- Liev Schreiber
- 37 years old
- Born in San Francisco. Grew-up and still lives in the East Village/Lower East Side
- Writer/Director of Everything Is Illuminated; Actor and Tony Award winner for recent revival of Glengarry Glen Ross.
You've been a fixture on the New York stage, and in both indie and mainstream films for a while, and now you've written and directed your first feature. In Everything Is Illuminated, you chose a piece of material that really hit the literary world by storm, became beloved by its audience and was obviously not an easy novel to adapt. Why start writing and directing now? And why this project specifically?
Well first, I didn't know that Jonathan's book was going to be this literary sensation. It was a submission he had made to a young fiction writers series, and an editor at the New Yorker asked me if I would do a public reading of it. [The New Yorker published Foer's short story "The Very Rigid Search" in June 2001.] I had thought I had stumbled on this little secret, and I actually finished the script about a week before the book was published. So I'm up in my house in upstate New York, and I open the Sunday Times, and there the book is on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. I knew then that I was sort of in for a ride.
It's a double-edged sword, the success of the book, because I think what a good writer does is give the reader ownership of the novel. So the success of the novel in one sense made the film easier to make and to set-up in terms of the deal, but then you also have this incredible burden of responsibility to represent the book that's not going to piss off the thousands of people who adore and worship it. That's kind of an impossible task because if the writer does his job well, those people feel a very intimate and private relationship to the book, and any sort of adaptation to them is, in a sense, exploiting their little private history to that book. I kind of equate it to playing Hamlet. You can't do it because the audience is Hamlet and they'll never buy you.
My feeling ultimately was that if you let that intimidate you, then the life of the book sort of stops with its circulation, whereas movies sometimes can have a bigger platform. If this movie brings even a couple people to Jonathan's book, I'm pleased with the results.
One of the things that a lot of people who do love the book will notice is that the streamlined story focuses more on Alex and his grandfather and uses Jonathan primarily as a narrative tool. Those people won't necessarily know that this is due at least in part to the fact that you worked from this smaller, shorter work. After the book came out, did you consider going back and reconfiguring your story because of the potential audience reaction?
I think there were a couple of things involved. I think obviously the impetus for the movie was the short story which I would say the movie is a faithful interpretation of. But in terms of thinking about what kind of film I wanted to make and what kind of deal I could get made, I realized that as a low-budget independent film, there were going to be certain limitations on what I could accomplish. The imagined, surrealistic, chronological history of Trachimbrod that sort of spanned 500 years of the history of that village was something that was beyond my means both, I think, on a budget level and perhaps in terms of my experience as a director. That would be the type of movie that I think is better left to people like Milos Forman or someone who could handle a four hour period epic fantasy.
I also felt that the relationship between the young American and the young Ukrainian and the presence of their grandfathers on that road trip was a distillation of what was most powerful in the novel. That sense of nostalgia, and the idea that a past lovingly imagined is as valuable as a past accurately recalled, exists in that structure. It's really sort of a beautiful, complex, multi-layered book, but in order to make a film with an active narrative, I had to find a structure that worked and ultimately produce a film within the industry standards of about two hours. For me that structure was a road movie.
There's a definitive split in the tone of the film where the first half is kind of more comedic and absurd, almost slapstick, and then you get into the deeper nostalgic memory play that's more emotional. Was it a conscious decision to split the movie in two like this? Did you treat these two halves separately?
The tonal shift is absolutely essential to both the character and the culture of the world in the film. It's something that you see in Eastern European films and European films in general that is not often done in American films. I was very eager to include this duality in the actual structure of the film. It's my grandfather's sensibility, and I guess it starts with his sense of humor.
When I read Jonathan's book, part of what really hooked me right away was the similarity in tone between his novel and the character behavior of my grandfather. For me that has something to do with a culture of [Holocaust] survivors. There is this deep, hilarious, ridiculous, absurdist sense of humor that is balanced and offset by an equal sense of darkness and emotionality and tragedy. It was very important to embody both of those elements in the film, and that was something that felt distinctly Eastern European to me. The tonal shift was something I was concerned about, but it was something that was absolutely essential and unavoidable in terms of what the story meant to me.
