We had the opportunity to have a few moments with Bill Oberst, Jr., the star of the recent release Painkiller. He has a great resume of theater and film parts, but most know him from his horror appearances in movies like Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, 3 From Hell and Lifechanger. We had a blast connecting with him and came away with even more respect for the man and his acting ability.
B&S ABOUT MOVIES: You’ve played some amazing roles. If you think about it, you’ve pretty much played some of the most important people in history between JFK, Lincoln, Jesus, General Sherman and Lewis Grizzard. What kind of head trip is it to play those major historical roles?
BILL OBERST JR.: It’s pretty tough. What I learned to do to play these people is that some of them still have objects in this world. Their families or their estates will give me shoes or glasses or a notebook or some part of the person. So I look at this stuff and I realized, that’s all we leave behind. Stuff. And, of course, ideas, words and the emotions that move on through the people we love.
These people are really famous and those emotions run through a much larger group of people. The way I approach their struggles is through their words, particularly people like Lincoln and Kennedy and Twain. Even Jesus, without the words that they left behind, it’s just a faint memory.
All of that makes me really careful about the words that I say and what I’m leaving behind. And then, if you have a script, you may have words to say. But when there’s no script and I’m just playing these famous roles, you have to be really careful and really intentional.
And that makes me think about my life. I want to be really intentional about what I say and leave behind!
B&S: Amongst these famous roles, what’s your favorite?
Bill: There are two, one on stage and one on screen. The one on stage is Jesus because of that experience of being in churches of every denomination, and in theaters, where some people who have no religious beliefs and still listen to the words of Jesus, and they say, “Wow. It’s kind of cool.” It cuts across all those and that was astounding.
My favorite thing I’ve ever done on screen was Criminal Minds*. Because the makeup artist** had worked with Tarantino and he was even the groom in Kill Bill. And he got it, he said to me, “Let’s make your character something like Lon Chaney Sr. would have played, the wounded monster.” And the director was into it as well, so they let me create this beautiful but dangerous monster who had been made that way by the way people treated him. I had the prosthetics and a hunchback and got to do the character like a classic horror villain. Plus, I got to put barbed wire around Adrienne Barbeau’s neck!
B&S: Every actor has their dream role. What’s yours?
BILL: Phantom of the Opera, but it doesn’t have to be at the opera! The base dynamic of that role and what I like about it so much is that Eric was born that way. I hate it when movies have to have an excuse that his face is that way. Someone threw acid in his face and thats why he’s like this or he was burned. And the point of the novel is, he was born a monster, he was a freak at birth and his father would never look at him. His mother turned her face and they have him a mask before selling him to a traveling carnival. That’s how he became what he was, a magician and an outcast from society.
So I really want to play that role. I keep telling young directors that the story is in the public domain and it doesn’t have to be set at the opera. Just take the dynamic and put it somewhere.
B&S: I mean, they did it in a mall once!
Bill: Exactly! Chaney is the only one who did it with Eric being created that way. And the original ending of the 1925 film had Eric die of a broken heart and they find his skeleton slumped over the pipe organ years later. They played that for audiences and they hated it! You can’t feel sympathy for the monster! So they made the new ending where he acts like he has a grenade and they launch him into the river and everybody’s happy. But that original ending is much closer to what I’d like to do.
B&S: Did you like the Robert Englund take on it? He claims that he didn’t get to do the full vision that he had for the film.
Bill: Yes, I did. And that’s always the case with independent film. You have to make some version of the movie you think you’re gonna make. Because you know, you always run out of money. And you always run out of time. You just do the best you can.
B&S: What’s it like being in a Rob Zombie movie?
Bill: Great. He’s the coolest guy ever because he is really aware of his public persona, but he’s not like that at all. It’s not fake, you know? It’s who he is, but he sets it aside to do his film work.
He was a great director to work with because I wanted to adjust my acting to the way he wanted the role. We were on the way to the set and I asked what he wanted and shared what I thought he was looking for. And he said, “I hired you because I like what you do. I like the wounded animals that you play and that’s what I want you to do. So just take what’s written here and pour it through you. And it’ll be alright.”
I was like, “This guy is brilliant.” He just made me want to please him and give it everything. He’s great with actors.
B&S: Isn’t that why people hire actors? For what they are known for being able to do? It’s like hiring a voiceover artist and making them change their register or read when you hired them for a specific reason.
Bill: I actually started doing animated movie voiceovers during COVID-19, so that’s been fun. And they always want a higher register.
I was talking to my dad and he asked how work was. I said, “Well, yeah, you know, I got this animated thing and I’m a donkey.” He asked me for a bit of it and said, “Well, that was predictable.”
(Laughs) That’s the life of an actor! Everybody tells you what to do. But when it comes from your dad, you need to listen.
B&S: Tell us about Painkiller.
Bill: Painkiller comes from a real-life tragedy. Tom Cornell is the co-writer and executive producer. Plus, he’s one of Florida’s largest accident and insurance attorneys. You can see his face on billboards all over the state. His son was 21 and accidentally overdosed from opioids. So this script comes from trying to work through the pain and it ended up being a revenge fantasy.
It reminds me of Death Wish, the Charles Bronson-type stories, where Bronson does what you would never do but wish you could when you’re angry. Injustice has been done and someone has to pay.
My character has lost a child to accidental opioid death and he’s determined that since the government cannot do anything about it — nobody is doing anything about it — he’s going to do something about it.
It’s a revenge fantasy, just like the other one I’ve done, Stressed to Kill. In that one, the same character is killing people to keep his blood pressure down. If you think about it, when you get upset, you want to kill people and you watch these movies and you’re on the side of the vigilante. And then you think, “This is murder.” But then you get stressed out again and want people to just shut up. So you’re torn. (Laughs)
B&S: What was it like to work with Michael Paré?
Bill: Intense! He’s intense! I’m glad I didn’t have a fight scene. He would have beaten the crap out of me. He’s just I mean, he’s got the eyes. He’s got the presence. And he’s so experienced, he even tells the effects guys where to put the squibs on. It was great to work with such a powerful actor.
B&S: It sounds pretty exciting.
Bill: I want to entertain people, but I want to make them think about how long this opioid crisis has been going on and how it started. How did doctors decide to prescribe something that they knew was addictive to kids who had sports injuries? And then they ended up dying, how did we get to this point?
I hope that the movie makes people think about it and talk about it. And you know, think about what we could do to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
*Oberst appeared in “Blood Relations,” which was episode 12 of season 9.
**Christopher Allen Nelson