Saul Rubinek on his unlikely journey from Canadian theater to Syfy's "Warehouse 13"
By Simi Horwitz
July 16, 2010
Saul Rubinek had a major epiphany during the intermission—yes, intermission—of Murray Schisgal's play "Luv"—starring Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, and Alan Arkin. At the time, Rubinek was a young Canadian actor visiting New York City. "People in the lobby were talking exactly like the people on stage," he recalls. "That had not yet happened in Canada. Theater was still being imported from America or Britain." Though Rubinek had no way of knowing that within a few years he'd be performing in homegrown Canadian theater, he was clearly drawn to the authenticity of indigenous plays. "I have nothing against imported art," he asserts, "but if that's all you're doing, it is decadent."
Rubinek is refreshingly straightforward. Consider this: Though he is delighted to be playing Dr. Arthur "Artie" Nelson, the mysterious yet methodical Secret Service agent on Syfy's "Warehouse 13"—a program that evokes "The X-Files" with a touch of humor—he says much of the acting is "shmacting. Acting-shmacting," he reiterates. "There should be a class called Schmacting 101."
But don't be deceived by his seemingly dismissive tone. Like so many of the show's fans, he marvels at its many elements—from fantasy adventure to comedy with no shortage of wonderful villains. Rubinek talks about how it appeals to women and families without losing its male base. He comments on how rare it is in an actor's career to be in a program that is well-written, well-acted, and wildly popular—not only in the States but globally. It is now being telecast in 50 countries, he says. The actors' challenge is to maintain a light touch and at the same time be truthful. "It's walking a tightrope," he remarks. "If we fall off the tightrope, it would no longer be interesting. The stakes have to be high. We can't take ourselves too seriously, but we have to take seriously the characters' situations."
The veteran actor is no stranger to sci-fi and its demands. He has appeared on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Stargate SG-1," and "The Outer Limits," among others. But he also boasts credits across many genres and in all three mediums. For the first 20 years of his career, theater was his home base. He was 27 years old before he performed in front of a camera. To this day he believes any good stage actor can do film, though the reverse is not necessarily true.
Unlearning and Relearning
Rubinek has theater in his blood. His parents were Holocaust survivors and after the war spent three years in a German refugee camp—Rubinek was born in the camp—where his dad ran a Yiddish-language theater. But when the family immigrated to Montreal, he had to give up theater and work in a factory. "For him it was a cultural desert," Rubinek says. "Still, he held readings on the side, and I grew up with it."
Rubinek's first languages were Yiddish and French, and after the family moved to Ottawa, his parents enrolled him in acting school partly because English was not his first language. Their other concern was his shyness. The experience was life-changing. "I found out I was a fish and I had gills and this is where I could breathe," he comments. "And I never turned back." Indeed, he started acting professionally almost immediately.
Outside of his childhood acting teachers, he never studied formally again and has no single method, insisting methods depend on the particulars of the project. "Stanislavsky's method came from trying to figure out how to do Chekhov," he says. "There's a whole different method when you do Brecht. It's always a constant unlearning and relearning for each project. Otherwise you're creatively dead."
Rubinek attended college intermittently and "majored" in doing plays "that were not part of the curriculum," he notes. "I'm not a college graduate, and I don't have a safety net. My parents wanted me to have a safety net, and I said, 'If I have a net, I might fall in it.' I don't believe in safe choices."
The turning point for Rubinek took place in the late 1960s when Canada started developing its own theater in such places as Vancouver, Halifax, and Winnipeg, he says. What young Rubinek had seen in "Luv" 20-plus years earlier—plays that were reflecting the experience and voice of its audience—was now taking place on Canadian stages, and Rubinek was determined to be a part of it.
"In 1969 I was a young actor at Stratford in Ontario, and it was stultifying," he says. "And I left Stratford to my father's chagrin. When I was at Stratford, he could point to his son with pride. Instead, I was now in some dirty little hippie theater doing new Canadian plays. Those years informed me. I still most enjoy doing original, new work."
Being a Dad
Rubinek became a dad for the first time at age 43, and being a family man in large part determined what projects he'd tackle. Most important was (and is) his ability to be a husband and father, emotionally and financially. "Can I pay for my son and daughter going to college?" he asks. Creative concerns are secondary. But within those parameters, the role always takes precedence over the script or the creative team. "All my life I've heard, 'Oh, you've got to audition for this or that. Look who's involved.' Fill in the blanks. It could be De Niro, Scorsese, De Palma. And then I'd read it and say, 'This is a great project, but I'm not right for it.' I'm one of those actors who has always known I'm not right for everything. Just because I may be the right age or ethnicity doesn't mean I relate to the role."
Like most actors, Rubinek has had fallow periods, but he has refused to live his life anxiously awaiting a call from his agent with an audition in the offing. Instead, Rubinek branched out as writer, director, and producer, though he has never written a role for himself. The impulse to write and direct have become autonomous, and the hat that defines him is the one he is wearing at the moment, he emphasizes. As for his aesthetic, it's traditional. He has little interest in special effects: "I think there is magic onscreen when two people have great dialogue in a great story with humor and depth."
On the topic of what he'd do differently, he responds career regrets are an exercise in futility because they imply a level of choice we don't have. "We make plans, and God laughs," Rubinek quips. "I have some humility when talking about my career. There are only a handful of actors who are talented and get lucky. Since we control so little, it's far more important to think about what you're going to give to a project as opposed to what you're going to get out of it. If I have any regrets, it's that I wasn't thinking in those terms earlier."
- Has appeared in such films as Oliver Stone's "Nixon" and "Wall Street," Disney's comedy thriller "I Love Trouble," Brian De Palma's "Bonfire of the Vanities," and Garry Marshall's first feature, "Young Doctors in Love"
- Guest-starred on "Frasier" (16 episodes), "A Nero Wolfe Mystery" (10 episodes), "Blind Justice" (seven episodes), "Lost," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and "Boston Legal"
- Helmed the films "Jerry and Tom" and Showtime's "Clubland"; wrote and produced a documentary, "So Many Miracles," based on his book of the same title, recounting his parents' survival in Poland during the Holocaust.
- Is married to producer Elinor Reid, with whom he runs a production company
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