The Cannes Film Festival awarded of its highest prize, the Palme d'Or, to the Turkish film Winter Sleep on Saturday. Twenty years ago, Pulp Fiction took that same award and triggered writer-director Quentin Tarantino's ascent to the A-list.
The movie introduced the world to a number of now-legendary characters, including a very mysterious one: the Gimp.
The character, who didn't have a single line in the film, was still extremely memorable. Clad head-to-toe in studded black leather, with a zippered hood that allowed only his manic eyes to peer through. He's kept locked up, the willing slave of two shop owners, and makes an appearance in one of the most troubling scenes in recent film history (see a clip below).
The Gimp has become an emblem of creepiness — an essential part of the adrenaline machine that was Pulp Fiction.
So, who was the man behind the mask?
"I've kept it from the children up until this moment," actor and writer Stephen Hibbert, who played the character, tells host Arun Rath. "Not actively so, but they're 14, 12 and 10, so they're a little young for Pulp Fiction still."
Hibbert says his journey to the role started with a friendship with Tarantino. Back in the early '90s, Hibbert was part of the comedy troupe The Groundlings, and Tarantino would come and perform with him in improv shows.
When Tarantino was writing and casting Pulp Fiction, he asked if Hibbert wanted to come read for the part of the Gimp.
"You could tell, even by the script, this was going to be a pretty special film," Hibbert says.
Since the Gimp has no actual lines, the audition was an unusual one.
"He and I did like a little psychodrama where he was, you know, being dominant and I was being passive. Just improv," says Hibbert. "I got the job and it was a blast. It was two days' work, and he just said, 'Go nuts.' So I did."
Hibbert says the costume was a big help.
"I think if I didn't have that mask on, you'd see that I was bright red and embarrassed beyond comprehension," he says.
And yes, Hibbert says, the outfit is as uncomfortable as it looks.
"The set was really hot and uncomfortable, and that leather gear — plus I was padded as well," Hibbert says. "Everyone was extremely kind and acknowledged how uncomfortable that gear was."
The star-studded film was an important career moment for many actors — John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman. Not so much for Hibbert, whose face was never revealed. Hibbert says he's OK with that.
"I didn't necessarily want to be recognized for the Gimp," he says. "I never sent out, you know, 'Merry Christmas from the Gimp' Christmas cards."
Back when he got the role, he was also, ironically enough, working in children's television — writing for Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs. Today, the Los Angeles-based actor and writer says he's "kind of unemployed," but he does freelance work and goes out for commercial auditions.
"Like everyone else," says Hibbert, "keep on fighting the good fight."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
The Cannes Film Festival awarded its highest prize today, the Palme d'Or, to a Turkish movie called "Winter Sleep." Twenty years ago, that same award went to this beloved film.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RATH: Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." It's filled with much recited dialog and iconic characters. But one remains shrouded in mystery, the character without a single line.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PULP FICTION")
PETER GREENE: (As Zed) Well, bring out the Gimp.
RATH: The Gimp, clad head-to-toe in studded black leather with a zippered hood allowing only his manic eyes to peek through.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)
RATH: That became one of the most controversial scenes in recent film history. It still troubles some people. But looking back, the Gimp character is seen as an emblem of creepiness, an essential part of the adrenal machine that was "Pulp Fiction." Now, 20 years later, it's time to unmask the Gimp. Let's welcome to the studio, actor and writer Stephen Hibbert. Steve, welcome.
STEPHEN HIBBERT: Well, thank you very much for having me. It's an honor to be here.
RATH: So, two hillbillies keep the Gimp locked up in their basement in a footlocker.
HIBBERT: Like you do.
RATH: Yeah, like one does, yeah. And he's there willing slave. You must be proud.
HIBBERT: Hey, I've kept it from the children up until this moment.
RATH: Yeah. Have you literally kept it from the children?
HIBBERT: Not actively so, but they're 14, 12, and 10, so they're a little young for "Pulp Fiction" still.
RATH: But soon.
HIBBERT: Oh, soon, very exciting, that sweet 16 birthday party.
RATH: So how did your involvement with "Pulp Fiction" start?
HIBBERT: It started with a friendship with Quentin Tarantino actually. At the time I was in "The Groundlings," and he used to come and do improv shows fairly often actually.
RATH: He would perform with you?
HIBBERT: Yeah. He used to do improvs and stuff. And it was when he was writing "Pulp Fiction," and he was casting it. And he asked me if I'd like to come down and read for the Gimp. You could tell even by the script this was going to be a pretty special film.
RATH: The Gimp has no lines. So how do you read for the Gimp?
HIBBERT: Show business is a funny thing. Actually he and I did like a little psychodrama where he was, you know, being dominate, and I was being passive or whatever the correct terminology is.
RATH: More improv.
HIBBERT: Yeah, more - just improv. That's how I got the job, and it was a blast. It was two days work. He just said go nuts, so I did. Actually the costume helped. I think if I didn't have that mask on, you'd see I was bright red and embarrassed beyond comprehension.
RATH: And was that as uncomfortable as it looked?
HIBBERT: Yes, very. The movie was filmed in a warehouse in Culver City.
RATH: Not far from where we're sitting right now.
HIBBERT: Not far, probably blocks. It could even be this building. I don't know. It's 20 years ago now, as you know. The set was really hot and uncomfortable, and that leather gear, plus I was padded as well. And everyone was extremely kind and acknowledged how uncomfortable that gear was.
RATH: Well, like you said, you know, it's one of those films. It's such a touchstone, and credited with revitalizing John Travolta's career; a lot of actors took off. Was it hard for you being in a mask and then didn't get the recognition you deserved?
HIBBERT: No, I mean, I didn't necessarily want to be recognized for the Gimp. I never sent out, you know, Merry Christmas from the Gimp Christmas cards. But...
RATH: Gimp action figures, you don't get a cut from that?
HIBBERT: There is one.
HIBBERT: Yeah. I don't own one. If anyone's listening and would like to send me a Gimp action figure, I'd love it. The weekend it opened, I had about 20 voicemails of guys saying I really enjoyed your performance. I'd like to take you out for a cup of coffee.
So I got an unlisted number. This is before the Internet and all that, 20 years ago, so they had to sit through the whole end credits and catch Stephen Hibbert, write it down, go grab a phone somewhere, 4-1-1. And, yeah, so that...
RATH: Dedicated fans. Do I understand correctly you're working on children's television at the time?
HIBBERT: Yeah, I was writing for "Tiny Toons Adventures" and "Animaniacs" for Warner Brothers. So I wrote some scripts for them as well.
RATH: You're here, you're working on this more wholesome fare while you're...
HIBBERT: Well, wherever they're willing to pay me has always been my motto.
RATH: So are you - what are you doing now?
HIBBERT: Right now I'm kind of unemployed. But I've done a lot of work with nonprofits, one in particular called School on Wheels, semi-regular role on a Nickelodeon kid's show, again, called "True Jackson VP." So, you know, I'm like everyone else, keep on fighting the good fight.
RATH: That's Stephen Hibbert. He played the Gimp in "Pulp Fiction." Stephen, thank you.
HIBBERT: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a real lot of fun.
RATH: And can we just go out by give us your favorite line from the Gimp.
HIBBERT: (as Gimp) (screaming)
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.