Currents: An Actor’s Actor
Pawleys Island’s Bill Oberst Jr. goes from holy to horrifying in Hollywood
He’s been called Georgetown’s “Favorite Son,” but lately some of his biggest fans are horrified at what he’s become.
Many along the Grand Strand know hometown actor Bill Oberst Jr. from his brilliant portrayals of Mark Twain, JFK and Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard. Each December, Oberst plays the entire Dickensian cast of characters from A Christmas Carol in an abbreviated version frequently staged at Brookgreen Gardens. Though he’s acted wearing a simple carpenter’s robe as Jesus in a series of reverent readings from the scriptures, 48-year-old Oberst—who is now bicoastal and hopes to head to Europe soon—is embracing his dark side as Hollywood’s newest gruesome go-to guy.
The articulate, humble and friendly actor went from being on the stage to being in front of the camera in 2008 after The History Channel aired its highly rated docudrama Sherman’s March, which starred Oberst as Civil War General William T. Sherman. The success of the program lead to offers from Hollywood, and Oberst was off. He can be seen in the blockbuster movie The Secret Life of Bees as Sheriff Gaston and has also starred in more than 30 made-for-TV movies, shorts and independent features.
“This kind of work is so demanding,” he said from his home in Pawleys Island during a recent (and short) break. “You’ve got to be all in and available at the drop of a hat. You’ve kind of got to do [stage or screen], one or the other.”
He’s filmed on the streets of Savannah, the fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and in nearby Wilmington, North Carolina, but he’s mostly been busy in and around Los Angeles, shooting independent horror flicks. When he’s not portraying Civil War generals or Jesus of Nazareth, he’s Abraham Lincoln, zombie killer. When he’s not Mark Twain, he’s a creepy Facebook stalker or any number of frightening embodiments that demonstrate his impressive diversity. You can even buy his severed ear online. A cast of the actor’s ear was made for a movie in which he played a caveman whose ear was unceremoniously chewed off. The handmade bloody prop, now in limited production, is available for sale on Oberst’s website.
When asked about the role reversal from essentially playing good, honorable and even divine characters to playing the worst of the worst, Oberst said any story worth its salt has a villain, and the better the story, the more evil the bad guy. “Movies, at their best, are cinematic parables,” he said. “The parables of Jesus reference the terrible and always have an antagonist.” He cites the Bible’s selfish rulers, the snake of infamy and even bad blood between siblings. “Without [murderous] Cain, there’s no story of Cain and Abel,” says Oberst, “and the great line from scripture ‘Your brother’s blood calls to me from the ground.’ Antagonists are very necessary to the human psyche. What I hope to do—and I realize this sounds high-minded for the stuff I’m doing—is to play these dark characters in a way that’s so realistic and disturbing that people will see a little of themselves in it.”
Seeing “themselves in it” is exactly what Oberst’s biggest hit to date accomplishes. As a creepy Facebook stalker in the interactive viral web sensation “Take This Lollipop,” Oberst is at his creepiest and most famous yet. The web application/mini-movie, which co-stars you and your Facebook friends, has been on CNN and reviewed by Slate, Forbes, Ad Age and countless other media outlets. In 2011 it was Facebook’s fastest-growing web application. Here’s how it works: When you, as a Facebook user, authorize the app, created by Jason Zada, the application mines your online data, and then the real fun begins. High production-value moviemaking automatically combines with software wizardry to put you in the middle of a two-minute psychological thriller, starring Oberst as someone who is, for some reason, very, very upset with you and your friends.
Zada is the web genius behind the online hit “ElfYourself,” and more than 13 million online viewers have taken his lollipop bait to experience Oberst’s unsettling original portrayal of a stalker. Try it for yourself at www.takethislollipop.com. Beware: While not particularly gory, this PG-13ish video may not be appropriate for very young viewers, but older kids with Facebook pages will love it.
“[Lollipop] is the one thing I have been recognized for,” said Oberst “Usually at the grocery store or by kids in line at the movie theater. I’m so proud of Jason [Zada] and the team that put it together. We’ve been nominated for a Webby award in several categories.”
Oberst, who says he suffered through a difficult adolescence while growing up in Georgetown, found drama as a teen and is finding great success playing deeply flawed characters. He’s creating a brand, one indie flick at a time, and is being recognized by those in the industry who see something special in the diminutive man with a disquieting presence and serious acting chops. Movie review website Bigdaddyhorror says Oberst has the “flash of Pacino and the intensity of De Niro.” A British fan site named Oberst the “King of Horror for 2012.” Another reviewer wrote, “Oberst lends a malicious glee and a disturbing, penetrating stare” to the movie Dismal (2008). Dozens of YouTube clips show Oberst at work in a variety of period pieces, shorts and, of course, horror films.
“My work may be here [in L.A.], but my preference is to be home in Georgetown County,” said Oberst, who is already fielding offers for more bloodcurdling endeavors well into 2013.