The Actor’s Metamorphosis

The interview “The Actor’s Metamorphosis” was featured in the March 27, 1989 edition of Theater Week magazine. Through the years, René has given so many interviews, one might think, “This could be a bit repetitive”, but it never is! He always changes it up, keeps it fresh and edgy. And René rarely gives an interview without speaking of his love and respect for Judith (this interview is no exception).

—submitted by Leta Learn, originally published in the ORACLE newsletter

The Actor’s Metamorphosis

René Auberjonois’s wide-ranging career has led through stage, television, and film—and now to Metamorphosis

by Gerard Raymond

“I’ve always loved caricature, not in the derogatory sense of the word but in its purest sense, which means distilling the essence of a personality,” says René Auberjonois. He currently plays Mr. Samsa, whose son Gregor (played by Mikhail Baryshnikov) wakes up one morning to discover he has turned into a dung beetle, in Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Auberjonois’s role—part narrator, part tyrannical father, sometimes realistic, often stylized—is the latest in an extraordinary gallery of eccentric characters that makes up his acting career.

“I think we tend to get a little bogged down with feeling that something has to be ‘real’,” explains Auberjonois. “I don’t know what real is. If it’s the kind of real that I think most people imagine, then you don’t need to go to the theater—you can get that at home. I feel more comfortable with the word ‘true’. You can take audiences to outrageous places as long as they recognize that their roots are in the truth. They are comfortable with that. It’s like a kite; you can get the kite as high as you want, as long as the string is grounded. If the audience senses that it is still holding the string and it has a visceral connection, you can go anywhere.”

Auberjonois describes his role as Mr. Samsa in Metamorphosis as “incredibly challenging, both physically and vocally.” It marks the first time he’s worked with director Steven Berkoff: “I’ve known him and admired him as an actor and as a theater artist. He has his own very particular vision of the theater. When I read the script, my initial reaction was, why does he want me to play this? The character is really older and bigger than I am. But on contemplating it, I realized that—and this is patting myself on the back, perhaps—I am the kind of actor that Steven likes to work with: actors who are comfortable making large physical choices, maybe going too far and who can then be pulled back.”

It was, perhaps, because of this capacity to go all the way in his acting that Auberjonois became part of filmmaker Robert Altman’s stock company in the early 1970s. In Brewster McCloud, Auberjonois played an ornithologist who gives an extended lecture on the feeding and mating habits of different avian species through the course of the film. He played Father Mulcahy (a/k/a Dago Red) in M*A*S*H and a seedy saloon-keeper in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. “I love it that people still connect me with Robert Altman’s work,” he says, diffidently. “The fact is that the last film I made for Altman, Images, was 17 years ago.” Although he is only 48 now, Altman then cast him in roles calling for older men: “I am now probably the age that I looked in those films. Sometimes I think I’m like Margaret Hamilton. She played the witch in The Wizard of Oz when she was very young and spent her entire life growing to the age that people imagined she was back then!”

Does the consistent eccentricity of the parts he’s offered bother him? “If I’m typecast as larger than life characters, that’s fine. There is a certain segment of the industry that would typecast me as effete, officious, aristocratic, or possibly-gay-possibly-not-gay characters. That also has never bothered me. I don’t mean to protest too much, but I’m a monogamous heterosexual male who has been married for 25 years and has two children.

“My feeling about typecasting is that we are in a marketplace. You may have a lot of different things to sell, but if you have apples among them, and apples are what they want in the marketplace, don’t bother to come if you aren’t willing to sell them. I am happy when someone is interested in buying other aspects of things that I can do. I think this particular role in Metamorphosis is very different in that sense.”

Indeed, this current role will come as a surprise to those audiences in New York who have come to regard Auberjonois as primarily a musical comedy actor. He won a Tony Award in 1970 for his role as Katharine Hepburn’s nemesis, a flamboyant dress designer, in Coco and a Drama Desk Award and Tony nomination for his role as a con man (teamed with Bob Gunton) in Big River in 1985. He also played the lead in Tricks, the short-lived musical version of Moliére’s Scapin. “It’s funny,” he remarks, “because outside of New York no one will ever think of me as a musical comedy actor. In the regional repertory theater scene—what I call the real theater—I have done everything from King Lear to Richard III. I have done as much Shakespeare as most American actors hope to do.”

Auberjonois played two seasons with the Lincoln Center Repertory Theater (notably as the Fool opposite Lee J. Cobb’s King Lear in 1968), Brutus in Julius Caesar at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Edgar to James Earl Jones’s Lear at the New York Shakespeare Festival. But his reputation as a classical actor was established at Washington’s Arena Stage, where he began his career after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University. He then worked with San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT), of which he is a founding member. The title role in Moliére’s Tartuffe was a highlight of his stay with ACT. He is also a founder-member of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where his 1984 Richard III was extremely well-received. This was the role that first brought him to the attention of director Steven Berkoff.

