Interview: 2006 Q&A

Interview with René, January 2006

In late 2005, members of René’s fan club submitted a list of interview questions for him to answer, and René tape-recorded the following replies for us on Saturday, January 15, 2006, at his home in Los Angeles, California. Thank you to everyone who submitted questions, and to René for so generously taking time to answer them!

From Leatha Betts:
Q: What is your personal process for seeing the character on the written page, then turning it into your own interpretation of the director’s vision? Does it require extensive research, or is it more “method?”

My process, you know… she questions about whether it’s turning it into “your own interpretation of the director’s vision.” I first go to what the writer’s vision is. The director’s vision will become clear when we’re actually in the process of working. I don’t try to get ahead of that. My first responsibility is to the written word, and I always think of it as more or less being like some kind of channel for the writer. The writer, when the writer is writing the words of a character, is a great actor, at least in his or her own head. They hear the words and they imagine them in a very specific way, and I always try to get to that place where the writer is hearing the words, whether it’s Shakespeare or whether it’s Star Trek or whether it’s Boston Legal. I try to get into the head of the writer, and to imagine what they hear. Once I do that, once I feel I’ve done as much as I can in that direction, if the writer has been clear enough, only then do I feel like I can begin to bring my own voice to it. And that’s what I do in terms of my process, in terms of finding out what the writer’s interpretation is. Then, when I’m on the set, and I’m working with the director, the director, depending on how the director works, will give me perhaps a line reading, or a very specific way they imagine the character will be behaving or sounding or reading a certain line. Some actors get worried about a director giving a line reading. I don’t know whether it’s because I have great confidence in my own ability, which is not always true, but usually I feel like, if the director gives me a line reading, it doesn’t bother me because I know I’ll hear it, I’ll understand what they want, and then I’ll do it in my own voice. Nine times out of ten, better than the line reading they’ve given me. So, that’s pretty much my method.

In terms of research, you know, when I was doing a piece like the Chicago Hope, where I was playing the surgeon with Tourette’s, one of the requirements before I accepted the role was that they would send me as much material as they had. They sent me documentary films… I just needed examples of how that behavior really was, because I didn’t want to try and just invent that out of my head. Also, if I’m going to do a character with a dialect, I insist on them sending me whatever material they have, or even supplying me with a coach or someone who actually has that accent, to work on that. In terms of Shakespeare, of course, there’s a wealth of material to research; when I was doing Richard III, I read many books, and histories…. That’s the sort of thing I do in terms of preparing myself. That’s my method.

From Judith MacQuinn:
Q: If you were offered a part in one of the Harry Potter films, what part would you hope to be offered, and would you accept? What part do you think you’d be “perfect” for?

Oh, I’m terrible at answering questions like that, I never think I’m right for any roles. It’s usually the roles I think I’m wrong for that I do best in, because I’m challenged by it, and it forces me to really extend myself. The challenge is always the thing that helps me. So, I’m not going to answer that question re: the Harry Potter films. You know, they’re using all English actors, so I don’t even let my mind go there because I know the way they cast those things. I remember when I was doing Dance of the Vampires and we were about to close, it was after Richard Harris died, the producer came to me and said, “Oh, they’re going to replace Richard Harris! You should make sure your agent submits you for that.”

And I just sort of laughed, and I said, “They’re going to use an English actor. I wouldn’t even bother my agent.”

So, I don’t let my mind go there.

From Lynne Fuller:
Q: Besides rooting Boston Legal in reality, what other purposes do you think Paul Lewiston fulfills in the series? There was some nice interplay going on between your character and Monica Potter’s character Lori, such as the mentor/student relationship. Has the loss of the Lori character had an effect on the amount of screen time for Lewiston?

I don’t think Monica’s leaving the show…I think when Candice’s role came, when Schmidt finally joined the show, which was an inspired choice and an inspired character, I think at that point Lewiston’s role, really what his job was became more really in terms of, yes, rooting the world of Boston Legal into, I don’t know about “reality,” but into a place where the audience would believe that it might actually be a real law firm. As this season progresses, I think you’ll notice that Paul’s character gets developed more as it goes along. Certainly, in the beginning, because of the necessity to establish the new characters, it seemed as if I didn’t have or Lewiston didn’t have that much to do, but I think you’ll notice, as we move into the season, and some characters that they established and then decided that they weren’t something they could pursue, or that David Kelley wasn’t that interested in pursuing, and those characters sort of move into the background or disappear totally… Paul Lewiston is who Paul Lewiston is. He’s just… you know, in an episode that we’re shooting right now, there’s a speech that Shirley Schmidt has to Paul Lewiston, when he says he’s going to resign. And she says, “Paul, I could tell you, you are the person that holds this firm together. I could tell you, we couldn’t function without your hand on the wheel. But I’ve said all that before. Give me a month. I promise I’ll make this work for you.” So, I think that pretty much is what David Kelley thinks about the character. And, you know, there’ll be times when I have interesting stuff to do and times when I’m really just there as a kind of an anchor to the show. And that’s just fine with me.

