Saul Rubinek’s personal family history - and working with his daughter - make his work on Hunters all the more important.
It's 1977, and there are Nazis in America.
Murray and Mindy Markowitz seem like an ordinary Jewish couple, but they're also weapons and explosive experts - and concentration camp survivors - recruited to a team that hunts Nazis for revenge.
The 10-episode Amazon original series Hunters, created by David Weil, premieres February 21. Al Pacino heads the cast with Lena Olin, Logan Lerman, Carol Kane and Josh Radnor.
For Saul Rubinek, who plays Murray, it was a deeply personal role to play.
"It was really an interesting journey," he said. "My parents were Holocaust survivors, although they were not in a concentration camp. They were hidden from the Nazis by Polish farmers."
Saul was born in a refugee camp in Wolfratshausen, Bavaria, Germany, where his father ran a Yiddish Repertory Theatre company.
"When I was a kid, maybe 5 years old, I thought there was an evil king named Hitler who started a war to stop my father from doing Yiddish theater," he said with a chuckle.
He emigrated with his family to Canada, where he got his start as a child actor in Canadian theater and radio.
Saul's work as an actor spans four decades, with movie credits including Unforgiven, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and True Romance, plus regular roles on Frasier and Warehouse 13 and guest roles on Grey's Anatomy, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Blue Bloods.
With more than 150 acting credits to his name, Saul said his award-winning documentary and book So Many Miracles, which chronicles his parents' story and their reunion with the Polish farmers who saved their lives during the Holocaust, remains one of the most deeply personal things he's done.
"I was very fortunate. Because my parents were not in a camp, they were probably a little more forthcoming with their stories," he said. "The people who were in camps were a little more reticent to tell their stories. God knows what they had to do to survive. Maybe they don't want to dredge up those memories."
Now he brings that experience to the part of Markowitz.
"I was born to play it," Saul said. "It was not a difficult role to get into at all. But the part about hunting Nazis - that was more difficult to relate to."
However, Saul said, that's not the primary thrust of the series.
"Hunting and killing Nazis - that's just the headline," he explained. "Underneath that, this series is about the consequences of revenge. And whether or not you need to be evil to fight evil."
People expect a clear delineation between good guys and bad, he said, "but that starts to get questioned once you get into the issue of revenge. ... The consequences of justice are harsh."
Viewers, Saul said, will have a lot to unpack as the show delves deeply into the morality of vigilantism.
"It's an unusual series, tonally," he said. "It isn't just a one-note, thriller-like violent show. It has a great deal of weird and odd humor to it ... almost a cartoonish aspect. It's an experiment in styles that I hope will blend together in a very emotional and revealing way."
Saul paused. "There's some stuff I just can't reveal to you," he added. "They'll shoot me if I tell you."
Markowitz and his wife Mindy (Carol Kane) are the only couple in the group and they bring a sense of normalcy, Saul said.
"They bicker, as people who've been married for many years do, but they love each other," he said.
Their mission is very personal to them, he added. "The people they're going after are directly connected to their past. Murray is a warm guy, he has a great sense of humor. The same can be said of Mindy. But there's a very dark and motivated side of them that can be very surprising."
Saul's daughter, Hannah Reid Rubinek, was cast in a recurring role as Murray's daughter Amy.
"Having my actual daughter there ... it was extremely emotional," he said. "It was an extraordinary experience. ... I wish my parents were alive to see it."
Amy Markowitz is not as connected to her family history as her parents are, Hannah said. When the series begins, she's planning her wedding, and her parents "are committed to giving her the American dream life."
For Hannah, performing with her father "was an extraordinary gift of an experience. I felt so lucky, all of the emotions were right there at my fingertips. It was such a big deal to be doing that with him."
Growing up, she said, she never doubted she would also go into acting. "I was so lucky to be able to watch him at work," she said.
Hannah's connection to their family history took on a special meaning when she was 13. Her parents decided she was old enough to understand the full scope of the story, she explained -- and together they learned that her best friend at school was the great-granddaughter of an SS officer.
"We learned about our respective family's histories while sitting down, holding hands," she recalled. "Just a couple of generations later, here we are in another country, with love in our hearts for each other."
Now 28 years old, Hannah said she was able to slip into the show's 1970s mindset very easily because of the "extraordinary costume design, the production design and prop work of the team. It was incredible." To get her own groove flowing, she added, she listened to "a lot of Abba" on the set.
Costume designers even worked a Star of David that belonged to Hannah's bubbe - her grandmother - into her wardrobe.
"I'm wearing it in every scene," she said. "It's so special ... they let me wear that piece of personal history."
She also treasured having Carol Kane as her on-screen mom. Carol, she said, "is so talented and one of the most emotionally present people I've ever worked with."
"They're all so great, so talented," she said of the Hunters cast. "It's an embarrassment of riches on that show."
Saul said it was particularly fun to work with Al Pacino.
"Like everybody else, I've seen most of his movies," he said. "This was his first time doing a television series, and it was fascinating to watch him work. We were all inspired by him. ... We very quickly got over being starstruck because he put us at our ease. He was genuine, easygoing, accessible to us.
"In many ways, you could almost forget you were working with an icon."
The series concept is based on reality, Saul said. Operation Paperclip was a secret program carried out by the U.S. government in the late 1940s and '50s to recruit former Nazi scientists, primarily for work in space and aeronautics. In the fictional world of Hunters, some of those former Nazis are working to create a new Reich in America.
That doesn't sit well with Markowitz and the team, who uncover Nazi activities and mete out justice ... and exact revenge.
Saul said the show is "depressingly relevant" today, considering the "high incidence of right-wing nationalism in the world. Anti-semitism. Anti-other."
But Hunters, he stressed, "doesn't wear a political message on its sleeve. It's an entertaining show ... about hunting Nazis."
It's "an allegorical tale," he said. But, of course, Nazis will always make the very best TV and movie villains "because they're so ridiculously evil," he said.
At the same time, he said, villains shouldn't be such caricatures that they lack realism.
"What's awful is when you create monsters that aren't human," Saul said. "Then they can be dismissed. The true nature of what has happened becomes almost irrelevant. No, you have to understand what makes people this way."
It comes to light when one group of people dehumanizes another in the name of some "greater good," he said.
"It is important to have a show like this," he added. "The Nazis in this show are monsters, they are evil people, but they're people. You get to know them. That makes the drama more real."
It's "really worrying," Saul said, that there's been a recent upswing in the number of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers.
"The Holocaust is a slice of history but hatred is still unfortunately with us. The "othering" of people is everywhere," said Hannah. "The point isn't just to talk about the Holocaust, but to extrapolate. Everybody should be looking at their family's history. People will find resonance in this show. Even though it's about Nazis and takes place in the '70s, with flashbacks to the 1930s and '40s, I think it will strike a chord."
Neither father nor daughter has seen the final product yet - Hannah said she's "beyond excited" for the public unveiling - but they're both thrilled with the work they did on it.
After nearly 50 years acting, Saul said he's worked on "some really great projects. This is one that I'm truly proud to have been a part of it. I don't say that lightly. It's excruciatingly relevant. It's unexpectedly funny and entertaining."
There's no word yet from Amazon on a second season, Saul said.
For more on Hunters, click here.
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