“Hello. This is the Gimp. I hear you’ve been looking for me?”
In one of the strangest moments in Pulp Fiction, the two pawnshop rapists who have kidnapped boxer Butch Coolidge (played by Bruce Willis) and crime-lord Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) task a leather-clad bondage slave — “well, bring out the Gimp ...” — with watching over Butch as they set about to violate Marsellus in a separate area of their basement dungeon that is also referred to, cryptically, as “Russell’s old room.” The Gimp didn’t make for much of a security guard, but the character certainly made an impression on Pulp Fiction fans, in part because of all the mystery surrounding him. Who is this masked man? Why is he helping these sadists? What on Earth was this guy thinking?
To get answers to these and other burning Gimp-related questions, we looked around for the actor who played him and received a call from the mystery man himself, Steve Hibbert, just in time for the 20th anniversary of Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece next Tuesday. In this lengthy interview, Hibbert, a onetime member of the Groundlings improv group who was married to Saturday Night Live’s Julia Sweeney circa Pulp Fiction and co-wrote her spinoff film, It’s Pat, discusses the three days he spent in the Gimp suit. We bring out the Gimp after we bring out this clip of the Gimp’s big scene.
You played a hugely memorable character but likely still have anonymity. Do many people know you played the Gimp?
No, they don’t. I never made a big deal of it. I wish I had, but I’ve never figured out a way to monetize it or make it a thing. I’ve never sent out Christmas cards with the Gimp or anything. And whatever else I’ve done before or will do in show business, I don’t think I’ll ever have a cooler credit than that. I love the fact that I did that. And I also kind of love the fact that there’s nothing I can do about it. [Laughs.] Because most people, if they play a memorable role, it kind of leads to other things. But there’s no correlation to me booking other work subsequently from it.
Does anyone ever recognize you as the Gimp?
If you know me! And everyone who does know me says, “Oh, it’s so obviously Steve Hibbert,” because you see my eyes very plainly. They may have put some powder around, but they didn’t use any makeup to make my eyes pop, as far as I know. My favorite thing is, people have claimed to be the Gimp, and have been called out for it. Phil LaMarr, who’s in the film as well — he’s the young man [named Marvin] who gets his head blown off in the back of the car — he was at a party, this was a number of years ago, and he overheard this guy hitting on a gal, claiming to have played the Gimp in Pulp Fiction! It just seems like one of the worst ways — or maybe one of the best, depending on your predilection! — to try and pick someone up. So Phil went up to him and said, “Hey, man! I was in Pulp Fiction, too! How’s it going?” And the guy immediately was like, “Uh ....” and just backtracked away, and ran away, basically. So apparently, people have tried.
I’ve never used it as a pickup line. I didn’t need to — I already had some 20-odd dates lined up, if I had bothered! There were people who bothered to sit through the credits way back in the day, to see who played the Gimp — and this was, of course, before you could Google someone, and this was back in the day when we all had landlines, and I was listed. So the first weekend it opened, I remember coming home on a Monday or Tuesday night and seeing 22 messages on my answering machine, and going, “What the ...?” One was from my mom, and 21 of them were really creepy guys asking me out, at the very least, for a cup of coffee. [Laughs.]
And at the very most?
[Laughs.] “Do you do that kind of stuff in real life?” And I can safely say I didn’t go out for a cup of coffee, and I don’t do that stuff in real life, so I avoided meeting any of those fellows. Not my scene. I’m a very vanilla, straight guy. Square, for lack of a better word. The last person in the world you’d think would play the Gimp! But about two dozen guys who went to the trouble of calling L.A. information, so I became semi-famous ... I became unlisted after that! It’s [called] acting for a reason.
Maybe your suitors didn’t know you were actually an actor, since, apart from some wailing, the Gimp doesn’t speak. There’s an air of mystery about him that carries over into real life. How did this all come about, anyway?
At the time, I was married to Julia Sweeney, and she and I were writing partners. We were at Saturday Night Live, and Harvey Keitel guest-hosted, and Quentin Tarantino was hanging out with him. Quentin and I became friends as, like, film geeks talking about the worn print of Stagecoach, and all that kind of stuff. And I was also part of the Groundlings, and on Thursday nights, we’d have an all-improv show, and Quentin guested with us three or four times. He was a really good improviser. So we became really good friends. So he asked me, “Steve, would you come in and read for this Gimp role?” And I had read the script at that point, so I was like, “Yeah!” So I went in, and he and I did a little play-acting for the casting director, where he was the master and I was the slave. And I kind of thought, Well, what do those people do? And I did exactly what you see me do in the movie. It was close enough, despite my lack of experience, because two hours later, he called and said, “Steve, you get to play the Gimp!”
