Walking a Tightrope: Interview with Warehouse 13's Saul Rubinek

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Saul Rubinek as Warehouse 13's Artie Nielsen

As the special agent in charge at Warehouse 13, Artie Nielsen has seen more than one fellow Warehouse agent put his or her life on the line in pursuit of their job to bag and tag Artifacts deemed dangerous to the general public and place them in safe storage at the Warehouse.

In Warehouse 13’s penultimate third season episode, "Emily Lake," Steve Jinks, a relatively new agent, was murdered in cold blood while working undercover and trying to stop a plan that a disgruntled Walter Sykes had to destroy the Warehouse. For actor Saul Rubinek, who plays Artie in the hit Syfy series, seeing the finished episode and the one that followed, season three’s finale "Stand," is even more memorable than his actual involvement filming both stories.

“My family and I watch the show together, and they don’t like to know what’s happening ahead of time,” says Rubinek, who has finished shooting for the day but has very kindly stayed behind at Warehouse 13’s Toronto studios to chat. “Having said that, my son Sam and my daughter Hanna were here last year apprenticing on the show, so they more or less knew what was going on story-wise, but my wife didn’t. And I have to say that I was really moved by the death of Steve Jinks [Aaron Ashmore] and the reaction of all the other characters to that.

“What I remember most, though, is the lead-up to that and what they [the show’s producers and writers] were planning. Early last season, [executive producer] Jack Kenny said to me, ‘Look, I know that your character’s relationship for two seasons has been very close with Claudia [Allison Scagliotti], but I’m going to remove Artie a bit in order to establish a relationship and a bond between Steve and Claudia that’s going to be important for Artie to see. Aside from it being natural for the two youngest agents to get along, I’m also doing this because I’m going to turn Steve into a double agent. It will look like he’s a turncoat and then I’m going to kill him, which is going to have a deep impact on everyone, but we’re going to bring the character back next season.’

“Well, that paid off in a very powerful and emotional way for the audience, including myself,” continues the actor. “That reaction carries through to this [fourth] season and what Claudia does to bring Steve back, including the consequences for doing so. There are always consequences to using an Artifact. It’s similar to the consequences with the ancient myth of the genie in the bottle. I know that they don’t show this in the cartoon versions for kids, but I think in the ancient myth of the genie, each time you ask for a wish, the genie has the chance to kill you or try to put you in the bottle in place of him.

“So there are consequences to your actions and what you want, and it’s like that with Artifacts. There’s nothing that’s really free or without some weight, and that makes for incredibly fertile storytelling grounds for this show. Of course, a huge part of Warehouse 13’s success is our unsung hero. We’ve all praised the secret weapon we have on the show, which is Jack Kenny. It’s an extraordinary secret weapon to have a show runner who not only used to be an actor as well as make four-camera sitcoms and one-hour dramas of his own, but who is also always on the studio floor with us. That’s almost unheard of.

“We all have actor friends who have done different shows and they’re incredibly envious of that. They ask me, ‘How does it work?’ and I tell them that it works better than anything I’ve ever done, except for the theatre or, obviously, a feature film where the director and/or writer is powerful and things are changing in the moment because they’re organic and collaborative. Yes, it’s a little dangerous for everyone because sometimes an actor asks for changes in the script that have to do more with ego than truth.

“It’s much better, though, to risk that type of danger and on the good side of that are spontaneous, well-written moments that Jack gets to see, as you saw today, right there on set. Today, it was a matter of me saying, ‘Oh, good, good, bad, bad,’ rather than, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no,’ which was written in the script. Something like that happens because Jack is right there, and because of the performer in him, he gets to play all the roles when it comes to making this show. His joy in doing that is evident to us and we’re able to take from that and try to embellish on it.

“Our other secret weapon on Warehouse 13 is one that isn’t talked about much, except maybe in passing, and after all these years in the business I feel I have some perspective or at least get to say this with some authority, and that is we have an art department under [production designer] Franco De Cotis that is second to none of any art department doing anything anywhere on television. In terms of television, this is feature film-quality stuff. This art department as well as production design and set dec have taken what is, again, already fertile ground and enhanced it to the point where the audience really believes that they’re in this world, and we do, too.”

During the last few seconds of the aforementioned season three finale "Stand," the Warehouse is destroyed, but thanks to an unselfish act on the part of H.G. Wells (Jaime Murray), our heroes survive unscathed. In the fourth season opener, "A New Hope," Artie decides to use an Artifact to set this and other events right, but as Rubinek has pointed out, his character’s choice is not without lasting consequences for him as well as those closest to him.

“There are tremendous consequences that are going to happen this season for all the characters,” notes the actor. “I can’t go into many details, but if you’ve seen the season opener you know what Artifact was used to revive the Warehouse, and the consequences are profound, and they will be profound enough to affect the entire future of the series. Not just the season, not three episodes, but the entire future of the series will be affected. As a result, all the characters will be changed deeply by dealing with destruction and death.

“So there’s a dark part of the show this year, and I would also say that this season we’re a little less standalone than in prior ones. There is more of a serialization. In other words because of the through-line or arc of what happens, it’ll be a bit harder, I think, for people to tune in during the middle of the season than it was in any other year. You really have to watch it from beginning to end, more than any other season, to see and fully understand what’s going on.”

When it comes to the season four Warehouse 13 episodes shot so far [mid-May] has Rubinek discovered any new acting challenges with his character and/or the show’s overall story arc?

“Ever since I was a young actor I’ve used this term, which I heard from somebody who did a lot of TV series work,” he recalls, “and he told me, ‘Be careful of seriesitis.' When I asked him what that was, he said, ‘It’s a slope that actors slip down.’

