'Saw' star carves out success as psychopath

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After spending most of his acting career in supporting roles, Tobin Bell is only just getting used to life as one of the most terrifying serial killers in Hollywood history.

In the space of five years, the 67-year-old actor has shot to stardom as the murderous psychopath at the center of the phenomenally successful "Saw" films, which have grossed more than 665 million dollars worldwide since 2004.

Bell, who returns for the sixth film in the money-spinning franchise when "Saw VI" hits North American theaters on Friday, admits he had almost given up waiting for a break after spending so long in relative obscurity.

"There are certain sorts of watermarks in a career," he told AFP. "I never thought that I would be the central guy in a successful business franchise. That happens to you once in an entire career, it's amazing."

The New York native had entered Hollywood via the classic path, studying under the late Lee Strasberg at the fabled Actor's Studio, before making his debut as an extra in 1982 hits "Tootsie" and "The Verdict."

Other notable cameos included parts in 1988's civil rights drama "Mississippi Burning," Martin Scorsese's gangster classic "Goodfellas" in 1990 and Sydney Pollack's "The Firm", based on the John Grisham novel.

But it is as John Kramer, the so-called "Jigsaw Killer," that Bell became known to legions of horror film aficionados, putting him on a par with other slasher villains such as Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers.

Even so, Bell refuses to see his character -- who usually forces his victims into horrific dilemmas to survive -- as just another cinematic psychopath.

"He doesn't see himself as a psycho. And I don't see him that way either," Bell told AFP. "Obviously the viewers will make their own judgement about whether the guy has crossed the line, whether he has any moral compass or not.

"But for me, I'm an actor. Jigsaw does not view himself as some sort of a monster, so I don't play that. I play a human being. I play a guy who is very committed. Very thoughtful. He views himself as a guy with balls."

The "Saw" films are among a crop of gruesome films in recent years condemned as "torture porn" by critics who have railed against the explicit violence.

However Bell believes the movies are a reflection "of our time."

"You had a certain period when horror movies were very hot, and then, they pretty much exhausted what they could do," he said. "And then, all of a sudden, special effects changes, and they were able to do more.

"I like good horror movies. You can accomplish the same thing in horror movies as you can accomplish in a Shakespeare play."

What separates high-end horror from the rest, Bell says, is the quality of the screenplay. "You just have to be determined to write the script," he says. "Very often horror movies have sort of been the weak sister because they've been 'Oh, we don't need a good script. We just need the knife, we just need the camera'."

Today the "Saw" films are the most profitable horror movies in Hollywood history. The first movie in the series cost around 1.2 million dollars to make and grossed more than 100 million worldwide.

Bell believes the franchise's appeal lies in the central question that Jigsaw asks of his victims.

"It's a very strong concept," he says. "The question is: Would you be the same if you knew the exact moment of your death? I think that concept made 'Saw's' success."