Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Liev Schreiber

Adding Up 'The Sum of All Fears'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Without a doubt one of today's most charismatic and talented performers, 34 year-old Liev Schreiber still tends to inspire the question, "Liev who?"

In answer to that question, Schreiber's most popular role to date is probably as Cotton Weary in the Scream movies, often accused of being the killer but always innocent. In addition to that, he has played potent roles in independent films like Party Girl, Big Night, The Daytrippers, Walking and Talking, A Walk on the Moon, Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, and Spring Forward.

He has a strong, angular face and a powerful, resonant voice which no doubt helped land him the role of Orson Welles in the TV movie RKO 281, in addition to a job as narrator on at least a dozen documentaries.

Hollywood quickly took notice of him and cast him in mainstream roles such as Barry Levinson's Sphere ("I affectionately refer to that movie as Schmere," Schreiber says), Robert Benton's Twilight, Jakob the Liar, The Hurricane, Kate & Leopold and his latest film, The Sum of All Fears, based on the Tom Clancy novel.

In the film, Ben Affleck takes over the top-billed Jack Ryan role (formerly played by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford) while Schreiber gets a much cooler part, as John Clark, the all-purpose U.S. government spy who can break into any top secret compound and kill anyone who needs killing -- kind of a low-profile James Bond.

"In many ways, Clark is a glimpse down the road of Jack Ryan," Schreiber says during a recent visit to San Francisco -- his birthplace, incidentally. "When [director] Phil Alden Robinson and I first met, we were talking about fleshing out the character. Usually as an actor your instincts are to make your part bigger. But this was one of those parts where we just thought, 'no, this is cool because there's no information.' That's actually what makes it cool."

"And the only thing I really wanted to add to it was something I learned from narrating the documentary CIA: America's Secret Warriors, a certain sense of reluctance. I could see that they were carrying with them a certain burden of knowing. They knew things and had been involved in things that they maybe didn't want to be involved in."

Schreiber grew up in New York and trained as an actor at Hampshire College near Boston. There he discovered the playwright Bertolt Brecht, appearing in such plays as The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui.

"That play was a big influence to me," he says. "I'm a huge Brecht fan. Brecht's principals of theater are to this day probably the most interesting contemporary ideas about acting."

When he finished graduate school, Schreiber suddenly and simultaneously landed three jobs, a Hollywood film, an independent film and a Broadway show. "That set a terrible precedent," he says. "I thought, 'that's the way it should be all the time.'"

Right now, Schreiber has the pick of the pack. He can play virtually any kind of part in any kind of movie -- mostly strong supporting parts. Yet Schreiber still dreams of getting bigger.

"I dream about the $20 million action hero paycheck every night! I think part of what's happening to me is that I'm so busy that I don't have time to angle myself in any particular direction. In terms of the spotlight, I've never done a lot of press because I'm so busy working. Part of it is that there is a little bit of mystique. I value that. A lot of actors aren't served by overexposing themselves to the press."

Part of Schreiber's plans include, in the very near future, writing and directing a film. He currently owns the rights to Jonathan Safran Foer's popular novel Everything Is Illuminated. And in writing the script, Schreiber is still learning how to use that mystique.

"I'm running into that again and again. You go, 'should I explain this, or do I need to set that up here?' Just leave it up to their imaginations. They will put things together. I get bored in movies quickly when I know what's happening and too much has been explained to me."

But Schreiber already has a leg up in understanding the secret of why movies work that people want to see themselves in them. "The idea of you going over the Ukrane and infiltrating a Russian-secured lab site is a lot more exciting than the idea of some clown doing it in a movie," Schreiber says. "And that's what actors are up to."

Date: May 28, 2002

CD Universe
Movies Unlimtied