“In Hollywood,” Auberjonois points out, “they think of me as a television actor.” In fact, from 1980-86 he played Clayton, chief of staff to James Noble’s none-too-bright governor in the long-running series Benson (which spun off Robert Guillaume’s character from an earlier series, Soap). “Benson came along at a perfect time in my personal life. By 1980, my children were at an age when we really couldn’t move around as much and so, for six years, it gave us a solid base and gave me a schedule which most actors dream they want. I don’t know if I really do want that all the time, but I did want it from the time my son was six until he was 12.”

Benson was in production for only six months each year, which gave Auberjonois time to work extensively in West Coast repertory theater. Still, he missed working in New York, especially for the New York Shakespeare Festival: “It’s very hard to work for a limited amount of money when you have to come all the way across the country and set up housekeeping. Your phone calls back home to your family eat up the entire salary!” Nevertheless, he admits, “The lazy part of me likes film and television, but the artist in me knows that working on the stage is really where I belong, ultimately. If I had to choose I would choose the stage. It’s harder work, though.”

On stage, particularly on Broadway, Auberjonois has had his share of flops. His Broadway debut was in John Roc’s allegorical Fire!, which lasted five days in 1968. “Of all the shows I have done on Broadway, it’s sort of half and half—they either run, or they run a week. Only one, Ira Levin’s Break a Leg [Ira Levin’s turn of the century Middle European show business farce] with Julie Harris and Jack Weston, lasted one night at the Palace. It had a fabulously funny first act and a troubled second act. It was a classic Broadway disaster. The others that didn’t run, like Tricks and Fire!, weren’t disasters; they were kind of noble failures.”

While most actors would find this insecurity devastating, Auberjonois remains pragmatic: “By the time I had done my first Broadway show, I had been in repertory theater for many years. When you do a show on Broadway you always have a long preview period anyway, so for me that’s the run of the show. I must admit that I find it hard to play in a show for a very long time. There is a certain point of diminishing return, where you are no longer able to grow without breaking the structure that you worked on in rehearsal—which, of course, you can’t do. At a certain point, I find that you cease to create and start recreating. I find that probably four months is enough. I did Tartuffe at ACT over a three-year period but it was in repertory—we brought it in and out. But doing the same play every night, eight performances a week—it is pretty tough to keep it alive.”

Auberjonois’s pet project is one that was started by his wife, Judith, two years ago: L.A. Classic Theater. An actor’s company which currently consists of 48 high-profile names—Richard Dreyfuss, Amy Irving, John Lithgow, Julie Harris, Stacey Keach, Ed Asner, among others—it was formed in order to give classically trained Los Angeles actors a chance to work on the great plays. Following a suggestion by Dreyfuss, they began working for radio, in the manner of Orson Welles’s famed Mercury Theater Players. So far, the company has produced an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt for National Public Radio, and Eric Bentley’s transcription of the HUAC-Hollywood Ten hearings, Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been, and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible for the BBC. “We have not performed anything on the stage yet,” says Auberjonois.” But that is very much part of what we want to do. We have all these amazing people thanks to my wife, who is this amazing force who just keeps going in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.”

Auberjonois has recently completed two movies. One is Gore Vidal’s The Kid, a television film which will premiere on Turner Network Television in May. Scripted by Vidal, the story is based on the life of the legendary Billy the Kid (played by Val Kilmer). Auberjonois plays a character simply known as the Drunk. “A wonderful, wonderful character,” he enthuses, “a seedy Eastern poetic man on the downside—a very satisfying role to play. He’s a man who romanticizes and idolizes Billy the Kid and then, in the classic Judas sense, turns him in for the reward at the end.” Next comes The Feud, a wacky and satirical look at American life in the 1950s, scheduled for theatrical release in the spring. “I have high hopes for this small independent film,” he says. “It’s based on a book by Thomas Berger [author of Little Big Man and Neighbors] to which Robert Altman had the rights for a number of years. It’s a black comedy and it’s a very different character for me.”

In the meantime, what will Auberjonois do after Metamorphosis? “I wait for someone to say—like Steven did—‘You should play this part.’ And the minute I question why I should play a part, I tend to say, ‘That’s a good idea; we should do it.’ Whenever I look at a part and I think, I must play this part, it tends to be not what I hoped. When you can’t quite figure out why someone wants you to play a role, it’s usually worth doing because you learn a lot about yourself as you do it and it really does open you up.”