Interview date: 06/09/2009
Run date: 07/07/2009
Saul Rubinek is one of the most versatile characters actors in Hollywood, able to move from sitcom to serious drama without a moment’s hesitation. As a result, he’s one of the busiest guys in the business, a fact which is easily proven by taking a gander at his IMDb listing. It’s been awhile, however, since he’s taken on a role as a series regular, which should give you an idea of how special he believes his new gig, Sci-Fi’s “Warehouse 13” (premiering July 7th), to be. Bullz-Eye spoke with Rubinek about how he came aboard the series and what we can expect from his character, and we also chatted with him about his experiences on “Frasier,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and “The Outer Limits,” and the legacy of “True Romance.”
Saul Rubinek: Will, you’re in the middle of the “bullz-eye” of a storm, huh?
Bullz-Eye: I am. Thankfully, it looks like it’s passing now, but I wasn’t sure for a few minutes if I’d have power to do this interview.
SR: We must be flying right over you. Where is the storm?
BE: In Chesapeake, Virginia. Right next door to Norfolk.
SR: Oh, we’re going to be pressing north of you, then. We’re heading from Los Angeles to Toronto in about a half hour.
BE: Well, I just finished watching the pilot for “Warehouse 13,” and it’s really a fun show.
SR: Oh, I’m so glad to hear you say that. I adore it. I adore the show, and it’s a pleasure to be able to talk about it. I’ve had so many times in my life where I’ve had to sell a show, you know, and do my due diligence as an actor and try desperately to look for something positive to say. Here I am in a kind of heaven, I have to tell you, Will. I mean, I’ve been doing this a long, long time. Connecting with a character like that…it’s been many, many years since I’ve had that. I loved playing that character.
BE: I was talking to my wife about the series, and I said that, at first, the temptation is to call the main characters Mulder and Scully, but they’re actually more like Bones and Booth from “Bones.”
SR: They’re not Mulder and Scully. I know there’s some similarity, but we don’t take ourselves as seriously as “X-Files” did.
BE: So how were you pitched the script for this show? Did you know someone involved with the project, did they come to you, or did you just audition?
SR: Well, it’s a very interesting process, and I have to give a tremendous amount of credit to Mark Stern, who is essentially one of the heads of not only NBC Universal Cable, but also one of the heads of Sci-Fi Network. Mark Stern, from what I understand, suggested me when they were having some trouble trying to figure out what direction to go with this character. You know, it’s just one of those great, good-fortune things. I had never met Mark, I don’t think, formally. But for years I had worked for him without knowing I was working with him, in a way. Do you remember the series that was on a few years ago called “The Outer Limits”?
SR: I did a couple of those episodes. I did one episode in particular, their 100th episode, which was actually written by the guy who is a show writer for “Sanctuary” now. Sam Egan wrote about his dad, who was in Auschwitz. My parents are Holocaust survivors. Sam wrote an episode of “Outer Limits” where somebody goes back in time to Auschwitz. I was very nervous about doing a science fiction show that might in s0me ways diminish or belittle, you know? That whole thing. It turned out to be one of the things I am most proud of. And I know that Mark Stern was working with Trilogy, I think, who were the producers and the writers of that show. At the time, I did at least… I think I did a double episode of “Stargate SG-1”; I did an episode of “Psych” for USA, for NBC Universal. I did an episode of, I think, the first season of “Eureka”.
BE: You did, indeed.
SR: And so, in a way, I was primed for this, even though they weren’t originally looking for someone like me for this role. So by the time that Mark suggested me and I came in I met David Simkins, our wonderful, brilliant writer of our pilot…you know that he and Jack Kenny are running the show together right now. But at that time, David Simkins was wide open when I came in, and I had ideas. In changing stuff, sometimes you insult the people who have been working for years and years on development. I try to be very cautious not to offend people. I say, “Listen, I don’t have to do this. I can leave it.” But you know, Will, I was doing the series, and…you can look at my career; I don’t do series that are not where my family is. Very rarely. Actually, never, in fact. I have never gone away to do a series. I have a fourteen-year-old son and an eighteen-year-old daughter.
BE: I have a three-year-old daughter, so I know what you mean.
SR: You know what I’m talking about. So, yes, I have to pay the bills, but leaving the family for four months or more a year…even though it’s off and on, it would have to be great. They were so collaborative and so inclusive. It’s such a great concept and the people are so wonderful. It just turned out to be, so far, a job sent directly from Heaven. I feel very grateful and incredibly lucky that I’m in the midst of this great group of people. These are really great writers. And, you know, this is the thing. I know I’ve heard actors say this stuff before, sometimes they say it with a tongue in their cheek because they’ve got to, and sometimes they mean it. This is a really great group of people, with tremendous high pressure put on them. And I’m not talking about just the writers here. The executives, both on the network side and the studio side, I’m thrilled to tell you because I wouldn’t have brought them up at all, are so enthusiastic and have been so additive that the only struggles have been with the positive creative struggles, where sparks fly and people are trying to get the show right. So I’m in the midst of a very good thing. I just keep knocking on wood. I wonder if I’m dreaming. It’s really cool.
