Meeting with Boston Legal Fan Club

FedCon XVII – April 18–20, 2008 – Bonn, Germany

Originally published in the January 2009 issue of ORACLE

As described by Walt Brecht in the October 2008 issue of ORACLE, René set aside an hour of his time during the convention in Bonn in spring 2008 for a private meeting with a group of German Boston Legal fans. As Walt described it:

“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.”

Walt made an audio recording of the meeting and, with René’s permission, sent it to me so that I could share it with the members of ORACLE. Although Walt did an excellent job in his article of summarizing the topics René talked about, I thought you might enjoy “hearing” René’s remarks in his own words.

Keep in mind that René was talking in mid-April of 2008: the fans in Germany had not yet seen season four of Boston Legal, the American presidential campaign was in full swing, and René was starting to prepare for his upcoming role in The Imaginary Invalid at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC.

The recording begins shortly after the conversation between René and the fans started.

transcribed by Marguerite Krause

René: You know… I don’t know, were any of you at the panel this morning?

Fans: (Yes, Yeah.)

René: So you know that the character, Paul Lewiston, was brought in as an afterthought and was not originally conceived…and so for me, it came out of nowhere, and it was a gift, so I was very happy to have three seasons. By the third season, it was less and less important for the character, because David Kelley, if you know his shows, his other shows that he does, he’s a very brilliant man, but he also, his mind works very fast, and he finishes with an idea and then, often, his shows go in very strange directions, become more and more crazy. And that is what happened. As the show developed, it became more and more this sort of crazy world, and I think you’ll see in the fourth season, it’s even more so, it gets even stranger. So when we had a long talk about what was going to happen to the character, and it was very kind of them, really. They could’ve just… after the third season, they lost four of the major supporting actors: Constance Zimmer… I’m sorry, I’m jet-lagged, so I’m not even remembering names of my friends, um… Mark Valley, and Julie Bowen, and myself, all were dropped from the show. I believe that, I know Mark did two episodes sort of to wrap up his character. Julie’s character, they never really, because she has a baby, she was pregnant in the third season, *really* having a baby, really pregnant, and so they sort of tied her to Mark’s character, so that they went away.

 So Paul Lewiston, it was clear in the third season, by the end of the third season, I said, “You know, there’s really no more reason for this character,” because they weren’t writing for him, so it was agreed that I would just… I sort of wanted to sail away, but James and David really felt it was important that you had the sense that Paul was still there, but he’s just in his office somewhere, because it’s a huge law firm. I only did one episode before the writer’s strike, and then the writer’s strike came. I’m not even sure how many episodes they did for the fourth season. I think it was about sixteen in all. I was supposed to do five, and in the last three episodes, when we came back from the writer’s strike, they would call and ask if I was available, and I was, and then I would get a script, and then I would go to work, and then they would call and say, “David has changed the whole script, so you’re not in it.” And then it happened again. And so then they’re getting ready to shoot the last episode and I just had an e-mail last night from my agent, saying that, at this point, Paul Lewiston is not in the episode, so it’s not likely… When I left to come here, it was possible I would have to fly right back and go to work, but now I’m not going to do that.

            For me, the good part is they pay me anyway [fans chuckle], they have to pay me. And it’s nice to have the money, and that’s very kind of them. But I would rather not do it, if there’s really no reason, if it’s just putting me in it just so that I’m in it, because they’re paying me. That wouldn’t be very interesting. So, it’s fine.

