Like many film actors, Liev Schreiber has spent as much time onstage as onscreen: Raised by his mother in poverty in New York, he attended Yale's School Of Drama and London's Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art, launching a Shakespeare-heavy theatre career before he ever made a film. His breakout year was 1996, when he appeared in Ransom, Walking And Talking, The Daytrippers, Big Night, and Scream; the latter gave him a signature character. He's returned to that role in two subsequent Scream films over the past decade, while bouncing between Broadway, New York Shakespeare In The Park productions, small successes like A Walk On The Moon, and big-budget flops like Sphere and Kate & Leopold.
Some of Schreiber's most memorable projects include 1999's RKO 281 (in which he starred as a young Orson Welles), 2002's controversial Neil LaBute play The Mercy Seat (in which he starred opposite Sigourney Weaver as a man exploiting the Sept. 11 attacks for selfish ends), and 2004's The Manchurian Candidate, a film remake of the 1962 classic. Most recently, Schreiber has been starring with Alan Alda, Tom Wopat, and Jeffrey Tambor in a Broadway revival of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross; Schreiber won 2005's Best Performance Tony Award for his portrayal of hard-hitting salesman Ricky Roma, a character originated by Joe Mantegna on Broadway and codified by Al Pacino in a 1992 film version. Schreiber also recently scripted and directed his first film, Everything Is Illuminated, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. With the New York production of Glengarry approaching the August 28 end to its acclaimed run, and Everything Is Illuminated set for September release, The A.V. Club sat down with Schreiber in his Glengarry dressing room to discuss his stage career, his screen career, his directorial debut, and his tendency to overthink.
The A.V. Club: How does a play with a cast like this come together?
Liev Schreiber: They came to me while I was in Prague working on Everything Is Illuminated. And they told me that Joe Mantello was directing Glengarry Glen Ross, and they wondered if I was interested in playing Roma. And I never ever imagined in my wildest fantasies of my career that I would be asked to play Ricky Roma. It just didn't seem like I was right for the role, in my own mind. But I love the play so much, and I love the role—I said yes immediately. Of course, I assumed I would be done with Everything Is Illuminated long before this would start, but it didn't work out that way.
AVC: What's it like taking on a role that's been tackled before by so many acclaimed actors?
LS: Well, it kind of occurred to me afterward that I was intimidated, I guess, for a while. I was pretty much in awe of Joe Mantegna—this is one of the first plays I ever saw, and I just thought he was so fantastic. About the third or fourth week of rehearsal, I just kept going back to the script, and the more and more I read it, the more and more I thought, "Yeah, this is a really good part, and I'm going to take it." Not to take anything away from Joe Mantegna or Al Pacino, but this is just a spectacular piece of writing.
AVC: If you're taking on a stage or film role that someone else originated, do you look at their renditions?
LS: I always do. I always do. Someone very smart once said to me, "Steal, don't borrow." So if there's anything good in anything anyone else does, it's fair game. I think that everything I've ever done at some point is part of someone else's legacy.
AVC: What about when you're doing Shakespeare?
LS: I look at as many [versions] as I can. I just think that it helps to be able to understand the role, and to see it interpreted, and to see the range of interpretations, and let those bounce around inside your head while you're working. You hear different things from different people, and they're all valid, they're all valuable. I think that's what comprises a performance, is all those ideas. It's impossible, I think—I really do think that if you're doing your job right, you're never gonna be what the other guy was, but you can be influenced by his intelligence and his choices. It's insane not to know everything that's out there. I guess some people are affected negatively by seeing someone else do it, but I've always been sort of… Particularly with the plays I choose, they're good parts, and they're parts that have been around long before a bad actor played them, and will be around long after I play them. Part of what I enjoy about the theatre and acting is that sense of history.
AVC: Is there ever a sense of competition with someone who had a role before you?
LS: No. I don't think—I come nowhere near any of their performances, as much as I've stolen or borrowed. I don't think that in any way I could ever approach what they're doing. It's just the simple fact of being a different person that helps with that. I don't feel there's competition there. I guess that's easy for me to say, because Joe Mantegna won the Tony [for originating the Ricky Roma role]—maybe if I hadn't won the Tony, I'd be competitive. I don't think so. I've never felt that way before. During Manchurian Candidate—that role originated with Laurence Harvey, and I studied everything he did. I would never be able to reproduce that performance, but I got a lot of ideas from watching it.
