February 23, 2020

Weston latest Jewish actor to take the plunge as Houdini

The life of renowned Hungarian-Jewish magician and escapologist Harry Houdini has been portrayed onscreen by multiple Jewish actors, including Tony Curtis, Paul Michael Glaser and Adrien Brody. 

The tradition continues with Michael Weston as the showier half in the Fox series “Houdini & Doyle,” which premiered May 2 and pairs Houdini with Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle (Stephen Mangan) to help Scotland Yard solve crimes. Jewish on his father’s side, Weston is the son of actor John Rubinstein and grandson of pianist Arthur Rubinstein.

While the lighthearted series focuses on paranormal-themed cases and an argumentative relationship between the two men, who also clashed in real life, “Houdini and Doyle” makes Houdini’s Jewish heritage part of the plot. “Houdini was up against a lot of racism and anti-Semitism in his life and had to find his way through that,” Weston said in an interview. “In one episode, there’s a story where he gets into a fight when he’s confronted by anti-Semitism. He’s a very brash character, and it touches a chord in him.”

Joining the cast just a week before shooting began, Weston didn’t have much time to prepare, but he learned as much as he could about Houdini, his relationship with Doyle and the show’s turn-of-the-20th-century setting. 

“He was a Jewish immigrant who pulled himself up by the bootstraps from poverty and became this international celebrity, but he was this odd mama’s boy,” Weston said of Houdini. “There’s a madness to him, a mischief to him, and there’s this great showman persona that precedes him by a mile. But behind that is a guy with a lot of questions and a vulnerable soul. He likened Houdini’s friendship with Doyle to “a great boxing match, with someone he respects but also frustrates him. They’re friends, but it’s contentious. They don’t agree on anything. Their whole approach to life is different. But they need each other and thrive on the challenge, which is constant,” Weston said. “They’re two great minds going at figuring out a puzzle.”

Weston relished playing his first period role. “I loved every second of it. The sets were spectacular; the costumes were these wonderful, glorious clothes you couldn’t believe you got to wear. It was all so meticulously executed,” he said of the 1901 setting. “We had tailors in London [from shops that] have made the same shoes and fabrics for 300 years, weaving these waistcoats for us.”

Weston recalled riding in a carriage for a scene “where everything felt so real that you lose yourself in it. We had these moments that you so rarely get as an actor. It was magical,” he said. As for practical magic, Weston learned some tricks “on the fly. I get to do a lot. I’m very amateur at this point. There’s a guy named Danny Hart who showed me how to make a card disappear and appear again. That’s the best trick I had,” he said. “It was harder than I thought it would be to learn. It took hours.” 

Much more daunting was replicating Houdini’s daredevil escapes, “with some very helpful stuntmen,” Weston said, recalling the heart-stopper that had him shackled and suspended upside down in a water tank. 

“I was sort of cocky about it at first. I thought I could do it. I’m not claustrophobic and I’m [a] relatively good swimmer,” Weston said. “But when you’re shackled and hanging upside down in this tank with, like, four tons of water … I got so nervous that I couldn’t catch my breath. They’d plunge me in and I had to remain serene and calm. But it was terrifying. I did it for 20 seconds and Houdini did it for three minutes-plus.” 

It gave him a new appreciation of Houdini’s accomplishments. 

“He embodied the inexplicable in a way that people still can’t figure out exactly how he did things. There are a lot of question marks about the feats that he did,” Weston said. “When you can make someone feel that sense of wonder again, which I feel this show does, it makes you nostalgic for that time.”

Weston, a New York native, grew up in a non-religious home in a Jewish community on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with Jewish friends whose seders and bar mitzvahs he attended. “It’s been a big part of my life,” he said of participating in those traditions.

A graduate of the theater program at Northwestern University, his screen credits include TV shows “Six Feet Under,” “Scrubs,” “House M.D.,” “Burn Notice,” “Elementary” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” as well as the films “Garden State” and “Wish I Was Here,” both starring and directed by his friend Zach Braff.

Weston was in the midst of shooting “Houdini & Doyle” in Toronto when his wife, singer-songwriter Priscilla Ahn, was due to give birth to their first child. “I made it back to L.A. for the birth but had to go back and shoot, which was tortuous. But I’ve been home since, and it’s the greatest thing that’s happened to me,” Weston said of his son, River, now 5 months old. 

Weston is hoping “Houdini & Doyle” will catch on with audiences. 

“It has these very pertinent, modern themes that we’re dealing with that have this great historical, real backdrop to set it in,” Weston said. “But if we get a second season, I’ll be logging some serious hours at the Magic Castle.”

“Houdini & Doyle” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on Fox.