Julia Sweeney was also in the film. Do you remember which one of you signed up to be in the movie first?
She was Harvey Keitel’s breakfast date! But I don’t remember. I think Julia was more known as a professional actor, so I think she was offered the role before I was. And I’ve never really asked her, “Hey, did you mention to Quentin that he should have me come in and read?” But it all happened within a couple weeks.
Quentin Tarantino often changes his scripts while shooting for various reasons. Did the Gimp ever have a real name or a bigger role? And how was he listed on the call sheets?
[Laughs.] No, no. He was always the Gimp. And he was always going to be invisible. Head-to-toe slave leather gear, or whatever the correct phrase for that is. It was pretty straightforward. By the time I read a draft, it was a shooting draft. What I read feels like that was the movie I saw. You have to remember, people knew about Reservoir Dogs, but he wasn’t the famous Quentin Tarantino at the time, so everything was done on a very small budget. I think the reason he got all these great actors to do it for scale was that everyone knew from reading the script — the use of time, the array of fascinating characters, the scenes I don’t recall ever seeing in movies before — that this was going to be a pretty amazing movie.
Did you do it for scale?
I would have done it for Trader Joe’s gift certificates! [Laughs.] I would have done it for gas money!
Okay, so if the bondage-slave thing wasn’t your scene, did you have any familiarity with that world prior to this?
No, no. And I didn’t even do my due diligence as a good actor and go to a S&M party or anything. The first and only time I’ve worn leather bondage gear was the three days shooting, and that was it, before or since. I bet you Al Pacino spent a few weeks going to gay bars just to get the vibe for his role in Cruising, but I’m no Al Pacino. If the Gimp had been a larger role, if it had been a speaking role, I would have done more research. But this is pre-Google. Now you could go online and type in, “What do subservient bondage people say?” A thousand articles would come up. But this was a simpler time. It was a little more underground. At least it was to me.
Where did you guys get the outfit? I assume fittings were involved ...
There were. They rented all the gear from the Pleasure Chest, so that was a big deal, but I did not go to the Pleasure Chest myself! The wardrobe department sent someone, and then they were teasing me, “Well, if you want to borrow this later tonight for you and your girlfriend, we can return it later!” I can only hope that they clean it thoroughly before and after each client. [Laughs.]
Were you au naturel underneath?
I had a T-shirt underneath it, and that was it. Oh, they did pad me up a little bit, too. Quentin wanted me to be a little flabbier, so I also wore a fat-suit tummy as well. And I wore underwear. [Laughs.] And another pair of white socks. But I couldn’t wear much more than that, because it was pretty skintight. And it was pretty warm. A lot of the interiors were in a warehouse in Culver City, and it was a tiny set. Imagine a really small single in Manhattan, and that’s about the size of the set. Because of the rape sequence, there were very few people on the set that day. And it was very dark and hot. We knew it was a crazy, creepy scene.
With the heat and the leather, there must have been some chafing.
Oh, yeah! I guess that’s part of the thing, the discomfort of it all, and not being able to breathe very well through that mask. I guess that’s all part of that culture, that it’s supposed to be unpleasant and degrading. Whoever makes those outfits, mission accomplished! The other actors in the scene were very aware of it. If things were slowing down a little bit and everyone was losing their momentum, more than one of the actors would say, “Let’s not forget, we got a guy stuck in a leather suit! Let’s get moving!” That kind of stuff.
Do you remember who said that?
It was Bruce Willis! I have a very vivid memory of him saying that. “Hey, let’s move on! We got a poor guy in a head-to-toe leather outfit here. Let’s go!” All of the actors were terrific. Bruce Willis was a lovely guy. And because everyone was kind of on equal footing on that movie, in terms of pay, it was an ensemble piece. We would all hang out at Bruce Willis’s trailer and drink at the end of the day, because he had a little veranda set up. And we’d watch baseball games. I think his assistant was making everyone gin-and-tonics — apparently one of the requirements of the job! And that’s a refreshing drink when it’s hot.
You probably could have used one before the day started, or during the breaks.
For a little liquid courage, yeah! It’s great that my face is covered up because I’m sure I was beet-red. It’s such a peculiar thing to be doing! But having the mask on and being covered up freed me up to just be a complete weirdo, because I didn’t need to worry about my mom and dad seeing me and going, “Oh, dear!” Peeling it off at the end of the day, I have a distinct memory of it being really horrible and wanting to have a shower so bad. But getting into it, the hardest part was the incredibly complicated knee-high lace-up boots that you don’t even really see in the movie at all. Maybe you do in one or two shots. But once you’re in all that, you just want to stay in it. I’d want to just stay focused. So I sort of stayed in character, but quiet and still, in between takes. I didn’t want to unzip my mouth and be like, “Hey, what about the game last night?” I think I used the heat, the uncomfortableness, the sweatiness, as part of the motivation for the character in how creepy he is and the delight he takes that his masters have caught more people.
