Two guys are stuck in a room. Their legs are chained to the wall. There’s a dead body on the floor. And a rusty saw. They can either figure out who put them there, and why, or take the “easy” option and cut through their legs to survive.
That premise yanked my attention as a teenager and 2004’s Saw delivered a demanding, brutal, claustrophobic, puzzle-box experience. It all centred on puppet master John Kramer – AKA Jigsaw – who put people in these do-or-die traps in order to make them truly appreciate their lives.
Tobin Bell has been the face and voice of the iconic mastermind throughout the series, including the latest entry Jigsaw. I got a chance to talk to him about his experience playing Jigsaw for over a decade.
FLICKS: What got you interested in the 2004 role?
TOBIN BELL: James Wan. James and I sat and talked his and Leigh Whannell’s script, these two Australian guys who came to LA with a short film.
They had a compelling script that was about three guys locked in a room, and that’s pretty amazing. I was like, “Wow. Who makes films about three guys locked in a room?” It felt very Waiting for Godot to me. And it had an amazing ending.
That’s what got me going in it and here we are almost 14 years later.
Unlike a lot of horror icons, there’s a deeper reason to why Jigsaw does what he does. Is the role an emotionally taxing, draining experience for you?
He’s a very multi-dimensional guy and his interests are on many different levels. He’s very educated, contemplative, focused and committed. Whenever you have a chance to play a guy as big as John Kramer is, over seven or eight films, it’s pretty amazing and rare. So I appreciate that aspect of it.
What can you tell us about your role in this new film?
I continue to be a voice and an important part of the film. If Saw is anything, it’s a series of twists and turns and surprises. So as far as my participation in the film, it’s going to have to be one of those surprises. But I think that old fans and new fans will be fascinated by the way the film plays out.
How do fans approach you when they recognize you?
It depends. Most of the time, they are just very enthusiastic, friendly and warm.
However, I remember walking into a dark restaurant that was almost empty in Toronto late one night and the bartender was a woman behind the bar. It was cold and she was terrified that I was there. I just explained to her that it’s just a film and she finally calmed down. I was there for three weeks and we became pretty good friends.
It was an interesting moment, one of those moments where I had to use my friendliest powers to calm her down.
In some ways, that’s the biggest compliment you could receive on your performance.
Yeah. That’s true. Her blood ran cold for those few moments. I think it had to do with the fact that I was wearing a hoodie too. I kind of looked a little bit more like him because he wears that hood with the cloak. Sometimes it’s disconcerting, to say the least.
How do you personally react to gore and violence in movies?
Well, it depends on the context. Obviously, people go to see horror films for very compelling reasons. There’s a visceral experience involved with being terrified in a movie theatre and so that’s part of why people go – because of that experience.
Frankly, what I think I’ve learned doing these films is that horror fans that go to the films, they love going and they enjoy the experience. But they take it all far less seriously than people who don’t go, or people who have a problem with certain intense aspects of the film. So it’s often people who don’t go to the films that have the most amount of trouble with them. But they’re not horror fans in the first place.
I’m frankly more concerned about the violence in the real world than I am the imaginary violence that goes on in a Saw film. That violence is really just a metaphor for the world around us.