The talented actor talks about his role in the classic film, his possible return to Heroes and much more
While Stephen Tobolowsky's name surely is a mouthful, it's starting to become a household name as well. A hard-working actor with almost 200 credits in film and television to his name, Tobolowsky has turned in several memorable performances throughout the years, such as Sammy Jankis in Christopher Nolan's pre-Batman masterpiece, Memento and more recently in the biker comedy Wild Hogs and as top Company man Bob Bishop on the hit series Heroes. But before all that, Tobolowsky portrayed Ned Ryerson, Bill Murray's old friend in Groundhog Day, which will be released in a 15th Anniversary Special Edition on DVD and Blu-ray on January 27. I had the chance to speak with Tobolowsky over the phone for this new DVD edition, and here's what he had to say.
How did you first become aware of Daniel Rubin and Harold Ramis' script for this?
Stephen Tobolowsky: It's kind of a more interesting road than it would first appear. I got a script for Groundhog Day, Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, and I looked at it and the script was kind of, 'Oh, I get it. It's one of those Bill Murray movies.' It was kind of predictable. Bill has no consequences so he's going to sleep with women, he's going to wreck cars and he's going to rob banks. I wasn't really, to be truthful, incredibly excited about it. It was kind of something we had seen before. The second part is very interesting. After the audition process and I got the part, we started shooting the movie and, suddenly, Harold Ramis threw out half the script. What? And then he was saying, 'You know, Danny and I were talking this over. What would really happen if you had all of time at your hands? What kind of responsibility does that give you? More than having no consequences, how does that affect your life?" So they were writing a whole new thing. They were writing and we were getting pages, literally, hot off the press. A.D.'s were running around the set, handing us script pages that were hot from just being printed and our entire second half of the movie was re-written. In the first script I read, Bill's first suicide attempt was at the end of the movie. A bunch of things happen and he gets bored and tries to kill himself, he can't kill himself and he wakes up in the morning and he's not a jerk anymore. The new script, they threw out all these episodes. They threw out half the episodes, they moved up the suicide attempt to the middle of the movie and then they had, you know, the car explodes and Chris Elliot is there going, 'Oh, maybe he survived it.' Then what happened, they started adding the piano lessons, and Bill saving the kid from the tree and Bill saving the mayor choking on the steak and fixing the ladies flat tire. All of that stuff, this movie that was a Bill Murray vehicle, became a classic film.
It is very difficult in comedy, to take on serious subjects. Normally, what people do is they take comedic actors and have them act serious all of the sudden and it's boring. What this film suddenly became, was a film about our life and time and how we spend time and the responsibility of time. I was just in Texas not long ago and a man came up to me and he talked comparative religion. He said he uses Groundhog Day to speak to Buddhism. All that happens because of the rewriting. I got an email from the Oakland Raiders that they use Groundhog Day as a motivational film for their team. They said the ideas that if you can't get it right, you do it again and do it again. The film became very special.
Here is a very specific example of what Harold Ramis did. There was an enormous scene that was in the movie and was shot. Bill was suspecting that he has no consequences and he can do whatever he wants. He goes into his room at the inn and he starts spraypainting the walls. Then he cuts his hair and gives himself a Mohawk. Then he gets a chainsaw and starts to chainsaw the furniture. He's drinking whiskey and he passes out and in the morning he wakes up and the room is back to normal. It took something like three days to shoot. It was an enormous scene because, every time you wreck something in a movie, if that camera shot doesn't work right, you have to have a duplicate to re-wreck. Ramis looked at it and said, 'We're barking up the wrong tree here.' He cut the entire scene out of the film and what he put in instead was Bill going to bed, breaking a pencil and putting the pencil by the clock-radio and then when he wakes up in the morning, he holds up the pencil and it's whole. I went to the movie premiere and saw how that scene played out. People gasped at that scene, just as the whole pencil. It's just an example of what happened with this movie. It went from being outrageous and wrecking this stuff to an incredibly thoughtful but funny comedy.