AVC: What specific things did you take from the 1962 film?
LS: Manchurian? I think the thing I was most influenced by was when he walks into the lake. There's that wonderful moment where he's sitting in the coffee shop, and some guy accidentally triggers him. He says something like, "Oh, go jump in a lake," and Harvey goes and jumps in a lake. And I thought that the way he played it was just so… precise. In a funny way, he never lost his vulnerability as a character. The look on his face was troubled, but at the same time, he was heading right for the lake, and he was going to get into the water. And there was something very sad about that, that locked inside this man was somebody who didn't want to be the way he was, but had to do what he was told. A child.
It's so compelling, because the idea of brainwashing functions on so many levels. It resonates with family and domineering mothers and politics and social pressure, and all of those things that are so evocative in that film—the original, and ours too. And the vulnerability with which he played it, I just thought was interesting, and very smart. That's what I took away for my version, was that there was a child somewhere in that character that wanted out of what was happening to him, and was so desperate to make contact. I thought that was a very, very compassionate version of the character. It came out very different in me, but that's what I was trying to do for the film.
AVC: What about RKO 281? Did you sit down and study Orson Welles for that role?
LS: I did, I did. I was really nervous about that, because my family are all big Orson Welles fans, and I have some friends who were close to him. It seemed so sacrilegious to play him. But I had a job, I'm an actor, and that's what I do for a living, so I had to figure out what I was going to do to him. And I did, I watched him a lot, I watched all of his films—I must have watched Citizen Kane at least 15 or 20 times. It's strange little things that get into your head—little nuances and rhythms and intuitive things that start to pop up and find your way—I mean, everybody has their little idiosyncratic tics and gestures. Somehow it gives you a sense of their inner tempo, and who they are, which makes it easier to play them.
AVC: Is there less preparation pressure in a role you aren't originating?
LS: You always have to create the character from the ground up. I don't know, I've never really been that concerned about doing something that someone else has done. In some respects, every character has been around forever, so whether it's a new play or a play that has been done before… I don't know. It's something that comes up, but if you're doing your job right, it only comes up after the fact, critically. "How was he compared to…" But in the moment, I don't think audiences think about that. If you're doing your job right, they're in the world of the play, or the story, or the film.
AVC: You're known for going through intense preparation for your characters. Everything Is Illuminated is the first film you've directed—did you encourage your actors to go through a similar process?
LS: No, I didn't, and I realized what a pain in the ass I must have been to every director I've ever worked with. Of course, I encourage them to do whatever helps them get to the role, because I know what acting is like, and how much you're relied on as an actor to create the world for the filmmaker. So whatever information they can create is a gift, is a benefit. But when you're directing a film, it's much more about the practicality of achieving the day. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of time to rehearse, and to create an environment where you can sculpt a character from the beginning. I was working with some non-actors, and I had to help them get very quickly to a place where a scene felt like a scene. [Laughs.] And a lot of that was just about hitting marks, and timing. It was an interesting process for me.
AVC: You said you were a pain in the ass to directors—has anyone you've worked under come out and said "You're overthinking this"?
LS: I'm constantly being told that I'm overthinking. And they're right.
AVC: But would you prefer to work with actors that put that level of thought into a role? Would that suit your style?
LS: I think so. Although there is just a certain amount of "You have to achieve the day." It's different when you're directing a play. There's more time to sort all that stuff out. With a film, you've got limited time, and so you tend to be more results-oriented.
AVC: How did the filmmaking process compare to what you expected it to be?
LS: It was a hundred times harder and a hundred times more rewarding than I ever imagined it would be. It's a really insane, insane process. I'm not sure if I'm immediately ready to go through it again, but I think I will remember it for the rest of my life.
AVC: How have you balanced performing in Glengarry with post-production on Everything Is Illuminated?
LS: Stupidest thing I ever did in my life. Being in the cutting room from 9 in the morning to 1, coming up to the theatre, doing the play, going back down to the cutting room until 7, coming back to the theatre, doing the play, sometimes going back to the cutting room, sometimes going home and working until 2 in the morning… It's been insane, and I'm looking forward to a long hibernation.
