OAKLAND -- Preparing for a role in playwright Amy Herzog's "After the Revolution" at the Aurora Theatre Company, Montclair resident Rolf Saxon is in "the delicate stage."
It's hard to believe, especially in light of his actor's robust bio and "Ben," the fiery, high school history teacher he plays in the upcoming production. Saxon is an amalgam: an American actor with a decidedly British twist. In the first class of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, an early California Shakespeare Company participant and a founding member of the Berkeley Mime Troupe, he trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London before embarking on a transcontinental career.
He once again met his partner, Robin Nasatir, in London 35 years after they had been sweethearts at Berkeley High. From the United Kingdom's Omphalos Street Theatre to the Royal Shakespeare Company to films ("Mission Impossible" and "Saving Private Ryan") to television series ("Broken Sword" and "Teletubbies") and U.S. and U.K. stages, Saxon has brought life's universal bumps, bangs and baggage to a career distinguished by raw, fearless portrayals of flawed, inherently complex characters.
Joy Carlin, the well-known Bay Area director guiding Herzog's play, calls Saxon "simply spectacular" Saxon returns the compliment, recalling the first time he met Carlin.
"I was training at ACT," he said. "She played an eccentric woman and had a monologue where she was vacuuming and talking about the mundanity of her life."
Saxon saw the play nearly 40 times and says he'll never forget how her uproariously funny speech took a hairpin turn into poignancy. A line about spoons ended with audiences either laughing or wiping away tears.
"Never be the same," he says, describing the lesson and a principle he subscribes to, even today. "You have to leave a little bit of danger."
Which is one reason why the early, "delicate" excavation of the incendiary "Ben" character (a father who is overly outspoken at PTA meetings but "too little, too late" when it comes to communicating family history with his daughter) is tantalizing and tough.
"After the Revolution" is American theater as Saxon likes it best: a straight play with expressive, raw language. A family revelation splits wide through three generations, splintering trust, respect and the thickly rendered characters' self-perception.
"This character adores his daughter, but that doesn't stop him from making a major mistake. As with any role, you take seeds of your own experience and make them bloom for a character," Saxon says.
Saxon's son, who recently graduated from Oxford, is "incredibly bright," he says. The "convoluted psychosis" of "Ben" is not relatable to his parenting experience. But he taps into the energy and gravitas of a childhood that included being 13 when his parents divorced and living first with his mother, then his father, before moving out with an older brother at the age of 18.
"I had a turbulent but not abusive upbringing," he says. "There are few parents who actually want to hurt or damage their child. Usually, it's ignorance, rage or other things a parent is going through that lead to lack of communication."
Saxon says European acting is "more wrapped up in word play" than American theater, but sees brilliance on both continents. Limited funding reduces U.S. pay scales, but intense subject matter and fiercely honest playwriting is a powerful magnet. Herzog's script, heralded by critics and awarded by the industry for its overlapping, explicitly smart language, is proving to be an attractive challenge.
"There's one scene I don't understand yet, but I'm bouncing things off the cast, and it's becoming clearer," he says. "I've been incredibly lucky, playing roles I was so scared to play I can't remember the first six shows and others that fit me like a glove."
Saxon says Carlin "took a chance on him," and he's grateful. After he's traversed the delicate, dangerous pathways of "Ben," he's looking forward to the premiere of "After Ever After," his directorial film debut; appearing in a starring role in "The Book of Daniel," a 2014 U.S. feature film; and finishing work on the "Broken Sword" video game series.
"You never get where you are going with acting. It's a constant pursuit," he says. "But the simplicity of it means all the garbage doesn't matter. When I have had that good feeling with the audience, there's nothing like it."