Q: The play Love Letters carries many themes, one of them being “the ability to express one’s art can be therapeutic.” What are your feelings on this theme?

Well, “the ability to express one’s art can be therapeutic?” It’s more than therapeutic to me, it’s my life. After my family and my loved ones, my art is why I’m here. So it’s more than therapeutic. It’s the air I breathe, and it’s the blood that pulses through my veins.

Q: Is there an actor you’ve always wanted to work with but haven’t yet had the chance?

Hmmmmmm.… Gosh. Gee, there’s so many actors that I admire and hope that I’ll eventually get a chance to work with, and it seems to me that the longer I hang around, the more that seems to happen. Right now, it’s not springing to mind…

Q: What do you think is the greatest play ever written?

King Lear.

Q: Was Benson ever filmed at Prospect Studios in Hollywood?

Yes, the first season was there, and then we moved to Gower Studios. Or, actually, it was the first two seasons, I joined at the second season. Second season I was there, which was my first season. After that we moved to Gower. Sunset-Gower Studios.

Q: One time I saw something signed by you on eBay, with the words “Mushroom Ltd.” below your signature. Was that a name of a company of yours and was it because you like mushrooms?

(Laughs) It was the name of the first corporation that we ever had. It was a corporation that was eventually dissolved. And “Mushroom” was (chuckles) an old nickname, no longer in use, for my dearly beloved wife, Judith. I used to call her “Mushroom.”

From Talia Myres:
Q: In a society where so many people are focused on and enamored with celebrities and their lifestyles, what – if anything – is an actor’s obligation to the public in regards to their personal views on societal, political, and religious issues? Knowing that they might sway someone’s thoughts with their own, do you believe they should speak out and express their opinions in those arenas like any average citizen, even though their thoughts may or may not carry added weight because of their status?

Whew! What a question! Serious question. I don’t think I have any responsibility, except as an individual. I have to weigh very carefully… I don’t think my opinion will sway anybody, because I’m a “celebrity,” any more than my opinion sways my friends’ opinions. I have many dear friends who I disagree with adamantly, politically and socially and morally, but they’re still my dear friends, and we argue, and I don’t sway their opinion, and they don’t sway mine! (chuckles) But what I have to be careful about is, that when you’re in a position where you have some kind of celebrity, it’s actually very easy for your positions to be… oddly enough, it’s more likely that your opinions become demeaned, or dismissed. “Oh, well, they’re just a celebrity and they’re mouthing off.” So, it’s actually more dangerous. So I tend to stay pretty low profile, publicly, in terms of what I believe. In the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, when I felt very strongly that our policies in Central America regarding El Salvador and Nicaragua were very detrimental not only to the countries in question but to our own standing in this world, I became involved, and tried to raise consciousness in the public as to what I felt were unfortunate policies on the part of our government. And I’m proud of the work that I did at that time. I don’t think it had much effect on the overall world picture, but I did what I felt I had to do. I am adamantly opposed to this administration’s policies in terms of the Middle East and Iraq specifically, but I don’t do anything other than as a private citizen, expressing those views. I don’t try to express my views as a public personality. And I think that’s the best way to go about it. Just do everything on a personal level. You know, I’m involved with Doctors Without Borders, thanks to all the people in ORACLE and the fans who are generous with their support, but that’s a pretty apolitical organization and I feel comfortable with that, and so I put all my energies into that.

From an ORACLE member:
Q: Thinking historically, is there a particular individual, famed or with a background in the sciences, arts, philosophy, or politics, who you would like to meet? And if so, what questions would you most like to ask them?

Hmm. Wow! Hmmmm… Sciences, arts, philosophy, politics…. Whew! Artists? I would love to meet Leonardo Da Vinci. Politics? Thomas Jefferson. Philosophy? Thoreau. Mostly because I would love to be able to ask them what they think about what’s happening now, and hopefully bring back some kind of solutions to all of the horrible things that are happening in this world, that those people I feel would have some thoughts about that might be healing and helping.

Q: When reading a book, are you pleased or underwhelmed if you “guess right” – if you have some idea of how the story will end before you finish it?

Ummm… I don’t think I’m either. I usually suspend my disbelief to the extent that I don’t try to anticipate. Of course, if it’s a piece of crap, then all bets are off. But, many times, you know, I won’t be surprised in the end, it’ll be sort of like, “Oh, well, that’s not a surprise. If I had tried to puzzle it out, I think I would’ve come to that conclusion.” So, I don’t think I’m either, I just sort of immerse myself in books, and let them take me along for the ride. And then, what is really appalling to me is, I usually forget everything about the book (chuckles), except for the fact that I’ve read it.