AVC: Ricky Roma is a high-energy character—how do you keep your energy level up?
LS: I think a certain amount of Ricky's rage and profanity has been a nice vent from the frustrations of the editing room, so it's great to come out screaming profanities at the audience for an hour and a half after eight hours of trying to be diplomatic in the editing room.
AVC: Have you ever gotten to the point in a play's run where you just wished it would close, or wished a successful show hadn't been extended, so you could rest?
LS: Absolutely. Every day. Every day. Every day until you walk onstage, and then you get an hour and a half reprieve while you perform. And then you're back again.
AVC: What's the most exhausting role you've taken?
LS: Physically, Henry V. Mentally, probably Hamlet.
AVC: Why particularly Hamlet?
LS: It was a hard production. I was struggling with doing a version of that play that belonged to the audience, doing a version that took advantage of the idea that everyone is Hamlet. I just wasn't getting there with it as much as I wanted to. It was also three hours and 15 minutes long eight times a week. And it was brutal. And every night, filling that up with the kind of focus and intensity that the part needs was exhausting.
AVC: You've said in the past that you don't like doing a lot of publicity work because overexposure hurts you as an actor. Is that accurate?
LS: It's not that I don't like doing press… Well, I don't think I've ever been a huge target for the press, and I value that to a degree, because there's a certain value for actors staying beneath the radar so they can play characters. You get too well-known for being Joe Schmoe, and you're Joe Schmoe for the rest of your life. Part of what an actor has to do is be Joe Schmoe and everybody else at the same time. That's part of the problem with television; you play a character on television for a few years, and you're that character for the rest of your life. The celebrity mill is so active these days that actors can make careers out of being themselves, and I don't know that I want to. I think I'm just figuring out how to make a career out of not being myself. It's hard. I mean, I'm really much better with a script, that's what I do. I think anyone would feel awkward in a situation when you don't have one, I mean, you're being asked all these personal questions… I feel a lot better when someone's written the answers for me.
AVC: Do you have a problem with being overidentified as a celebrity? If people come to Glengarry Glen Ross to see Liev Schreiber the movie star rather than to see the play itself, does that threaten you as a stage actor?
LS: I don't feel threatened by that. No! Frankly, I think it's great. I don't think I would ever have had the opportunity to play Hamlet if I hadn't done films. Whatever brings them into the theatre, I don't care. By any means necessary.
AVC: Your fans seem to remember you most for your Scream character Cotton Weary, which seems odd, since it's such a small part.
LS: I really lucked out on that gig, I've gotta tell you.
AVC: What's it like returning to that character after years away from it?
LS: I think I was in those movies a total of seven or eight minutes in all three. And it was a treat. I was being employed, I was being paid well, working with a group of people I had forged a relationship with. It was a fun process. I never liked the genre very much, it scared the shit out of me, but it was a pretty inventive and fun way to do it. And we got along really well. And the success of the films didn't hurt, either.
AVC: Does your theatre work strongly inform your film work? Or vice versa?
LS: I think they both inform each other all the time. I think working on Illuminated was one of the best things for me as an actor. It put me so much in touch with what I loved about being an actor, and the idea of simplifying narrative in acting and writing and directing. I think people respond to truthful, simple narrative, and the more you try to dress it up to try and do something else, the harder it is for people to relate to. [pagebreak]
AVC: Your grandfather and father figure was Ukrainian, and Everything Is Illuminated deals closely with family connections and history in the Ukraine. Was that the primary reason you were interested in the book?
