Liev Schreiber is a Tony award winner and one of America’s moat gifted actors. Displaying the kind of off-kilter charm that makes him a natural for leading roles in independent films and character parts in mainstream features, Liev Schreiber has made a name for himself on both circuits. Born October 4, 1967, in San Francisco, Schreiber was raised on New York’s Lower East Side. Although he initially wanted to become a writer, he decided to try his hand at acting, training at both London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and the Yale School of Drama.
Schreiber’s first acting job was on Broadway, where he appeared in In the Summer House. More theatre work followed and in 1994, the actor made his film debut in the Steve Martin comedy Mixed Nuts. The film was an unequivocal flop, although Schreiber’s role as a rather muscular transvestite proved to be one of the picture’s few memorable features. His next project, the 1995 Indie Denise Calls Up, fared a little better; despite almost non-existent box office, it was rewarded with critical approval. Following more minor film work, he landed the role of a British bouncer in the successful Indie flick Party Girl (1995), which also starred nascent Indie queen Parker Posey. Schreiber got an introduction to a more mainstream audience thanks to his role as killer Cotton Weary in Wes Craven’s mega-hit Scream, a role he reprised in the film’s sequel, Scream 2 (1997). The same year, Schreiber had leading roles in two more independent films, The Daytrippers (which again paired him with Posey) and Walking and Talking, as well as a secondary role in the bloated Mel Gibson thriller Ransom.
Deftly straddling the divide between Sundance and the studio, Schreiber went on to make three major mainstream pictures in 1998: Phantoms, with Rose McGowan and Ben Affleck; Twilight with Susan Sarandon, Paul Newman, and Gene Hackman; and Sphere with Samuel L. Jackson, Sharon Stone, and Dustin Hoffman. The following year, Schreiber returned to more familiar territory with his role in Tony Goldwyn’s small but successful drama A Walk on the Moon.
In 2000, Schreiber returned to the role of Cotton Weary a third time to close out the Scream franchise. It was around this time that he also began doing a considerable amount of voice-over work, mainly for PBS’s NOVA series. As the decade progressed, Schreiber continued to be a presence in bigger mainstream projects, such as the 2002 adaptation of Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears. Two years later, he could be seen in another high-profile politically-tinged thriller, this time opposite Denzel Washington in director Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate and is set to star in the remake of The Omen.
This week, his directorial debut, Everything is Illuminated, opens in limited release. This distinctly personal story tells of a young American Jewish man who goes on a quest to find the woman who saved his grandfather in a small Ukrainian town that was wiped off the map by the Nazi invasion. His guides are a cranky grandfather and his over-enthusiastic grandson, whose fractured command of English, passion for American pop culture, and inability to shut up threaten to make the worst of every situation. But what starts out as the tour from hell turns into a meaningful journey, with an unexpected series of revelations that will change all of their lives. Garth Franklin caught up with Live for this exclusive interview during the recent Toronto Film Festival.
Question: Why at this particular point did you decide that you wanted to become a filmmaker? Was the time right for you to, especially with dealing with this kind of material?
Schreiber: I think probably since the first time I sat in a movie theatre and saw a film I knew that I wanted to do whatever I could to be in that world. You know, if I had to make coffee I would make coffee and I did spend a considerable amount of time actually vacuuming commercial sets and movie set when I worked as a PA in New York after college, during college. I think that I had been dreaming about, daydreaming about the kind of film I would like to make for many years I just never really imagined that it would happen. There was a point at which I had achieved some success as an actor and I had let my management know that I was interested in making a film and there as at that point a few scripts came to me and I just…having worked on so many films and understand the process to a degree there was nothing that motivated me really enough to do. Then when my grandfather died in 1993 I started to write about him and that was the first time I think that I have felt since college, I was writing in college as well that I felt sort of content orientated in a significant way, that I felt like what I was writing was interesting and if it was interesting to me, sincerely then there was a chance that it might be interesting to somebody else. And I started to plot an idea for a film and when my grandfather died in 1993, oh I think I have said that already I am sorry. That was the beginning of seeing the ambition as a realistic one that it was something that I should stop daydreaming about and start trying to make happen.
I developed this sort of semi autobiographically screenplay about a guy who goes to Ukraine to find his heritage, cause my grandfather was a Ukrainian immigrant. Then of course when I had finished developing that script I was invited to do a short story meeting by Bill Buford who was an editor with The New Yorker at the time and he was playing the other fiction series and he had a short story by a young fiction writer named Jonathon Safran for a film called The Very Rigid Search and he matched us up because he thought I would be a good match for the story because of the content and he wanted me to do a public reading of it and I was just blown away by the parallels between our stories and realised pretty quickly that he had accomplished in 15 pages what I had been stabbing at in 107. After I got over being really jealous I called him and asked if I could meet with him and we traded stories about our grandparents and eastern European culture and the American short term memory and all sorts of stuff like and that and he agreed to let me adapt the story and told me and gave me the gallies and said it is actually a novel that I haven’t published yet. So because I had the structure worked out pretty much on my own from my own story it was a quick right and I finished it in about a month and a half and then a week after I had finished it I opened up the Sunday Times and there on the cover of a book review is Everything Is Illuminated and I realised that I was in for a ride. I hadn’t seen a book that well received in years especially by a writer so young and that was actually really intimidating because I suddenly realised that whatever I did was going to be scrutinized relative to that. But at the same time it was also what made the deal.
Question: How faithful was your adaptation, I mean was it did you strive to, where you very careful especially given your relationship with the author?
