We see him on stage and on screen and we hear him as the authoritative narrator of so many documentaries on television. Next Sunday we may even see actor Liev Schreiber winning his second Tony Award. This week, NY1’s Budd Mishkin talks one on one with Schreiber.
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We're near Liev Schreiber's old neighborhood, the Lower East Side, talking about how as a kid he used to go to see black and white movies on St. Mark’s Place, when suddenly he comes to a realization.
“It was a $2 theatre. If you think about that, that means I'm very old,” said Schreiber. “What does that mean? Two dollars. That means you're old. You’re ancient.”
Old? He's 39.
Me? Never mind.
Schreiber is wrapping up an acclaimed run in “Talk Radio” at the Booth Theater, for which he's earned a Tony nomination.
He plays a shock jock coming apart at the seams — a character that Eric Bogosian brought to Broadway in the Î80's and still relevant today.
Schreiber has played a wide range of characters in his career, but nothing compared to what he saw growing up here, and what he sees every day.
"It's the nature of acting. Your only resource if your life and the people that you know,” says Schreiber. “Not only is it international, but it's insane, and I think you get a real kind of interesting and broad spectrum on humanity here.”
But occasionally New York's attitude unexpectedly becomes part of the show, as it did a few years ago during a performance of “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
"It's written into the play that I have to say the f-word six times in a row. And my character walks onstage and he goes, blap, blap, blap, blap, blap, blap,” says Schreiber. “So I walk out and I say the first blap, and this guy in the third row, out of nowhere, at the top of his lungs goes, Îlanguage!’ And I thought, oh crap, I'm in trouble, I've got five more of these to go. And I remember thinking, boy he's really at the wrong play.”
But Schreiber wasn’t. He won a Tony for his performance.
We see him on stage, at places like the Public Theater; movie buffs see him in all types of roles on screen; and fans of documentaries can often pick out that authoritative voice.
The Times has called Schreiber the finest American theater actor of his generation.
But early on he says the whole idea of acting technique seemed strange.
”I didn't really believe in technique until I got older and realized that you had to repeat things eight times a week and you had to stay in shape and you had to be healthy and all of that stuff, that there was actually a craft and technique to maintaining that,” says Schreiber. “Because I was, I'd always thought that it just, you know, you just went out there and you acted crazy — that always worked for me."
It’s Schreiber's style to always be working, one project after another. So I asked him what's next?
"I've got this little development project cooking. It's gonna premiere in August called ÎA Baby.’ I'm looking forward to that,” says Schreiber.
“Yup. I've been rehearsing the part for almost 40 years now,” he says.
It's been in all of the papers. Schreiber and girlfriend Naomi Watts are expecting a baby and despite a lifetime of learning lines, this time Schreiber is going off book.
“I think I'm gonna be an intuitive daddy,” says Schreiber. “I think I'm gonna know what to do when the kid pukes on me. I'm gonna know what to do when the kid poos all over the table. I think, intuitively, I'll know that I get a diaper and a wet towel."
Long before the critical acclaim, showbiz people asked Liev Schreiber to change his name.
"They asked me to when I first got out of school,” says Schreiber. But no one ever had an alternative for him.
“I was sure that they wanted something like, you know, Clint Rock or Flint Stone,” says Schreiber.
Safe to say that of all the people nominated for a Tony, only one is named for the great Russian writer Liev Tolstoy.
“You know, there aren't really many ÎWar and Peace’ fans. A lot of people say they're ÎWar and Peace’ fans, but they're not really ÎWar and Peace’ fans.”
Schreiber was born in California, then moved to a farm in Canada before coming to New York at the age of four with his mom after his parents' divorce.
They lived at First and First, amidst the men’s shelters on the Bowery, and Orthodox Jews and Puerto Ricans and Eastern Europeans. His mom drove a cab and made papier mache puppets.
He had a head full of blond hair, was forbidden from seeing color movies until he was 12 and spent some time living in an ashram in Connecticut.
“I thought the way we lived was very hip. I thought it was very Bohemian. That's how my mother described it to me,” says Schreiber. “I think it’s probably hardest in elementary school and junior high school, when you start noticing the sneakers and the jeans. The sneakers and jeans syndrome is very tough on little kids. And, you know, if your mom buys you sneakers at the A&P, it's not cool. So, no matter what, I'm never gonna make my kid wear A&P sneakers.”
He would eventually go to Brooklyn Tech and Hampshire College in Massachusetts and then the Yale School of Drama. But he'd already been to a type of acting school: His old neighborhood.
“For me, the Lower East Side of New York was acting school. Then you got to learn to adapt to society,” said Schreiber.
Schreiber built up his cinema resume in the Î90's, starring in all three "Scream" movies and many more independent films.
While on stage, he was seen frequently performing Shakespeare. And gradually, acclaim turned to fame and celebrity, when your life can become public fodder.
“It can be difficult. I've never really had a problem with it,” says Schreiber. “I think that's part of the logic behind my decision to stay in New York. There's a certain level of anonymity in New York. New Yorkers know that if they see somebody famous, it’s not that big a deal. In another block they're gonna see another one. They don't really get that bent out of shape about it.”
"The paparazzi thing is weird, especially, you know, with my girlfriend, who is really — I've come to realize in the past couple of years, a very famous woman,” says Schreiber.
The two played side by side in “The Painted Veil.”
"But I think it can do some damage I think to your work. Because I think that, at least for me, my taste in films and plays and acting, is I like to believe that the person is the person that they're playing,” Schreiber continues. “And I think the less I know about them personally, the easier it is for me to suspend that disbelief when I see them working."
In Schreiber was able to marry his personal and professional lives in his directorial debut, "Everything Is Illuminated." It's the story of a young boy who travels to Ukraine to discover the history of his late grandfather. The movie is based on a novel, but Schreiber was inspired by his grandfather who also came from Ukraine.
"It was intense,” said Schreiber. “It was my first film, a film that I had dreamed about doing for a long time. I felt a real sense of pressure in delivering something that would mean something to my family and to the people who would pay to see it.”
Schreiber's acting resume is long, with movies and plays coming one right after the other. He likens himself to a Terrier who just won't stop tearing apart a tennis ball. He calls it his genetic cocktail to be predisposed to being busy all the time.
But for the soon-to-be father, that may have to change.
"That's something that I'm hoping to get over, very soon, especially now with a kid on the way,” says Schreiber. “A more profound sense for the value of free time than maybe I had before. But nothing will give you that better than theatre. You know, eight shows a week will remind you how valuable free time is.”
— Budd Mishkin
|ONE ON 1 EXTRA|
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