LS: That was the primary reason. I started to read about the Ukraine more—the book came out after my grandfather's death, and I started to really wonder about what that immigrant experience was like, especially since the majority of people in this country come from immigrant backgrounds. It was something I thought was interesting to write about, and something I was curious about personally and also artistically—it seemed like an interesting theme. I think that after Sept. 11, there were all these questions for me about compassion and patriotism. I became really curious about that stuff. Why doesn't that exist in this country any more as it maybe existed after World War II? There was a kind of ideology and morality that was perhaps ignorant and innocent, but certainly inspirational to me, and I wonder what happened to that during the Sept. 11 attacks, when I just felt a lot of confusion and sadness. And all of that made sense to me, but there was this hit of patriotism and idealism that came out of that. It was so wonderful and it was so brief. It also ended up manifesting in anger and a declaration of war. So I started to become curious about what it meant to be American, because as I had gone over to Europe—I'd acted over in Europe, I did a couple of films in Prague—I started to wonder about people's impressions of Americans, and what that meant, and who we were. There was this real misconception that we were these gun-toting cowboy clichés, when in fact we were much closer to them than they knew. And that was there in Jonathan's book for me. The clash between the American kid and the Ukrainian kid embodied that, that we are not as far away from each other as we think we are. Our pasts are deeply interconnected. And I think there's great compassion and humor in this.
AVC: You've written screenplays before this, but this is the first one to be produced. How did the adaptation process go?
LS: It was really quick and easy. It was wonderful. I knew very quickly what I wanted to do with Jonathan's book, because I had read it first as an excerpt, a short story [in The New Yorker] and that was primarily what I based the original idea for the movie on. After I read the whole book, as gorgeous as it was, I didn't think I had the resources to make that kind of movie, and I was primarily concerned with a low-budget independent road movie. So it was just the story of Jonathan running into Alex, and Alex's grandfather, and the dog Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. I had already started work on a script of my own about a guy who goes to Ukraine to find out where his grandfather's from and what it means to be Ukrainian, and that was sort of a road movie as well, so it was really about fusing the two screenplays. I finished the script in about a month and a half.
AVC: Do you think this production will draw interest to your other unproduced screenplays?
LS: Films are so hard to make that unless it's really, really special, it's hard to justify the life-shortening experience of getting a film made. I don't think I'm interested right now in making either of those scripts. They're wonderful and I treasure them. Maybe I'll come back to them, I couldn't tell you.
AVC: Would you let someone else make them if there was interest?
LS: That's hard. I get kind of control-freaky that way, like, "How could anyone else make this? I'm the only one who knows why this needs to be made." But I felt like that about Everything Is Illuminated, and other people wanted to make that, so I don't know. You never can tell.
AVC: You bought the film rights to the book before it was even published. Did the studios try to buy the rights from you?
LS: No, no one ever tried to get me to let someone else direct it or anything. It was all very serendipitous. Before we knew it, the book was a hit, and before anything bad could happen, I'd written the script. We put it together very quickly, so we were sort of protected. Having written the script, I think people felt fairly confident that I could direct it.
AVC: A New York Times article a few years back said you were only making a few hundred dollars a week in stage roles, so you've had to finance your theatre career by working in film. Is that how you personally think of it?
LS: It is true. I like to do plays, and I want to do plays, but the problem is, I can't afford to do plays. So I did film jobs to pay for the plays. But I can't help but like doing films as well. It's fun. Acting is like an addiction—once you start, you can't stop. It's not like I do them for money and just pull them out of my ass or anything. It's all acting, but it's just not as fun doing it in front of a camera as it is for 500 or 600 people.
AVC: You've said you prefer the rehearsal process to performing the play. Why is that?
LS: All the things that people enjoy because they're seeing them for the first time—we see them for the first time in the rehearsal process. By the time you see them, I've seen them a couple hundred times. [Laughs.] The audience's reaction to them is still a treat every time. But for me, it's the joy of experiencing that connection or idea or bit for the first time. That happens in rehearsal.
AVC: How does that compare to the process of being in a film?
LS: I don't really get that much from film, because most of that is organizational stuff, which I've never been good at. I feel more comfortable when I don't have to cross all the Ts and dot all the Is. I like the intuitive process, and that happens when the actors arrive.
AVC: Does your emphasis on theatre have anything to do with you growing up in New York?
LS: Probably. I certainly saw theatre at a fairly young age and was intrigued by it early on. But I've always been more interested in the audience than I have in the plays. I like that idea of all those people sitting in the dark together. It's kind of fun. It was fun when I was little. I remember sitting in a big crowd, and the lights go down, and you're like, "Oooh. That's cool."
AVC: You've mentioned the threat of being typecast and stuck in a role for life. While your roles have varied, they often have similar qualities—they're often very internal, emphatic, deep-burning people. Do you see a similarity there?