With that in mind, are there particular films or filmmakers who you consider especially influential in the making of this film. Maybe you didn't even recognize while you were doing it …
No I've been aware of them for years. I guess since the first time I saw a movie I've been fantasizing about making movies. There was a theater around the corner from our house on the Lower East Side called 80 St. Marks which only showed old black and white movies. I think the first movie my mother ever took me to see was [Sergei] Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, which is not a good film to take a seven-year-old to. So I had these influences from pretty early on, and I don't know that I appreciated them at that age, but I think when I got older and I came across the films of people like [Nikita] Mikhalkov, and probably most especially Emir Kusturica, Hal Ashby and Bruce Robinson and Terry Gilliam and of course [Federico] Fellini -- I think that was the sensibility that appealed to me. That sort of really fun and kind of broad interpretation of things. I suppose magic realism in a sense articulates it, but movies that allowed the duality of things to be present. That humor and pathos and tragedy could kind of coexist in those worlds, and it was all very fun and kind of chaotic. The idea that life is sort of a circus. I always liked films that felt like amusement park rides.
You spend a lot of time with tight shots on faces, looking for expressions. You include so many close-ups featuring everyone from the grandfather to the dog, shots that really stick with the audience. How much of this desire to really capture the eyes and expression more than words comes from your experience as an actor?
Part of using closing-ups, at least in terms of the visual text, to a degree had to do with offsetting the wide-shots. There's this constant comparison and all these dualities in the story for me. First of all, there's a tonal shift. Then I think there's also the young and old thing –a generational thing; there's a young person who has a nostalgia for old people. Also, the sense of the landscape and the kind of meta-view of the world and then there's the micro-view which is the very interior kind of behavior.
Shooting in Eastern Europe, we just had so many different languages flying around. We had people speaking Russian and Czech and Ukrainian and even Farsi and Arabic, and the set really became this incredible Tower of Babel, which I appreciated because in many respects that was source material for the film. One of the things that I noticed and loved was what happens to people when language breaks down? How do they communicate? Often it's these very subtle expressions that they're trying so desperately to read in order to understand the other. Particularly for the stuff in the car. Also it should be mentioned that the car that we shot in is basically a refrigerator box with a lawn mower in it. We didn't have many choices on how close to the actors we'd get.
You just finished a limited run in the revival of Glengarry Glen Rossduring which you were performing in eight shows a week while editing Everything Is Illuminated, which leads to the inevitable question: Are you absolutely nuts?
Yeah I think I was for a period there. Fortunately I managed to stay out of any institutions other than the Jacobs Theatre, but yeah, that was probably one of the stupidest things I've ever done.
Did Glengarry come to you? And was your reaction basically, "Oh my god, I'm going to be in post-production on my first movie but how do I pass up playing Ricky Roma on Broadway with this cast?"
It sort of was that situation. It was something that I had committed to a while ago, and actually thought that I would be out of post-production by the time we started. But it was one of those situations where I couldn't believe they wanted to cast me as Ricky Roma, and I didn't feel I'd ever have that opportunity again so I had to say yes.
You received some marvelous notices for your performance, which is pretty incredible considering that this role has been very well-defined by Joe Mantegna on the stage and then again by Al Pacino in the movie, and then you did something different with it and made it your own. How difficult was it to follow two actors like that in this kind of role and play, and how conscious were you of trying to do something different?
I've always been someone who believes that you should steal, not borrow, anything and everything you can from anyone who makes an impression on you because if you do it with any kind of sincerity, it's never going to be like them.
I saw Joe Mantegna in 1984 create Ricky Roma, and I think it's one of the things that actually got me interested in acting. I just thought it was a remarkable performance and an incredible play, which is part of why I was so shocked when they presented the part to me.
I also think that ironically I learned probably more about acting from making Everything Is Illuminated than anything else; that there is a simplicity to it that I don’t think I had ever embraced. And that was very freeing. I think also it was just a question of exercising different muscles. There was something really comfortable and freeing about just acting again. It was simple. It was a relief not to have to make so many decisions, and that actually made the decisions I had to make about the play very simple. I was able to build on them in a very kind of simple way, which is actually what delivers you a complex and integrated performance.
