Liev Schreiber Interview

Prolific screen and stage actor talks up his role in 'Sum of All Fears,' but prefers to let his work speak for him

Prolific screen and stage actor talks up his role in 'Sum of All Fears,' but prefers to let his work speak for him

(Some questions in this interview have come from another journalist present for the Q&A.)

Having acted on stage and screen almost non-stop since graduating from the Yale School of Drama in 1992 and landing, "almost simultaneously," roles a big budget Hollywood movie ("Mixed Nuts"), a small budget independent movie ("Party Girl") and a play on Broadway, Liev Schreiber is an actor most filmgoers recognize, even if they don't know his name.

Most recently he played Meg Ryan's time-traveling ex-boyfriend in "Kate & Leopold." His most famous role was probably acquitted killer and talk show host Cotton Weary in the "Scream" movies. But his best film work has been larger roles in smaller films like the warm, realistically funny 1996 anti-romantic comedy "Walking and Talking" (with Anne Heche and Catherine Keener), the summer of '69 infidelity drama "A Walk On the Moon," and HBO's "RKO 281," in which Schreiber played Orson Welles. He's also spent a summer playing Hamlet in the New York Shakespeare Festival.

And if you don't know his face, you probably know his voice. He's narrated more than four dozen documentary programs since falling into that line of work in 1995.

But this week Schreiber leaves his biggest impression in a small role to date: He's black ops CIA spook John Clark in "The Sum of All Fears" -- the latest of Tom Clancy's spy thrillers to be made into a feature film.

As a reluctant one-man commando force leading hero Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck, taking over from Harrison Ford) on a terrorist-tracking raid in Siberia, Schreiber is so engrossingly cryptic and quietly charismatic that he could steal his scenes right out from under the movie's marquee stars, if he weren't such a good actor that he knows not to -- and how not to.

Earlier this month I met Schreiber in San Francisco to talk about this character, his career, his upcoming gig as a writer-director and how he feels "The Sum of All Fears" -- which is centered around an catastrophic and unprecedented terrorist bombing -- will play in a post Sept. 11 world. Contemplative and serious, but warm and personable, he seemed exactly the kind of person who might have something insightful to say on the subject.

Q: You have a lot of narration on your resume -- sports documentaries, "Nova" episodes. How did that come about?

A: I think it probably started with the Shakespeare stuff. A producer at WGBH saw me in a Shakespeare play in the park -- the New York Shakespeare Festival -- and I think it was that correlation between voice and reading technique. So they hired me for something called "The History of Rock 'n' Roll," which was a really good 10-part documentary series on PBS. It did really well and it got a lot of awards and stuff, and that kind of launched me into a voice-over career.

Q: I thought it may have had something to do with you playing Orson Welles (in HBO's "RKO281").

A: Yeah! [Laughs a little] That came later, though. I think by that time I'd already done 40 or 50 docs (documentaries).

Q: Speaking of Orson Welles and Shakespeare: More daunting role, Orson Welles or Hamlet?

A: Oh, both equally daunting. Although...I think Welles is a little more daunting. Hamlet is a remarkably easy role. Physically it's hard because it tends to be about three hours long and you're talking the whole time. But it's a simple role and it adapts itself very well, because the thing about Hamlet is, we all are Hamlet. That's the problem with the play and the great thing about the play -- everybody can kind of input themselves into Hamlet. Welles was very intimidating because there were confines to that script -- it was just about the battle over making "Citizen Kane" -- and that's a limited perspective on that guy's life. I'm a big Orson Welles fan, so I was also very afraid of doing some sort of disservice to his memory. That was kind of intimidating.

Q: I just met with Peter Bogdanovich a couple weeks ago (for his new film "The Cat's Meow") and he was telling Orson Welles tales.

A: Yeah, I met with him about ("RKO281"). He knew Orson, and I know him. He was very helpful.

Q: So we should probably talk about "The Sum of All Fears" since that's why we're here. Are you a fan of Tom Clancy novels?