Q: When reading in silence and for yourself, do you sometimes read “in character” and employ different voices? (I do!)

Hmm… That’s sort of like asking me, do I dream in color. I don’t remember. I don’t know. I’ll try and think about that… I think I do. I think I do. And she says, in parentheses, “I do!” And I bet she does, and I bet she’s a wonderful character actress when she does it.

Q: Is there a book you’d most love to record as an audiobook?

You know what? I really want to record more children’s books. I don’t know whether it’s because I’m looking forward to reading children’s books to my grandchild, who is waiting in the wings at the moment, but I would love to read children’s books, William Steit’s books, and what’s his name, Maurice Sendak, who wrote In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are: (in a monster voice) “Oh, please don’t go! We’ll eat you up! We love you so!” (back to normal voice) But I’d also like to read classics, like Dickens and Kidnapped and I’d love to read longer books to children. I love to read for children. And I would love to make audiobooks of all those.

From Fliss:
Q: If there was one scenario you wished (serious or frivolous) done between Odo and Kira, what was it?

Ummm… No. I don’t have a thought about that.

From Marie-Catherine Caillava:
Q: In 1996, I asked you some questions via audiotape, and you mentioned that you really meant to play King Lear again – is that part still on your “to-do” list?

Well, hmmm, yeah. Although, to tell you truth, I think I may be getting too old to play it. You gotta really have vocal chops and physical chops. Physically, I’m strong enough to do it, but…. Yeah, I mean, I suppose, if somebody comes and twists my arm, I’ll do it, because I’ll think I’d be crazy not to. So, I dunno. We’ll see.

Q: You do a lot of audiobooks but basically you are a stage actor. With TV, you have no audience but a camera, plus acting partners and the crew. With audiobooks, you are virtually whispering in the ear of the audience – an audience that is nowhere, and you have no partners to react to. Can you tell us how you work in that context? Also, how do you make decisions about the style in which you’ll read (narrator’s voice all along versus “playing” each part with a voice for each)?

You know, most of the books that I’m asked to record, I’m asked to record because of my “versatility” in creating different voices for characters, so I know that’s what they want me to do, so I do that. It’s very tiring to record a book. Your voice gets very tired, so I try to just use my natural voice and not push it too much, in terms of the narration. You know, the difference between… on the stage, an audience really does becomes a character in the piece that you’re performing. In terms of acting before a camera or a microphone, that is a little bit different. Although not that different, really. There’s something that happens when you start to portray a character, where there’s a heightened kind of reality that you find yourself moving through. It’s a very childlike thing, it’s really sort of imagining yourself… it’s like when you were a child playing games and playing characters, you find yourself, you click into a certain place, and there you go. I don’t know if that makes any sense…

Q: In 1989, you played in Metamorphosis. That play is really one of a kind – could you tell us about the process that went into it, and also tell us about working with Misha Baryshnikov?

Well, yes, it is a one-of-a-kind play. The writer/director, Steven Berkoff, he had written that play for himself, originally, to play the part that Misha played, Gregor, the man who becomes the cockroach. And he is a very specific writer and performer. Incredibly stylized. Every move, every vocal inflection, everything is choreographed and done by the numbers and, at first, it’s very difficult. But once you learn the “dance steps,” and the vocal gymnastics, it becomes incredibly liberating and a lot of fun to do. I remember Zoe Caldwell came to see a run-through of the play, and afterwards she said, “I don’t think I could ever do this. It looks like it’s so…like being in a straightjacket.” And at that point it still was, but by the time we were really playing it for ourselves, it was a lot of fun.

In terms of Baryshnikov, he was a wonderful choice to do that, because he is such a disciplined, physical dancer/actor. And he came to it with great humility and really enjoyed working and collaborating with the director and with the other actors, and he was a joy to work with. To this day, whenever I see him, he sort of beams and throws open his arms and runs towards me and says, “Daddy! Daddy!” because I played his father in that production. And I have very fond memories of doing it. It was unfortunately squelched by Frank Rich, who, as much as I admire him now as a political analyst, I was not a great admirer of him as a critic, because he always had his own agenda, and he had it out for Steven Berkoff before we even opened, and he had written that review before he even saw the production. He sort of… it didn’t matter, because it was a limited run because of Baryshnikov and, because of Baryshnikov, we were sold out before we opened. So it didn’t matter. But I don’t think it got the respect that it really deserved.

Q: Can you tell us what kind of man John Houseman was to work with, learn with, be with?

