SHERMAN OAKS, CALIFORNIA
October 13, 2014
STRANGER: Stephen Tobolowsky
LOCATION: Art’s Delicatessen, 12224 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks, California
THEME: Breakfast with a character actor/storytelling writer
Why did Stephen Tobolowsky agree to a breakfast interview with a stranger?
“You never know what a question will shake up,” he said, sitting across from me at a table in a Californian diner. Sure enough, when we wrapped up our meal after more than two hours, he said he’d made new connections in his mind between stories that’s he eager to tell.
What a storyteller he is. In the first part of my interview with Stephen he shared anecdotes about his extensive career on the stage, in film and on television shows. He has an enviable knack for spinning yarns about his career, whether it’s his experiences on movies like The Insider and Groundhog Day, or the awkward piano accident that triggered his pursuit of acting. He said he got in to acting for the adventures: fighting monsters, being a pirate, or hundreds of other scenarios.
But what he really wants to do is write. Another adventure.
Writing is Stephen’s vehicle for sharing stories. Ahead of the interview I listened to a collection of his storytelling podcasts Cautionary Tales and read his book The Dangerous Animals Club. In both, he recounts true-life tales, covering childhood to present day. At times bittersweet, at times hilarious, the stories are always interesting, and even better told in person.
We met at Art’s Delicatessen early on a Monday morning, among the only diners in the place at that hour. I’d arrived a few minutes before Stephen and looked around the place. It’s a classic diner with booths and a basic but decent menu of eggs and meat. Stephen’s been eating there for years and suggested it as a great location for breakfast.
When he arrived he spotted me right away and waved, smiling and mouthing “Hello.”
Dressed casually in a blue-shirt and shorts, he was friendly from the outset. He speaks with a manner so that every time he pauses for a breath, it’s a great cliffhanger. It keeps the listener hooked, likely explaining the success of his podcast The Tobolowsky Files.
Within minutes of meeting, I witnessed his storytelling ability coupled with his analytical approach to piecing together events from his life into a coherent narrative.
And all I had to do was ask him why he started writing.
“It began when I had an accident where I broke my neck,” said Stephen, referencing a horse-riding accident in Iceland that left him with multiple vertebra breaks. “I had a Christopher Reeve injury. It was a miracle I was alive. Let me tell you, it was lights out. The last thing I remember when I got on that horse was seeing the groom beneath me. I asked him to tighten the grip on the horse because it was a little loose. He tightened the grip. I saw clouds coming over me, and a drop of rain landed in-between my glasses and came down my cheek. I was wearing a riding helmet, so I put a rain parka over my helmet. The next thing I remember is my wife’s face in the ambulance,” he said.
Then he trailed off from the story. He paused. His eyes popped wide.
“Wait a minute! I just made a connection here at the table,” he said, and told me how at that moment at the diner he connected the drop of rain on his cheek before the accident to a specific thing from an unconscious experience he had while being transported to hospital.
Still knocked out from the fall, Stephen said he had an unconscious dream of being at a party in Los Angeles. “I was sitting on the back porch with people I didn’t know. The table was metal, part of it was corroded. The hostess knew me and asked what I was doing there. I said I didn’t know, but I just wanted to tell everyone I was okay. She asked me if I wanted a drink. I said iced tea would be great. And here’s the connection: she brought the iced tea out, it was cold and wet, the ice clinked in the glass. She put the glass down and condensation was running down the side of the glass — that’s the connection with the rain running down between my glasses.”
He remembers sipping the iced tea and it being so cold and good he almost started crying. A few moments later the party went dark. He awoke in the ambulance, seeing his wife Ann.
“I asked her, ‘Where am I? I know this sounds crazy, but I think I was just in Los Angeles. Did I disappear for a few moments?’” said Stephen, his eyes glistening from the memory. “I just remember the look on her face. She said, ‘You’re here. You’re here.’”
Stephen was transported safely back to Los Angeles, where he lives. But being in a neck brace mean there wasn’t much he could do. At first he read up on scientific articles that could have explained his unconscious trip to Los Angeles. And he started to think. What if the injury had been fatal? “I decided to start writing stories so my boys would know who their dad was.”
