STAGE TO SCREENS: Making "Taking Woodstock"; Chats with Groff and Schreiber

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: Making "Taking Woodstock"; Chats with Groff and Schreiber Jonathan Groff and Liev Schreiber discuss working on Ang Lee's new film, "Taking Woodstock," which features a host of New York theatre actors.
Jonathan Groff in
Jonathan Groff in "Taking Woodstock" Photo by Ken Regan/

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Commemorating the 40th anniversary of Upstate New York's Aug. 15-18, 1969, landmark Woodstock Music and Art Festival, is an Aug. 28 Focus Features release, "Taking Woodstock," produced and directed by Ang Lee, Oscar-winning director of "Brokeback Mountain." Among stage actors featured: Skyler Astin, Kevin Chamberlin, Dan Fogler, Henry Goodman, Mamie Gummer, Bette Henritze, Edward Hibbert and Stephen Kunken.

The peace-and-love concert featured 32 musicians and groups and was attended by a half-million people, ten times the estimated amount. Michael Wadleigh's Oscar-winning 1970 documentary was re-released in a '94 director's cut, which included several performances not previously shown.

Two of the film's stars are Jonathan Groff, who makes his movie debut as Woodstock co-creator Michael Lang, and Liev Schreiber, cast as Vilma, an ex-Marine transvestite. I spoke to both actors at the Waldorf Towers, on the movie's Aug. 2 press day.

* Gracious, grounded, and grateful for his good fortune, to date, Jonathan Groff recalls his first meeting with Ang Lee: "We were given a three-ring binder, 'The Hippie Handbook,' which had pictures and articles from the time. Ang also gave me a dozen movies to watch, a bunch of mixed CDs to listen to, and a lot of books to read."

At 19, Groff came to New York, where for a year, he waited tables at the Chelsea Grill of Hell's Kitchen. In fewer than four years, he's appeared in six New York shows: In My Life, Spring Awakening, Hair, Prayer for My Enemy, The Singing Forest, and is currently (through Aug. 30) playing Dionysus in Euripides' The Bacchae.

Also, he taped 11 "One Life to Live" episodes, shot a Ryan Murphy pilot that wasn't picked up, played himself in three not-yet-released documentaries, and made his first film.

Mamie Gummer, Jonathan Groff and Demetri Martin in "Taking Woodstock"
photo by Ken Regan/ © Focus Features

Groff wears a wig in the movie. "I grew my hair, and they were going to perm me," he explains, "but Michael's hair is iconic, and they didn't want to take any chances with the humidity." Lang, who's seen in the 1970 documentary, was 24, Groff's current age, at the time of the concert. He recently wrote "The Road to Woodstock," and has announced plans to produce a Broadway musical based on the event.

"Last summer, in the park [at the Delacorte]," relates Groff, "Michael came to see me [as Claude] in Hair. He waited to say hello, gave me his telephone number and e-mail address, and said to 'tap him as a resource.' I spent a weekend at his Woodstock home, with Michael, his wife, and their two sons. He's an incredible guy!"

Playing Woodstock co-creator John Roberts is Skyler Astin ("Hamlet 2"), a Spring Awakening alum (Georg). Says Groff, "Skyler's first day on the set, he was doing a scene with Eugene Levy. I was on the side, thinking: This is surreal. Here's someone with whom I've shared an incredible stage experience, and we're together on a movie set. It's one thing to experience it on your own, but to be able to share it with one of my dearest friends was special."

Born in Lancaster, PA, Jonathan's the younger son of Julie (a gym teacher) and Jim Groff (who trains and races horses). In the fifth grade, Jon attended a high-school production of Annie Get Your Gun.

"Something just clicked," he says. Doin' what comes natur'lly, Groff appeared in shows at the Fulton and Ephrata Playhouses, and played in high-school productions of Kiss Me, Kate (as Fred), You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown (title role), How to Succeed... (Finch), and Godspell (Jesus).

