Hitting It Hard
Liev Schreiber’s tough portrayal of Ray Donovan is winning high critical praise and lifting the actor to new heights
From the Print Edition:
Liev Schreiber, November/December 2013
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“I was briefly a copywriter when I got out of school,” Schreiber says. “The idea of having something to turn to when I wasn’t acting is more and more appealing as I get older. Part of what we’re trying to do is help companies develop a narrative for their brand: What’s the story that separates you from the rest of the field? I’m interested in the way we sell brands, not just products. Developing their stories is fun; in a lot of ways, it’s like making movies.”
Carlson, the founder and executive creative director of the firm, says, “He’s been involved with everything and has a real gift for storytelling: what’s the story of the brand, how do you build the brand? He’s so multitalented that I think he’d get bored just doing one thing. He’s good at everything he touches.”
That includes making films: Schreiber wrote and directed the well-reviewed 2005 adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Everything Is Illuminated, which he shot in Prague and the Ukraine, as well as New York: “I like big challenges and that was a huge challenge for me,” Schreiber says. “I learned so much; I’d like to do it again and apply what I learned. There’s an ease that comes with experience that I wished I’d had and which I actually have now.”
The discussion turns to cigars, which Schreiber says he smokes “on a very rare occasion. I enjoy them after breathing canned air—they go well with diving and sunset.”
A long-time scuba diver, Schreiber admits to being a former cigarette smoker and thinks of cigars as “cigarettes on steroids.”
“There’s a richness to cigars—they go well with brandy because they complement each other, but that’s probably not a huge revelation to anyone,” he says. “I really enjoy that feeling of being inebriated with the smoke. It’s not often my thing but, if I’m in the right place and atmosphere, it can be nice—sitting on a beach with an old Scotch. Even then, I only make it through about 10 puffs because I can’t resist inhaling.”
He’s used cigars as a way into characters onstage and on film: “One time on stage, I played this fat-cat industrialist tycoon with cloven hooves and a cigar constantly dangling from his mouth,” he says. “There’s a certain wealthy, luxurious vibe that comes with a cigar. There’s something decadent that smoking a cigar passes on to a character, something relaxed and confident—or arrogant and brash. And there’s a difference in whether the cigar is lit or not. There’s something interesting about a character who hangs on to a cigar that’s not lit and doesn’t let it go.”
Even as “Ray Donovan” caused a summer sensation, Schreiber showed up briefly in two other projects at the same time: playing President Lyndon Johnson in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and a small role as a Russian underworld figure opposite Larry David in the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star’s TV movie, “Clear History.” His version of LBJ didn’t get a lot of screen time in The Butler but did have a memorable moment, barking orders at his staff while sitting on the toilet.
“Yeah, I heard that LBJ used to like to take people into the bathroom with him,” says Schreiber, who turns 46 in October. “Apparently he was well-endowed and, as a tactic of intimidation, he would take people into the john with him. I assume the same thing would be accomplished by taking a crap in front of them. I know I’d be intimidated by a large Texan taking a shit.”
He took the small role in HBO’s “Clear History” as a favor to the film’s director, Greg Mottola, who also directed the 1996 movie, The Daytrippers, which served as a breakout vehicle for Schreiber.
“Larry had never worked with him but knew of his work and couldn’t have been happier,” Mottola says. “Larry is notorious for cracking up during takes. And the two people who cracked him up the most were Liev and Philip Baker Hall. Larry couldn’t break their concentration, and then he’d crack up because they were so serious and deadpan.”
Casting Schreiber in that role fulfilled a longstanding urge of Mottola, who’s been friends with Schreiber for 20 years.
“I’ve been dying to get Liev into a comedy since Daytrippers,” he says. “People don’t know how funny he is. They don’t know his extreme silliness. He loves a good prank or juvenile joke.”
As an example, Mottola tells the story of a time he was riding in the back seat of a car being driven down a deserted Manhattan street by Schreiber. “But we’re in Midtown, right?” Mottola says. “Liev turns around and says, ‘In the Line of Fire’ (referring to the Clint Eastwood film about an aging Secret Service agent). Then, even though he’s the driver, he jumps out of the car and starts running along beside it. He’s got one hand on the fender, one hand to his ear like he’s a Secret Service agent—while the car is still moving! It came out of nowhere and he was totally deadpan. I was terrified and laughing at the same time. That’s his sense of humor.”
Notes Gregory Mosher, “It’s the actor’s curse, being cast in the same parts over and over. And it’s all the worse when the actor is skilled enough to make you believe it each time. The secret Liev weapon is how funny he is. I’d give anything to see him as Walter Burns in the greatest American comedy, The Front Page.”
