You know Stephen Tobolowsky, even if you don’t know you know Stephen Tobolowsky. With more than 200 credits in film and television, he’s one of Hollywood’s most ubiquitous That Guys. You know, the one from that thing — unless it was that other thing?
You might recognize him as Groundhog Day’s Ned Ryerson, or perhaps as Deadwood’s Hugo Jarry, or Spaceballs' Captain of the Guard. You might recall his heartbreaking turn as Sammy Jankis in Memento, though we wouldn’t blame you if you forgot. Or, hopefully, you just know him as plain old Stephen Tobolowsky of the Tobolowsky Files podcast, in which the actor, writer and director shares a wealth of stories from his long and textured career.
For someone as busy as Tobolowsky, you might think sleep provides needed respite. You’d be wrong. In his own words, here’s how he uses sleep to fuel his remarkable creative output.
I use sleep as a workplace. I have often had to work on acting projects with no preparation. I will work on the lines right before bed and they go to a usable part of my brain by morning.
As I began writing stories, I found my sleep time enormously creative. Ideas would come to me in dreams. Connective ideas. Metaphors. I sleep with a pad and pen. Now my wife knows that when I shoot up from sleep at 3 a.m. and start writing things down — I am just working and not having a heart attack.
This has gotten more marked over the last years. I will actually wake up in the middle of the night from a particularly creative dream and go downstairs and work for an hour and then go back to bed.
I try to keep a regular sleep schedule. I go to bed as soon as I can after dinner. Usually around nine p.m. I go to sleep watching Law and Order — I am in dreamland by the time Sam Waterston has his first setback.
When I work, I cannot control my schedule. I go into war mode. I know that 20 minutes here or there can get you through a hard day. When I have a night shoot, I don’t eat “lunch” at 1 a.m. I stay on schedule and sleep in my trailer.
Existing without sleep is always dangerous. It happens on night shoots and long plane flights. I try to be pre-emptive and sleep as much as I can from the beginning of the flight or shoot.
The problems of sleep deprivation are severe. On a movie set they don’t just affect you. Everyone becomes less efficient as the night goes on... For example, on television you start the week with a 6 a.m. call. You work 12 hours, which accidentally turns in 15 hours. The next day you start at 9 a.m. By Friday, you are starting at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday are lost causes. You try to catch up on sleep, but are bound to chores you couldn’t do during the week.
This is killing. It becomes cyclical. You have to be proactive and rest while you can during the week. Take as many naps as you can rather than doing crossword puzzles.
The worst sleep experience I had while working was in Edinburgh, Scotland. I slept on a mattress that was older than America.
I don’t listen to podcasts. I listen to music. I don’t have enough free time to sit and focus on extended ideas. Even when I am driving in my car to pick up take-out food, I am working on lines or some story in my head. Music helps the flow; people talking interrupts.
I always have “actor nightmares” — where I am working on something and I don’t know my lines and I can’t read the script. When I was a child, I had a recurring nightmare that a monster was chasing me. During one dream I turned on the monster and said, “Go away. You are just a dream!” It vanished and never came back.
I always dream that I’m on set or stage. Several times a week. And I am rarely doing well.