Liev Schreiber at the Ocean Resort Inn in Montauk, New York.
When Liev Schreiber pulls up to a clam bar near the beach town of Montauk, New York, a surfboard strapped to the top of his black hybrid SUV, he bears little resemblance to the slightly nebbishy veteran of independent film and theater that Manhattanites are used to seeing cruising around Astor Place on his bicycle or standing in line for lox at Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side. Ambling up to one of the restaurant’s outdoor tables, a gold shark’s tooth pendant hanging from his neck, “the finest American theater actor of his generation” (as The New York Times has called him) is bronzed and brawny, like a man who spends more time in the gym than pacing the stage as Hamlet.
Schreiber (at right), with Daniel Craig, in Defiance.
Pretty quickly, however, any fear that New York’s favorite neurotic screen idol after Woody Allen has turned into a mellow surfer dude dissipates. If he seems a little out of it, Schreiber explains, it’s because he and his companion of three years, Naomi Watts, were up all night with their one-year-old son, Sasha. “Oh, my God, he didn’t sleep at all, ” he says. “He’s really sick—I think he has a cold.”
Indeed, the words seem to be coming to him rather s-l-o-w-l-y today. “I’ve never worried so much as I have since I had him, ” he says of his son. “I was always kind of a worrier, but now I really worry a lot. Like, he’s been having trouble sleeping, and it turns out that he’s got that cold, you know? But I’m running in my head things like, He’s crying because he’s frustrated because I’m a bad father!” He pauses, a slightly zombielike expression on his face. “And then, I’m thinking, Oh, my God, he’s got all these deep issues already!”
Earlier this year, the family spent three and a half months in Australia, where Schreiber filmed the new X-Men movie with Hugh Jackman (scheduled for release next spring, it’s called X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and, in his free time, learned how to surf. Now, with Watts pregnant with their second child, the proud parents are enjoying a couple of months at their new beach house in the Hamptons. Although they’ve mostly been laying low, rarely even venturing out to restaurants (“It’s such a schlep with the baby, so we cook a lot at home”), Schreiber and Watts did host a “huge party” at the house recently for Sasha’s first birthday. “Well, Naomi threw it. She loves a big party, ” he clarifies. “I’m terrible with big parties. It was like a land mine, I mean, a minefield, of children. There were little babies everywhere and adults—people I didn’t know. I was horrified. Terrified.” Although it seems at first that he might be joking, it soon becomes clear that he’s quite serious. “I get panic attacks in big crowds, ” he explains.
The family also had a smaller celebration for Sasha a week earlier in Virginia, where Schreiber’s mother lives. Even that occasion, explains the actor, caused him some anxiety. “I’m kind of an obsessive-compulsive person, like, neat obsessive, ” he says. So when, as many one-year-olds will do, Sasha got a little hands-on with the cake, smashing it with his fingers, Schreiber says he sort of “freaked out.”
“Naomi was like, ‘That’s what’s supposed to happen.’ But I’m like, ‘This beautiful cake my mother bought! Don’t do that!’ Yeah, I got really uptight—I’m such a putz.”
Schreiber and Naomi Watts at Swarovski Fashion Rocks in London, 2007.
At 41, Schreiber is comfortable embracing his inner “nut”—a word he often uses to describe himself—and his hyper self-analytical tendencies have informed many of the characters he’s portrayed, from the quietly suffering to the clinically villainous to the otherwise totally screwed-up. Since his breakout role as Jason Robards’s lazy son in the Harold Pinter play Moonlight at the Roundabout Theatre in 1995, Schreiber has had a stage career nothing short of dazzling. A Yale School of Drama grad, he’s delivered bravura performances for the Public Theater in the title roles of Hamlet (1999) and Macbeth (2006) and as Iago in Othello (2001). In 2005 he won a Tony for his depiction of a salesman in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, and last year, after starring as an egomaniacal shock jock in Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio, he was roundly heralded as theater’s great salvation. (The New York Times’ Ben Brantley called his performance “the most lacerating portrait of a human meltdown this side of a Francis Bacon painting.”)
Movie audiences, on the other hand, are less apt to see Schreiber as a leading man. Although he was nominated for an Emmy in 2000 for his portrayal of Orson Welles in the HBO film RKO 281 and has held his own onscreen opposite heavyweights like Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep (as a brainwashed assassin in 2004’s The Manchurian Candidate), he’s pretty much been a second banana. That may change, however, with the release of Schreiber’s next film, Defiance. He costars with Daniel Craig as one of four brothers leading a brigade of Jewish resistance fighters during World War II. Directed by Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai), the film is based on the true story of the Bielski brothers, Belarusians who battled German occupation forces, rescuing hundreds of fellow Jews from the Nazis. Craig plays Tuvia, the leader of the secret community the brothers establish in the woods, and Schreiber is Zus, who proves to be the fiercest fighter. Even though Craig gets top billing, it’s Schreiber’s volcanic performance that’s attracting early Oscar buzz. As Zus, who seems most alive when he’s firing a machine gun, Schreiber is utterly compelling (even speaking with the thick Eastern European accent Zwick had the actors use). And, for the first time in his film career, he gets to play the hero.
Not that Schreiber initially leapt at the opportunity. “I was really scared of it, ” he admits. “Those Holocaust movies terrify me—even having acted in two [1999’s Jakob the Liar and 2003’s Hitler: The Rise of Evil, a made-for-TV biopic] and directed one that could arguably be called a Holocaust film [2005’s Everything Is Illuminated, based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel].” His hesitancy wasn’t, as one might expect, about doing justice to the enormity of the events. “It’s that I think the genre is overdone. I question the intent a lot of times, ” he says. But he admired the fact that Defiance wasn’t another narrative focusing on victimhood. “These guys, the Bielskis, were really violent guys. They were bullies before the war, and during the war they become heroes, ” he says. “I thought that was a fascinating concept.”
Zwick says that he liked the idea of putting Schreiber, whom he calls “an enormously intellectual actor, ” in the role of a man of very primitive strengths. “Asking him to do this part was asking him to throw a lot away, ” says Zwick. “Liev took a very intuitive approach, letting his instincts rule, and he was really able to inhabit Zus.”