A: I hadn't read one before the movie, but I am now. He's kind of a research fanatic, and I like that. I think he's also picked a great subject. There's a tremendous amount of intrigue and everybody wants to know about the CIA, and of course nobody does know about the CIA. There's been a lot more information lately. The documentary I did (narration for) about the CIA ("CIA: America's Secret Warriors") was very interesting because it came at a time when three ex-directors of the CIA were publishing books, so they were completely declassifying all kinds of things they probably shouldn't have been declassifying. [Laughs]

Q: [Laughs] The (Jack Ryan) novels are like 1,000 pages long and just packed with details. It must have been kind of hard for the writers to make a two-hour film.

A: Yeah, that was the trick for them. (When changes are made for a film) people say, why did you do this to a character? Why did you do that? But the reality is, that guy's got 800 pages to give you a sense of who the character is. You've got two hours. In the case of John Clark (Schreiber's character), you don't even have two hours. It's probably about 20 minutes.

Q: Your character is so potent, though. There are a couple of lines that sum it all up. There's a line where Jack Ryan is doing something on his Palm Pilot and you've never seen one before because you've been out in the field so long. It's a great little moment.

A: Yeah, yeah, yeah. They did a really good job adapting him. For me and Phil (Alden Robinson, the director), initially when we first met we were talking about how to flesh out the character more. You know, usually as an actor you're looking to make your part bigger [smiles ironically]. But (with this part) we thought, no, this is cool because there's no information. That's actually what makes it cool. So is there any way to express that as the character -- the mystery of the character?

Q: The shadowy nature of the character.

A: [Nodding] The shadowiness of the character. And the only thing I really wanted to add to it was this thing I'd learned from the documentaries, which was this certain sense of reluctance in a lot of these ops. You know, having seen these (CIA) directors, I could tell they were carrying this certain...burden of knowing. They knew things, they had been involved in things they maybe hadn't wanted to be involved in. That was interesting to me, so we added that little moment when Cabot (Morgan Freeman's CIA honcho) says to me, "You still liking your desk job?" and I say, "Yeah." Then when Cabot says he's going to send me to Russia, I say, "I thought I wasn't doing this anymore," and get defensive. We do a couple things to set up that the guy's a bad-ass, but he doesn't necessarily like it. That, for me, makes it more real. If you've been involved in covert ops and you've had to do some of the things that our CIA operatives have had to do in the name of American foreign policy, you carry that with you for the rest of your life.

Q: I think a great example of how your character feels about that comes across in the scene in a Siberia army base -- or whatever the facility was -- where instead of killing the guards, you just take their shoes. They're not gonna go anywhere in frozen Siberia without their shoes!

A: Right! And whether you can avoid killing anybody or getting killed is probably a real key element of any operation.

Q: I almost wanted the whole movie to be about your character. He's far more interesting than Jack Ryan.

A: I think in many ways that Clark is a glimpse down the road at Jack Ryan. I was trying to do that, because clearly Clark has a really strong language background. He can speak any language he wants like that [snaps his fingers], so he must have been a linguist at one point -- very similar to Ryan.

Q: I'd like to know, since this was a role with a small amount of screen time, what do you know about this guy that we don't?

A: Well, you know, if I'm doing my job as an actor, the audience knows everything I know about the character.

Q: It's not that I didn't get a clear picture of the character -- I absolutely did. But are you the kind of actor who will make up a background for a character?

A: Well, I did. I did. But I put it in the movie, you know? It wasn't anything I kept secret. It was like that line, "I thought I wasn't doing this anymore," which was just enough to create a backstory that isn't too blatantly obvious. You don't want to get to bogged down explaining things. You just want to create the context for who a person is. And because he's a CIA agent, you have the luxury of not having to reveal a tremendous amount about yourself, so that was my technique for giving just a little tease. That one line sort of tells you a lot about what he has the potential to do and where he has been.

Q: ...and where he is now.

A: ...and where you're probably gonna go if you follow him as a character. It kind of makes him very interesting. It makes him worth following as a character. You know where he goes is where the action is.

Q: A lot of movies today give away too much character stuff right at the beginning and you're just not interested after that.

A: Yeah! The truth is that so much can be left up to the imagination. I'm writing a script right now, and I'm running into that again and again. You kind of go, "Well should I explain this?" or "Do I need to set this up here?" But if you leave certain things up to the imagination, people will put the pieces together. I think that as an audience (member) I enjoy that more. I love (wondering) what's going on. I get bored quickly in movies when too much has been explained and it's too simple.