He writes true stories, using the best recollections he can combined with years of note-taking. A great example of his wide-ranging portfolio of stories is the documentary Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, which is essentially a feature-length film of him spinning yarns.
One person who saw the movie was David Chen, a student at Harvard at the time. He reached out to Stephen to see if he’d be interested in recording a regular podcast and continue sharing his stories. The podcast eventually led to a deal to write The Dangerous Animals Club.
“When I was writing for the podcasts and for the book I imagined telling the stories on stage, with two people in the audience: my son William when he was four, and my mother when she was alive. William was the impossible audience: so smart, so strict, so judgmental. And my mother was so sensitive to everything, laughing and crying at the drop of a hat. I thought if I could please those two, I’ve done it. The stories are tales that I knew would offend one or both of them.”
There are some raunchy topics among Cautionary Tales and the podcasts and The Dangerous Animals Club, including stories featuring an obese prostitute in a frat house and an ecstasy trip in New York City. They can be shocking in places, hilarious in others.
But as Stephen tells it, he’s not out for a quick reaction. Instead, his stories are based on him discovering all he can about life, faith, family, work, and more.
“Writing has changed my acting. It’s made it much more difficult. I get a script and I immediately start rewriting it. Your brain starts thinking like a writer instead of like an actor. Sometimes you work on a project where they don’t appreciate that,” he added, chuckling.
“I find that words mean a lot more to me now, and I want to be as truthful as I can to the words on the page,” said Stephen. “But that’s why I have trouble acting now. I don’t have a lot of trust in scripts because this writing makes me go pick a better word.”
Those problems with text highlight the “uncanny valley,” a hypothesis of natural human revulsion to things that look almost — but not exactly — human, like the animated characters in The Polar Express that look kind of human, but still unsettling to some people. While the uncanny valley applies to visual aesthetics, Stephen draws an analogy to scripts, which often go through multiple drafts and have huge chunks of text rearranged, leading to stories that are almost, but not quite, right.
“It happens a lot with scripts written on word processors,” he said. The studios’ system of rewrites is to color code pages. So the first draft is written on white paper. Then edits are made, and a second draft issued on different color paper to distinguish it. And so on through the rainbow as further drafts are written, then on to more eccentric colors when they exhaust the ROYGBIV spectrum. When Stephen and I met at the diner, he was working on a Chinese movie whose script, he joked, had made it all the way to “double salmon.”
“Sometimes scripts have so many rewrites they will run into the uncanny valley where things don’t make sense. So whenever I get scripts, the first thing I look at is the color of the page. And perhaps I’ll ask to see the first production draft so I can compare the two and see what’s been left out,” said Stephen. He applied a similar logic when he was auditioning for a role in The Insider. Director Michael Mann refused to give him a full script, touting the need for secrecy. Stephen countered that he needed all the pages to make sense of his character. He won out, and got a role.
It’s a story he tells with far more finesse in his writing, as well as anecdotes about how he battled a teacher at university who was trying to push him out of acting school. A friend of Stephen’s said the two stories terrified her, as she’d never have the guts to do what he did. But Stephen said it wasn’t guts. He just assessed what he had to lose, and figured he had more to gain standing his ground.
But even with that attitude, he says he’s always still learning.
“I make the assumption that a lot of things we never know, and things I’ll never understand, and I just go with it,” said Stephen. Yet one thing has been a constant knowledge in his life, and which informs his storytelling. “I have a pretty accurate barometer of what’s normal, and what ain’t right,” he said, sipping on a cup of coffee after we placed our orders.
Stephen knew from his early childhood growing up in South Dallas in a rural community that he had an innate sense when something was wrong. He doesn’t know exactly how he developed it, but thinks it had something to do with growing up in the stillness of nature. “When there’s a large amount of silence, you start hearing other things,” he said.
Like the inner voice that told him something was very wrong when young Stephen went over to his parents’ friends’ house to play with their kids. The friends had a daughter who didn’t play with others. Curious Stephen wandered the house and found the girl posing her dolls on their heads and pulling their dresses over their faces, then taking their underwear off. “The voice in my head starts screaming, because it knew instinctively there was something wrong,” said Stephen.