John Houseman was an old family friend who had collaborated with my father when my father was the head of the French desk of the Voice of America. They did work together in terms of programming for the Voice of America. And he was a neighbor and a dear, dear friend, and as I came of age and wanted to be an actor, he gave me my first professional outing as an apprentice at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, CT, and continued to mentor me. He was the reason I was accepted at Carnegie Institute of Technology, or Carnegie Mellon (sight unseen, because I was living in England at the time), because of his unequivocal recommendation. Once I graduated from there, he was responsible for Bill Ball wanting me at the American Conservatory Theatre. He hired me to teach at Julliard, he continued to watch my work and criticize it and support me throughout my life. He was a man of impeccable taste, great passion for the theatre, a love of actors, and a love of the theatre, and I will be eternally grateful to him for everything that he gave me and taught me.

Q: A question that has probably more to do with the working of the human brain than with acting: DS9 ended in 1999, that’s about six years ago. Since then, you’ve worked in many productions, done lots of things, while fans went on watching the series on tape, DVD, making it a part of their “now”. At conventions, you are asked repetitively lots of question about that series that exists in the “now” for fans (who watched a tape yesterday and want to ask about a particular line or prop), but that was years ago and a hundred productions ago for you. How does human memory works there? Do you feel you remember directly every incident you talk about, or does there comes a moment when talking about those events too many times means you remember things only through your memory of the last time you talked about it? Does it spoil your personal (private) memories of working in that production, things you never had to talk about or reminisce and put in words for other people?

Whew! What a question! It’s like all memory. You know, if you repeat the same story too many times, it becomes a fable. When I go to conventions there are those questions which are, yes, the same question again and again, and those have a kind of a rote answer to them. Sometimes, people will ask a question that ignites a memory and is a very pleasing and a happy journey back in time. Many times, I have no… you know, I can’t remember what they’re even talking about. For me, it’s all one big story. But then there are times where a specific question really does spark me, and that’s great. You know, the thing is, as you get older, you love to talk about yourself and you love to remember, so it’s a real gift that the audience gives you when you realize they remember so specifically a piece of work that you’ve been involved with. Sort of tangentially, it’s even more gratifying when people remember a performance that you’ve given on the stage. Even a specific performance or a specific night when you did something that they remember, and you actually can remember it as well.

Funny thing is, though, sometimes, people will say they remember you in something that you never did. They’ve confused you with another actor, and they will absolutely be adamant that you did this piece of work and you know they’re thinking of Leonard Fry or somebody else, and nothing you say can change their mind. They have it imprinted in their memory that it was you, and there’s nothing that you can about that.

Actually, a little piece of trivia: Betty White, the first day she came on the show and I went into the make-up room and she was there, and I said, “Hi, I’m René Auberjonois…”

And she said, “Of course I know you’re René Auberjonois! We worked together with Tom Ewell on….”

And I didn’t have the heart to tell her that we didn’t ever work together.

And then, months later, actually just this Christmas, I was at our friend Alfred Molina’s house, and she was there, because she’s a friend of his also, because she did that short-lived sitcom with him. And I had done a thing on the BBC, Ashenden, with him, and we’ve remained good friends. And Betty and I were talking, and she said to Judith about how we had worked together, and I thought finally, I knew her well enough and she’s such a great lady, I said, “Betty! Betty, we never worked together.”

And she said, “Yes we did!”

And I said, “Betty, I don’t remember it.”

She said, “Well, we didn’t work ‘together’, but we were in the same production. I don’t remember what it was, but I know that we both were in the same movie for television, or something.”

Well, that may be. I still don’t know what it is. So if there are any fans out there who can figure out what it is that Betty White thinks we did, not in the same scene together but in the same production together, I would be very grateful.

Q: Do you ever plan to show your work in photography, drawing, or wire sculpting?

I would love to, but I’m lazy, and I’m shy, and I don’t know how to go about it. I would love to have a big show. I always say to Judith, “When I die, I don’t want a memorial service, I want all my friends to bring all the work that I’ve given away or done, and that we have here, and do a big art show, and give it all away and sell it to raise money for Doctors Without Borders.” So, I don’t know, maybe some day I will. Every time anybody walks into my studio and sees all these wire sculptures, and any time I give people Christmas cards or cards that I’ve made or prints of things that I’ve done or drawings, they always say, “You’ve gotta have a show! You’ve gotta have a show!” Yeah, yeah, well. I dunno.

Q: Do you think rep work is a must for young actors?

Well, I can’t say it’s a must, because I think it’s almost impossible to get a chance to do that now, because of the economics of the arts. So, I think it’s one of the most wonderful things that could ever happen for an actor, and I wish it for any young actor, I wish it for my own young actor-children, who aren’t all that young any more, but it doesn’t seem to be out there for people to do. It is certainly a great training ground but, more than that, it’s great for any actor to be able to do that. It’s a great gift.

(Tape transcribed by Marguerite Krause. Any errors or omissions are the responsiblity of the transcriber.)