Toby Forrest — the Man

Toby Forrest
In 2010, ABILITY Magazine interviewed Tobias Forrest. The article started: “I was twenty-two, and I was diving off of a waterfall in the Grand Canyon,” Forrest said. “The water was too shallow where I had jumped, I shattered my fifth vertebrae—and I realized I was going under. I thanked God for my life, and then I died.

“I just got extremely lucky in all respects. A lot of strangers came together and got involved in saving my life that day. I wasn’t quite ready to give up.”

Forrest shares a house with friends, seeks out work as a Hollywood actor—his credits include Weeds and Six Feet Under—paints, writes poetry, hosts an online radio show, and navigates the usual uncertainties of a creative life with infectious optimism and a natural, breezy charm. He’s also the vocalist in the band, Cityzen.

Over the year.s we think of Toby as part of the ABILITY Family. In this interview we chatted on the phone.

Chet Cooper: Hello!

Toby Forrest: I’m looking for Mr. Copper?

Cooper: (laughs) Let me see if he’s around.

Forrest: Is this Chet Copper?

Cooper: (laughs) There are so many times that I’ve heard that or people asking for Chad or “Can I talk to that idiot?”

Forrest: (laughs) The thing about “Chet” is, you wonder what it’s short for. Chedda? Chester?

Cooper: I was attending the Connie Stevenson Extravaganza in Jackson Hole and standing next to this person. He turns to me and puts his hand out; and I shake his hand. He says, “Chad.” And I say, “Chet.” And he says, “Chad.” And I said, “Chet.” He was getting frustrating as we were still shaking hands his grip was getting tighter. It was Chad Everett.

Forrest: He sounds familiar.

Cooper: He’s was a lead actor before your time. He kept thinking that I didn’t know what he was saying. But he didn’t know what I was saying.

Forrest: That’s one for the movies right there. Did you guys finally figure it out?

Cooper: Yeah. I figured it out. I’m Copper.

Forrest: And I’m sure he was gracious at that point. Or he was completely fed up and he was just like, “Whatever. Chet. I’m gone.” Anyway, thanks for jumping onboard the Daruma train and helping us get a little steam.

Cooper: Tell me, Mr. Toby, how did you get involved in this indie film?

Forrest: Well, have you talked to John Lawson yet?

Cooper: Yes, but his interview will be in the next issue.

Forrest: Nice. John is a good friend of mine. We’re almost neighbors in real life. We help each other with auditions. He had an audition, so he came over. I helped him film his audition and he said, “You know, you should do this other part.” I said, “No, it’s your audition.” He said, “But the other part is for someone who’s a paraplegic.” And I said, “But I’m a quadriplegic.” And he said, “You should audition anyway.” He had to talk me into it. I was doing a play at the time, so I was like, “No way! I’m doing five shows a week, getting naked onstage, taking showers.” I auditioned. Then we both got callbacks and we both got the thing. We filmed it at my house, so it was almost a little bit of life imitating art in that sense. Although we get along a little better than the two guys. (laughs)

Cooper: Tell me about the play.

Forrest: The play was called Cost of Living. I was doing five shows a week. I was taking showers on stage; and an actress, who plays my caregiver onstage, had to transfer me, dress me and do all this stuff. I was busy doing those shows, and then this came along. “All right, this must be a test as an actor.” I’ve never done a trailer in two-and-a-half days and also had a film doing this trailer in the morning. And then do the play in the evening. I thought, “All this will be a challenge as an actor, which I may not have again. So, let me do it for that reason.” And I liked the story, the relationship between the characters. It was an opportunity to work with John Lawson. Once I met Kelli McNeil, who wrote the screenplay and Alex Yellen, the director, I was thinking, “You guys are adorable. I can totally see this happening.” And seeing how Alex works and his talent with making things happen and the quality of it.

Cooper: Shelly, who’s on our team interviewed Alex and Keli. She did talk about her brother being part of the story and the fact that while writing the screenplay, she had some idea of what was going on as she wrote it.

Forrest: The disability wasn’t hers directly, but she was affected by it directly. So, she has an experience that a lot of other writers would never have had. She’s the authentic voice that a lot of other writers would not have had without that experience. So that being the seed for her creation is more important than anything. That’s how I felt about it. I was like, this is not a story about your family, about your family member, not even about you. This is a story about an aspect of life that happens to be a detail of a story that you could add real richness to. Those two guys might not be disabled, and it would still be a good story.

And that’s the point. The story should be good enough without disability. And when you add disability, all it does is lend authenticity.

Cooper: I’m going to quote you on that.

Jim Belushi and Toby Forrest
Jim Belushi and Toby Forrest

Forrest: OK. Good luck trying to get me to say it again. As an artist, you want to be able to get to a point where you can say, “Oh, my gosh, I’m getting things that are not surface-level characters. They’re not one-dimensional characters. They’re not wheelchair characters.

Cooper: If I understand correctly, you were just in a fashion show?

Forrest: I just did a bunch of stuff. Fashion show?