So I can’t tell you anything about the fourth season, though, I don’t know anything about what’s happened in it. I actually have not even seen it in the States, it’s been very difficult to know when the show was going to be on the air. ABC, the network that airs it, has been, has not really supported the show very well. So the show is on the air and off the air, and it’s very hard. Many of the people I talk to about it say, “Well, when is it on? It hasn’t been on. When is it going to be on?” Because I don’t watch very much television myself, I haven’t seen the show. Sometimes, the next day, someone will say, “Oh, it was on last night,” and I’ll go “I wish I’d seen it,” but I just don’t watch television very much. I read, and I do my art, so I haven’t seen it. So I can’t give you any spoilers [fans chuckle] about what happens. I know that Candice, I gather that she is not working as much in the fourth season, although she is working. You know, she lives in New York City, and so for her, it’s always been a big trip, for her to come. And she’s had some health problems. So I think that this last season they’ve tried to make it so that she comes, and they do two shows. She comes and does all her work at the end of the shooting of one show and then all her work on the next episode at the beginning of the next episode, and then she can go home for an extended period of time.

 My sense is that the show is, in the business they call it “on the bubble,” which means it’s very questionable about whether it is going to be renewed for a fifth season. I hope it is. On a personal note, I doubt I would be involved at all in that case, but I know that I’ve gotten e-mails from people on the crew, there are sites you can go on to vote to keep the show on the air. But I would not be surprised if it was not the last season, I would think it might very well be the last season. A) Because it’s the demographic of the audience is not the demographic that the networks, the real Ferengi [fans chuckle] are interested in. They’re interested in the 18-year-old, that middle range there, and that’s not the audience. It really appeals to more intelligent people, more interested in some complex… the kind of show that is usually, in our country, on cable television. The kind of a show that you would expect to see on HBO. Or Showtime. Edgier. I think the show would’ve been better off if it had always been shown there. Then they would’ve been able… I often, I would read the first draft of a script, and it was so much more gritty and sharp, poignant, the language was rougher, and everything about it was more mature and adult, and then they would then have to sort of cut it out, and dilute it a little bit.

Still, for network television, the show pushed the edges of the boundary, you know, was taking a lot more chances than network television usually is willing to do. It is good for the show, in terms of the kind of audience that was responsive, is responsive to it, but it means that I think the network will be more likely to not want to renew it because it’s too risky for them. I think they feel that David alienates not only a segment of the audience, because the neo-conservative element of the audience is very offended by David’s very progressive [fan laughs] and also the network, I think, fears that he alienates sponsors, the people who pay for the show. Because he goes after drug companies, and he goes after religious hypocrites and he really flies in the face of a lot of things that people get very uptight if you talk about those things. So I think the network would be just as happy… You know, if it were a huge hit, if it were Grey’s Anatomy or something, he could be getting away with it. But because the show tends to have to really fight for its audience, I’m afraid they will be more than likely to just let it go. They’ll go, “Whew!” And won’t have to worry about that so much.

Fan: That would be a pity, I think. It’s a very intelligent series. I also like this strange mix, it’s very good, it’s my personal opinion, regarding politics and environmental issues.

René: Absolutely.

Fan: All that I like. And on the other side, it has a certain craziness that I also like.

René: (chuckles) Yeah.

Fan: This mix, somebody called that “dramedy”, drama and comedy, is wonderful. For me, it’s the perfect series. But I understand that an American audience might be skeptical of it.

René: Well, there are millions of people who totally agree with you. But millions of people are not very many people for television. They do reach millions of people. And for that, I’m grateful. I fear… maybe I’m wrong, I hope I’m wrong, I hope that they get another season out of it, but I’m worried for them. I know they’re worried, too, because I hear from them, that they’re concerned about it.

But we’re in a very… Politically, in our country, we have spent eight years doing terrible damage throughout the world, and our stature in the world has been so badly diminished that this is just a symptom of where we are. I will be very candid with you, last night I sat with LeVar, we were talking, and I said, “I’ve been out of the country the last week or so, so I’m only getting little bits and pieces of what is happening in the political arena right now,” and I am passionately supporting Barak Obama, so, in a way, it’s almost a relief to be away from it, because it’s so ugly right now, what’s happening. LeVar was wonderfully articulate about and passionate about it, and so it was great to hear someone talking like that, because all I get are sort of bits and pieces of very negative and stupid things.

