Horror fans don’t grant new performers legendary status on a regular basis. We cling to our heroes like treasures and limit inclusion into the upper echelon of the genre to a very select few. But people do manage to break through and win our undying respect and admiration, and Bill Oberst, Jr., is doing just that right now.
After appearing in the Emmy Award-winning short film Take This Lollipop (if, for some ungodly reason, you haven’t seen it yet, absolutely check it out ASAP!), Oberst’s popularity exploded; and he now has over 100 films to his credit, most within the past five years. This whirlwind of energy and excitement sat down with Dread Central recently to discuss his career, his fears and his upcoming films.
“I did theater for 14 years on the East Coast, and theater was all I ever wanted to do,” Oberst Jr. said. “I was a big horror fan privately, but it never had anything to do with my career. So by chance someone said, ‘You should audition for this thing the History Channel is doing about General Sherman and the Civil War called “Sherman’s March”. I’m from South Carolina originally so I knew the stories of Sherman raping the South. So I auditioned for the role and I got it and it got good reviews and ended up on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.”
Oberst explained how he went from General Sherman’s march to being the thing that goes bump in the night in so many horror projects. “I’d never thought about doing film, but I then wondered if I could,” Oberst said. “I’d played historical characters and funny characters on stage so that’s what I thought I’d do out here on the West Coast. So I got an agent, came out here and switched to film; and suddenly I couldn’t get work! I couldn’t get arrested! I was really, really starving. Then a nice director of photography took me to the side and said, ‘Go dark. And the darker you go, the more you’ll work. The camera really loves the darkness in your eyes and face.’ And he was right.”
With many titles now under his belt, Bill finds that the horror genre is a perfect fit for him. “The more I work in horror, the more my love of it coalesces with it onscreen… I hope! It’s really all I want to do now. If I have a normal part, it’s kind of boring. There’s just something about monsters and fear that I’ve loved ever since I was a kid.”
Oberst finds the horror genre to be very honest and true to itself. “Usually as an actor, there are parts of you that you don’t like and you try to hide. And you always try to look your best. But in horror, you don’t have to do that,” Oberst explained. “I used to have this special makeup I’d put on my face to hide the scars, and now I don’t wear it at all because that’s my look! I’ve got this really freaky ribcage and a bony body and all those things… I used to wear padding onstage to try and look more normal. The horror fans are okay with who you are. I think the fans are aware that we’re all going to die and they embrace that. And so weird and odd is okay with them. It’s just awesome to be so honest with the fans and them to embrace you.”
The Bill Oberst, Jr., we see on the screen is often a nightmarish spectacle, but he describes his normal routine as something… well, normal. “I’m a happy-go-lucky guy!” Oberst said. “I go to church and I go to bed at 9:30. I don’t drink or smoke or do any drugs or anything. Like, I’m really Mr. Straightlaced Conservative. But when I get close to somebody and get my hands stroking their hair and looking into their eyes, something snaps and it’s really cathartic. I love it.” We’re going to go ahead and assume that he’s talking about on set. He didn’t say on set, but let’s hope that’s what he meant.
Oberst discussed his preferences between supernatural characters and just plain crazy guys, and from there he delved into an interesting subject, pure fear. “I kind of prefer the supernatural. But the realistic is good if there’s a deep character to dive into. If it’s just a guy with an axe, then who cares? But if there’s a deep soulfulness… what I really, really, really like is conflict. I love inner conflict. The fact that we all walk around with these faces painted on and people ask, ‘How you doing?’ And we say, ‘Fine.’ But we’re not fine. Not a single, single one of us is fine. We have all this conflict swirling around and this dichotomy and weirdness inside of us. But we hide it and it’s only when we wake up at 3 a.m. that we realize it’s there. So any kind of character that has that written in it. That’s honest. I love to dive into that kind of stuff.”
A heavy answer indeed, so we encouraged Oberst to continue on the 3 a.m. fears. “I don’t want to lie anymore and that’s the great thing about doing horror. You don’t need the pat answers. You don’t need a persona that’s different from who you are. You can be completely honest about who you are. In what other genre can you do that? In what other genre can you talk about this stuff? So much of our culture says, ‘Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it; look at this. Don’t think about it; be distracted by this. Hey, look over here; here’s pretty people. Hey, look over here; here’s clothes. Hey look; here’s sex.’ And none of it can quiet that 3 a.m. voice.”