“What that means is that after a while you want your crew to go home on time, you want to be efficient, you want to stay in a good mood, you want to be friendly, you want to know your lines, etc. In doing all those things and satisfying everyone, including the network, the studio and even maybe the fans, you might be making constantly safe [acting] choices.

“I’ve had jobs where I’ve seen a guest star who’s famous for having done a TV series for a number of years come on a new show — not on ours yet, thank God — or I’ve gone on a show as a guest and seen an actor, not necessarily the lead, but someone who has been doing this for a long time and is very competent, be boring as hell and they don’t realize it any more. What they’re doing is getting the crew home early. They’re making safe choices that aren’t going to cause any problems or friction between themselves and the network. Those choices are glib, quick, easy, and they’re all surface. There’s nothing being mined acting-wise any more. It’s a job and they’ve slipped down that slope gradually.

“For me, as an actor going into the fourth season of a TV show, I’m looking for challenges. I come up with things to challenge myself. I would rather be bad, frankly, than competent. I think that I have to take risks. As a result I might be bad, but if I weren’t taking any risks, you’d never see me be bad, you know? You’d just go, ‘Oh, that was fine,’ but you could also watch me or a commercial or go to your fridge. It wouldn’t make a lot of difference as long as you got the info.

“This show, in particular, is a tightrope walk between comedy and drama, not from episode to episode or scene to scene, but from moment to moment. So we’re constantly jumping from comedy to drama, and that’s someplace where I’m looking to challenge myself. I know Jack is looking for that, and I find that really helpful. Again, having been an actor, he understands our process and is very sensitive if you say, ‘This isn’t working for me.’ Jack won’t say, ‘Why not? It works on the page.’ Instead he’ll ask you, ‘What’s the problem? We’ll try to fix it for you.’ If you’re in an environment where nobody lets you take chances, then it’s very difficult. We’re incredibly fortunate, though, that we’re able to fall flat on our faces every day, and we’re working in an atmosphere where that’s not only allowed, but encouraged by our show runner.”

Most successful TV shows grow and develop over time, Warehouse 13 being no exception, and over the past four seasons Rubinek has had a front row set to this show’s evolution.

When we shot our first season it was on instinct,” says the actor.  “We didn’t know how audiences were going to react. Our show was launched at the same time as The Sci Fi Channel changed its name to Syfy. They wanted women to tune into the network, and to try to make that happen, the network launched its name change and re-branding with our show - a fantasy/adventure that was humorous and a little bit more humorous, like a success they already had in Eureka - as opposed to a traditional hardcore sci-fi show, and it paid off for everyone.

“So once we launched to the biggest [ratings] numbers in Syfy’s history, imagine what it was like to come back for a second season. We were now a hit TV show, and what we wanted to do in our second year was keep the bar high. One way to achieve that was with great guest stars, hence the arrival of Rene Auberjonois and other high-level actors that came onto Warehouse 13. Also, Jack Kenny kept the stakes high in all the scripts. When season three came around, our ratings went up and we were holding on to our audience. The show was starting to get noticed and on a different level. Outlets like The New Yorker were writing about us and more and more fans were tuning in. When I visited other countries, people there recognized me as Artie from Warehouse 13 as opposed to other roles I’d played.

“A third season is perhaps one of the toughest seasons that a hit show has to do, because now you don’t want to run on empty, you don’t want to be smug and you don’t want to rest on your laurels. The writing has to challenge itself in a different way than it did in season two where you’re just trying to say, ‘Okay, we’re a hit show.’ In a second season, you’re able to ride on that gas. In season three you’ve ridden on that gas, but you don’t want to change the car for the sake of it. What you really want to do is make sure that you’re keeping it in tune. Again, you want to make sure that you’re challenging yourself in a good way, and that’s what Jack and his team did. That’s what the best of our directors did. That’s what we did with each other.

“Coming into a fourth season, we’re wondering how long are we going to last, frankly. Everybody is thinking, ‘Jeez, I hope this show runs for 15 years.’ The network is bringing other shows on the air, and that’s great. We want more hits on our network. We’re glad more people are coming to the network because of us, and that Syfy is expanding its viewership as well as demographic. I’m proud going into a fourth season that we have managed to remain a hit show and the number one show, which is unusual. New series come along and take over. It’s the natural order of things, and I’m sure that will ultimately happen with us. However, for right now, we’re thrilled to be a TV show that people are watching as a family.”

Along with his work on Warehouse 13, the actor has been equally busy behind the cameras on a variety of other projects.

“I wrote a play called Terrible Advice that was directed by Frank Oz and starred Scott Bakula along with three wonderful British actors — Caroline Quentin, Andy Nyman, and Sharon Horgan,” says Rubinek. “It’s a four-character comedy that ran in 2011 at the Chocolate Factory in London. The play received some wonderful reviews and was sold out. We’re now trying to bring it to North America, and hopefully that will happen in the next couple of years. It was the first time I had written a play on my own. I’ve done it collaboratively with an ensemble before, but I was never the playwright before. It was incredibly nerve-wracking but very exciting.

“My wife Elinor Reid and I have written a pilot of Terrible Advice that we’re hoping will eventually be made if the play is successful enough. I’ve also written another screenplay that we’re now hoping will get the right cast. My wife will be producing it and I’ll be directing it. She’s been a producer for many years and, in fact, produced two of the four films that I’ve directed [Jerry and Tom and Cruel But Necessary].

“So that’s what I’ve been up to. Funny enough, before Warehouse 13 came along I wasn’t expecting to land a role like this on a TV series. It wasn’t where my life was going. It was headed towards writing as well as directing and I was still planning to act because I love it. So I just wasn’t expecting this opportunity to come along in my 60s, but it’s great and I’m having the time of my life,” says the actor with a smile.

Please note, all Warehouse 13 photos courtesy/copyright of Syfy.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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