FedCon Bonn – 2008
René Auberjonois at FedCon XVII
April 19, 2008 – Bonn, Germany
by Walt Brecht
Please note that English is not my mother tongue, and that this is not a transcript. I took notes, and tried to be as accurate as possible when writing this down, but most of the text is not literally quoted.
Part 1 – The Panel
FedCon is the biggest SciFi convention in Europe, and they always cater well for the Star Trek fan, bringing many interesting guests over to Germany. This year, in addition to René, there were Brent Spiner, Marina Sirtis, LeVar Burton, John De Lancie, and Michelle Forbes, plus plenty of guests from other series, this time Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, and Andromeda.
This year, they also catered well for the Boston Legal fan. The actor who plays Paul Lewiston right at our doorstep… we just HAD to make this a “staff outing” of www.crane-poole-schmidt.de.
April 19, 2008 was our day. René would sort of open FedCon Saturday with his first panel at 10 a.m., and a couple of hours later we would get together for a “meet & greet.”
So our group arrived in Bonn early, got our tickets, and made ourselves comfortable on the main hall’s gallery.
René was greeted with a lot of applause, and first introduced himself, mentioning several roles in his career. When it was Boston Legal‘s turn, our little group started cheering… and perhaps that was the reason why he began with talking about just that:
David E. Kelley, creator/producer/writer of Boston Legal, introduced Paul Lewiston to the series after four episodes. He wanted Paul to be there as the serious side of the law.
During season four (which was still on the air with fresh episodes when FedCon took place), René was not a member of the regular cast. Paul Lewiston, however, still worked for Crane, Poole & Schmidt, and most likely sat in his office all day, to be brought on as a consultant now and then. René felt that this was best for the character. He had a contract to be in some episodes—one of which had been filmed and aired already—but due to the writer’s strike he had not been called back. The good news was: he got paid, no matter if he’d be working or not.
René had known Bill Shatner before Boston Legal, because they had met at various Star Trek conventions. After three years of working together, the two have become good friends, which René calls “one of the gifts of Boston Legal.” He praised Shatner as a very funny man, and very much interested in people.
We learned a bit about the Auberjonois family. There’s René, married to actress Judith for 45 years, and two kids, actors as well, and married to actors…it’s like a circus!
Tessa lives in Los Angeles, with René’s grandchild Julian, now 2 1/2 years old, and another child due in July.
Rémy is in a theatre production in New York, The Country Girl, and his wife is expecting, too.
René travels a lot between LA and “vineyard country,” where he owns “the house that Star Trek built,” a wonderful place in the countryside. He grows lavender and olives, and he can work on his art there, which include sculpturing, photography, and computer graphics.
Recently, René had filmed an episode for Saving Grace, and worked for a radio production. His next project will be Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid in Washington, DC.
He’s genuinely grateful to Star Trek, because it enables him to do things he really likes.
Q: Why do we see so many actors we know from Star Trek in Boston Legal as well?
A: They are both good TV shows. It’s a tribute to the good actors’ work. On Star Trek, there were many theatre actors. People with stage experience are very much in demand.
Q: What does René like about Odo?
A: It was good to constantly find out new things about him. There is a process between actor and writer. He, the actor, is basically just the instrument. The writer finds out how the instrument works, and adjusts the writing. An example is Odo’s love for Kira. It was a result of the emotion René put into a scene before there actually was a relationship.
And to get back to the question: the search for Odo’s identity, that is most fascinating.
Q: Were there feelings for Nana Visitor involved in the Kira/Odo scenes?
A: Nana and René are very good friends, and there was no romantic interest. When filming, everything is very technical. It was a bit weird, though… “like kissing your sister.” But they managed: “Come on, we are professionals!”
Since René’s face was covered in rubber, he didn’t feel anything. He did what he thought was right, and when the director shouted “cut!” Nana’s face was orange.
As René told this story, the audience was cracking up—and even more so when he dryly added comments about “another definition of safe sex” and “giant prophylactic” to the rubber face topic.
Q: Can you please do Odo’s “harrumph”?
A: René cannot do that without the make-up. And this is another good example for the instrument. He once did that sound, and the writers liked it, and started using it constantly. It actually was in the script later on, like a word: harrumph. René’s comment to that: “Don’t write them down!”
Odo’s voice is not René’s; it appears with the costume and make-up. And only then, when in costume and make-up, does René get that voice right.
Q: Did René like “Far Beyond the Stars”?
A: Ira Behr had asked René if he would play “a negative Odo.” René considers himself to be a character actor; he plays everything.
When Odo was cast, they were looking for someone like a young John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood. But casting directors usually invite just the opposite type, too, and thus René ended up auditioning as well. He had heard that previous actors were “not grumpy enough,” so he changed his voice into that rough one. It helped that he had worked in animated films before.
Q: What’s your favorite DS9 episode?