LS: Sure. I think there are similarities in the kinds of things I'm attracted to as an actor. I don't know if it's the similarities between the parts, or it's the similarities between my approach to the parts, but I've always been interested in flaws. Flaws reveal a lot about a character and who people are. The flawed elements of a character are where I find their humanity. Those are the things I tend to identify with—the weaknesses. I don't know why, but I identify with struggle more than with success.
AVC: Is that related to your background?
LS: Possibly, but I think it's something that's built into us to help us achieve success. It's part of human nature that we are intuitively aware of conflict in order to overcome it.
AVC: Are there more of those flawed characters on film, or in theatre?
LS: They're more articulated in plays, especially if you pick the right plays. Shakespeare's full of them; duality is the core of his writing for me. Every one of his heroes carries that kind of acute sense of their mortality and flaws, and I love that about his writing.
AVC: Biographies on you emphasize your working-class childhood and your upper-class education. What happened in between?
LS: Well, in all fairness, my mother—we weren't wealthy, but she was a cultured woman. She's been trying to get me to play classical violin and piano since I was five, she taught me to read long before I was in public school. So I had a range of education and culture that wasn't necessarily in sync with my peers, because it was my mom's education and culture. I knew a little bit about Tolstoy and Bach, and not nearly enough about Motown and the Knicks. So I had a rebellion, I think I gravitated toward hip-hop and the Knicks and street culture because it was further away from what I was experiencing in my house.
Then my father came back on the scene and said, "You should go to private school." It wasn't as unfamiliar as people imagined it was, because I had that background with my mother. Art and literature were at the core of who she was as a person. I don't know if I related that much to public-school kids, or kids with a lot of money—I felt uncomfortable in that situation, embarrassed by where we lived, things like that. But art and literature were present there, where it wasn't as present in the public-school programs. I think that's a really big problem. Call me communist, but I think that's something that everyone, regardless of their family's income, has a right to, and I was fortunate enough to have a mother who felt that way as well. So when I finally ended up in private school, I had a background from her that I could connect to the program with, like, "Hey, I'm familiar with art and literature, let me hang out over here."
AVC: How has that education helped you as an actor?
LS: I wouldn't have known about Shakespeare. I wouldn't have known about Pinter. Actors are as good as they allow themselves to be, and to portray life, you have to have as broad an experience of it as you possibly can, so everything's worth it. Someone who spent six years in public school and never went back is just as interesting an actor, but they don't have the range. And that's going to be difficult when they come up against a Shakespeare play, because that takes a certain level of reading and knowledge of history and art and culture to adapt to that kind of material. And I think that exists even in contemporary theatre. You are what you know, as an actor, so you gotta try to know as much as you possibly can.
AVC: But your approach to Shakespeare is based in the humanity of the character rather than the more educated aspects. You don't seem to approach the plays from a classical perspective.
LS: I think education gets a bad rap. I think when you're looking at the educated aspects of Shakespeare, you'd be surprised how much goes into understanding and analyzing those plays. You have to know what you're saying, and to know what you're saying, you have to have a foundation in an arcane language, and that takes reading. And familiarizing yourself with other poetry of that period, and iambic pentameter, and verse structure. It's about music too, someone who studied music has an inlet into those plays. Plus knowing little bits of history. I mean, even understanding that people were smaller back then, and their lives were shorter, and how that affected the way they behave—their attitudes and emotions were in many ways profoundly affected by the way in which they were forced to live their lives. To understand the range of emotional behavior, you have to understand the society and the culture at least a little bit before you can present it to a contemporary audience in a clear way. Even if you're not doing a period production, you have to understand what was intended when it was written, and you have to find a way to translate that so it's conveyed when it's performed now.
AVC: Doesn't that risk tying Shakespeare to a time? Isn't the beauty of it that it's still relevant and comprehensible today?
LS: Well, absolutely, but I think that first you have to be able to understand it. I think you have to understand how it was intended, to then be able to change it into something else. You have to understand first the premise it was based on. It's awfully hard to perform Shakespeare in Swahili if you don't speak English. First you have to learn English, then you have to translate it into Swahili. Do you know what I mean?