Q: Is this your first screenplay?

A: No, I've done two others. But all in the past year, so they're all kind of finishing now.

Q: Any bites?

A: Yeah! The one I'm working on now is an adaptation of a really popular novel that's out right now called "Everything Is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer. I acquired the rights to it long before it came out, so everybody in Hollywood is kind of clamoring for it. It's about an American guy who goes over to the Ukraine (to search for the woman who hid his grandmother from the Nazis) and gets led on kind of a wild goose chase by these really funny Ukrainian tour guys, and the discrepancy between what they mean to say and what they say in English is a whole part of the language of the book and the screenplay.

Q: Do you want to star?

A: No, it's for me to write and direct.

Q: I'll be interested to see that. I've actually been quite a fan of yours ever since "Walking and Talking."

A: Oh, thank you!

Q: I've seen a lot of the little stuff you've done too. I saw "Spring Forward" (an absorbing character study about two small town parks and recreation workers at opposite ends of their careers)...

A: You saw "Spring Forward"? You're one of like five people!

Q: Yeah, I know.

A: I think that was a great movie.

Q: It was. And "A Walk On the Moon" (Schreiber the husband of disaffected housewife Diane Lane) -- that was an exceptional performance. Anyway, my point is you've played an incredible variety of characters in an incredible variety of movies. Yet you don't seem to covet the spotlight. Do you dream of the $20 million action hero paycheck?

A: Yeah. Sure I dream about the $20 million action paycheck. I just don't know (in the dream) if it's me actually receiving it! I think part of what's happened to me is that I'm so busy I almost don't have time to spend angling myself in any particular direction, you know? In terms of the spotlight, I've never really done a lot of press because (when it came time to promote a movie) I was sort of busy working. And I also kind of feel like part of the integrity of an actor is that, like John Clark, there is a little bit of mystique. When you see that person on film, that it's not a person you know -- it's a character that you will come to know over the course of the film.

Q: I can't tell you how much I appreciate that.

A: I kind of value that. I think that part of the thing about film is that it's so naturalistic, it's so voyeuristic. You want to believe in the characters, and I think a lot of actors aren't served by overexposing themselves in the press. It's good to overexpose yourself with work. But don't expose yourself too much with the press. It's also a lot of work to do a lot of press. I'm crap at it, too.

Q: You're doing fine right now.

A: Thanks.

Q: And it's tedious, isn't it? You end up answering the same questions over and over and over.

A: [Nodding in amusement] Yeah!

Q: I'm sure it gets tiresome.

A: But if you can keep enough work going, your work sort of speaks for you. That's why I try to mix it up as much as possible.

Q: Well I do have one of those questions you're probably sick of hearing already, depending on how much press you've done for the film. But I feel I have to ask it.

A: All right.

Q: How do you feel about the release of a movie of this nature in the wake of (the terrorist attacks of) Sept. 11?

A: Well, you know, um...I think I was as apprehensive as anyone else. We had shot the film and completed it long before Sept. 11. Then after Sept. 11 there was a time there where I wasn't really thinking about anything nearly related to film. About a month ago I actually finally saw the film, and I was really relieved to see that it represented itself in the way I thought it would -- as a reaction to terrorism and a celebration of the idea that cooler heads prevail. And I think that's very much my memory of Sept. 11, being a New Yorker. What's most vivid to me is not actually the disaster itself, but the days and weeks that followed. It was really overwhelming to see the way that people responded -- the kind of class and grace, and compassion and support, and resourcefulness that people showed. It was almost like rather than knocking us down, Sept. 11 kind of stepped us up. I was very impressed with that. It showed me that there's really nothing we can't handle.

Q: So the film feels like a fictionalized extension of that stepping up?

A: Yeah, in a sense. At the core of it is that idea that cooler heads prevail, and I think what we showed after Sept. 11 was a far more effective example of that than even "The Sum of All Fears." But I think "The Sum of All Fears" is a reverberation of that. At least it made me feel that way, and I was happy to be reminded of that. It was nice to walk away from the theater going, "Yeah, that's true. And you know what? We've proven that's true."

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