Cooper: But I’ve seen the way you dress. It doesn’t make any sense.

Forrest: (laughs) I know. I’ve been wearing a lot of three-piece suits lately.

Cooper: The last time I saw you, was that when we were playing around with the sitcom?

Forrest: Yeah. I guess since then I’ve done the play. It was a beautiful Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Then I had a small part on a TV show where I played a lawyer, so I had to be dressed up for that too. I played a lawyer on a show called Good Trouble. Then I have been doing a lot of audio description for people who are blind through Audio Eyes.

Cooper: You’re doing the narrative?

Forrest: The voice that describes what happens in between the dialogue. That’s really cool.

Cooper: How did you get that gig?

Forrest: The owner is a friend of mine. They brought me in once as a test run, and it was pretty fast and pretty good. And they gave me a bunch of episodes to do. I did them all and then I went away to do a play and some other stuff. When I come back to town, they’ll give me some stuff— a show or a movie—when they get overflow. I go into their studio with their engineer and jump in there and audio-describe for people who are visually-impaired. It’s amazing. It’s cool for me to go. I have a spinal cord injury, but I have a lot of friends who are visually impaired. I have every kind of disabled friend you can imagine. It’s cool to be able to say, “I get to be a part of that community to some degree.”

Cooper: That’s cool.

Forrest: And then after that I went to Serbia.

Cooper: Wait, freeze on Serbia. For our readers who don’t know what audio description is, give us an example.

Forrest: It is the action that’s happening that is being described between the dialogue. It’s almost like a narrator describing all of the action.

Cooper: Give us an example.

Forrest: OK. So if, for instance, there was a TV show and a character comes in and yells at another character who does a bunch of stuff, I would describe all the stuff. For example, I would say, “She opens the door. She runs in. She throws the keys at him.” And then you hear her, “Blah-blah-blah!” Then I would say, “He puts his hands on his head. She turns around and runs into the kitchen.” That would be a description.

Cooper: I actually ducked when you were saying that. I felt the keys coming. You did some travel abroad?

Forrest: Yeah. I did a movie in Belgrade. That was a lot of fun.

Toby Forrest in Belgrad, Serbia
Toby Forrest in Belgrad, Serbia

Cooper: How did that come about? What was it all about?

Forrest: It was amazing. I was flown there and put up in a hotel for a movie. I’m not going to tell you what it’s about. I’ll tell you that it’s about a competition where the main character will not compromise her values in order to win. I play the head judge, who is one of her nemeses in the film, who does not appreciate her. I basically have a lot of conflict with the main character. The ultimate decision comes down to me. And I got to play a British character who was very sort of posh, which was nice.

Cooper: I didn’t know you did a British accent.

Forrest: Me neither.

Cooper: This will be good for copy. Go ahead and give me your British accent, and we’ll put it in.

Forrest: (laughs) First, I’ll tell you how I studied the British accent. There are two main ways. There’s the real proper one. I would do it by doing the tongue-twister. I’ll do it in the proper one first. [with British accent] “Betty Botter bought a bit of butter, but she said, ‘This butter’s bitter. If I put it in my batter, it will make my batter bitter.’ Betty Botter bought a bit of better butter and it made her batter better.”

Or you could do it Cockney, which would be like…

Cooper: (laughs) Why after all these years I’ve not heard somebody do that, I didn’t know.

Forrest: You had to wait until that moment. That’s how I would practice. I had no idea how to do the British accent. They asked, “Do you do a British accent?” I said, “No, I just have to phonetically say the words that my character has to say.” And all the British people said I was pretty spot-on.

Cooper: Is that project done now?

Forrest: It’s being edited and then it will be shopped around. Hopefully, it’ll be out in the next year for sure in 2020.

Cooper: Is there a working title yet?

Forrest: I don’t know yet, because it’s being shop around. I have to wait and see what it becomes. But it’s got some great actors in it. I don’t know if you watch Glow?

Cooper: No.

Forrest: It stars one of the girls from that show, Kate Nash, who’s great. So I got to work over there for almost two weeks. Then I came back to a bunch of auditions, and I booked one of them right away, which was a big guest role in How to Get Away with Murder. Last week, I was filming that show, and I got to work with Viola Davis. Just her and I, facing off, an emotional scene with Viola Davis, a Tony-award-winning actress, and in my top ten of people I’d want to work with.

Toby Forrest in the movie Sessions
Toby Forrest in the movie Sessions

Cooper: Now you only have nine more to go.

Forrest: Yeah. I took notes. That was with ABC. It was really cool to see how much of an effort ABC made to make things comfortable and accessible and how much they wanted to include me in everything. The director was amazing, getting to connect with him and make choices as an actor. A lot of times you don’t get to do that.

Cooper: What’s on your plate now? What do you see in the future?

Forrest: I’m working on a bunch of my own stuff right now. I just had a little read-through yesterday of a short film that I wrote. I’ll film that for sure. The director I just worked with in Serbia has another project that we are hoping to get started on and do, where I would have a leading role in a movie.

