As It Happens

Watching Groundhog Day will 'make your heart feel healed,' says actor Stephen Tobolowsky

Life in a pandemic can feel a lot like the movie Groundhog Day. But actor Stephen Tobolowsky says the film is more than relatable; it's healing.

The 1993 film is more relevant than ever in the repetitive grind of a pandemic, says the man who played Ned

A still from the 1993 film Groundhog Day, featuring insurance salesman Ned Ryerson played by Stephen Tobolowsky, left, and Bill Murray as cynical weatherman Phil Connors. (Columbia Pictures)

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Life in a pandemic can feel a lot like the movie Groundhog Day. But actor Stephen Tobolowsky says the film is more than relatable; it's healing.

The 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray depicts the same day, Feb. 2, repeating over and over again ad nauseam — relatable content in a pandemic where the days can bleed into each other and feel all the same. 

Tobolowsky, who plays the annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson in the film, says Groundhog Day has had incredible lasting power, even before the pandemic, because it provides important lessons for dealing with the trials and tribulations of life.

He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the film — on Feb. 2, Groundhog Day. Here's part of their conversation. 

Did you ever think that this movie — I mean, it was already a cult classic, Groundhog Day, before it became a cult classic during this pandemic — could you ever have imagined that it would be the description of everyone's lives at some point?

No, and you know, the way you described it is perfect, because we never expected anything from Groundhog Day, let alone be the perfect description of life during the pandemic. 

When the movie was released, it was a long time ago, almost 30 years. I remember it got good, but not great, reviews. It was like three out of four stars. And we all felt pretty good about it and thought it was sort of a delightful movie.

And then two weeks, three weeks, four weeks go by, and the executive producer, Trevor Albert, called me up at home and said, "Stephen, I think we have a hit." And I said, "What do you mean, Trevor?"

And I don't know if your listeners know, but the standard profile of a film when it's released — and this is the truth for most films — the next week, the box office goes down 50 per cent, five-zero, 50 per cent from the first week. That's standard.

Groundhog Day went up the second week. Then it went up the third week. When it went up the fourth week, Trevor was like, "What is this?"

And, since then, for some reason … I have been asked to speak [about the film] not only in Canada, but let's see, for 12-step programs, for some Buddhist groups. The Oakland Raiders football team flew me up to Oakland because they use Groundhog Day as a training film for their football team. Don't ask me why.

Tobolowsky shared a few photos of his life during the pandemic. On the left, he and his wife Ann Hearn sport masks. On the right, he holds up a bottle of his 'pandemic elixir' — dark gin from Finland. (Submitted by Stephen Tobolowsky)

What did people get out of the movie that they wanted to talk to you about?

I think the movie makes your heart feel healed in a way. A lot of movies can make you feel happy, but not a lot of movies make you feel healed. And a lot of [the] reason [it makes] you feel healed is because of the arc of Bill Murray's character, in that he is a seriously flawed man at the beginning of the film who is beaten into submission by the repetition of time.

I was at a charity event with [director] Harold Ramis, I'm thinking about 15 years ago, and I said, "Harold, how long is Bill really trapped in time?" 

And Harold looked at me, without a beat, said: "10,000 years."

And I said, "10,000 years?"

And he said, "Well, Stephen, I wanted to base it on the Buddhist idea that it takes 10,000 years to perfect the human soul."

And that is what Groundhog Day is about, is about the perfection of our souls. 

For anyone who has not seen Groundhog Day — and that would be very disappointing if there are those who haven't — but the idea that people have now is they use [it as a] meme. They think it's a horror film and not a comedy because of what they're living. But as you point out, what happens is that there is this redemption, isn't there, at the end?

There is, and you know, there are a lot of feel-good movies that are kind of general feel-good in that there is a love completion angle to the story, that our leading characters fall in love. Whatever. Who cares? We all know that love is fickle.

But what we really learn in Groundhog Day is the reason why Bill Murray's character, Phil Connors, changes is because over time he realizes when he is in service to others, the healing process starts. 

Another lesson of Groundhog Day is, we have to be able to control what we can control, and we have to let go of what we have no control over, which is what a 12-step program, that's their motto.

So the truths of Groundhog Day are not just to feel-good truths, but are truths that are capable of healing your heart.

Tobolowsky with his grandchild Dior. (Submitted by Stephen Tobolowsky)

Now, is this wisdom that you are describing? Is this something that you acquired because you have thought so much about what Groundhog Day means?

I think it's just an amalgam. When you're an actor, you end up learning a lot of different things about the subjects you never thought you would learn about, whether it's history or the Enlightenment or, you know, Voltaire. You end up learning vast amounts of knowledge about things that really don't seem to matter until you put it all together.

And Groundhog Day has that sort of sweep to it in that it covers a lot of subjects, but it does it with humour.

It's one thing to be a movie that can heal your heart, but it's another thing to have a movie that can make you laugh almost from beginning to end and keeps you going with entertainment.

I have sat in theatres — and I'm sure you have too, Carol — where you watch and the actors are doing something silly and you laugh, laugh, laugh, and then you say to your friend in the theatre, "Well, that was stupid."

What happens in Groundhog Day is you laugh and you don't go, "Well, that was stupid." You go, "Ain't it the truth?"

And there's nothing funnier than recognition of the truth.

For people who are still trapped in Groundhog Day because of this pandemic, what can you say to convince people, to reassure them that there will be a Feb. 3rd? How do they get to Feb. 3rd?

Oh gosh. OK. 

I think the essence of your question is, "How do we get out of this?" And I think it's with learning, and learning something new, and learning something new that you love. And you can do that at home, and you could do that in a pandemic.

Like, let's say you hate opera. You know, you hate opera, you think it's silly. You know, maybe say, "You know what I'm going to do this morning? I'm going to listen to Rigoletto. And I know I hate it. I know I'm going to hate it. It's stupid. I'm going to listen to it.".

And then you go like, "Oh, this is good."

I had that epiphany when I was working on a job that was about an hour and a half away from Los Angeles and I had to drive … and so I thought, I will listen to the Opera Channel because I can't stand opera. And by the end of that job, I thought, I've reached Feb. 3rd. I can't wait to see an opera now. I love opera.

So find something to love. Find some joy in your life and you'll get to Feb. 3rd.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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