“I’m no good at parties,”Oberst joked. “I just sit in the corner and talk about this stuff.”
Oberst is currently featured in the film Ditch. “There’s a young director named Joe Hendrick,” Oberst said. “I did a short with him in which I wrestled a chicken… the chicken won. But I knew when I did the short that I wanted to work with this guy again because he’s passionate, really excitable and he loves the bizarre. So in Ditch, okay, a guy has an axe and there’s some kitsch, but Joe… he talks really fast and he’s got this ponytail and he says, ‘I wanna, I wanna make people feel. I wanna make ’em feel what’s going on inside you when you got that axe and when you got it and it could be them.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, Joe, let’s do this.’:
He continued about his character and experiences with Ditch. “We created this character, a character that I hope people will feel sorry for and feel more sympathy for than the people he’s putting the axe into. That’s why I really enjoyed doing it. Plus I got to chop a topless chick’s hand off. We used a fireman’s axe, which is the cool kind of axe with the curve on the back. I got to chop down a real door, which I had never done before. You have no idea how much fun it is to have people on the other side of a door and to chop, chop, chop until the door comes in. It was really hard not to poke my head through and say ‘Heeere’s Johnny.'”
Oberst is also featured in the upcoming film The Dooms Chapel Horror. Check out more on The Dooms Chapel Horror Facebook page.
Of course, even the best performers need quality material to work with. When considering a project, what does Oberst look for in a script? “I want something that makes my own skin crawl,” he said. “Something that makes me uncomfortable. In some of the scripts I read, you know the outcome of the story in the first five pages. When I get a script like Children of Sorrow where some of the images get stuck in my mind, I thought, ‘I’ve got to find a way to get in this movie’ because if they can shoot what’s on the page, these images are going to stick with people for years. That’s the gold standard. It doesn’t come along very often, but that’s what you shoot for.”
Oberst hopes to achieve some of his own iconic imagery during his career. “The Exorcist, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, even American Werewolf in London… these images will be with me when I die,” Oberst said. “On my deathbed you’ll be able to say to me, ‘What did David Naughton’s transformation look like?’ Or, ‘What was it like when Regan twisted her head around?’ and I’ll be able to tell you. That’s my goal, to be part of projects like that. Growing up I had posters up on my wall and my mom said, ‘Take that trash down!’ So I want to be on some 14-year-old kid’s wall and have their mother say, ‘Take that trash down!'”
Indeed Oberst was a horror fan growing up and studied all the right stuff. “When I was a kid, I read Famous Monsters magazine, so I took the Dick Smith makeup course by correspondence,” Oberst said. “Me, a little kid in South Carolina, and I wrote off to the Westmores who, at that time, were the big makeup family. And Bud Westmore wrote me back and sent me a picture, and I still have it. A picture of the Westmore family. And he wrote, ‘Billy, keep chasing your dreams.’ He took the time to write that and send it back. I think horror people have always been this way. I remember hearing stories about Vincent Price and how nice he was also.”
With 100 films now to his credit, Oberst is finding a true love with horror. “You never know with low budget films, but if you put all your passion into it, sometimes that covers a multitude of low budget sins,” Oberst said. “The original Nightmare on Elm Street was not a huge budget. I know they kept Wes Craven on a pretty tight budget. Robert Englund was unknown. He was my age when that happened, and it just shocked everybody.”
And with Oberst’s incredible workload, horror fans have to make the correlation between him and another legend of the genre, Debbie Rochon. “I’ll take that!” Oberst said. Debbie is awesome! I raped her about three years ago in a Swedish film called Ripped Memories. It was marital rape as she was unwilling because she was having an affair with my son. Whatever! But she’s awesome. She’s a really good actress and she works her tail off, and I’d love to be the male Debbie Rochon. I’ve got a movie coming up with Debbie called The Bloody Clementines by JimmyO Burril It’s me, Debbie and April “Chainsaw Sally” Burril. It’s about a group of country women and their momma and they believe it’s religiously wrong to marry, but they can keep men in cages and abuse them.” Sounds like a great opportunity for another memorable Bill Oberst, Jr., performance!