Absolutely. That's a great story. So for a role like Ned Ryerson, it seems like it'd be quite difficult, because you're basically the one guy that has to nail everything exactly right all the time. Was it that big of a challenge and is there anything you can do to prepare for that?
Stephen Tobolowsky: Well, I think just as an actor, you're used to doing kind of the exact same thing over and over and you don't want to do exactly the same thing on each take. When you're doing a master shot, a wider shot, in comedy, they say comedy lives in the two-shot, not in the close-up. When Bill and I were doing a two-shot, each time we did that, I would do something a little different, just to keep it lively and so would Bill. He would ad-lib things and we would play with the scene. When they got a two-shot they liked, then your close-ups have to match that two-shot, then the discipline kicks in. You kind of have free play for awhile until the director gets a couple of takes he really likes, then you have to match those. I think the interesting thing about for Groundhog Day is, if you take a look at how the movie is shot, each time I have a scene with Bill in the street, it's shot with a slightly different camera technique. One is done with hand-held, one is done with Steadicam, one is done on a dolly, one is done with a long lens, coming down the street. They create the sense that it is the same, even though each scene is slightly different.
I was reading that there were a lot of really big names for Bill Murray's role as well, like Tom Hanks, Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and John Travolta, but Ramis ultimately decided they were too nice for the role. Is that kind of likeable/unlikeable thing really what makes Bill Murray stand apart for this?
Stephen Tobolowsky: Oh man. That's brilliant. I had never heard that before, but, again, what a wise judgment that was. Someone like Tom Hanks, who's a great actor, is just way too sweet for this role. There's an old kind of comedic rule and directing rule and that's you don't end where you begin. Where you start is different from where you end. You have to go on a journey somewhere. If you're going to have Bill Murray being just a great great person, you have to start with him being somewhere else. I don't see John Travolta, who is so charismatic, and his natural vibe is sweet. Tom Hanks, they're all just way too bright and sweet. I think you needed Bill Murray in there, who has that really bitter, sardonic humor at times, doing it.
It's been just over 15 years since the film was released and obviously it's still a huge part of pop culture to this day. Did you have any clue that this would be such a timeless movie when you guys were making it?
Stephen Tobolowsky: The short answer is no. You never know how an audience is going to like or not like a film. It's almost like, sometimes the logic is reverse. Like if you have a lot of trouble on a movie, or it's hard to get made, those movies always do well and the movies where you have a great time making it and everything is perfect, those movies are duds. for Groundhog Day, my short answer is no, but my slightly longer answer is, when we were getting the rewrites of the second half of the script, I had a feeling in my heart that we were doing something very special. Now, whether it would be marketed and whether people would like it, whether it would be funny, I didn't know, but I knew we were doing something special.
You've portrayed some very memorable characters throughout the years, such as Sammy Jankis in Memento or Bob Bishop in Heroes. Is Ned Ryerson the one you still get the most recognition for on the street?
Stephen Tobolowsky: Oh, that's a tricky question. I'd have to say that Ned is the longest-running character I get recognition for. I'll tell you a brief story. My wife and I were in Reykjavik, Iceland, and somebody came up to me and said, 'Oh, it's Ned! It's Ned Ryerson!' Ned is known all over the world, so I would have to say yes. The corollary of that is if you do someone like Bob Bishop on Heroes, which is a big part of popular culture, you will have gigantic segments of the population that will know you specifically for that. That was true with Bob on Heroes. It was true with Freaky Friday, it was true with Garfield: The Movie. Every five-year-old kid in the world came up to me and said, 'It's Happy Chapman!' When I did Memento, and the niche audience of that, whenever I went to the symphony, everybody at the symphony would come up to me and go, 'Now what was that movie really about?' Audiences sort of pick out these iconic roles, but I've got to tell you that Ned, for staying power and worldwide appeal, there's no character like Ned.
