Bill Oberst Jr. has a face you know you’ve seen before but can’t figure out where.
The actor played the inbred West Virginian killer with sunken eyes and suspenders in 2014’s “Blood Relations” episode of “Criminal Minds” on CBS. He made the network show’s list of the 14 most iconic serial killers.
Oberst was the Facebook stalker with a grungy T-shirt in the viral “Take This Lollipop” video commentary on social media privacy, which won a Daytime Emmy Award.
He played Clark in “Scream Queens” and won the first Lon Chaney Award For Outstanding Achievement in Independent Horror Films in 2014.
And while Oberst has carved out a niche in horror, he has portrayed Jesus in places of worship as well as historical figures, including Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard.
Now he’s playing science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, the famous author of “Fahrenheit 451” and “The Martian Chronicles,” for three days at The District Theatre in Indianapolis. “Ray Bradbury Live (forever)” is Oberst’s 90-minute play in which he assumes all of the roles, except for Ray’s wife Maggie Bradbury. Indianapolis is the second stop on the tour, which began in March at the South Pasadena Public Library in California.
It’s not biographical but instead wraps the actor’s lifelong love of the famed author with bits of his stories, reflections and interviews. And the actor is sinking his heart, soul and resources into making audiences feel more hopeful when they walk out.
“I want to avoid what I call the ‘Wikipedia dead celebrity show,’ where a famous dead person comes on stage and begins to tell you things about their life that you could read on Wikipedia,” Oberst said.
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‘It gave me hope’
A 14-year-old Oberst met Bradbury’s words for the first time during a walk through the woods in Georgetown, South Carolina.
“There was something that was glinting down there in the pine needles, and it was the sun reflecting off the cover of one of Ray’s books called ‘S is for Space,’ ” Oberst said.
“I picked it up and there was this man on the cover looking upward, gazing upward past me up into the trees, and the cover said ‘tales of imagination from the master of imagination, Ray Bradbury.’ “
The hopefulness captured Oberst, who called himself a misfit in almost every way. The actor said he was heavy, had bad acne, couldn’t throw a football, earned straight A’s and knew all the answers in Sunday school. It added up to a recipe for unpopularity that he fought by entertaining his tormentors so they wouldn’t bully him.
But Bradbury’s language offered a world that blessed a lonely Oberst’s spirit.
“It gave me hope … through words and through language, that I might be able to have a life that soared in some way. Ray makes your spirit want to soar,” said Oberst, who now splits time between Los Angeles and Pawleys Island, South Carolina.
From then on, Oberst ordered paperbacks from the back of “S is for Space,” a collection of short stories that combined science fiction, fantasy and small towns.
The actor still has the original copy he found in the woods that day. He’ll bring it on stage with him in Indianapolis.
Not ‘the Wikipedia dead celebrity show’
In creating a show that doesn’t lean on Bradbury’s biography, Oberst put together a thoroughly footnoted script for “Ray Bradbury Live (forever).” The actor used the author’s stories, speeches, essays, interviews — whatever Bradbury said about his work.
“I’m well aware that when you’re playing a person whose relatives are living and his family is living, especially an author that has the legacy that Bradbury does, you have a strong responsibility. You can’t just make stuff up,” said Oberst, who had previously performed Bradbury’s “Pillar of Fire” at IndyFringe in 2016.
The actor spent days inside the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said Jon Eller, who is the center’s director and served as an adviser for the script. The center, which is preparing to become a full-fledged museum, includes a re-creation of Bradbury’s office, with his desk, paints, book collection and awards.
“You could tell that Bill was absorbing that atmosphere, he was absorbing that mood, he was slowly becoming Ray Bradbury in a very quiet way,” Eller said. “He’s a listener, he’s a watcher, he studies things.”
“That’s one of the things that really impressed us about (Oberst’s) vision of Ray and the material,” said Michael Congdon, the president of Don Congdon Associates Inc., which gave permission for Oberst’s play.
Bill has been able “to translate the written part of Ray’s work and make it come alive on the stage. You can really tell that from his expressions and his passion.”
Michael’s father, Don, was Bradbury’s longtime literary agent.
Throughout the play, Oberst weaves in Bradbury’s most-beloved stories and characters, like Mr. Dark from “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”
“Ray had this signature anecdote about meeting the carnival magician who sat in his electrified chair called Mr. Electrico, and he touched his head with a blue sparking sword … and told Ray, ‘Live forever,’ ” Oberst said.
“So that’s the core of the show. Can you do that? Should you want to do that? How do you do that?”
Along with another theme in Bradbury’s work — what impact will you leave after you’re gone? — is a section with what Oberst calls 1940s-style movie banter. The author and his wife, Maggie Bradbury, who will be played in the Indianapolis production by Jenni White, talk about meeting and their relationship.
‘What are you leaving behind?’
Oberst doesn’t look a thing like the bespectacled Bradbury. To that end, the actor has struck a careful balance with makeup and black glasses.
“I do try to capture his vocalizations and his movements and his energy,” he said.
Oberst keys into his characters’ psyches, regardless of whether they’re the “Criminal Minds” killer or Abraham Lincoln, by finding their woundedness and humanity, he said. He does the same with Bradbury.
“Ray’s vulnerability was that I don’t know that he ever wanted to grow up. He always wanted to be a child, and he always extolled the things of childhood and the values of childhood in an adult body,” Oberst said. “You know, many of us have that dual nature.”
Behind the actor during the play will be a movie with animated footage that’s meant to show what’s going on in Bradbury’s mind. Videographer Christopher Cooksey, who worked on a documentary about the author, put it together.
When Oberst takes the stage in Indianapolis, he’ll continue a soul-enriching project that became clear to him when he walked the red carpet at a 2014 runway show in Los Angeles. The entire experience — the smiling, the strutting, the celebrity — forced him to question the impact of his life.
“That was like a nadir of my soul, that was a low moment, and it drove me, seeing (a) homeless person out there and here we are on the other side of the velvet rope, 20 feet away, with sumptuous spreads of food,” Oberst said.
“It drove me back to Bradbury, and I read that piece from ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ which said everyone must touch something, and I thought, ‘Billy, what have you touched? What have you done? What are you leaving behind?’ “
Oberst continues to act in movies and on TV, but he’s contributing as many resources as possible to “Ray Bradbury Live (forever).”
“It’s not just another project for me,” Oberst said. “It’s meaning and it’s soul.”
If you go
What: “Ray Bradbury Live (forever),” starring Bill Oberst Jr. with Jenni White
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 8:00 Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: The District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave.
Cost: $20 adults, $15 seniors and students with ID. indydistricttheatre.org or 317-308-9800.
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Contact IndyStar reporter Domenica Bongiovanni at 317-444-7339 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter: @domenicareports.