During childhood, his parents brought him to see Broadway musicals. "My first was Beauty and the Beast." While in high-school, he'd make day trips with friends to see Saturday matinees: "Annie Get Your Gun, with Bernadette Peters, and I saw Thoroughly Modern Millie six times."

Who were some of the actors he admired growing up? "Sutton Foster," he responds, making me feel like Methuselah's older brother. Continues Groff, "Not only her talent, but also the way she deals with fans waiting for autographs. I try to do it the same way.

"Sutton represents a lot of things for me. She's generous, down-to-earth, and sweet. She came to see Spring Awakening Off-Broadway, and attended the Broadway opening night. When we were previewing on Broadway, Sutton sent us bagels every Saturday morning. I still get weak in the knees when I speak to her; I'm still star-struck.

"Gavin Creel [Foster's Millie leading man] is also a favorite. I love Frank Langella, and Tom Hulce [former actor and co-producer of Spring Awakening] who's now a friend and mentor. I have always looked to theatre stars as heroes."

As a teen, Groff worked as a ride operator at an amusement park, and was a counselor at a children's theatre camp. Right out of high school, he auditioned at an open call for a tour of The Sound of Music, and was cast as Rolf, touring for a year.

Then, he moved to New York. "All I wanted was to be a working actor. I got really lucky. Each play and role has come into my life at the perfect time — and has changed me. Each really spoke to me. I really believed in — and was passionate about — all the roles. Each challenged me, and set me up for the next."

Cast as the older son of a transsexual (played by Joseph Fiennes) in the pilot of "Pretty/Handsome," Groff spent a starry first night in L.A. at a dinner party at the home of the show's creator, Ryan Murphy ("Nip/Tuck") — in the company of the pilot's fellow players: Robert Wagner, Blythe Danner, Carrie Ann Moss and Jake Cherry. However, the pilot did not sell.

On "One Life to Live," he played Henry Mackler, whose story arc led to his shooting students in a school. However, the real-life Virginia Tech incident occurred, causing Groff's gun episodes to be abruptly scrapped, and forcing writers to quickly come up with an episode, in which Groff's character is killed off in a car crash.

In My Life, the Joseph Brooks musical, was Groff's first Broadway show. He understudied two roles, was a swing, and the show's dance captain.

Next came the role of Melchior Gabor in the Steven Sater-Duncan Sheik musical Spring Awakening, which played Off-Broadway (June-August 2006) and transferred to Broadway (December 2006-January 2009).

He and Lea Michele, who played Groff's love interest, are best friends. The show won eight of its 11 2007 Tony nominations, including Best Musical, and earned Groff a Theatre World Award and Tony/Drama League/Drama Desk nominations.

Hair in Central Park in 2008 followed, but Groff left early to film "Taking Woodstock." He chose not to reprise his Claude role for the Broadway transfer (a 2009 Tony Best Revival winner), and was succeeded by Creel.

Following were two Craig Lucas plays — Prayer for My Enemy (Playwrights Horizons) and The Singing Forest) (at the Public) — both of which earned Groff an Obie Award. "I didn't know I was getting one. Everyone kept it from me. When I got to the podium, I couldn't speak. People later asked me if I was drunk or high."

Through Aug. 30, Groff's back at the Delacorte, playing Dionysus in Euripides' The Bacchae, directed by ("gutsy and dangerous") JoAnne Akalaitis. Does he identify with the role? "It's far removed from who I am. I wear a blonde wig, boots and leather jacket that I'd never wear in real life, and I certainly don't lure women to the hills [as does Dionysus]. I'm excited to be doing it."

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What attracted Liev Schreiber to the role of Vilma? He immediately answers, "The chance to work with, and watch, Ang Lee."

His scenes took "a week-and-a-half/two weeks to complete. We shot in Chatham, NY, in Columbia County, on the New York side of Pittsfield, MA."

"Right out of school [RADA and Yale Drama School]," he tells me, "I played a depressed transvestite in Nora Ephron's 'Mixed Nuts' [his 1994 movie debut]. He calls a suicide hotline and falls in love with the telephone operator, played by Steve Martin."