The Gimp seems to live in a little box. And there seems to have been someone living in that room before him, because they reference Russell’s old room. What’s your take on that?
Apparently, there was some weird history before the Gimp. Apparently, there’s a system at work here that we don’t want to know about! Before I make my entrance, I was crouched up in there for about five minutes while the dialogue goes on, before I come out on a leash to where the prisoners are being held. So I just thought, Here’s a guy who’s been in this state for who knows how long, and for lack of a better word, he’s been these freaks’ hostage for who knows how long, so he’s probably lost all sense of self-worth or dignity. That went away a long time ago.
Not just all sense of self-worth, but all sense of self.
Yeah, exactly, because now he’s just their plaything. So I just played it as a guy who’s gone completely off the rails, and in Victorian times, would have been in one of those lunatic asylums or something.
Do you remember any direction Quentin gave you?
No. He gave me very little, actually. I’d look over at him and he’d shrug, he’d give me a thumbs up, and that was it. On the set, he doesn’t use a playback, so he’s behind the camera and looking at what the camera is seeing. And he darts around the room a bit. And if he does have any direction for the actor, he’ll come up to them and whisper it to them. Which I think is a really cool thing to do. Just talk to the person and have a private conversation.
The sounds that you make, one seems like you’re laughing, and one is kind of a wail. If you had talked, would we have been able to discern what you were saying?
Probably not. When it says in the script, “The Gimp screams to alert them,” when Bruce Willis breaks out of his ropes, it just says that he screams. It doesn’t say, “He screams their names.” There’s no dialogue. So one of the ideas that I toyed with, that I said to Quentin was, “It would be kind of cool if they cut this guy’s tongue out, so he really can’t speak.” So I kind of played that as why he doesn’t speak, and that informed the noises I make. I made noises with my tongue flat against the bottom of my mouth, so there was a sense of there being no tongue movement to help formulate words or sounds. In the script, it didn’t say anything other than, “The Gimp stands guard.” So I tried other things, like when I pointed at Bruce Willis’ character, [as if to say] You and me are next, and danced around. I decided to do a weird dance and act all creepy towards Bruce Willis, and Quentin liked those things.
After this, Bruce Willis punches you, and you’re kind of hanging on the chain.
I was just hanging there and just trying to play dead. If he’s not dead, he’s been knocked out cold. But I had a harness on that helped me stay in place. That was the easiest part of the whole thing. I was hanging for a couple of hours at the most, being put into place and hanging there and the action happens. They had a stunt coordinator help me figure out where to turn my head for the punch, and you think I’ve been punched because of the violent jerk of the head. Usually in movies, you think, Oh, yeah, right — one punch and he’s knocked out cold? But a professional fighter like Bruce’s character has trained to punch someone to knock them out. And Bruce hugged me afterwards to make sure I was okay.
Had you ever played anyone in a mask before or since?
Quentin could have had you pop up in a mask in every film since.
Sort of like an Alfred Hitchcock thing? Yeah! [Chuckles.] I wish! I’d love nothing more to be in another movie of his, but unfortunately, we didn’t stay in touch. Our lives went off in different directions. Although I suspect that if we bumped into each other, he’d be like, “Steve!” Very gregarious and lovely. It would be [as if] this happened last week, not 20 years ago.
The edited-for-TV version leaves out the Gimp scene. What’s up with that?
I know! It’s horrible! I mean, I’m sort of relieved. I don’t want my children to see me as the Gimp at this stage of their lives, if they’re watching TNT. But much more violent stuff is shown in that broadcast version. I think the hypodermic into the chest, which is much more disturbing, is in the broadcast version. I mean, I can understand the rape thing being cut out. Thankfully, you only catch a glimpse of that, even in the authorized version.
The irony of it is that the Gimp would likely baffle anyone in the audience who didn’t know about the bondage scene in even a small way, but anyone who did know about it isn’t going to be upset by the appearance of it!
Precisely! It makes no sense. But I still get a residual check for those broadcasts, so there you go. Although at this point, Pulp Fiction residuals don’t amount to much money. These days, if I get a $3 check in the mail, I go, “Oh, that’s fun! I get to buy a latte on Pulp Fiction!”