Even with a burgeoning movie career begun in the indies ("Walking and Talking," "The Daytrippers") and continuing on into feature films (three "Scream"s, "The Hurricane"), Liev Schreiber keeps coming back to the New York stage. In 2000, the Yale-trained actor took the title role in the Public Theater's production of Hamlet in the spring and finishes off the year as the philandering best friend in Betrayal's backwards-running love triangle. He has played in productions of In the Summer House, his Broadway debut, Ivanov and Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning, Juliet), but most of his work has been in a Shakespearean vein. In the past five years, Schreiber performed Sebastian in Patrick Stewart's The Tempest (in the Park, not on Broadway), Banquo/Seyton in Alec Baldwin's Macbeth and the villain Iachimo in Cymbeline, which earned him both an Obie and Equity's Callaway Award, before he attempted the Dane under the direction of Andrei Serban this year. Betrayal, which co-stars Academy Award-winning French actress Juliette Binoche and John Slattery, is Schreiber's second shot at Pinter with the Roundabout Theatre; he played Jake, "the non-bedridden son," in the 1995 American premiere of Moonlight.
Playbill On-Line: Betrayal is famous for running backwards through the character's relationships. How do you approach that as an actor?
Liev Schreiber: The hardest thing about the chronology issue is that you have to be very careful to make sure the characters don't have any more information than they do. It can have the effect of making the piece incredibly reflective, which has a numbing effect on the play, a deadening of the action. And it's a very active play. In order for everything to seem active and in the moment, you can't keep dwelling on the information that preceded the event that you're now playing.
In some sense, though, it's the same as working forwards. You've got the same history; you're just playing it backwards. You have to remember the characters don't know anything until they've played it and the problem is you, as the actor - going backwards - have all that information. [Playing backwards] mostly affects the latter scenes. After you've already played the breakup or, in theory, the more difficult moments between the characters, when you get to the scenes that are really about loving, they sometimes become informed with the melancholy of scenes 1, 2 or 3. When, in fact, what's going on in scene 6 is no, you haven't broken up yet - you don't know you're destined to separate. Keeping that information away from yourself as a character is kind of tricky.
PBOL: This is your second professional Pinter role. Is there anything you particularly like about his plays?
LS: I think my attraction to Pinter is the same as my attraction to Shakespeare - the form of language. You need a remarkably talented writer to achieve liberation through form, and that's what Pinter does. The text is not at all confining or stiff in its form. It's liberating. The map is liberating, emotionally liberating.
I like [Pinter] mostly because he does most of the work for you. When it’s structured that well, it does most of your work as an actor. That's very exciting to play because you can experience things a lesser writer would not be able to let you experience. You can achieve things that you may have to push with other texts. Because [Betrayal] is so accurate, it takes you there, and you don't have to waste your energy with a lot of acting. It's laziness, basically. The irony is that everyone thinks Shakespeare and Pinter are incredibly technically difficult playwrights but the reality for me is that I like to do Pinter and Shakespeare because I can be lazy. It's like paint-by-number, but you need a really great artist to make it that simple.
PBOL: I was going to ask you about your affinity for Shakespeare, but you've made that clear. You're lazy.
LS: And verse structure. Playing Pinter is very much like playing verse. There is an intuitiveness to the structure of the language that transcends a normal idea of what acting is. If you follow that map, it makes you a better actor than you ever thought you were. It's also the love of language I've always had. I like words. I like the sound and feel of words - and when it comes to words, Shakespeare and Pinter are up there.
PBOL: Your recent Hamlet was maligned in the press - not your performance, but the production itself. How did you feel about the production?
LS: I felt proud of it, you know. Hamlet is such a proprietary play. Everyone is Hamlet, and that's why they love it so much - and that's why they hate it so much. You're telling their story and they want their story to be told their way, which is okay. I understand that. But one of the things Andrei and I felt going into Hamlet, is that this is one of the most well-known plays, if not the most well-known play ever written, so in order for the experience to be outside of the realm of banality we wanted to try to reinvent the theme. That's a dangerous business. But it should be a dangerous business. It would have been easy for us - and probably not as interesting - to do a very traditional, narrative-driven production of Hamlet. But I think both of us felt like we wanted to explore having people hear it in a new way. Part of the problem for me with Hamlet is everyone knows the words, and therefore it's very difficult for them to hear them. It's kind of like the singing words to a song over and over again and not knowing what the words are saying. They're sort of following along "To be or not to be, that is the question," but what is really being said? Sometimes an abstraction can get at some unconscious sense of what a speech is in a more interesting way than a purely narrative-driven approach.
I know Andrei feels that theatre is a deeply spiritual venture and to add to that, there's a little bit of the terrorist in him. He thinks that a bomb should go off in the theatre - this notion that theatre has the potential to be volatile, to change the way people think. Which is healthy attitude to take towards to one's chosen career. Now, I think why people liked the performance more than the production was that I had the luxury of that text. That text is beautiful and if you allow it to be present, it will engage people no matter what. I think there were things in Andrei's production that worked beautifully and there were things that didn't work beautifully, but through it all the undercurrent was that text. That experience of stretching and exploring and expanding and testing the boundaries of that play was wonderful. You see so many Hamlets, you do want to say is there a way to do this play so it's not about the actor? I mean, it's always going to be about the actor, because it's Hamlet, for Christ's sake - the greatest part ever written for an actor - but it's also the greatest play ever written. But if we spend too much time worrying about the actor, we're not going to get the chance to experience that play, which is a profoundly beautiful, spiritual play that's essential to each of us. We must hear that play! It's so rich and it has so much to say. But if you get too involved in "oh, boy, did that look good?" then you're watching a showcase for a talented actor strutting his stuff, instead of getting inside the viscera of the play. That's what we were trying to do. To what extent we failed or succeeded is up to the individual. PBOL: Would you do Hamlet again?
LS: Absolutely. If you know anyone who wants to do it, let me know.
PBOL: Do you have a dream role?
LS: Leontes, The Winter's Tale.
PBOL: Has anything embarrassing ever happened to you on stage?
LS: In Betrayal, Juliette wears a lot of lipstick in the final scene. There's this point at the end of the play where I tell her husband that I only came up to tell her how beautiful she was - after a seduction scene. Usually I walk upstage and wipe [the lipstick] off, but there was lipstick under my eyes, my nose, my mouth and there I was looking John Slattery in the eye and saying, "I speak as your oldest friend, your best man."
-- By Christine Ehren