            I don’t know, I’m making a transition away from Boston Legal, but not really, because this is what David Kelley… When, I think it was in the second season, I don’t even remember the case, but, as you know, in the show, there’s always the closing argument that James Spader does. Those are always extraordinarily well written, and then quite brilliantly performed by James. I don’t know how it comes when it’s dubbed, I’m sorry. I really encourage you to try and find them in English, because his performance is really astonishing. Because to do that kind of thing on a weekly basis, on television.… We’re so used to really wonderful actors, Angela Lansbury in a show called Murder She Wrote would always have a closing argument—it was a very different kind of show—[fans laugh] but she would always have a closing argument in which she would sum up how she solved the crime. It was always a long speech, and she always read it on cards. You know, she never tried to memorize it, and she was very good at it, and that was fine. But James does not do that. He would learn these loooong speeches, page after page after page of speeches, and he’s a very meticulous actor. So the days when they would shoot those would be very long and very difficult.

But there was one particular episode in which he referred to a period in our history in America, where Joseph McCarthy, sort of like the witch trials, there was terrible persecution of people, and fear of Communism. It was a really brilliant closing argument. And I got the script before we shot it, and I was sitting at the kitchen table in our home that night, and I was reading it, and my wife was working in the kitchen, and I read her the speech, just out loud, I wasn’t acting it, I just read it to her. And I couldn’t, I was so moved by it I couldn’t even really finish it. I said to her, “You have to read it.” Because it was, to me, on a very personal level, because my father was the head of the French desk of the Voice of America when we were growing up, and was investigated by McCarthy, and was cleared. He had come to America when he was a very young man, when he was 21 years old, then became an American citizen, fought in the Second World War, he landed at Normandy and he published one of the first, I think maybe the first, free paper when they arrived on the shores of France. So he was… really, the “American dream” was very much a part of his life, and we grew up in the United States. But then, by the time I was 16, we left the country, and he never returned. It was really the destruction of the dream, the things he believed in, that our country represented that he felt had been betrayed. Even though he was not a Communist, but it was the fear and the ignorance that was rampant in the country at that time. And unfortunately, we’re back into a period like that now in our country.

When I was trying to read this speech to Judith, she said, “Well, you have to call David, and tell him.” Because, just the week before, he had called me. And David Kelley doesn’t, you don’t see him on the set. He lives in Northern California, and he does most of his writing and work on the telephone, on e-mail. He’s a very shy man. On many television shows, if you work on them, the producer shows up all the time, and he’s on the set, and talking, and you get to know them, as I did get to know Rick Berman very well. But that’s not the case with David Kelley.

I remember one day, Candice and I were shooting a scene, and we walked off the set, while they changed the angles for the camera, and we were walking off the set, going back to our dressing rooms, and she went, “Oh, shit.”

And I said, “What?”

And she said, “It’s David.” And she looked over, and David Kelley was sitting in some chairs, where the director sits.

And I said, “Are you going to go say hello?”

She said, “No!” She was like (makes nervous “oooh!” sounds). [Fans chuckle]

            I’ve worked in many David Kelley shows. On The Practice, I was nominated for an Emmy for playing a judge on one of his shows, and one of the best things I ever did in my life as an actor was on Chicago Hope, I played a heart surgeon who had Tourette’s, it was a very dramatic and beautiful role. And I was in Doogie Howser, which was one of his first shows. I played Einstein, I was a photograph on the wall who started talking. [fans chuckle] I was all made up like Einstein. So, anyway, so even though I’ve worked for David and had a very close relationship with him as an artist, I’ve maybe said 10 words to him in all that time, the many years.

So, we had shot the episode with my daughter, the first episode where we confront each other in my office, and it’s a very emotional thing. And he called, and I answered the phone, and it was his assistant, “I have David Kelley on the phone for you.” And I thought, “David Kelley’s calling? Maybe he’s calling to tell me I’m fired!” because I didn’t know why else he would call me (chuckles). And he was very genuine and very sweet, and he talked about how happy he was with that episode and the work. So I was very touched by that. He said, “I was watching the dailies yesterday”—you know, the dailies are things [fans indicate they know]— “And it was very moving, I could hardly watch them all, it was so touching to me.”

