Northeast of the Los Angeles area, down a road past suburban homes, many with horses in corrals in the yard, the cast and crew of FX's "Sons of Anarchy" have taken over one house, its lawns, trees and gardens green and lush on this cool late-June day.
It's an odd juxtaposition to have roaring Harleys and leather-clad bikers milling about in this bucolic, homey setting. Their gruffness and gravity also contrast with the mellow, dignified presence of veteran actor Hal Holbrook.
He's doing a multiepisode arc in the drama, currently airing its third season on Tuesdays, as Nathaniel Madoc, the ailing father of Gemma Teller Morrow (Katey Sagal), wife of Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), the president of the outlaw motorcycle club (MC) that gives the show its name.
At the end of season two, Gemma's long quest to come to terms with those who raped her eventually led to her being framed for murder. With biker Tig (Kim Coates) as her escort, she's on the lam. The path has led her first to her widower father, who is suffering from Alzheimer's and is soon to be put in a care facility.
At the same time, the club is dealing with the kidnapping of Gemma's grandson, the child of club vice president Jax (Charlie Hunnam), Gemma's son by her first husband, club founder John Teller.
"They're an awful nice bunch of people," Holbrook says over lunch, "and they're playing all these tough people."
Busy with a movie role in "Into the Wild," performances of his one-man show, "Mark Twain Tonight!" and with caring for his wife, actress Dixie Carter, during her ultimately fatal battle with cancer, Holbrook took the "very unusual" step of accepting the role without having seen the show.
Series creator Kurt Sutter (also Sagal's husband) has often said that Shakespeare's "Hamlet" inspired the show, and it's something stage actor Holbrook recognized immediately.
"I like the style of the show," Holbrook says. "It's almost Shakespearean. I like the way they look, and the costumes. It's almost Romantic, with the tight pants and the bare arms and the beards. They're not regular beards. They're cut in an almost Shakespearean way, like what Tig has. I like that.
"And it's terribly profane. I had no idea it was so profane. It's too much for me. I'm fine with a little bit, but it's pretty rough."
Holbrook may find the "Sons of Anarchy" scripts unsettling, but his co-stars have found him a calming presence.
"He's just a sweet, wonderful, amazing actor," Sagal says, "and a great guy. Raise the game? I knew he would. He just brings another element to it, and we're glad he's here."
"It's not at all intimidating," Perlman says. "I had met Hal some years back, so I know what a kind man he is, very generous soul, loves life, has a genuine affection for people and a genuine curiosity for getting to know people. He's a real easy soul to be around."
Holbrook returns the compliment, with a proviso.
"I love acting anyway," he says, "and I generally love actors, if they behave OK."
For Hunnam, who was born in 1980 in Newcastle, England, Holbrook represents yet another chance to watch an experienced actor at work.
"He nails the line, just every time, every take, it seems like," Hunnam says. "I was blown away. I thought his work in 'Into the Wild' was the best acting I'd seen in the last few years. It was absolutely incredible.
"We're fortunate to have several guys who fit the (veteran actor) bill. Ron, obviously, Katey, too, but Mark Boone Jr. (who plays Bobby), he's done 100 films. And there's William Lucking (who plays Piney)."
Coates, who has performed the Bard live at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, is paying close attention to what Holbrook is doing.
"He's so real," he says. "Every time's different and emotional. It's great. I always go to school. I'm always learning."
That emotion is necessary, since Nate represents one of the soft spots in Gemma's often-stony heart.
"Her major trouble was with her mother," Holbrook says. "Her father's always been a milder-mannered man. Probably the mother was so powerful and strong that he was more like a peacemaker and a sympathetic character to her.
"She's always had an affection for him, and I think it was probably returned. It's a very interesting relationship."
"It's such a lovely connection I've felt with him," Sagal says. "We get to see a warm spot in Gemma around her daddy."
But that warmth doesn't mean Nate approved of Gemma running off and taking up with bikers (and if a scene that is being shot on this day is to be believed, he hasn't changed his opinion).
"No," Holbrook says. "Why would he? I wouldn't have approved, either."
Hal Holbrook goes from Twain to profane in 'Sons of Anarchy'
Hal Holbrook stars in "Sons of Anarchy" Tuesday on FX.
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