He didn’t know how to broach the issue with his mother in the car ride home, but eventually told her. A while later, Stephen came home and saw his mother sitting on her bed, crying. She said the little girl had been kidnapped and murdered. As Stephen describes it, there must have been some a priori knowledge independent of his own experiences that set his alarm bells ringing.
“There had to have been some preset in my brain that said how she was playing with the dolls was wrong. Other people could say anyone would have known it was weird. But there have been things like that through my entire life. I don’t think there’s anything magic or supernatural about it,” he said. But he’s always recognizing those a priori moments.
For a more recent example, take the night before our breakfast: Stephen got into a near-accident with another driver. Nobody was hurt. But the driver got out his car and started yelling at him. “I could see he was crazy, so I left,” he said. It wasn’t leaving a scene of an accident as there was no accident, but something about the driver sent Stephen’s normality barometer skyrocketing. He drove like something out of a Law & Order car chase — slipping down alleys, taking side-streets, and waiting for 10 minutes in a parking lot. Eventually the coast was clear. But it shook Stephen enough to realize that it could have been much worse. “That could have been my final chapter,” he said quietly.
Life’s chapters are important to Stephen, who tells the story of a hairdresser he knew that was dying of AIDS. The hairdresser told Stephen that everyone knows their opening chapter; it’s when they were born. And everyone knows their last chapter; that they will die. “He said he had no middle chapters. And that taught me so much. I realized we’re all trying to write those middle chapters.”
He paused to reflect for a moment, the silence broken only by our waitress’ return.
She came armed with a hefty plate of scrambled egg whites and lox for Stephen, served with rye toast and a side of fruit. It looked great, and I didn’t hear any complaints.
I went for the eggs Benedict with a side of fruit.
Nice crisp English muffins topped with generous slices of tasty ham and well-cooked eggs. However the plate was swimming in Hollandaise sauce. The diner did a good version of the sauce, but it could have used a little less of it. Nevertheless, it was a fine meal.
While we ate, Stephen said that a priori is the basis for all his stories. “Maybe that’s the thing I’m obsessed with,” he said. “What made me want to be an actor when I was a child? What made me think there was something wrong with that little girl?”
These are questions he tries to answer with his writing, and it can affect everything he does – even going for a massage. As he tucked in to his breakfast, he shared the story of a trip to a masseuse who was tending to his injuries after his horse-riding accident.
“She’s massaging my back and says, ‘Are you Russian?’ And I say yes, and she says, ‘You spell Tobolowsky with a Y not and I, and you play piano, right? Beethoven, not jazz?’”
At the breakfast table, Stephen’s eyes widened at the memory and he held out his hands as if begging an explanation. “That was really creepy. But she said she could tell from my muscles in my hand, because it’s the same as in the hands of the great classical pianists from Russia. And they are from the south of Russia, where they use the Y and not I in Tobolowsky. And she knew the muscles in my hand were a certain way from playing Beethoven because it makes you have to stretch your hands so much. I said I wasn’t a great pianist though. She said, ‘You could have been if you practiced!’”
Like most of Stephen’s stories, they have a great narrative ending often with a punchline. Regardless of the masseuse’s scalding him for not keeping up with his piano practice, Stephen said that was another a priori moment. “If generations of a priori was in my back to where this woman, a masseuse, could tell me where I came from and what my talent was, well, then how much of us is built in from generations before us that we’re unaware of? And that’s what I don’t know.”
It’s an idea he’s continuing to explore in his upcoming second book, tentatively titled My Adventures With God. He even plans to include a chapter titled “A Priori.”
Simon & Schuster, which published The Dangerous Animals Club, reached out to Stephen to see if he’d be interested in writing a follow-up. He submitted three proposals, but the publishers were after something else. In conversation with his literary agent, Stephen remembered when he went in to Simon & Schuster to discuss his first book. “They asked me why did I write this book, and I just said, ‘I have no idea.’” He laughed. “Ben, my editor, started to panic.”
Sensing that he’d given the wrong answer, Stephen knew it was “time to dance,” he said, and for two hours he shared his stories, telling anecdotes that had nothing to do with the first book — including his first meeting with a rabbi. Leap forward to the present day, and his agent Ben told Stephen that what Simon & Schuster was looking for was something like the rabbi story.