BE: In addition to the show itself, you’ve definitely got a very interesting character with a lot of intrigue around him, one who starts kind of light when he first appears and then gets progressively darker. I mean, there’s definitely some baggage to be had there.
SR: Oh, I think that you’ll find there is quite a bit of baggage. In fact, a whole trainload of baggage. (Laughs)
BE: You also get some really clever lines. I think my favorite was one when you were describing an item and said, “It’s bigger than a breadbox. Or smaller.”
SR: (Laughs) That’s the genius of David Simkins, I can’t take credit for it. And there’s a wonderful line in there also where somebody says, “I guess the metaphor for the warehouse is that it’s Pandora’s Box,” and I say, “No, actually, Pandora’s Box is in aisle 33, section G.” And I say, “As you can tell from the state of the world, thebox is empty.” The thing that’s most fun is that they figured out a way to walk a tightrope between suspense and humor. And that’s their struggle, and it’s ours as well, to walk a tightrope where we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and yet we try not to take ourselves so lightly that the audience doesn’t care about the outcome, you know? So you have to walk a tightrope. I’m hoping that we succeed most of the time. You can’t succeed all of the time when you’re playing a tightrope walk between comedy and drama. You can’t. But it’s a very, very exciting…to keep the metaphor going, it’s a very, very exciting walk, you know?
BE: So had you worked with anyone on the cast before? Eddie McClintck, CCH Pounder…
SR: No, I hadn’t met any of them. We’ve crossed paths through friends, and it’s been really a brand new family. It’s really interesting, because one of the things that I’ve said to Jack Kenny and to David, I think I even said it to Mark Stern when he visits our set, is, “I know you guys are dealing with the struggle of any first year show and trying to figure out what a ‘Warehouse 13’ episode is.” You know, is this an episode for this show, or is it not? So they’re struggling to find the identity of the show, and I’ll tell you what I think. I think the minute that they find the identity of the show, we’re dead. I think that there is an obvious thing going here about searching for artifacts that belong in the warehouse. That’s the very simple premise. But the truth is that I love the fact that we’re struggling, always searching for a new way to tell the stories. I don’t know how long that can last, because it’s a very difficult thing for the writers to stay away from formula. But so far, I can tell you in our whole first season, there is no formula. It’s very difficult, but it’s very exciting.
BE: I’d ask you if you are a sci-fi guy, but since you first turned up on my radar almost 20 years ago in an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, I dare say you at least aren’t afraid of sci-fi.
SR: No, I love it. I read it as a kid, of course. A lot of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. I grew up reading all of that stuff. I love science fiction films. But I also love fantasy, because one of the first roles I remember was “Treasure Island.” I played Jim Hawkins in “Treasure Island” when I was 11 years old. A world of Robert Louis Stevenson and a world of Jules Verne. I think my office resembles, more than anything else, something that was designed by Jules Verne. That world of Lewis Carroll, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson is a world that I threw myself into as a kid. And also, even darker, into the world of Lovecraft and Poe as well. I loved that. But I’ve been acting since I was six, seven years old. Some of the plays that I did at that time were adaptations of those peoples’ works. So as a child, I was able to throw myself into a world of make believe where I actually was in that world. Because as a kid, boy, it was really easy to believe it when I was doing it. I always feel I am trying to go back to where I was at when I was eight years old, as an actor.
BE: Do you have a favorite of your sci-fi appearances? Maybe one that isn’t necessarily remembered by as many people but that you just particularly enjoyed?
SR: Well, one of the things that I really, really liked doing was that episode of “The Outer Limits,” where I played a Nazi hunter. I did two “Outer Limits” episodes, but on this one (“Tribunal”), I played a Nazi hunter, and I did it with Lindsay Crouse. Sam Egan’s dad himself was in Auschwitz, and as I said, my parents are also Holocaust survivors, although they were never in a death camp. They were hidden for two and a half years. In this episode, my character actually travelled back in time to Auschwitz. And I did it with my old friend Jan Rubes. Remember, he was the grandfather in “Witness”? I had worked him before – he also played a Jewish grandfather in a movie I did (“The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick”) – but here he actually played the Nazi I was hunting. So he was an old friend of mine and I did it with him I was nervous about doing it, but I spoke to Sam Egan and found out what he felt about it, and that he wrote it. His father was even able to visit the set. That episode…I’m very proud of that. It was a science fiction episode, but the real events weren’t diminished at all. There was a lot of heart from every area. What’s really interesting is that Mark Stern worked on that episode. I think, if I’m not wrong, Mark was working for Trilogy at that time, who were the producers/writers of the show. Anyway, it’s one of my favorite things I have done on sci-fi.
