Pablo Schreiber is very good at being bad. The Tony nominee for "Awake and Sing!" and half brother of Liev Schreiber is compelling and repelling viewers on Netflix's hit "Orange Is the New Black." Schreiber plays prison guard George "Pornstache" Mendez—so named for his John Holmeseque facial hair, who thinks nothing of copping a feel from the female inmates. He will also return to "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" Sept. 25 as rapist William Lewis to wrap up last season's cliffhanger. And while his future on "Orange" is uncertain—they're currently filming the second season but nothing has been confirmed regarding his return—he starts a new series in the fall with the premiere of the rebooted "Ironside." Backstage spoke to Schreiber about finding the heart of a villain and the surprise success of "Orange."
Embrace the love. And the hate.
Schreiber is enjoying portraying the controversial Pornstache, even though some viewers despise his character. Say people are in love his performance and he corrects, “They’re madly in love-slash-hate. Which is just as I would have it.” He relishes the opportunity to play someone so awful, noting, “What a great freedom to be given the gift of having zero filter and no inhibitions.” He admits that the success of the show, which has beaten properties like “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development” for views, has caught everyone off guard. “I think part of that is the element of discovery. Because there’s no major brand names associated with it, other than maybe Jenji [Kohan, the creator]. So I think people had a real sense of discovery. How many wonderful actresses are there in that show that you’ve never heard of and just knock your socks off?”
Take a leap of faith.
Schreiber signed on to play Pornstache having only read the pilot script, in which the character makes a brief appearance as he checks in new inmates. “There wasn’t much of a character yet,” he admits. “I had no idea what was in store.” He had previously worked with Kohan on “Weeds” and says she “is a person I would follow anywhere.” He also had a friend in the writer’s room who tipped him off that there would be fun stuff for the part. “But I didn’t know what it would entail or become,” he says. “I think three or four episodes in, I started to sense something, just by the reactions on set and how much the crew was enjoying the character.”
Find the humanity. And the facial hair.
In his review of Neil LaBute’s play “Reasons to Be Pretty,” New York Times critic Ben Brantley said Schreiber “confirms his great gift for making unsympathetic characters not just believable but also understandable.” This was after Schreiber had played twins in “Dying City,” one of which was an angry actor who lashed out at others. Says Schreiber, “If there is a reason I’m able to make unsympathetic characters human it’s because it’s my desire to find what drives the unsympathetic behavior. Almost always at the bottom of it is some deep insecurity. Putting your finger on what each individual’s particular insecurity is goes a long way to fleshing that person out.” Also helping is just the right facial hair—his character in “Pretty” sported a pathetic goatee that he says “really helps communicate you’re playing a douchebag.” And believe it or not, the moustache he sports on “Orange Is the New Black” is not his own. Calling his upper lip “folliclely challenged,” he says the moustache was key to the role. “The role was an offer, but they did bring me in to try on moustaches,” Schreiber admits. “I was very eager to find the right look. I wanted him to have a flattop like Dolph Lundgren so I brought in a picture of him from ‘Rocky IV’ and we did our best to imitate that style. “
Schreiber will get a chance to “get a little closer back to myself and play a good guy” with “Ironside,” premiering Oct. 2 on NBC. The reboot of the Raymond Burr classic finds Blair Underwood as a cop, paralyzed in the line of duty, who puts together a special task force of officers. Schreiber plays Virgil Burke, who he says has a history of violent sanctions, but lives in the suburbs with his family. “He’s trying to balance the violent nature of the job and how much he actually likes it with being a family guy at home,” he says. “There’s still some darkness there, but at least he works for the right team.” And what kind of facial hair will be sporting on the series? Schreiber laughs. “There will be no facial hair in this one! I am completely clean shaven!”