Low-key, affable, and intelligent, Isaac Liev Schreiber is a San Francisco native, the son of an actor-director Tell Schreiber, of Austrian-Swiss-Irish-Scottish descent, and the former Heather Milgrim, an artist whose heritage is German-Ukrainian-Polish. "But since childhood, I've been called Liev [pronounced Lee-ev, not Leave, as he's been called]."

Liev Schreiber in "Taking Woodstock"
photo by Ken Regan/ © Focus Features

His mother had three sons from a previous marriage when she married his father. Schreiber also has a half-sister and another half-brother, actor Pablo Schreiber. When he was a year old, Liev moved with his parents to a Canadian commune. They soon divorced, and he relocated with his mother, whose other three sons lived with their father, in Manhattan's East Village. Were there actors who influenced Schreiber? "I had weird tastes as a kid. I was a very big fan of [Charlie] Chaplin, Basil Rathbone — who was a world-class fencer and lost all those sword fights to Errol Flynn, [Laurence] Olivier and Peter Sellers. Danny Kaye was also a huge influence. His wife, Sylvia Fine, was my mother's second cousin."

Sustaining a fractured ankle playing football, Schreiber's father paid for surgery and also for tuition at the exclusive Friends Seminary, where he developed an interest in acting. Playing Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, he got approval from the audience and decided on his future. He attended Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, where he made his first solo appearance in scenes from Eric Bogosian's Drinking in America. He earned a BA.

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), produced at CSC, marked Schreiber's 1992 Off-Broadway debut, in a company that included Cherry Jones and Hope Davis. At the Delacorte in 1995, he played Sebastian in The Tempest. He appeared with Jason Robards and Blythe Danner in Harold Pinter's Moonlight, at the Laura Pels. In 2002, at the Acorn (MCC), he co-starred with Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Eckhart in The Mercy Seat, written and directed by Neil LaBute.

He's twice performed in Macbeth: As Banquo/Seyton in a '98 Public Theatre production, which starred Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett, and the title role, opposite Jennifer Ehle, at the Delacorte in 2006. Also at the Delacorte, he appeared as Iachimo/Jupiter in Cymbeline (for which he received a 1998-99 Obie Award) and in the title role of 2003's Henry V. Other Shakespeare at the Public were the title role in Hamlet ('99) and, as Iago, in Othello (2001).

"I've been lucky enough to do so much of the Shakespeare canon," admits Schreiber. "Those were my dream roles when I was younger, and I was able to get them out of my system early.

"Stage is infinitely more fun than film, because you're interacting with an audience. Having said that, I couldn't imagine doing one without the other. I've learned so much onstage that informs what I do on film. I've been very fortunate to be able to go back and forth."

According to Schreiber, the role that, thus far, has given him the most satisfaction is "Ricky Roma in [the 2005 revival of David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning] Glengarry Glen Ross. I had a tremendous amount of fun playing that character; I think it's the most fun I've ever had onstage. Doing that play with those guys every night reminds me of playing sports on a team. It was a terrific experience."

How was winning the Tony Award? "I felt like I was going to have a stroke. When they said my name, I don't remember being more terrified than going up onstage and getting that award. Ultimately, it was a sublime moment — an award from a community I always dreamt of being a part of. Having my peers award me really meant a lot."

Other Broadway appearances were in In a Summer House (his 1993 debut), a 2000 revival of Harold Pinter's Betrayal, with Juliette Binoche and John Slattery, and the 2007 revival of Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio, for which he received Tony, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama Desk nominations.

Is Schreiber the type of actor who can joke around backstage right before going on? "Different shows require different things. Sometimes, when you have an ensemble-driven show like Glengarry, part of what gets you in the mood is to mess around with the cast backstage — to get that sense of camaraderie. If you're doing the Scottish Play, it requires you to stay more focused."

