By Brian Robin
Leaping Into Her Father’s Advice
There are two lessons Tessa Auberjonois took from her late father, Rene. Two lessons she’s burrowed deep into her award-winning acting DNA that helped establish her as one of the leading stage actors in Southern California.
“There were two things he used to say a lot. One thing, which I really, really love is acting does not have to be real. It doesn’t have to be natural. But it does have to be truthful,” she said. “… If we’re not telling the truth, if there isn’t truth in it, if we’re not asking all the questions we have: why do I cross the stage here? Why do I shout at this person? What is it for me that impels me to make that choice? Those questions may not be natural, but I have to know what the truth of it is. It might not always feel comfortable, but in my gut, it feels a lot more comfortable if we’re telling it in a truthful manner.
“Second, he loved his phrase—‘Leap empty-handed into the void.’ He used to send me an opening-night card that was a picture of someone leaping or jumping: an animal or a dancer. And he’d always write ‘Leap.’ The meaning of it is, at a certain point, you have to let go of the control. You have to trust you did your work and when you start a scene, whatever happens, happens, and you have to take it as it goes.”
With Voices of America, Auberjonois took her father’s second nugget of advice and ran with it, leaping head-first into the roles of Birdie Hubbard in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes and Rachael Kramer-Lafayette in Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.
They are two diverse characters stretching Auberjonois’ considerable acting abilities in multiple directions, demanding she shift gears and alter her motivation nightly. As Birdie, Auberjonois is—by her own words—"a Southern aristocrat who is a broken, abused alcoholic.” She’s a beaten-down, submissive product of her world—with all the misogyny and racism that permeated that world. As Rachael, she is a volatile combination of family outsider, protective mother and uncompromising Type A. She is a ticking time-bomb, waiting for just the right provocation and moment to go off.
To get this dichotomy down, Auberjonois first dialed into getting Birdie airborne, since for several reasons we’ll get to momentarily, that character was more difficult for her to grasp. When she first read the script and in early rehearsals, Auberjonois said her portrayal didn’t make sense and she returned to one of her acting truisms that “thinking you know all the answers is a dangerous thing.” She sent an email to director Lisa Peterson, saying she wanted to shift the character.
Her frame of reference for this was familiar to anyone who has seen Gone With the Wind. Auberjonois said she was playing Birdie more like Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara. She needed to play her more like Olivia de Havilland’s Melanie Hamilton.
Chalk one up for Rene Auberjonois’ first acting lesson to his talented daughter: be truthful to your role.
“When I started researching Birdie, I often thought back to Nina in The Seagull. When I played Nina, I had a conversation with Blythe Danner, a longtime family friend, who played Nina,” she said. “She told me you have to be willing to make a complete fool of yourself. There’s a scene in The Seagull where Nina walks in and has a breakdown on the stage. It’s a very challenging scene for any actress.
“It does take a certain degree and willingness to be completely in a desperate situation, where you’re faced with really big choices and I have found Birdie to be very similar. I do think back to that playing Birdie, but I actually relate to Rachael a lot more. I was raised Jewish and have two children and I see her as a Mama Bear and Yankee in this Southern goyisha world.”
Auberjonois’ versatility and nascent talent are no strangers to SCR. The Little Foxes and Appropriate are her 10th and 11th trips to SCR’s stages, dating to her 2000 debut in Everett Beekin and leading to her role as Robyn in the 2017 production of The Roommate, which won her a Best Actress Award from OC Weekly. This doesn’t count numerous readings, such as her standout NewSCRipts reading of Joan by Daniel Goldstein last fall, where Auberjonois played the comedic icon Joan Rivers. She worked with SCR Artistic Director David Ivers at Utah Shakespeare Festival, where Ivers directed her in Twelfth Night and How to Fight Loneliness.
That experience prepared Auberjonois somewhat for Voices of America’s repertory demands, starting with the shortened rehearsal time for both productions. She said the directorial skill of Peterson and Delicia Turner Sonnenberg (Appropriate) made the character changes “much easier than one would think from the outside.”
Regardless, the demands of playing two characters eight times a week do take their toll. There’s both the condensed rehearsal time frame to prepare and the demands both roles put on an actor’s voice and physical constitution.
Then, there’s the emotionally challenging, take-no-prisoners material in both plays. Neither Hellman 80 years ago, nor Jacobs-Jenkins in 2014 pulled any punches with their treatment of third-rail subjects like racism, greed, class struggles, women’s roles in society or the oft-awkward grasps at the American dream. When you’re immersed in this for eight to 10 hours a day, it does take an emotional toll.
“There’s definitely a socio-political component to these pieces that we’re even more aware of, because we’re doing them together—which is kind of the point,” Auberjonois said. “Also, there’s a lot of deep emotion for everyone involved, deep emotion you have to dive into. But part of our work is you have to dive into it in a responsible way. You have to be sure everyone’s safe and taken care of.”
It was almost predetermined that Auberjonois would find herself leaping into these roles. Her father, Rene, was a longtime Hollywood mainstay, best known for playing Clayton Endicott III on the long-running sitcom “Benson,” and Odo on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” among his more than 200 credits on stage and screen. Rene Auberjonois won the 1970 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Sebastian Baye in the Andre Previn-Alan Jay Lerner musical Coco. He later earned three more Tony nominations.
Auberjonois’ mother, Judith, is an accomplished theatrical producer and writer whose stage credits include Broadway performances in A Cry of Players and King Lear. Her brother, Remy, is probably best known for his recurring role as Mr. Albin in “Weeds” and Dr. Emerson in “Mad Men.”
Her grandfather was Fernand Auberjonois, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated Swiss journalist and author. And her great-grandfather was Swiss post-Impressionist painter Rene Auberjonois, who her father was named after.
So when did she know this was her life?
“I’m sort of fascinated by that question,” she said. “At a certain point, I knew this was going to be my life. I have continued to ask myself this over the course of my life. … It is a family business for me and acting was always valued in our family. I’m an actor, my brother’s an actor, both our partners are actors, my mom was trained as an actor. It was always what was around.
“I do feel like there were moments in my life where I confronted the question: ‘Do I want to keep doing this?’ As I’ve gotten older, I feel like I have specifically chosen to do it more than when I made the initial choice to do it. It doesn’t get any easier. But I love that I get to play roles like this. The last few years, the roles I’ve played have been so wonderful and I feel very grateful that I get to do this and get the opportunity to develop my craft. I feel a confidence in what I do and an understanding that’s different from how I felt the first 10-15 years I was doing it.”