A: Deep Space Nine is one big story for René; there is no favorite single episode.
Q: How did you get to play in Starsky & Hutch?
A: The producers had seen René in the theatre in New York. He had parts in all the Spelling series, and for Charlie’s Angels, they wanted him to play the women’s boss. René did not accept, because he’d rather work in the theatre. In New York City he lived in the same house as Paul Michael Glaser.
Q: Why did you play the priest in the movie M*A*S*H, but not in the series?
A: M*A*S*H happened early in René’s career, and at that time he didn’t want to do TV. He wanted to play lots of different characters. The look of the priest in the movie was created by René. René always had enough money, and did a lot of theatre work, including City of Angels and Sly Fox. René started working for TV when his kids went to school.
Q: If René could meet Odo, and ask a question, what would that be?
A: “What was it like to give up your life as an individual?” Odo stopped being an individual when he entered the pool.
That was the end of the panel we attended and, accompanied by a lot of applause, DS9 music, and the famous FedCon fog, René left the stage.
Part 2 – High Noon
Less than an hour had passed after René’s panel when our little gang of Boston Legal fans and friends slipped into the Maritim’s bar. The bar itself was closed to the public at this hour, so we probably had the best location one could wish for a meeting: large comfy sofas and chairs, neat low tables, and a very quiet environment, far, far away from the usually hectic buzzing of a convention with 2,000+ attendees. Some snacks and drinks made the living room atmosphere almost perfect.
René arrived right on time, and we delved right into Boston Legal. That is, René did. As at the panel earlier that day, he just started talking.
Paul Lewiston was not originally conceived by David E. Kelley, but was brought in as an afterthought. René considers this a gift, and he is very happy he had three seasons.
They could have dropped Paul Lewiston, but James (Spader) and David felt it was important that Paul was still there. So while René just wanted Paul to sail away, they insisted he still was in an office somewhere.
At the time of FedCon, April 19th, René did not know if he would be called in to do another fourth-season episode. He so far had been in one out of five he gets paid for, but they still might ask him to be in the season final.
René was well aware that Boston Legal was a “bubble show”, that it might not be renewed (which did happen, as we know by now, for 13 more and final episodes).
Actually, he had very little hope that the show would be renewed, since the network—the real Ferengi—is interested in an age-18, middle-range audience. The typical Boston Legal audience is more intelligent, and more interested in complex shows, like you see on cable networks such as HBO or Showtime. He is convinced that the show would have been much better off on cable.
The first draft of an episode is more gritty, sharp, the language is rougher. They have to cut it, dilute it a little bit. And still, for network TV, Boston Legal takes a lot more chances than usual shows, which is good for the show in terms of the kind of audience it attracts, but it means the network will be more likely to not want to renew it. It is too risky for them, for David E. Kelley alienates not only the conservative audience but also the sponsors, people paying for the show. He goes after drug companies, the church—if the show were a hit, Kelley might get away with it, but with the show fighting for an audience, they might want to let it go.
While we talk a bit about what we, the fans present today, like about Boston Legal—that it is political, that it talks about politics, environmental issues, mixed with the craziness and resulting in “dramedy”—René tells us a bit about his political opinion. It does not come as a surprise, but I am happy to hear him voice it: he passionately supports Barack Obama.
And while on the topic of Boston Legal and politics, René gets to the closing arguments. David E. Kelley creates these extraordinary, well-written speeches, brilliantly performed by James Spader. René is full of praise for his colleague, who week after week memorizes those long speeches. And he remembers Angela Lansbury from Murder She Wrote, who also had closing arguments, and read the text from cards. He calls James Spader a very meticulous actor, and the days they shoot the speeches are usually very long, very difficult.
In one of the brilliant closing arguments Alan Shore referred to the Joseph McCarthy witch-hunt trials, terrible persecution, fear of communism. René was sitting at the kitchen table, reading the script, and wanted to read it to Judith, his wife. He was so moved by the speech that he could not finish reading it aloud, because he was touched on a very personal level:
His father had come to America as a young man, 21 years old. He became a citizen, fought in World War II, landed in Normandy, and published one of the first of the first free papers in France. The American dream was very much part of his life. That dream was destroyed when he was investigated and accused of being a communist. Things he believed in, that the country represented, had been betrayed. When René was 16, after he had grown up in the United States, his family left the country, and his father never returned.
So when René was reading, his wife said, “You have to call David.”
David E. Kelley had called him a week before, which is very unusual. You do not see him on the set, he lives in Northern California, a shy man. Many shows’ producers show up all the time, like Rick Berman (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), whom René knows very well, but not David.
René has worked on many Kelley shows, and was nominated for one of these shows, playing a judge. One of the best roles in his life was a heart surgeon with Tourette’s Syndrome on Chicago Hope. A very dramatic and beautiful role. He also was in Doogie Howser, M.D. as Albert Einstein in a photo, talking. He had worked for David, had a close relationship to him as an artist, and had had maybe ten words with him over the years.