BE: When they called you up and invited you to appear on “Frasier,” did you just pinch yourself? Because it seems like it was a great gig.
SR: Oh, man, and it only got greater. I was only called to do three episodes, and the ratings went up because of the relationship, partly because I drove such a wedge between Niles and the love of his life, so that story arc continued for two years. Yes, I had to pinch myself. That was one of the most amazing times I have ever had, where you feel like you are doing this little one act play, no interference from anyone, anywhere. We’re just doing this little one act play, and then 23 million people showed up. It was an extraordinary group of people. I was very fortunate to be a part of it.
BE: I thought it was particularly great when they brought you back for the episode when Niles and Daphne were eloping.
SR: (Laughs) I know. Yeah, that’s a great episode. That’s a brilliant show, and my son, who is now 14, is just now watching them all religiously. He’s just old enough to appreciate the brilliance of the writing of that show, and the acting.
BE: And I see you just finished another Jesse Stone film not long ago.
SR: I did. What’s kind of wonderful about that group of people is that they have created a small repertory company for that town. As a result, even though my character is one of the first ones got sent to jail, he’s in jail, then he gets out of jail. They have created a community of characters and it’s a real, really nice group of people to work with. I love doing that show.
BE: Were you surprised that “Blind Justice” only lasted seven episodes?
SR: I’m never surprised at decisions of networks. I’ve learned not to be surprised. I worked with Steven Bochco once without meeting him. I did a guest star role in a “Hill Street Blues” episode back in the early 80’s, and I think I did the very last episode of “L.A. Law.” But I don’t know. All I know is I’m terrified of liking shows. I really liked “The Unit,” I really liked “Eli Stone,” I really liked “The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” So I’m afraid of liking anything, because they get cancelled. What I’m hoping is that, since we’re on such a fast growing cable network, it won’t be the same pressures and they will give our show a chance to grow.
BE: Well, it reminds me quite a bit of “Eureka,” just as far as a general kind of feel to it, so I’m hoping that the audience embraces the same way that they did that show.
SR: I hope so. And I hope that we are also able to expand and get…I think that they are very interested in getting a larger women audience, and I think that the show deserves it, you know?
BE: I was looking back over your IMDb page, and I was just wondering: do you have any recollection of working on “Death Ship”?
SR: I have a very good recollection of working on “Death Ship”. We called it “Death Shit.” I was glad I was killed off quickly. But you’ve got to remember that it was my second movie. I think I had done one movie before that. I was thrilled, you know, no mortgage, no kids. I was just thrilled to travel down to, I guess, Mississippi. No, Alabama. We were in Southern Alabama. And all I remember was that, as I was leaving the production trailer, I saw all of my fellow cast members in the water. And there was a production report saying that under no circumstances should the actors be in this water, it’s polluted, and you will have to be hospitalized. But apparently nobody had told the actors. And that’s when I began to understand something about the nature of independent movies. (Laughs)
BE: Are there any roles that people come up to you and cite as being their favorites that leave you just thinking, “Wow, that’s what you remember me for?”
SR: Yeah. Mostly it’s a combination of either “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” where I played a character who kidnapped Data in an episode called “The Most Toys.” Which I loved doing because it was my old friend Brent Spiner, who I had done theater with in New York. That, “Frasier,” ‘True Romance,” or “Unforgiven.” Or “The Family Man,” actually. I guess those are the ones that I’m most recognized for. But I’m proud of them all, so what can I say?
BE: You definitely had a very iconic look in “Unforgiven.” I remember you and your hat in that film.
SR: Well, that’s one of the ones where I would have paid them to let me be in the movie.
BE: And I see you’ve had a pretty solid presence in Jewish films. You were in “Oy Vey! My Son Is Gay!!”
SR: I just did that movie. It was an opportunity to work with Lainie Kazan and the wonderful John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony Award for doing “Jersey Boys.” “Jersey Boys” was created by my old friend Des McAnuff, who I grew up with in Toronto. John Lloyd Young, who was doing his first film, playing my son, is really a wonderful actor. I mean, aside from the silly title of that movie, I had a wonderful time. Very funny movie. And Lainie Kazan is a force of nature. I was just glad to be in her presence.
BE: And then many years ago, you also did “The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick.”
SR: With Jan Rubes, exactly. I’ve played two Hasidic Rabbis! One I did in the movie called “The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick,” a Hasidic Rabbi who wants to be a comic. The other movie I did, a couple of years after that, was a movie called “The Quarrel,” a much more serious film where I played a very right wing, fundamentalist Hasidic Rabbi.