Schreiber: Yes I was, but again I was just adapting the short story and the narrative structure I had chosen given the limitations of budget and scope was really just the idea of a road trip so I have taken out a huge section of the novel which, was the parallel chronological history of Truchon Braid which spans 500 years and most of the beautiful literary pros in the book exists in the section. But I wasn’t concerned because I felt like exquisite literary pros is just that, exquisite literary pros and I felt like the active narrative element of the road trip contained elements and distillations of that other story in it.
Question: Well given your heritage how cathartic is it to make a film like this and how detached do you have to be in order to make a film like this universal, tell the story in universal terms? …
Schreiber: Once you’ve finished it I think you need to detach. But I think during the process the more intimate and the personal you can make the greater the chances are that someone else will identify with it, whether or not they do to the same degree or for the same reason they will recognise hopefully the elements that are distinctly human because of the level of sincerity and that only comes from committed yourself personally to whatever you are working on. I think but I might be proved wrong. Part of what I loved about what Jonathon did is that it is a third generation interpretation, do you know what I mean? The idea that I love because I am someone who has terrible, terrible problem with memory, a pathological problem with memory…
Question: You’re an actor and you have a problem with memory?
Schreiber: Well that is the thing, it is a sort of idiot savant thing if I can look at a page of text and I can memorise it in 5 seconds but I can’t remember where I was yesterday and I can’t remember the people that I’ve met and for years that wasn’t a problem because as an actor you know most actors have some kind of identity crisis, you get a script every three months and there you are you know who you are and you know what you are doing. But when my grandfather died I started to panic little bit that I was going to start losing things that were important, I remember looking in the mirror when I was 33 and going oh, my hair is thinning. Well you get your hair from your mothers father and I said well, was my grandfather bald when he died and I had this huge experience of terror because I couldn’t remember whether or not my grandfather had a bald spot when he died and it wasn’t cause I was just worried about my hair I was worried that I was loosing things too important to loose and that was the beginning of writing and the kind of obsessive compulsive thing of collecting mementos of places to remember places and people. So, yeah in a sense the personal things are I think the things that illuminate the most.
Question: Having made such a personal film, how hard is it for you to think about maybe directing again for I don’t know a studio or somebody else something of which you have no personal connection?
Schreiber: I am not sure yet. I don’t…frankly I don’t know how you do that, I don’t how you motivate yourself to get up at 4 in the morning and do an 18 hour day 7 days week, unless you are inspired by something other than money. Unless it is an awfully large sum of money but I certainly didn’t make that and don’t know that I ever would in this…
Question: Certainly your career as an actor has been as an actor it hasn’t been as a movie star; I mean you have never really ever sought that kind of recognition. Has that always been a conscious thing for you, for you it is about the art?
Schreiber: I believe there is an art to playing leads as well. But I think that part of me, I think that I am well suited to playing supporting characters, cause I think that it is the way that I think about acting, I think it is probably what bought me to directing is the idea of seeing the whole picture and seeing figuring out how you fit into it which, is I suppose the mentality of a supporting actor. I also think that there is something to be said for being able to fly beneath the radar enough that people believe the characters you portray, that there is a certain cost I guess of celebrity to an actor’s career. I have very little interest in playing myself.
Question: You can never play the same character more than once.
Schreiber: I just want to say that I suppose I should start playing myself soon at least in my own life but I have no interest in doing it really in film in front of people.
Question: How gratifying is for you to return to theatre?
Schreiber: Well, you know gratifying. The Tony was gratifying but you know returning to the theatre for me is a necessity, it is just a way of keeping sharp, it is a way of staying on your toes, it is a much more rigours exercise in performance then film and it is a much more fulfilling exercise.
Question: Would you direct a play?
Schreiber: I have done and I will do again. I just think that right now it has been a long year and a half and I just need a couple of months to I think to absorb.
Question: And you are also acting in other things right to?
Schreiber: Well that is the other thing, the ironic thing about doing a play and making a film. It is amazing how quickly you go broke. So there was not a lot of money involved in either and I have developed a lifestyle and built my mother house last year and renovated and now I have to go back to work.
Question: So what have you done acting wise?
Schreiber: I haven’t done anything yet. I am going to do The Painted Veil with Naomi [Watts] in China and Ed Norton for director John Curran and then I am going to do The Omen.
Schreiber: Why, because actors like these of robbing Pete to pay Paul…I am making the David Seltzer script…
Question: Are you doing the Gregory Peck role?
Question: Who is Lee Remick then?
Schreiber: Julia Stiles.
Question: So the characters are younger presumably, slightly younger and you will still be Ambassador Thorn. Does he end the same?
Schreiber: You will have to come and see it.
Question: Well, I find that fascinating. Did you rework the script, did you ask for things to make the characters more interesting.
Schreiber: Little bits and bobs little bits and bobs. It was an important to us to bring it forward and to make it contemporary and I think that John Moore the director felt that there were a lot of interesting parallels now between all of the natural disasters and catastrophes that are happening in the world these days and the kind of sequence of events that signified the coming of the anti Christ and I think he might have a point. I have good feeling about it…
Question: I am sure you will bring something very interesting to it.
Schreiber: No, no I am sure I am going to be up on the dartboard…
Question: People are going to compare it.
Schreiber: I am going to get attacked but I am used to that.
Question: But do you care?
Schreiber: Of course I care.
Schreiber: Of courses I do. But you get use to it and you realise that is your job that is how I make my living. There is a lot of worst jobs.
Question: This is true this is true.
Schreiber: To suffer the attacks of critics and film fans is marginal…is a minimal price to pay for a really…when it is good it is very good this business. When it works and when it is cathartic and when it is expressive and when it articulates something that has meaning and a sense of timelessness to it is invaluable and there is nothing I wouldn’t do to keep trying to go after that.