Cooper: You’re talking about in the States, or in Serbia?

Forrest: We might film in Serbia. We might do both. It depends. You can get a really big studio over there, which is great money-wise. When you’re making a small movie, you can do more, unfortunately, in other places. So I’m working on some of my own things. And then there is another movie, Daruma, which we’re obviously trying to move forward and get funding for. That would be amazing because that’s a leading role. There’s another movie I auditioned for that I’m meeting with them about. It’s a biopic, which would be cool, because then I would play an actual person who has lived, not just a character. That’s pretty exciting. We’ll see where that goes. I won’t know until end of next month.

Cooper: What about singing? Do you still perform?

Forrest: No, although my bandmates and I have talked. The 10-year anniversary of our album will be happening at some point next year. We might get together and perform. But I’m always open to it; it’s just unfortunately, with music, it gets to a point where you have to hit sustainability with a disability. And if I get to a certain point where I’m going to lose any and all coverage and take the leap as an actor, I need to make sure that I have the time and focus to be able to do that. With music, unfortunately, no one got past the wheelchair. There were a couple of meetings and people who might have been interested, but they couldn’t figure out how to market a guy in a wheelchair running a band.

It’s a young person’s game in a sense. Had I started 10 years earlier, I might have had more of a chance at music. Right now, I’ve been very fortunate because I did a TV show with a recurring role last year on CBS. They brought me in a couple times. They used my car and one of my songs in the episode. In one episode I got paid for my acting, my car, and my music. I was able to place my music into the TV show that I was doing and check-mark the bucket list. So, OK, I checked the bucket list last year by getting my music and my car and my myself into a TV show. I was able to do it this year by going out of country to do a movie and work with an amazing, Oscar-winning actor. It was unbelievable. So fortunately, it looks like the acting career is heading in the right direction, and I might be able to pull music back into the fabric as it unfolds. I don’t know. I’ve been able to put my music in, I would say, half of the projects I’ve done recently.

Cooper: Oh, nice.

Forrest: I’ve got them in a couple of movies. I did a movie with Christopher Titus that’s out right now called Special Unit. I don’t know if you saw that one yet.

Cooper: No.

Forrest: It’s a great comedy. It’s got more people with disabilities, more actors with disabilities, than I can’t think of than any other movie. It’s got at least 12 of us. Three of us are main cast members.

Cooper: It puts the Farrelly brothers to shame. Too inside of a joke?

Forrest: No, I get it. (laughs) But the Farrelly brothers helped a little bit. They paved the way with Danny Murphy. I wouldn’t be where I am without Danny Murphy. I feel like he’s a little bit of my guiding light.

Cooper: The Farrelly brothers opened the door for Danny?

Forrest: Danny opened the door for the Farrelly brothers.

Cooper: Somebody was opening the door somewhere. I don’t know why they keep closing it.

Forrest: I’m saying in the sense that when he watched one of their movies, they asked him, “How was the movie?” He said, “It was great, but you didn’t have any people with disabilities in it.” And that turned the light on for Peter Farrelly. From that moment on was when they started including Dan and then other people with disabilities.

Cooper: Do you know how they knew each other?

Forrest: When they were teenagers, they were at Martha’s Vineyard, I think, and they were diving off of a dock. Peter was going to dive, but Danny dove first and broke his neck. The water was too shallow. That’s the story I know. They were friends from childhood, maintained their friendship, and then years later these guys are up-and-coming directors. They asked him to watch their movie, and he said that, so they ended up putting him in the very next movie, which was Kingpin, I think. But then I met Danny the day I got home from the hospital. He was at a party at my house. He was the very first guy I met and helped guide me through my disability. I had no intentions of acting. But when that came along, he helped guide me there as well.

Cooper: Was it random that he came to your house? Or did he come to mentor?

Forrest: He was there in a sense to mentor because my father had met him through his girlfriend at the time, who was his dentist. You know how it’s, like, three degrees? Danny was the only person they knew who had a spinal cord injury, and he came over. That was a great first person to meet.

Cooper: That’s cool.

Forrest: So that’s it, man, long story short. Just focusing on a lot of different areas, doing a little bit of writing on my own. I’ve been writing a lot. So, we’ll see. That’s on the bucket list, to eventually do something that I wrote.

I have a feature film that I wrote that eventually I would love to do. It’s got all the stuff I would want to see in a movie—or some of the stuff I would want to see in a movie. That’s my eventual goal, to do that movie. But we’ll see what happens.

Cooper: Have you thought about trying to write something about your own life?

Forrest: No, no. I’ve got to work on the ending.

Cooper: (laughs) I could tell you how it ends: no one gets out alive.

Forrest: (laughs)

Toby Forrest and Christopher Reeve
Toby Forrest and Christopher Reeve

Forrest: Well, you know the number one cause of death.

Cooper: Being born?

Forrest: Right. Life. But that’s it. I don’t know. Do you have any other questions?

Cooper: No — You’re the man.

Forrest: You’re the man, man. Thank you, buddy.


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