LOS ANGELES (Back Stage) - Canadian actor Saul Rubinek may have theater in his blood, but he is no stranger to the demands of sci-fi TV shows.
He can currently be seen on the Syfy cable channel in “Warehouse 13,” where he plays Dr. Arthur “Artie” Nelson, the mysterious yet methodical Secret Service agent. The show, now in its second season, evokes “The X-Files” with a touch of humor.
Rubinek, 62, says much of the acting is “shmacting. Acting-shmacting ... 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.”
Rubinek’s sci-fi credits also include “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Stargate SG-1,” and “The Outer Limits,” among others. Paradoxically, 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.”
Which possibly explains why he was suited to guest-starring roles on shows like “Frasier” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
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.
Rubinek’s 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.
“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.”
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.”