Actor Liev Schreiber commands his fair share of big-budget dramas such as The Manchurian Candidate, but it is starring in personal films like Walk On The Moon, off-Broadway shows, or even directing others like in the emotionally invested Everything is Illuminated that stimulates his urge to be in this risky business.
It's been an auspicious month for the 43-year-old Schreiber. When he announced the nominations for the 2011 Drama Desk Awards on April 29th, that appearance further acknowledged his place at the top of the local actors' pantheon, which includes theater award winners and nominees. He won a 2005 Tony and is a repeat Tony nominee as well.
Then last Thursday (May 5th), the 25-year-old Israel Film Festival (which runs until May 19th at the AMC Loews 84th Street 6) presented him with their Achievement in Film Award -- one that acknowledges a Jewish filmmaker's contributions to the art.
For a quarter century, the IFF has offered audiences a collection of recent Israeli films connecting its cinema to the global Jewish experience. As part of this effort, it launched its awards to show an appreciation for various filmmakers of Jewish descent.
This year's list included legendary director/choreographer Stanley Donen (recipient of the 2011 IFF Lifetime Achievement Award) and producer/director Micha Shagrir (recipient of the 2011 IFF Cinematic Achievement Award).
Since the scheduled presenter, author Jonathan Safran Foer (writer of Everything is Illuminated), couldn't make it, the event was even more poignant when Schreiber‛s wife, actress Naomi Watts, stepped in and introduced her husband.
So last week, when he emerged onstage in the Paris Theater, Schreiber's acceptance speech hit home even further. He demurely explained,
"While trying to prepare my remarks, I did what any other reasonably intelligent, mildly resourceful and deeply insecure Jewish man would do: I called my mother.
I called my mother, and I asked her why I was here and what I should say. She told me to tell you here this evening that, 'It's wonderful to be a Jew.'
Of course, I immediately responded, 'But Ma, is it not also wonderful not to be a Jew?' My mother pondered my use of the double negative for a moment, and then responded with a profound existential tone, 'How should I know?'
It suddenly dawned on me with this terse, seemingly benign response, my mother had somehow managed to sum up the entirety of my career: how should I know?
The answer for me is that for the past 18 years, I have had the great good fortune to be gainfully employed in an industry that has allowed me to explore the essential questions of heritage, faith and identity.
At its best, this is what my work has provided me with. The opportunity to explore characters and conversations that ultimately allow me to feel more closely connected to a shared sense of what it is to be a human being."
Last year, I saw Liev at the 2010 Drama Desk Awards when he received his trophy for Outstanding Lead Actor In a Play (A View From The Bridge). But I had interviewed him earlier this year by phone when he was promoting his latest indie film, Every Day (detailing a day when Schreiber's character Ned grapples with his family in major transition), and found, as I went back to the conversation, that his ideas about the film really reflected the kind of heartfelt actor who deserved all this notice.
Q: Whether it‛s Defiance or Everything is Illuminated, several of your films touch onto your unique background and Jewish heritage. You did a great job with Everything is Illuminated, so I hope you get back to directing.
LS: Thank you.
Q: Are you going to reprise some of your larger bad-guy roles, such as Sabretooth (in X-Men Origins: Wolverine), or other science fiction things? Will you return to play the nasty antagonist/double agent Ted Winter in a Salt 2?
LS: I'd be up for it. I loved playing them both. But that's in the hands of the powers that be.
Q: As an acting couple, did you bounce this off of Naomi because it might relate to your family situation -- whereas you wouldn't maybe with a Wolverine?
LS: In a funny way, Wolverine is a lot more like our family than Every Day.
Q: Especially after she's done Fair Game? You both played CIA agents; her's, Valerie Plame, was upstanding and yours decidedly not.
LS: Yes. But Naomi did come to a screening of this film when it was at [last year's] Tribeca Film Festival and I could tell that she was moved by it. There was a sweetness in it that she really appreciated, and that felt familiar to her.
Q: Do you ever worry that when you've done some of these big roles, like the traitorous character in Salt, that people don't think of you for a subtle, small role like this?
LS: I try to mix it up as much as possible and hope that people respond. I wouldn't want to just be playing roles like this for the rest of my life, in the same way that I wouldn't want to be playing roles like the one I did in Wolverine for the rest of my life.
Q: There is a bit of irony that both of you have played CIA agents.
Q: Her character in Fair Game, Valerie Plame, was upstanding and yours in Salt, Ted Winter, was decidedly not. Did you two share any thoughts about the nature of the CIA?
LS: Yeah, we were constantly arguing about how lethal the average CIA agent is.
Q: With Naomi's part you were able to get a little more grounded in the reality of the CIA instead of the fantasy.
LS: The irony is that Naomi's convinced that they're all lethal, and I'm convinced that they're not lethal. And I'm the one who plays the lethal one.
Q: Her character might have been the more lethal one at the end of the day.
Q: How do you balance things between family, the choice of doing theater -- of course theater's great to do since you go home at the end of the day -- or a film which takes you out of town. On the other hand, with theater you're committed to so many months and you're doing it every day. Do you plan, or have a strategy you two work out?
LS: Like everyone else, we try to do the tit-for-tat thing. It's not really that realistic in our industry. What we do is take things on a case-by-case basis, and discuss where we're at with our careers and what the opportunity is that's being provided to us and what it means to us.
Naomi's had so many great opportunities this year that it‛s been really difficult to say no to any of them, because they've been such terrific things to work on.
Q: And tell her I loved her in Fair Game.
LS: I will.