So, my wife, when I couldn’t finish reading the speech, she said, “Now it’s your turn to call David Kelley.”

So I did, and we had a wonderful conversation. I told him basically what I just told you about my father, and how I wished that my father… my father had only died the year before, and I said, I wished he had lived to see a time when, on public television, there would be an acknowledgment of that era and how terrible it was. He would’ve been quite delighted, I think, to see something like that.

So. What else can I tell you, before I allow you to ask me some questions? [fans laugh] Probably more interesting than me babbling away to you. So, do you have questions you would like to ask me about the show? Or have I said everything and there’s nothing more? [fans laugh]

Fan: How much…

René: How long did my make-up take? [fans laugh]

Fan: No, no, no. How much René Auberjonois is in Paul Lewiston?

René: Umm. Well, I don’t know, you’re seeing me now, does there seem like there’s a lot? (chuckles) There’s always… As I spoke this morning, as an actor, this is my instrument, and so there will always be something, no matter, you could play the most evil character, or the stupidest character, the silliest character, the most arrogant character, the sweetest character, all those colors are in me. But I’m, 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’re on the stage… I’m preparing now to do The Imaginary Invalid by Molière, and I’m very aware that what I’m going to be creating will be projected to a very large lens, which is an audience of 700 or 800 people, and so I’m 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 right there, and it reads the subtlest variations of emotional nuance. 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 everything, every kind of role, every kind of style of theatre, when I started to work in front of the camera I had to learn to trust the fact that the camera would see what I was… 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…? Uh… [shrugs, and fans chuckle]

When I go in, the make-up, I was joking about the make-up, but when I go in there, the first thing, I go to the make-up trailer… Right now, my hair, if I had to work, if I went back to work on Tuesday—I’d fly back on Monday, and it was possible I was going to work on Tuesday but now I’m not going to, I’m sure, and I probably won’t even be in the episode—the first thing they would do is cut my hair. That’s fine, because that’s the job. My director on the Molière play has said, “Please don’t cut your hair,” and I said to him, “Well, I can’t promise you, because I don’t know what will happen….” Because he would like me to have long hair. We won’t open the play until June, so if I don’t have to cut my hair, my hair will get quite long, and that will be good for him. I said, “Well, why can’t I wear a wig?” and he said, “I would really like it if we could have real hair, your hair.”

And so, anyway, so I would go into make-up, and they would cut my hair, and then they would style it the way he wears… Paul Lewiston’s hair is all combed very neat, and they would spray it to cover where my hair is thin. The suits were all made for me, all the three-piece suits, and everything, the glasses, and everything is all to build this character, who is sort of very reserved and held in. So… I sort of forgot what we were talking about. [Fans laugh]

Fan: So, that is the transformation from René Auberjonois to Paul…

René: Because I’m more relaxed, obviously.

Fan: (inaudible, about his jeans, Paul would never wear jeans?)

René: Absolutely. Absolutely. Anything else?

Fan: You just talked about the suit. It’s a silly question, but somebody wanted to know, do you actually wear a pocket watch, or is it just a fake?

René: No, it’s a very beautiful watch.

Fan: It’s working, it’s not just a prop?

René: Yes, it was all set, ready to go. And they were my glasses. Well, they weren’t my glasses, but they took… I don’t wear prescription glasses, I just wear magnifying glasses, but I had a pair of glasses that looked exactly like the glasses, and they took them and recreated them with the same lens, which I only use for reading. So, yeah, all that is all very much… You know, it’s amazing, when you walk on the set, which is very much like, once you walk on the sound stage, just like on Star Trek or anything, and it’s just a factory, it looks like a big, huge warehouse. But then you walk onto the set and once you walk on the set, except when you look up, there are all the lights up there, there’s no ceiling, usually, there’s catwalks, the crew is up there, lighting… but when you’re in that world, it is absolutely a law firm. If you walk to the main reception desk, there are business cards, and you take one, and it says “Paul Lewiston, Attorney” da da da. And there are stacks of business cards for all the different attorneys in the firm. So, it’s all quite real. It’s pretty amazing.