I think I was just so grateful to have my job be focused. I only had to talk to one person; I just do what the director says; I just learn my lines. It was just a piece of cake after having gone through writing and directing a movie, and I think that sense of freedom is probably part of what Ricky acquired as a character.
You've obviously made it a conscious effort to stay in New York and to keep returning to the stage. Do you see theater as your home base? Have you ever considered the move to LA?
[Stage acting] is not something that I do because I want to or necessarily always like to, but it is a necessity to me. Ultimately, the most gratifying experience an actor can have is to track a narrative act with an audience over the course of a play or a character's life. That sense of connection to an audience and to an idea and that singularity to thought and focus is kind of, I think, what we live for. And also, you do a film and it's a year-and-a-half before you have any sense of connectedness to it or reaction from it. I think that in another sense for me it's like going to the gym for an athlete. That's where you train. That's where you develop the skills that allow you to go other places with your work.
Is there a role that you've always kind of wanted to play, and is there one piece of your work that you ever look back on more fondly than others?
That's sort of the nature of an actor: there isn't really a role that I don't want to play. That's the challenge: to find that kind of irrefutable connection to every character. That's the engine for actors. I, unfortunately, am one of those people who functions more from the perspective of which were the ones that I didn't make the connection to, and then that's the kind of thing that I want to return to. That's the kind of thing that I want to try to figure out.
I have the privileged position of being in a profession where it's just an ongoing education. And you know, if you pick the right writers and you pick the right plays, you learn more-and-more about yourself.
After doing this film, are you looking forward to working more as a writer-director? Do you have anything lined up next, or are you going to ease back into how you described the experience working on Glengarry, this more comfortable role of just being an actor?
Everything Is Illuminated was a series of serendipitous happy accidents. That's redundant but.... The fact that the novel took off the way that it did, and then one after another, I just kept finding the right people from Eugene Hutz to Elijah Wood to Matthew Libatique, the cinematographer, to Warner Independent as a home for the film – everything just kept falling into place. Not to mention all of the times that I wanted to jump off a building because I was making this film, but I just kept being motivated by the fact that it was my grandfather's story in many respects and that I had a certain responsibility not only to my own family but probably more terrifying and more motivating to me was that I had a responsibility to Jonathan and his family.
I don't know how directors survive this process unless they're motivated personally by their work. I can't really imagine making another film unless it was, in one way or another, deeply personal to me. So if that material was to ever present itself again, then I could see doing it again, but otherwise ... I miss acting.
Before we let you go, what was it like to win the Tony for Glengarry?
It was amazing. In a lot of ways, it was like getting hit by a very very soft bus. I didn't … I really didn't expect it. And I was just way too overwhelmed to pull myself together and actually make any kind of speech. I've been all of my life wanting so much to be a part of that community, and being recognized by them in that way was just stellar and overwhelming.
A couple things to know about Liev:
What's the best thing you've ever purchased or salvaged off the street?
Wow, I'm bad at these. You're dealing with someone who has pathologically bad memory problems.
Oh my first dog, Fidel. He was a pit bull. I saw a bunch of NYC cops sort of slipping and sliding across the ice of Wohlman Rink, and then I saw that they were chasing this gigantic pit bull. And the pit bull made a b-line for my mom. She was wearing a fake fur coat, and he started humping it. I knew right then and there that he was my dog.
There are 8 Million stories in the Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
There's something about taxi cabs that I think compel New Yorkers to become actors. Maybe it's not all New Yorkers, but I think there's something about being stuck in a moving vehicle with a total stranger that is liberating to people. And those conversations and the manifestations of people's personalities that come out in taxi cabs are always really really interesting to me. I used to do it as a kid, you know when I was in taxi cabs, and I still do it today: there's something very intimate and kind of liberating about being in a car with a total stranger who you know you're never going to see again, and over the past 15 or 20 years, I've probably used taxi cabs as my form of therapy.
Liev Schreiber's film adaptation of Everything Is Illuminated opens today at a theater near you.
--Interview by Aaron Dobbs and Lily Oei