Schreiber shrugs when asked about why he so seldom gets cast in comedic roles in film. Hollywood, he notes, is quick to pigeonhole people; with his sometimes brooding intensity and the fact that he’s played darker roles in so many films (from The Omen to Salt), he understands why casting directors see him that way. “It’s like that old joke: ‘You screw one goat...’ ” he says. “I know I come off a lot harsher and tougher than I am. I gather that. I think I realized it was a lucrative thing about 15 years ago with the Scream movies.”
Acting—and school, for that matter—were a salvation for Schreiber, who says, “I always assumed everybody’s childhood was as screwy as mine.
“I was always a scatter-brained kid—my brain was unfocused, hyperactive, all over the place,” he says. “So it helped to have focus. I was an uncomfortable and awkward kid in every situation except when I was onstage. It was sort of therapeutic for me to be onstage, speaking someone else’s words. It gave me focus and intention I don’t know that I had on my own. I enjoyed that feeling.
“I liked school; I liked boundaries, whether it was school or sports. Anything I could test myself against—school gave me intention and focus, which were important to me because my life had so little of that.”
After attending Hampshire College and doing a year abroad at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, he went to graduate school at Yale: “I thought I might apply as a playwright, but I ended up applying as an actor and being accepted,” he says. “In a classical program, you get to do plays that you wouldn’t get to do in the real world. Fortunately, I was wrong about that.”
His taste for Shakespeare started with his mother (“She had us reading it pretty early”) and continued with a teacher in high school who “fostered a love of classical language,” he says. His passion for the stage started at about the same time, playing Bottom in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at 16.
“I was making a complete ass of myself, doing the ‘I have had a dream’ speech. I remember them laughing really hard at this arcane, wonderful piece of prose,” he says.
He’s become a New York theater mainstay, whether taking on modern classics from David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (where he earned his Tony) to A View from the Bridge, or tackling Shakespeare for the Public Theater. It is a way to recharge his battery that no other kind of acting provides.
“Nothing compares to acting in front of an audience,” he says. “There’s no experience quite like it. I try to explain it to people and I can’t. You’ve got to experience it for yourself, it’s that remarkable. When you share the stage with great actors and develop a kind of kinetic relationship with the audience, there’s nothing like it.”
Actor Stanley Tucci, who’s known Schreiber since The Daytrippers, says, “Like any really good actor, he has a supreme presence, a power onstage—and that’s 90 percent of it. If you have that and you have the talent to go with it, then when you walk onstage, the audience doesn’t want to ever look away.”
Directing him for A View from the Bridge, Mosher says, was a revelation: “The character he played is a man destroyed by the secret he can’t acknowledge,” Mosher notes. “What was amazing in rehearsal was watching how deeply and specifically he buries this secret, both in his psyche and his body. The character is not a thinking guy, let alone an intellectual. Liev is super-smart—you can always see, in a good way, his brain working onstage. When those thoughts had to come out through the character’s limited vocabulary, it seemed bottled up, which was just the ticket.”
Schreiber relishes his time onstage and has plenty of ideas of what he’d like to do in the future.
“I’d love to do a new play but there are so many old plays I haven’t done yet, great plays I think every actor wants to try once in their life and which deserve to be produced,” he says. “Someone was talking to me recently about Of Mice and Men and that might be fun. I’ve been thinking about Coriolanus, maybe Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew. I’d like to play Richard III but I think I’m too big. (Schreiber is 6-foot-3.) I don’t think that works unless you’re diminutive.”
He had been trying to do a play on Broadway every year or so, but his TV commitment won’t permit it, at least for a while: “That would be very difficult with this new schedule. I don’t want to trade 14-hour days for eight shows a week. That would crush me and the kids.”
The second season of “Ray Donovan” starts filming in January 2014. When you play the title character on an hour-long TV series, Schreiber notes, each episode is “like doing a half a movie in eight days. If you’re the central character, you’re there from dusk until dawn. I was pretty exhausted by the end. I was led to believe it would be four months—like doing a couple of movies—and then I’d be done. But it was six months and it was a fairly intense experience—in a good way. That’s the thing about cable now. It draws some really great people.”
The first season wasn’t hard to negotiate because his kids were still too young for school, so they were able to travel with him.
“They’re young enough that they can handle it,” he says. “But as they get older, it becomes a question of how to split the school year. I’m a New Yorker and this show shoots in Los Angeles. “So I’m excited about this next season. But ask me again when we’re picked up for Season 4.”
Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website, www.hollywoodandfine.com. Follow him on Twitter @hollywoodnfine.
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