Has anyone actually came up to you on the street and done the scene, like playing you?
Stephen Tobolowsky: I feel like you're psychic, at this point. I was doing a movie in Utah and we were shooting in a neighborhood outside of Salt Lake City and this 17-year-old kid comes up to me and says, 'Oh my God. Oh my God, just a second. Stay right there.' The kid runs away and like 20 minutes later he comes back with another kid who's like 17 or 18 and the two of them had the entire scene memorized. One of the kids played Bill Murray and one of the kids played me and they did the entire scene in front of me while I was waiting by my trailer to go in and shoot. The entire scene, beginning to end. They did it all.
So, I know that Bob Bishop is dead on Heroes, but that often leads to more work on Heroes, which we've seen before. Have you heard anything if they'll bring your character back for guest spots or anything else in future volumes?
Stephen Tobolowsky: When we shot the Sylar death scene, they cut out the actual scene where Sylar kills me. Now, we shot that. It took a whole day to shoot this big fight I had with Sylar and, instead, they just had a reveal of me in the chair. (Executive Producer) Greg Beeman on the show said, 'You know, we're thinking of bringing you back.' I go, 'Greg, my brains have been sucked out. I bet you tell that to all the dead people on Heroes.' I have not heard anything specifically for me, myself. I'm on to a new show, which is going to be on Fox called Glee. It's being put together by Ryan Murphy, who did Nip/Tuck and it is hysterical. So, if the guys in Heroes want to bring me back, they're going to have to bring me back with kind of blonde streaks in my hair.
So can you talk about your role in Glee at all?
Stephen Tobolowsky: Oh, absolutely. First of all, the idea of the show, it's got music in it, it's about high school glee clubs, but Ryan has brought in all these ringers in from Broadway. We have all sorts of Broadway singers playing roles on the show that are incredible. The humor is decidedly dark humor, decidedly vicious. Anyway, I play the old glee club teacher who, I think I've been fired for feeling up the boys too much, but I insist that I'm not gay. I think I'm going to end up selling medical marijuana on campus for money and run a string of delousing parlors. I'm not sure, but I think that's the direction it's going in. It's enormously funny and there's all this incredible singing in it. They want to premiere it after American Idol, I heard. I don't know for sure, but that's what I heard. It has the potential for being really special.
Is there anything you can tell us about The Time Traveler's Wife or anything else you're eyeing up?
Stephen Tobolowsky:The Time Traveler's Wife is going to be released this year. It was a terrific script. Eric (Bana) and Rachel (McAdams) were wonderful in it. So, I don't know what they're doing with it now. I know that I've gone in three or four times for ADR, which is more than they usually do on movies, so I think they're really taking their time on it. They have an amazing group of post people working on the show. The effects always take a lot longer than one assumes. I'm actually looking forward to The Time Traveler's Wife because just the performances were so good and the script was so good. I think it is a rare movie that is going to combine sci-fi and a lot of romance.
Finally, Groundhog Day is coming to Blu-ray next week. What would you like to say to all the fans who made this film such a timeless classic throughout the years?
Stephen Tobolowsky: In terms of Blu-ray, I have a feeling that this is where technology is going to be for awhile. I think Groundhog Day is one of those blue movies. There's like three of them, like if you're sick and in bed, you have to have these movies to watch. Groundhog Day is one of those films and there is going to be a whole new generation of kids that is going to see it. It's just as funny today as it was when we made it 15 years ago. It's amazing how timeless that movie is. I'm really proud of it and I really have my fingers crossed for the Blu-ray. I think it's great. It should be an essential film for the Blu-ray.
Well, that's about all I have for you, Stephen. Thank you so much for your time today and I'm looking forward to your new projects.
Stephen Tobolowsky: OK. Bye-bye.
You can catch Stephen Tobolowsky as the classic character Ned Ryerson when Groundhog Day comes back to DVD and debuts on Blu-ray on January 27.