So when DEK’s assistant was on the phone, René thought maybe he was going to be fired. But as it turned out, David called because he wanted to tell René how happy he was with the episode where Paul and his daughter meet and confront each other in Paul’s office, a very emotional scene. David had seen the dailies, he thought it was moving, and he told René that he could hardly watch it. René was very touched by that.
Thus, when he read the McCarthy speech, Judith said: “It’s your turn to call.”
René did call, had a wonderful conversation, and told David what he had just told us, about his father, who had died just a year before. He wished that his father was still alive, so he could see how television finally, publically acknowledges that era and how terrible it was. He would have been delighted.
At this point, René asked us if we had any questions—or if he had said everything already.
Well, there were a few questions…dozens, actually, but time, bugger it, was fleeting at warp-speed. Alas, we managed to get only a few answered, like:
“How much René Auberjonois is in Paul Lewiston?”
Here, I’d like to quote René, for the answer is just too sharp, too poetic to be paraphrased:
“You’re seeing me now, do you see there is a lot? As I said this morning…as an actor, this is my instrument. There will always be something, no matter…you can play the most evil, or the stupidest character, the silliest character, the most arrogant character, sweetest character—all those colors are in me, you know. As a human being, there are a lot of colors in my palette, and I chose certain ones to focus on and project, especially when you work in front of the camera as an actor. When you are on the stage…. I am preparing now to do The Imaginary Invalid by Molière, and I’m very aware that what I am going to be creating will be projected to a very large lens, which is an audience of 700 or 800 people, and so I am allowed to make larger strokes in the painting of the character. I can use bolder colors, I can work more in the commedia dell’arte form, I can dance more, I can take bigger chances.
“When you work for the camera, the lens is always right there, and it reads the subtlest variations of emotional nuance, and as an actor who was trained for the theatre, the classical theatre, and who spent the first ten years of my career doing King Lear and Molière and Chekov and every kind of role and every kind of style of theatre, when I started to act in front of the camera, I had to learn to trust the fact that the camera would see what I was trying. I didn’t have to project it, it was almost like an x-ray, and it was reading into me.
“So how much of Paul Lewiston… I don’t know.”
We also learned that, should René be called back for Boston Legal, first thing at the studio would be a haircut. He was letting his hair grow, because the director of The Imaginary Invalid would rather see René with real long hair than in a wig.
The hair is part of the transformation from René Auberjonois to Paul Lewiston. It’s neatly combed, to cover parts where the hair is thin. And the jeans will of course go to make room for the suit, tailored for him. Let’s not forget about the glasses. These were custom-made, too, an exact match of reading glasses René uses. And the pocket watch, which is a real working one.
Once on the set itself—unless you look up, and see that there’s no roof—you feel like being in a real law-firm. There’s a reception area, and business cards for Paul Lewiston and the other lawyers. It’s quite real. All of this helps to build the character of Paul, who is very reserved and withholding.
The balcony scenes are shot right off Denny’s office, as you see it in the series. However, the balcony is not in Boston. All scenes are filmed in a studio, and the background shots of Boston are photos, or exterior footage shot by a cinematographer living in Boston.
If they film outside, on rare occasions, they either go to Paramount Studios or Universal.
René cannot name “his dream part,” some role he desperately would like to play one day. He just does not work that way. The roles he likes best are the ones which scare him on first sight, the ones he has no idea about how to approach them. He has learned over the years that if he cannot recognize himself in that part, it’s usually a good idea to do it. If he reads a part and loves it, and can’t wait to play it, that’s usually a bit disappointing. If he has the part figured out, there’s no reason to do it.
At the time of our meeting, René was preparing for the Molière piece, and everybody had said “That’s a good part for you.” He himself didn’t think so:
“It’s going to be a challenge; it forces me to find things in myself I don’t know yet. The creative process is more rich, I won’t come in with preconceived ideas. It’s the adventure, the struggle to give birth to the character, that is fulfilling.”
And all of a sudden our time is up—but we manage to get “the last question” answered, which is: “Which three items would you take along if you were stranded on a deserted island?”
And after making sure that his wife is not an item, here we go:
- an Apple computer to draw art
- all the Beatles’ albums
- a book of Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings
We managed to take a couple of photos with René and the group, bestow a few presents, lots of thank yous, and then parted.
I have met René at various occasions, from a small German convention in 1995 for the first time, to American fan club luncheons, to enjoying Death of A Salesman, directed by Andrew Robinson. And I’ve always been taken by his personality, by the energy he radiates. FedCon was just the same
Thanks again for a delightful, entertaining, very informative and utterly pleasant hour in Bonn, René!
Photographs kindly provided by Thomas Brueckl