasure to chat with. Read on to find out more about this outstandingly talented actor and gracious human being.
PopHorror: When did you first realize that you wanted to be an actor?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: It grew out of my love of monsters, which grew out of my feeling like a freak as a boy. I was overweight with terrible acne, a love of books and zero interest in sports. I was the fat kid, the ugly kid, the smart kid and the sissy kid, all in one kid. Scratch any working actor and you’ll find some variation of this story. Beautiful and idolized children make lousy interpreters of the human condition.
PopHorror: That’s a horrible yet perfect analogy. You started film acting ten years ago in 2007 and have since performed in over 160 projects, a pretty impressive number. What drives you to take on so many roles?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: I came from an established theater career into a field where no one had any idea who or what I was. The only way to get noticed in any new endeavor is to work like a sumbitch. So I did. I lived and breathed film for 10 years. I am trying to be more selective now. I swear I am!
…the lens casts a spell, doesn’t it? The camera sees into our dungeons and digs around in our dirt. So you better give it what it wants from you, or it will happily look elsewhere.
PopHorror: As long as you keep doing horror films, Bill, it’s all okay by me! Speaking of, you seem to pick psychotic/sick/twisted roles to portray. Is this something you choose or are these the roles that you just happen to get?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: Both. Macabre with an undercurrent of melancholy is what the camera likes to see me do, because of my scarred face, and it’s what I like to do on camera, because of my introspective nature. Life is a different thing, but the lens casts a spell, doesn’t it? The camera sees into our dungeons and digs around in our dirt. So you better give it what it wants from you, or it will happily look elsewhere.
PopHorror: You played the Stalker in the Facebook app Take This Lollipop, which won an Emmy. Can you tell our readers a bit about that project?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: Jason Zada, the genius behind Take This Lollipop, says he just wanted to give a Halloween scare. When it went viral, the media called it “a comment on online privacy.” His most brilliant stroke was to make it dialogue-free, which gave viewers an experience that crossed language barriers. Over 100 million worldwide views later, the app is still up at takethislollipop.com. If your readers haven’t tried it, I’d suggest they do so. And then lock their doors.
PopHorror: Oh, trust me. I’ve been sharing that link around to everyone I know. They’re a little nervous when I won’t tell them what it is, but I can usually end up getting them to watch. To the readers – go to takethislollipop.com right now! We’ll wait for you…
By the way, Bill. How did you prepare to play such a sleazy, twisted character?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: I had no idea what I was supposed to be looking at on that computer monitor. The effect was a secret. Jason Zada just kept whispering in my ear, “Go deep. Deeper. Darker.” He made that performance happen by sheer conjuring. All I did was wear a wifebeater and sweat.
PopHorror: For not knowing what you were supposed to be doing, you did a disturbingly brilliant job. I also heard that you’ll be doing a role in Nick Hunt’s new horror movie, Safe Place. What can you tell me about the character you’ll be playing?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: Nick put me on the side of the law for a change; I’m a sheriff in Safe Place. I like the script because it deals with memory as a catalyst for murder. The science of memory is fascinating and troubling. Our memories are highly vulnerable to suggestion. Old memories are constantly being reshaped by things that have happened since the original memory was formed. Memory is not fact. So it’s an interesting subject.
PopHorror: I see that you’re a big fan of Ray Bradbury and even won an Earnest Kearney Platinum Award for your reading of his story, Pillar of Fire. What draws you to Ray Bradbury’s writing?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: When I am lost in Ray Bradbury, I feel alive! Joy and wonder at actually being alive were Bradbury’s fuel. The fantastical worlds he builds are just stages on which to plop down his human characters and let them do what humans always do: strut, blunder, bluster, destroy, explore, lie, love. I still tour that Pillar Of Fire reading as Ray Bradbury’s Pillar Of Fire – it debuts on Theatre Row in New York City on September 17th – and I’m developing an authorized stage portrayal of Bradbury himself for approval by his estate. FX makeup artist Jeff Farley, who won an Emmy nod for his work on Babylon 5, would do the transformation into Bradbury for that show.
PopHorror: Oh, man, I wish I lived in New York! I’d love to see that! Besides Bradbury, are you a fan of any other horror authors?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: Poe moves me. King scares me. Early Anne Rice mesmerizes me. The anonymous author who wrote under the pseudonym Drake Douglas captured the essence of Gothic horror as well as I have ever seen it done in the introduction to his book, Horror. And there are passages in Stoker’s Dracula that will reward with serious chills those willing to put in the effort to enter the novel’s world. I’ll tell you a funny one – last October, I read Washington Irving’s The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow on a windy night and scared myself silly. Surprised the heck out of me.
PopHorror: I guess even the most jaded horror lover can find things that scare him over once in awhile. Can you tell our readers a bit about your UnSub role in Criminal Minds: Blood Relations?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: Criminal Minds producer Breen Frazier, who wrote that episode, signed my script, “To the most heart-breaking serial killer ever,” and that made me happy, because that character epitomized my favorite archetype in horror – what I call “the wounded monster.” He didn’t ask to be what he was; the neglect and abuse of society helped to make him what he became. I felt sorry for him. Oh sure, he strangles people with barbed wire, but he’s a sweet little monster at heart. He just needs love… and a shirt. By the way, Matthew Gray Gubler, who directed that episode, is a big fan of our genre. I think it showed.
…we make our own monsters every day, with every cruel thought, every averted gaze, every unkind intention.
PopHorror: He twisted the thumbscrews on that episode for sure! And we weren’t the only ones who noticed. Another role of yours that I love is the depraved pedophile in 2015’s Heir. What was it like playing such a monstrous character?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: Thank you for thinking so. When I read the script, I took him to be a literal monster, so that’s who I played. Then I read the reviews that took him for a metaphor and thought, “Gee, I totally misread that one.” But in either case, he’s a character who has given up all moral qualms about his monstrous nature. He has embraced it. There’s liberty in that. A horrifying liberty, to be sure, but liberty. So, to answer your question, it was fun playing him because in his mind, he was free. I had fun. Only months later, when I watched it, did I get the creeps.
