Stephen Tobolowsky, a recognizable character actor with over 200 credits to his name, looks into the camera and explains the hierarchy of Hollywood casting. If your character gets a first name and a last name, you’re a big deal. Supporting performances are for people who get a profession and one name, a first name for comedies (like, Professor Bob), last name for dramas (say, Doctor Jenkins). Then there are the people with just a profession, or worse, just a profession and a number (Janitor 3, for example). They, Tobolowsky tells us, are mostly just there to eat craft services. But there’s no shame in his view. Everyone has a role. Later, he’ll describe getting cast just a few years back as “Buttcrack Plumber,” shaking his head in grinning disbelief. He’s just happy he gets to earn a living telling stories in any way he can.
The man whose most memorable role is probably dweeby annoyance Ned in the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day, but who has been just about everything a hey-that-guy! could be over the course of his many decades in showbiz, knows what he’s talking about. He has a remarkable ability to look back on his life with clarity and humor, telling good-natured anecdotes with warm avuncular charm. Having done that for several years in a podcast (The Tobolowsky Files) and a book (The Dangerous Animals Club), he now brings it to a feature film. The Primary Instinct is a filmed live event for his podcast, a one-man show shot and edited like a cable stand-up special. Directed by podcaster and debut filmmaker David Chen, this simple documentary sits back and lets Tobolowsky take center stage.
The filmmaking is restrained, never distracting from the man of the hour. Present in nearly every frame of the film, playing himself is his biggest role to date. He effortlessly holds attention. Charmingly self-effacing, he shapes each tale with the skill of a born entertainer. He humbly walks a spare stage, spinning yarns about his childhood, his parents, his wife, his kids, and his craft, flowing effortlessly from one point to the next. He wraps the monologue’s various episodes around one central question: Why do we tell stories? He confesses up front to a lack of an answer. Over the course of the next hour or so he conversationally tells the audiences stories from his life that are often amusing and sometimes touching,
Among the many moments he shares, we hear about his first pang of boyish love, a surprise encounter with a famous football team, the birth of his son, difficulties with ailing parents, and a refreshingly angst-free reminiscence about a time he found himself contemplating a vial of cocaine in his bathroom on the night his mother first came to California for a visit. He remembers one of his mother’s favorite phrases, recalling how she’d always tell him, “self-preservation is the primary instinct.” By the sweet conclusion in which he movingly draws a common thread between the varied experiences he’s recounted, it’s clear he thinks storytelling is just as vital and universal a need. He’s found his answer.