The combination of a hard face and wounded eyes is one that goes back nearly 100 years to Bill's silent film hero, Lon Chaney. Bill patterns his own closeups after Chaney's, trying to make whatever monstrosity he may be embodying at the moment show a glimmer of humanity and sadness through the eyes. "It's not about staring" he says "but just about feeling the tragic nature of all of us. You don't have to act. If you just think it the camera will see it in the eyes. Look at Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster in the original film; his eyes are so full of hurt and pleading and rage. He's us."
Ray Bradbury's short story 'Skeleton,' about a man whose awareness of the bones within him is driving him insane, haunted Bill Oberst Jr. from the day he read it as a child. Ironic then, that Bill grew up to be film actor whose prominent bone structure plays a role in horrifying others. The hollows of Bill's jagged, oversized clavicles are so deep that make-up artists sometimes use the indentations as inkwells when doing horror makeups on him. "I don't really have much muscle bulk, so if I stay lean I can get a sort of 'ripped human cadaver' look," he says. "And tell me, in what other industry would that be a good thing?"
Bill Oberst Jr. fits squarely into the long cinematic horror tradition of the human body as an object of fear. Bill's extremely long torso (nearly twice the average for his height,) coupled with a deformed ribcage and a lean build, is a combination that can be downright skin-crawling on camera. He's played dozens of shirtless maniacs and monsters because of it, often with airbrushing to accentuate the dips, hollows and ridges. "I'll use anything that helps me to create a character that fits the film," he says. "I'm actually kind of proud to be a part of the tradition of creepy bodies that goes all the way back to Lon Chaney in the silents. That's good company to be in."
Bill Oberst Jr. has some of the most pronounced vein structure since the days of Karloff. "Virtually my entire circulatory system is visible right under my thin skin, which is a blessing in the dark roles I tend to play," he says, "there's something about prominent veins that disturbs the viewer... maybe because the life's blood is so close to the surface that it looks unprotected. It reminds us of how fragile we are." The veins on Oberst's neck, hands and arms are sometimes hand-painted by make-up artists with color washes to make them stand out more on camera.
Bill Oberst Jr.'s fingers are long and many are double-jointed. He studied the finger movements of horror greats including Lugosi, Karloff and Englund to make his hands characters in themselves. He says "I learned from watching stunt guys about dynamic tension in muscles to make a small movement look larger and I adapted it to my hands. Dynamic tension makes the veins pop out, gives a slight curl to the fingers and creates a little twitch in individual digits, as if those fingers were itching to be released from the hand. It has to be subtle. When it's done right the camera loves to linger on the finger."
Although film and TV wardrobe departments choose actors' clothing, Bill Oberst Jr. always brings his boots to set the first day in case they can be incorporated into the wardrobe. Often they are. "I've killed a lot of people in those boots" he says "14 or 15 I think, so they're special to me." The steel-toed work boots , made in the USA by Georgia Boot Company, are deeply stained with faded cinema blood. They double as Bill's hiking boots. Last year he wore them for a photoshoot, then rushed without cleaning up to make a hiking appointment at Griffith Park. "I showed up at the park shirtless and just covered in dried blood," he says "and started wiping down with paper towels beside my truck. No one said a word to me. Welcome to Los Angeles."