Q: In doing a film like Every Day, it‛s not like making a big science-fiction or superhero movie where the characters are bigger than life and everything has to be planned. When you don't get to rehearse, do you then improvise or react off of the other actors?
LS: When you're moving that quickly and there's no rehearsal, you're really relying on the level of intimacy you can create with the other actors. The better they are, the more you're able to accomplish that. With this particular group of actors, we were really able to accomplish a lot.
There was a lot of access, and part of that probably comes from everyone having a familiarity with the theatrical process of rehearsing. You do that a lot in your life and it just comes naturally when you don't have it. That was a very luxurious experience for me.
Q: In some ways, Every Day reads a bit like a play, like one you might do for Neil LaBute such as The Mercy Seat. Did you approach this more like theater even though it lacked rehearsal time?
LS: There was no way I could approach [an indie film] like theater because there were no rehearsals and it was one of the quickest shoots I've ever done. It was something like three weeks and we were done with the film. But it did have that vibe for me as well, that it felt like a play.
It felt very intimate and dialogue driven, and of course, it had all of those actors in it that felt very familiar to me -- and I hadn't worked with any of them, but who all felt like stage actors to me, like Helen [Hunt] and Carla [Gugino] and Eddie [Izzard] and Brian [Dennehy].
Q: Was the choice of actors part of the attraction of making this film? The script has a certain poignancy. Though it's just a story of relatively ordinary people, I was captivated by it.
LS: I think that was the attraction for me, taking relatively ordinary people and portraying the heroism that goes into trying to keep a family together.
Q: Did it help having a family of your own, two kids, to understand the dynamic between these kids?
LS: It certainly created a fascination with the scene for me. Having just had two boys, reading a script about a father who's trying to raise two sons certainly caught my attention. My boys were one and two at the time; they're two and three now.
Q: Did it made you think, "Oh, what's going to happen as my kids get older? Are they going to go through the traumas and tribulations these kids went through?"
LS: I thought about that. You have to ask yourself the question very honestly: what would I do if my son told me he was gay? But I think I'm a lot more prepared than Ned because both of my children are avid cross-dressers.
Q: The movie deals with three sets of relationships: the sons, the two parents, and of course the parents' relationship to a father. Did that connect to your own experience or to experiences that you've talked about or discussed with friends or family?
LS: It's something that everybody our age has some sort of relationship to. When your parents get to the age when they need more help, it's a really emotional time for families. I think, also, a lot of my interest in this film was about that notion of fatherhood, and having the two different perspectives on Brian Dennehy's and my character was a really good experience for me.
Q: As I've read, you've unusual or difficult parents, and like I had with my father, who was much like Brian Dennehy's character.
LS: I like to say I have a very creative family; I come from a very creative family.
Q: My father played a sax as a hobby. That scenario of a parent where you can't do anything to make him feel better about the end of his life -- I went through that with my father. Did you have anybody you talked to about that?
LS: For the most part, that was more Helen's work than it was mine. My role in that was to deal with how Helen was reacting to her father's illness and how much of that she was bringing into our relationship.
There is an impossible sadness that accompanies that, that permeates your life and your relationships, and it's unavoidable. I think that was part of this story: how does this couple deal with that, and how do they not let it destroy everything else that they have?
Q: Had you worked with Brian and Helen before? What came out of that experience that you would say was unique to it?
LS: I had not worked with either of them before. I think what I liked about both of them was the familiarity that I think came from being a theater actor. There is a kind of kinship in that.
The same thing with Carla as well, and Eddie, for that matter. When you work on a film that goes so quickly and there's no rehearsal process, it's great to have people who can speak in that shorthand.
Q: What convinced you that director Richard Levine could make it work once you got the script?
LS: With Richard, it was his intelligence, his sincerity, and honesty. He said, "I don't know what to tell you about what kind of movie I'm going to make. I only know that it's very close to my heart and it's something I'm going to try very hard to articulate with the film."
Q: I could connect with it not only because of getting older but also because it's a universal story.
LS: I think so, too.
Q: The biggest problem is to get people in to see how universal it is.
LS: Right, true.
Q: If you had to sum it up, how you would tell somebody to see this movie -- which is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray?
LS: It's your story, your family, and I think that that's what Richard has captured. You're not the only person that relates to this, oddly enough. I think everybody feels that there's a heroic element in this, and that heroic element is them, the people who have survived their own family and those who endeavored to keep it together, especially.
Q: Though Helen is the focal point, you're a team. These are parallel lives -- the father is child to the man, and we see what's happening to three generations simultaneously -- life, birth, the son coming out, the younger son getting confidence as he finds his artistic side, the wife trying to maintain all the relationships. No one got totally histrionic though it's easy to do. Does that resonate with you?
LS: It resonated with me when I read the script, that there was a subtlety to what Richard was doing that I thought felt very real and very compelling.
Q: When you got offered this role, did you know you were going to be doing your cross-dressing character Vilma in Taking Woodstock?
LS: No, I had no idea.
Q: So there's a certain irony to having played that part of a gay activist in Ang Lee's film and then being a father dealing with a son coming out in this one.
LS: I find every day [so to speak] another irony in the notion of me in a dress [chuckles].
Q: Are there other projects you want to do as an actor or a director that examines more about who and what you are?
LS: I'm in perpetual development on those projects.
Q: Anything coming up?
LS: There are a couple of things. It's generally bad luck to talk about them before they go. But we've got a two-year-old and a three-year-old, so it's been hard to get any writing done at home. I'm hoping that as they get older, I'll have more time.
For more by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com