Rogue caught up with Stephen Tobolowsky and we were greatly honored when he accepted to talk with us. Stephen is one of the leading character actors in entertainment today. He has appeared over 250 movies and television shows. He was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in 2002. He is best known for roles in Groundhog Day, Memento, Thelma and Louise, Silicon Valley, Californication, Glee, The Goldbergs, and Norman Lear’s new One Day at a Time for Netflix. He wrote and performed Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party that premiered at the HBO Comedy Festival. He wrote True Stories with David Byrne and Beth Henley. His storytelling concert film The Primary Instinct was released in 2016 on HULU and is available on iTunes.
Stories from his notable podcast “The Tobolowsky Files” have been heard across the country on NPR and PRI radio stations, and can be heard anytime on Slashfilm.com and on iTunes. His first book of stories, The Dangerous Animals Club, was published by Simon and Schuster in 2012. His second book, My Adventures with God, was released April of 2017.
Fun Facts: He played guitar with Stevie Ray Vaughn when Stevie was 14 and cut the first studio recording Stevie ever performed.
You seem to enjoy mocking your celebrity status in Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, but you’ve had one the of most diverse acting careers in Hollywood, and yet you have many strings to your bow, notably your writings. Was this always a passion or did it evolve as you matured?
I’ve always enjoyed writing. At different times in my life I would have given you different reasons why. When I was in grade school, writing made me feel like I was master of my own adventures. In college, I made money off of writing. I wrote people’s post-graduate papers for cash. Prospective clients would ask, “How good of a writer are you?” I answered, “That’s not the question. The question is how good of a writer are you!” I got a writing sample and tried to mimic their style – warts and all. (That was a good exercise.)
When I came to Hollywood, I started writing screenplays like every other actor in town. I got a couple made. True Stories with David Byrne and Beth Henley and Two idiots in Hollywood. I was young and foolish. I didn’t know it was impossible to get a screenplay sold and shot. Once I found out, I quit writing them. I still keep all of my unsold scripts in a storage locker in North Hollywood. They will stay there until I die and my children will have to hire professional cleaning people to throw them out. That is the problem with screenplays. They represent too much work and too many dreams to throw them away.
I broke my neck in 2008 riding a horse on the side of an active volcano in Iceland – which was easier to do than selling a screenplay. To recover I began writing stories about my life for my two boys – a sort of legacy. Those stories eventually became my podcast with David Chen “The Tobolowsky Files.” Some of those stories were played on PRI and NPR radio stations around the country. Simon and Schuster asked if I would turn my stories into a book. That became The Dangerous Animals Club. And then they asked for a second book, which is My Adventures with God.
Now, I continue to write stories based on my life. I find that when you write a true story you can alter reality in a way. Painful moments can become funny. Lost can become found.
Your podcasts have a distinctive sense of humor which carries through to your writings, but beneath seems to be a very enquiring mind. You give a strong sense that you are looking for meaning in life. Do you think Hollywood makes it harder for people to find meaning?
Even in our scientific age, everything we think we know is probably wrong. This idea is now a part of accepted scientific orthodoxy. It is called the Uncertainty Principal. It states you can know where something is or how fast it is moving, but you can’t know both at the same time. This law evolved to discuss sub-atomic particles. It also describes my life. We can either know who we are or where we are going, but we can’t know both.
Being an actor and a writer has provided many joys I never anticipated. EVERYTHING you learn can be used. From Isaac Newton to Fig Newton – it’s all good. Even video games.
Since absolute knowledge of anything is either accidental or impossible, we use metaphors as our primary mode of communication. Jokes are nothing more than metaphors. Movies. Books. Television. Theater is a metaphorical story performed in a room where they have metaphoric sets on a stage with lights that turn on to cue you – the audience – that the metaphor is beginning.
Hollywood is giant story factory where someone else is always in your parking spot. It lives on creating new metaphors or hopefully leeching off of the old ones if they get lucky with a hit. It is as powerful a research center for the meaning of life as the largest, most ancient library, the deepest secret laboratory, or the loneliest monk on top of a mountain. (I had to use three metaphors to describe Hollywood.)
Your book “My Adventures With God” relies heavily on your Jewish heritage; with the current political strife, in the west, what does identity mean to you?
Political strife in the West? What West are you talking about? Xi Jinping just declared himself ruler for life in China. Putin murdered two of his former employees with a military nerve weapon in Salisbury, England. Salisbury! Where I ate Salisbury steak with my wife. Don’t forget North Korea – or Islamic terrorists in the Philippines, India, Thailand, Africa, and Europe.
The world has gotten smaller. Trouble is everywhere. We cannot isolate misery. We cannot ignore it. 9/11 was our catastrophe, but it came from Afghanistan.
When it becomes too difficult to look out – we seek refuge by looking in. That is where identity comes into play. My Judaism is chocked full of wisdom and hardship accumulated over thousands of years. It was forged through historic periods in which people thought the truth could be known. These periods probably gave us the simplest to-do list ever, the Ten Commandments, as well as historic epochs in which the popular belief was that the truth could not be know – which gave us Jewish mysticism. My Jewish identity is my doorway to peace of mind and happiness when the world around me is falling to pieces.
What writers have influenced your work?
My influences come in two flavors. My stylistic influences come from Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Maxim Gorky. Dickens, for me, is the greatest storyteller ever. He easily mixes humor with heartache. I find George Eliot the most elegant and profound writer. Her use of exposition and suspense is astonishing. She can be hilarious or crushing with the simplest turn of phrase. Even Dickens called her “the sage of all sages.” Gorky taught me to break the rules if I want. He will start stories at the end. At the middle. He is simple and direct. He is always surprising.
Writers who have influenced my content are also from the past. Shakespeare taught me that the universal could be found in the simplest topics. Plato taught me you could be funny with philosophy. The thinkers of the Enlightenment had a big influence on me. I also read the Talmud. It’s often incomprehensible, but occasionally, it can hit you in the head with something remarkable.
Have you read anything lately which made you sit back in awe?
Carl Jung. I am currently reading his works on psychology and alchemy. Mind blowing. Apparently Jung was in a library and happened upon artwork created in the 15th and 16th centuries describing the work of alchemists. He was amazed that the images matched those of his current patients when describing their dreams. This was his launching pad for exploring the theory that there is a collective unconscious that exists within mankind that provides shapes to the shadows that haunt us. Understanding these images could be the keys to everything from wisdom to mental disorders.
Are there any other hidden talents in your repertoire that you would like to share with the public?
I play the piano. Poorly. Someday, if I play better, I will share. My wife and I keep bees and make honey. Well – the bees do the work. We just steal it and put it in jars.
What’s next on the agenda for Stephen Tobolowsky?
Season Three of One Day At A Time for Netflix! I can’t wait. I love the show and love the people I work with – both in front and behind the camera. And I am currently writing the next series of podcasts for the Tobolowsky Files. Once again I feel I am master of my own adventures.