That’s why the second book will explore issues of faith, or what Stephen calls his “relationship to the invisible” — the unconscious post-accident dream, the little girl in Texas.
As a loose template he’s using the Old Testament, covering everything from creation (his beginnings) through to slavery (the slog at the start of his career) to a statement of purpose (finding out who he is) then perhaps being lost in the wilderness for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land. “I thought it was a great template,” said Stephen. “So you have funny stories from my childhood, then my Exodus section is me falling in and out of love, then the wilderness section deals with losing people in my life like when my mother died, and then at the end hopefully learning something.”
Hearkening back to the reason he started writing — to leave an explanation for his two sons of who their father was — he said the book will end with stories about his children. “I hope my words become things with them. I hope to teach them well,” he said.
The contract he signed defines a book as 80,000 words, but Stephen said he’s already at 50,000 and he’s still dealing with Exodus. “I told Ben that it’s longer than Gone With the Wind. He told me not to worry, to remember that I’m writing the Bible,” said Stephen, laughing again.
Still, he said, “I would rather write than act.”
He said he grew up thinking he was a party person, gregarious and always socializing. As his focus has increasingly turned to writing, he’s realizing he likes to be alone. “There’s nothing that makes me happier than getting up early in the morning and writing till the afternoon alone. Nobody talks to me. My wife and the cats keep away. It’s as good a day as I could have.”
Days start early for Stephen. He’s recently had a lot of early starts for acting gigs, up in the wee hours of the morning. “What excites me most about my life right now is dawn. Not necessarily waking up. But going out on the back porch and seeing the beginning of a day.”
Years ago, Stephen visited London with ex-girlfriend Beth (a recurring character in The Dangerous Animals Club), and they saw the play Saturday, Sunday, Monday starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright. There’s a line when Olivier is asked what he’s learned about life, and he responds that he’s seen too many sunsets and far too few dawns.
“This year I understood that,” said Stephen. “Seeing the day begin is very inspiring. I’m out there so early sometimes even the birds are asleep.”
Our conversation about inspirations eventually transitioned to talking about fears, and in the first part of the interview he said that these days his biggest dread is getting offered a part without having to audition, as he feels pressure to deliver himself as a certain product, living up to expectations. His mistakes are caught on film. In contrast, he can erase writing.
“One of the things I love most about writing is the backspace key. I love that massive delete. I prefer for my mistakes to be invisible,” said Stephen.
Making a mistake, or having regret, is something he touches on in one of his Cautionary Tales. He posits that our brains are broken down to 65 percent needs, 25 percent wants and 10 percent “Mick Jagger” — the unbridled chaos we sometimes give into without thought of the consequences. But over the years he realized there’s a fourth part of the puzzle. It’s the “Willie Nelson” segment of regrets.
Asked whether he thinks there might be a fifth part of the brain, he thought about it for a moment and suggested it could be forgiveness. “You do forgiveness for you, not for the other person. It comes from the idea that everybody does what they do for good reason. They cheat and lie for good reasons. These things don’t happen by accident. People do horrible things but have good reasons for doing them. It’s just that those reasons don’t necessarily involve you,” he said. “Then you realize that’s good, that maybe you’re not to blame,” he added.
He’s used that logic in his personal life, saying that if he’s ever treated his wife Ann unkindly, that he’s done it for what might have been an excellent reason at the time — like not wanting to get into a deep conversation with her or do something together ahead of a big acting performance.
As breakfast came to an end and we prepared to go our separate ways — him off to meet his wife, me back to Washington, D.C. — I again asked for Stephen’s reason for agreeing to meet me.
He reiterated his thought that it’s impossible to know what questions an interviewee might ask and the answers those could prompt. “Today, I seriously think I made the connection that the rain coming down my cheek when I was in Iceland was transmitted to the water down the glass when I was ‘in’ Los Angeles at that party, where my dreams and my consciousness were flipped. The thing I experienced then was as real as being here, tasting this coffee going cold. But the reality was flipped,” he said.
“I’m always interested in what is the story I’m telling, because I know what I’m doing but I don’t have the perspective from the outside to know the story I’m telling,” he explained. “And I think if I talk to a random Englishman, I’ll get an outside view. And something that he asks will shake it up, and then I realize: Oh! That’s the story I’m telling.”