BE: Do you have a favorite film that you worked on that didn’t necessarily get the love that you thought it deserved?
SR: I loved working on “Getting Even with Dad.” It’s where I first met Ted Danson, and I just think he’s one of the world’s great actors. I think his performance in “Damages” was one of the true comic masterpieces of villainhood, you know, that has ever been performed. I met him there first and I loved doing that role. I loved working with Howie Deutch. That character is not a character…all my characters have university degrees, I don’t even have a university degree. But that character, playing that kind of a street punk in “Getting Even With Dad”…I love that movie. But there are small, independent movies… “The Quarrel” was an example of a movie that has not been seen. I loved doing that film, I’m very proud of it. I’m very, very proud of that film. There have been a number of films throughout time…you know I originally felt that way about “True Romance.” As soon as it came out, I was doing “Getting Even With Dad,” and I remember Howie Deutch saying to me after the first weekends’ gross were less than four million dollars, “Well, that’s the end of that.” I thought, Jesus, that’s too bad, because that was some movie. Well, there’s a movie that’s grown in cult status. I can guarantee that, if you opened that movie right now in a theater, it would do well. That’s strange, isn’t it? So I don’t have to say that’s one where I’m not recognized for, because it turned out to be a cult movie all on its own. I’ve done so many. Sometimes they don’t get any recognition, you’re absolutely right. It just happens that way.
BE: I think you’re the only actor who appeared in both “Nixon” and “Dick.”
SR: Oh, you’re absolutely right. I think I’m the only one who did. I really wanted to play Kissinger in “Nixon,” too, but they cast Paul Sorvino. What can I say? Life does what it does. So when I was cast as Kissinger in “Dick,” I was so thrilled. And Dan Hedaya, one of the world’s great actors, what a thrill to work with him.
BE: Last one: when you did “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” could you tell it was on its way to being a train wreck even at the time you were filming it?
SR: No, of course not. I loved doing “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” I mean, look, nobody knows these things, and if they tell you that they know these things, they are lying or psychotic. First of all, the movie is not an act of genocide, you know? If you go back and look at that movie, it has really great things in it. But people so loved the book and it was such a departure in many ways from the book that, naturally, there was a lot of animosity and hatred towards it. There was a whole book written about it called “Devil’s Candy,”which I refused to be interviewed for because I didn’t want to trash it. There’s a great phrase which says that every time you throw dirt, you lose a little ground. I’m not interested in throwing any dirt. My feeling was that, hey, I got to know Tom Hanks. It was before “Philadelphia,” it was before he had done “Forrest Gump,” but I was a huge fan because of “Big,” which I think is one of the most highly underrated performances in film of all time. And I was working with Morgan Freeman, who I got to work again with in “Unforgiven.” It was just fun for me, you know? Fun. Do I look at it and go, “Geez, I wouldn’t have made that choice or made this one”? I do that with movies that have won Academy Awards! As you know, I’ve directed four films now, so I’ve learned. Brian De Palma is one of the world’s great directors, and I watched him and Bill almost every single day. You couldn’t drag me away from what they were doing. The fact that it didn’t succeed in the marketplace…? Who the hell knows? Who’s able to figure that one out? I don’t know.
BE: Actually, I meant to ask this earlier: do you have a favorite of the films that you have directed?
SR: I think my favorite is probably… (Hesitates) You know, they are all wonderful in their own way. I’ve only done four. The last one I did, which is “Cruel But Necessary,” was made for under $40,000.
SR: And it was an extraordinary experience. The true favorite I did was with my wife as producer. “Jerry and Tom” is very close to my heart as my first film, because I directed it as a play, and then the last one, “Cruel But Necessary.” But then if you ask me about “Bleacher Bums” and all my friends who were in it, and working with Alan Alda and Steven Weber on “Club Land”…? I haven’t done that many directing jobs that I can really say, “This is my favorite.” They all are very close to my heart, all four of them.
BE: With “Jerry and Tom,” every time I look at the cast of that film, I am just flabbergasted. It’s really remarkable. (Writer’s note: the cast includes Joe Mantegna, Sam Rockwell, Ted Danson, William H. Macy, Charles Durning, Peter Riegert, Sarah Polley, and Maury Chaykin.)
SR: Thank you! Now there’s a movie that I wish had gotten a bit more recognition. I wish Miramax had not unreleased it. They bought it at Sundance, got cold feet, and just sold it to Showtime. But, look, that gave me the opportunity to direct two Showtime movies! Well, I am going to go catch my plane now…
BE: Well, Saul, it has been a pleasure talking to you. Like I said, I’m really psyched for the show. I hope it does well for you.SR: I’m glad you like it. I’m thrilled that you like it. And thanks for this interview. I really appreciate it!