Fan: The balcony scenes? Where are they shot?

René: They’re shot right there. They’re right where they are, they’re right off of his office. But those are huge… People say, “How often…” [Someone from the convention staff comes in and interrupts, telling René that they need him soon. He asks for five more minutes, then resumes his answer.] The balcony, people say, “When do you go to Boston to shoot?” We’ve never been to Boston, never go to Boston. [fans chuckle] Those are all big photographs, huge photographs of the city, and they can move them. And they have a photographer who lives in Boston, a cinematographer, who makes commercials for an advertising agency, and he shoots exteriors for them. So every time you see the streets of Boston, different weather, whether it’s snow or rain or sunny or whatever, he keeps shooting stock footage and he delivers it to them so they always have something to cut. On the rare occasions when they actually go outside, relatively rare occasions when they go outside onto the street, or on location, they either go over to Paramount, which has an exterior, city street, or Universal Studios has an exterior city street, and they’ll go there to shoot the exteriors. Anything else? I’m sorry, I’m going to have to go.

Fan: Is there a play, book or literature, that you would like to have a part in a stage play or movie, a dream part, something that is very, very dear to you?

René: No, I don’t work that way. I like someone to say, “You should play this part,” and I look at it, and if I’m scared of it, if I think, I don’t know how I would play this part, can’t recognize myself in this part, then that’s usually, I’ve learned over the years, that’s a good idea for me to do it then. It’s when I read a part and I think, “Oh! I love this part! I can’t wait to play this part!” it’s usually a little bit disappointing. Because, in a way, I’ve already figured it out, and there’s really no reason to do it. When you think, “Why do they think I should play this part? What do they think?” It’s particularly true right now, I’m very deeply involved in preparing to do The Imaginary Invalid which, when I say to people I’m doing that, I don’t know if you know the play, but they go, “Oh, that’s a wonderful part for you!” and I go, “I don’t think so, I don’t get it!” And I’m working on it very hard. And now I’m beginning to get an inkling of it, but I know that it’s going to be difficult for me, it’s going to be a challenge, it’s going to force me to find things in myself and to figure out a way to make it work that I don’t know yet. And so that means that the creative process will be more rich, and I won’t come in with sort of preconceived ideas and it will be an adventure. And, as an artist, it’s the adventure, the struggle to give birth to the character, that is fulfilling and ultimately worth doing.

            So, why are you—quickly, because he wants me to go—why are you, you’re not Star Trek fans…

Fans: (laughing) We are!

René: Some of you are.

Fan: I grew up being a Star Trek fan.

René: So you’re getting a double whammy here. [Fans laugh] Well, good. Thank you for coming and thank you for…

Fan: One more.

René: What? Yes?

Fan: If you were stranded on an island…

René: Oh, dear.

Fan: …what three things would you take along?

René: Oh.

Fan: Your wife. [fans laugh]

René: No, things, I don’t consider her a thing. What would I take?

Fan: The most dearest thing to you.

René: Um. I would take… I would take… well, I would have to take my Apple computer with me. [fans laugh] Not so much so I could communicate with the outer world but so that I could draw and do Photoshop on it, on the computer. And I would take all the Beatles albums. And I would take a book of Leonardo Davinci’s drawings. Okay?

Fan: Thank you!

René: Thank you very much. Thanks for coming.

Fan: We have a little something for you.

René: Oh my goodness. Oh, wonderful! Okay, you want to do a quick photograph with all of us?

(The recording ends with the sounds of people moving furniture and gathering together to pose for a group photo.)

Rene at FedCon XVII in Bonn, Germany
Rene at FedCon XVII in Bonn, Germany

Photos by Nathan Parker