Many consider his breakthrough screen role as Cotton Weary, whom he played in the "Scream" trilogy (1996, 1997, 2000). In 1997, he filmed "Sphere," starring Dustin Hoffman, who recommended Schreiber to director Tony Goldwyn for the lead role in his '98 film "A Walk on the Moon." Schreiber played Diane Lane's TV-repairman husband, father of Anna Paquin, and son of Tovah Feldshuh. The movie takes place in 1969, against the background of the Apollo 11 moon walk — and the Woodstock Festival.

HBO's "RKO 281" (1999), the story of the making of "Citizen Kane," starred Schreiber as Orson Welles. "That was very intimidating. They were very big shoes to fill. My family and I are huge fans of his, and I knew I'd be scrutinized by all the other Welles' fans.

Demetri Martin and Liev Schreiber in "Taking Woodstock"
photo by Ken Regan/ © Focus Features

"But it was such a great experience to work with the director, Ben Ross, and an incredible cast: John Malkovich [as writer Herman Mankiewicz], Melanie Griffith [Marian Davies], James Cromwell [William Randolph Hearst], Roy Scheider [studio president George Schaefer], Brenda Blethyn [Louella Parsons], and Fiona Shaw [Hedda Hopper]. It was a remarkable opportunity. I have very fond memories of that." He was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe. Among his other film and TV work are "Hamlet" (as Laertes), "The Manchurian Candidate" remake (Meryl Streep's son), TV's "Lackawanna Blues," "The Painted Veil," opposite Naomi Watts, a four-episode arc filling in for series star William Petersen on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," and "Defiance." In 2005, he wrote and directed "Everything Is Illuminated."

Upcoming, he has three movies. "Repo Men," with Jude Law and Forest Whitaker. "I play a guy who runs a company that repossesses artificial organs that were bought on credit and haven't been paid for. It's a fun sci-fi picture."

"Every Day" co-stars Carla Gugino, Helen Hunt, Brian Dennehy, Eddie Izzard, and Ezra Miller (Tucker on TV's "Royal Pains"). "It's an independent, low-budget film by a first-time director, Richard Levine [who also wrote it]. I play a writer who's going through difficulties in his marriage."

"Salt" co-stars Angelina Jolie, "who plays a CIA agent who's accused of being a Russian mole. It's a thriller, directed by Philip Noyce. I play her boss — and friend."

Do constant questions about "Taking Woodstock" make Schreiber fatigued? "It's only been a day and a half. I'm a little jet-lagged. My family's back in London." He and Naomi Watts have two sons, Alexander "Sasha," 2, and Samuel, 7 months.

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Various and Sundry

Welcome back to "Mad Men" (AMC, Sundays, 10 PM ET), which features two-time Tony winner (How to Succeed..., Tru) Robert Morse, who's sterling as Cooper. The third season premiere was the most-watched episode to date.

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"Royal Pains", the USA series (Thursdays, 10 PM ET), has been picked up for a second season. Starring Mark Feuerstein as a concierge medic in the Hamptons, the series features Campbell Scott and two-time Tony winner (42nd Street, Grey Gardens) Christine Ebersole in recurring roles.

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Also renewed for a second series is HBO's "Hung," starring Thomas Jane and Jane Adams (An Inspector Calls) Tony and Drama Desk winner, with Marylouise Burke playing the mother of Anne Heche.

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Broadway's Scott Ellis, a five-time Tony nominee, directed the final two episodes of the first season (it's been renewed) of Showtime's "Nurse Jackie", starring Edie Falco, with two-time Tony nominees Eve Best and Anna Deavere Smith (coming to Second Stage in Let Me Down Easy).

Ellis' episodes featured four-time Tony nominee Victor Garber (returning to Broadway in Present Laughter), Elizabeth Marvel, Eddie Korbich and Tony winner (The Life) Chuck Cooper (who'll be in Finian's Rainbow).

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Jerry Springer is playing Billy Flynn in Chicago. Who's next? Dr. Phil?

(Stage to Screens is Playbill.com's monthly column that connects the dots between theatre, film and television projects and people. Contact Michael Buckley at stagetoscreens@aol.com.)

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