The Primary Instinct (Kino Lorber, NR)

There’s nothing fancy in the camerawork or the editing, but the film works because Tobolowsky loves telling stories, and he’s good at it.


The name Stephen Tobolowsky may not be familiar to you, but you’ve almost certainly seen him in the movies or on television. He’s a consummate character actor who works constantly, in all kinds of roles, with 243 acting credits listed on Sometimes he plays the kind of character that’s part of the background, but he has also created memorable roles in, among other things, Great Balls of Fire!, Deadwood, Groundhog Day, Glee, and Californication.

In The Primary Instinct, a documentary directed by Stephen Chen, Tobolowsky is in what is, for him, an unusual place—the center of attention. He clearly loves being front and center before the camera, and puts the opportunity to good use, discussing everything from the hierarchy of roles within the world of the character actors to his thoughts on the human drive to hear and tell stories (the “primary instinct” of the title).

In case you were wondering how to estimate the importance of a role without seeing the script, here’s Tobolowsky’s guide to unpacking the information encoded in the names of movie and television characters:

  1. Leading characters get a complete name (“Richard Kimball”)
  2. Supporting characters in a comedy get a profession plus a first name (“Ringmaster Bob”) if it’s a comedy, or a profession plus a last name if it’s a drama (“Detective Johnson”)
  3. The next level down, the character just gets a profession (“Teacher”)
  4. The level below that (at which point you can get mistaken for the cleaning crew), the character gets a profession plus a number (“Homeless Man 2”)
  5. And at the very bottom, the character gets a profession or description plus a geographical location (“Old man on a train”) (in this type of role, Tobolowsky notes, you’re so far from the camera that you’re basically there to eat craft services)

The Primary Instinct consists primarily of a recording of a Tobolowsky stage performance, bookended by some direct-to-camera segments. There’s nothing fancy in the camerawork or the editing, but the film works because Tobolowsky loves telling stories, and he’s good at it. He projects a genial presence both on stage and before the camera, with a relaxed and unpretentious way of moving from recounting perfectly ordinary events to ruminating on life’s big questions. He’s never less than interesting, staying true to to his motto that “true trumps clever,” and is as willing to share stories of the ups and downs of his character (an example of the latter: his first role after recovering from a broken neck, as “Butt Crack Plumber”) as he is to wax philosophical on how different cultures perceive time and how that may influence storytelling.

Extras on the disc include additional interviews with Tobolowsky (20 min.), deleted scenes from The Light of the First Day (mostly clips of Tobolowsky speaking directly to the camera, which was recorded for an earlier version of this film but not used), both introduced by director Stephen Chen, and the film’s trailer. | Sarah Boslaugh

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