PopHorror: Speaking of creepy, do you think you’ll ever get to reprise your role as Papa Corn in a sequel to Circus of the Dead?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: Billy Pon says he has a sequel idea, but only for Billy would I play Papa Corn again. That damned clown gave me nightmares; I found his nihilism terrifying and his skin uncomfortably comfortable.
PopHorror: I have to know… is there any role you would never agree to play?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: Yes. I won’t play a man who uses the Bible as a weapon, literally or figuratively. The same would be true of any text that millions of people revere. It’s just not for me. I’ll play all matter of human decay and corruption, but there’s enough cynicism about faith without my adding to it.
PopHorror: I know that you’re a spiritual man, and this question hits very close to home for me. Do you get negative feedback from your church for the roles you take in your job? Or comments from fellow cast and crew members when they realize that you’re a religious man making horror movies? The reason I’m so interested in this subject is because I’m in a similar situation. I co-own and spend a lot of time on PopHorror, while at the same time, I sit on the board of my church as the Sunday School Superintendent and work as an assistant to the children’s librarian at our public library. I get a lot of funny looks and outright hostility when people realize that their children are being taught and cared for by such a huge fan of horror movies. I have a hard time sharing either world with the other, and when it comes to social media, I have to keep horror movie reviews and interviews on one side of my wall and ministering and Bible verses on the other. How do you handle this kind of thing?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: Oh, Tracy. If it weren’t for Christians, everybody would follow Jesus. We all want to believe that Matthew 7:1-3 [“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”] wasn’t meant for us, only for other people. I do it, too. My instinctive prejudice is against those who don’t see the value of the genre, who don’t think that stories of fear and death have their place in a person’s inner life. But I hope they can forgive me for pretending to be all-knowing. And by the grace of God and the cross of Christ, I can forgive them. You know, I toured for 15 years with a presentation called Jesus Of Nazareth, a first-person portrayal using Jesus’ own words from the Gospels. Once after a performance, an old man told me, “I don’t give a damn for religion, but Jesus is alright.” I agree.
PopHorror: There’s already so much hate and anger in this world, you would hope that church would be the one place you wouldn’t have to worry about having to confront it. I think I need “If it weren’t for Christians, everybody would follow Jesus,” embroidered on a pillow. (sighs) Can you tell me a bit about I’m Still Waiting For My Close-Up?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: It’s a talk I give at colleges about the bizarre journey of a stage actor who goes Hollywood, and the emptiness of celebrity culture. I try to make them laugh – that’s not hard when I show them clips of some of the things I’ve been in – and to leave them happily disillusioned about the world of entertainment and fired up about the things that really matter in life.
PopHorror: So you travel around, trying to convince college kids not to be you? That’s a bit self-deprecating, isn’t it? Let’s change the subject. If you could play any person in history, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: Silent film’s Lon Chaney, because he said, “I play individuals who might have been different if they had been given a different chance.” Chaney understood that we make our own monsters every day, with every cruel thought, every averted gaze, every unkind intention.
PopHorror: I know you probably get asked this a lot, but what is your favorite horror movie?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: The Exorcist. Powerful good meets powerful evil, and at the end, we aren’t sure if there is a winner. That’s the gold standard!
PopHorror: Great choice! It definitely leaves the ending open to interpretation. What’s on your lesser known horror movie list? What are your favorite hidden gems?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: From Germany, Gerald Kargl’s Angst. From Italy, Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. From America, Tod Browning’s Freaks and Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls. From my inner adolescent, Bob Clark’s Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and John Llewellyn Moxey’s TV-movie, The Night Stalker. And throw Bill Norton’s TV-movie Gargoyles into that last category, too. A gargoyle on horseback is hard to resist.
PopHorror: There certainly aren’t very many of those in film. Plus, I absolutely love Tod Browning’s Freaks! It was so satisfying to see the supposed freaks get their revenge on the “normal” one. Are there any actors, directors, producers or FX artists that you would love to work with but haven’t had a chance to yet?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: Yes, but most of them are dead. Except Michael Caine. Horror is a small world, and you end up working with almost everyone at some point anyway. Except Michael Caine.
PopHorror: Do you have anything coming up that you can talk about?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: Mark Savage keeps tantalizing me by hinting that his epic Circus Of Dread will be ready to go into production “sooner rather than later.” Mark is a friend, and he knows I covet this role. The logline is: “Two brothers – one a priest, one a career criminal – find bloody salvation in a mysterious underground carnival.” I’m trying not to take every screen job that comes along now, only the ones I care about, to balance film and theater. So far, so good. The Ray Bradbury stage work that I’m currently doing, and that which I’m hoping to do next year, excites me beyond words. Vincent Price devoted much of his late career to stage work honoring Poe. I’d be delighted to spend my remaining years honoring Bradbury onstage, and doing the odd meaningful film role here and there. That’s happiness to me.
PopHorror: Last but not least, what is your favorite Halloween candy?
Bill Oberst, Jr.: Candy corn. It cannot be eaten all at once, but must be nibbled. Much like life.
PopHorror: Thank you so much, Bill, for taking time to chat with me!
Bill Oberst, Jr.: Thanks for a really terrific interview! Of course it was good, because you are a librarian, which Ray Bradbury would love. My best regards and big thanks, and – I now feel free to say – in Jesus’ wonderful name.
Keep on top of all things Bill Oberst, Jr. by visiting his website at http://www.billoberst.com and his IMDb http://www.imdb.com/name/