Liev Schreiber has filled pretty big shoes as an actor. He played Orson Welles in the TV movie RKO 281, which chronicled the making of Citizen Kane and made insane dedication appealing. He stepped into the Laurence Harvey role in last year's remake of The Manchurian Candidate, holding his own against co-stars Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington. Most recently he had the daunting task of performing David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway, playing slick salesman Ricky Roma—a role immortalized by Al Pacino in the film version. Not only did Schreiber make the part his own, he snagged a Tony Award for his efforts. So it's interesting to note Schreiber didn't originally intend to pursue acting; he wanted to be a playwright. "I wrote monologue shows in college, that's how I started acting," Schreiber says. "I had a playwriting teacher in college, and when I wanted to apply to Yale, I was trying to decide whether to apply as a playwright or an actor. He said, 'Apply as an actor, and you'll probably get in.' At the time I took it as an insult to my writing ability, but I think he meant it as a compliment to my acting."
While his acting career went on to great success, Schreiber never lost interest in the written word. Even now he chooses his words carefully, speaking slowly and deliberately in his recognizable low voice. Several years ago he was developing his first screenplay, a personal story about a young man who visits the Ukraine to learn about his heritage, when he came across a short story by Jonathan Safran Foer in the summer 2001 "Debut Fiction" issue of The New Yorker called The Very Rigid Search. "I was just blown away by it," he recalls. "He had accomplished in 15 pages what I had really only grazed in 107. So I quickly reorganized myself and met with him and asked if I could make a film out of his story." The two bonded over "grandfathers, culture, and scatological humor" and felt they would make a good team on a film project.
As it turned out, Search was an excerpt of Foer's novel, Everything Is Illuminated, which was published shortly thereafter in 2002 and went on to become a literary sensation, making the bestseller lists and earning several awards. Fortunately, Schreiber had already locked down the rights to the film. Still, he was a little taken aback Foer agreed so quickly to let a first-time writer-director take on the project. "I guess I was surprised," he admits. "Although at the time, he wasn't Jonathan Safran Foer, cultural icon. This was before the book came out, and he was just this 23-year-old kid. Of course, about a week after I finished the script, the book came out and was on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, and I knew I was in for a ride."
Shot over 42 days in Prague, Czech Republic, Everything Is Illuminated is essentially a chamber piece among three individuals—an American (Elijah Wood), a Ukrainian youth who serves as his tour guide (Eugene Hutz), and the guide's grandfather (Boris Leskin). Schreiber had spent a lot of time working in Eastern Europe as an actor and knew he needed someone likeable to represent his country. "I was sort of depressed about some of the clichés Eastern Europeans have about us as Americans," he notes. "And I understand, because they're so inundated with our media that a lot of their clichés are based on what we send them. I wanted to put my best foot forward and show a character who was vulnerable and open and good-natured and compassionate and flawed, and, more important than anything, someone who is looking for his heritage beyond the borders of his own country. Elijah fit that perfectly. That is, to a degree, who Elijah is. He's a remarkably good-natured person." Schreiber never considered casting himself, though he does confess to a "hiccup" of Foer himself taking on the role. "He wanted to," Schreiber confesses. "I considered it for about a few seconds. I just felt it was too much, it was too self-conscious. I wanted some distance on it, and I wanted Jonathan to have some distance on it."
Finding an American actor presented Schreiber with a large playing field, but when it came to casting the Ukrainians, he had fewer choices. He admits to being heavily influenced by the films of Bosnian director Emir Kusturica (Time of the Gypsies, Underground), who frequently casts nonactors in roles, and considered doing the same. For the grandfather, he chose Leskin, a stage actor who has worked frequently in New York and St. Petersburg, Russia. For the pivotal role of the young tour guide, Alex, Schreiber selected Hutz, the lead singer of a Ukrainian gypsy punk band called Gogol Bordello. Hutz had been living in New York for the last 10 years and was already familiar with the novel when his agent contacted him about meeting Schreiber to discuss music for the film. A few minutes into the meeting, Schreiber asked Hutz to audition for the film. Though he had no acting experience, the director was taken by his natural charisma. "Eugene is a performer, he's a rock star," says Schreiber. "It was just about getting him to understand the perspective and size. He's not playing in an arena anymore, he's playing six inches in front of his face. So he had to stop any kind of contrivance and let go and trust that who he is is compelling enough for the camera."
Each role entailed heavily charged emotional moments, and Schreiber took great care to keep the performances raw and natural. "The dominant thing to convey to someone—particularly someone who's never acted before—is that it's much, much simpler than they think it is," he notes. "The more they can shed the notion of trying to 'act' something, the better they're going to come off on film."
With Hutz, there was a specific learning curve, not only because he was a newcomer but also because of the language barrier. At times, Schreiber found himself giving the actor line readings to help nail the character's sense of humor. "The dialogue was written with such a specific comic timing, I had to play it with him to give him a sense of what the meter was so he could imitate it," explains Schreiber. "But that doesn't take anything away from him, because he's so charismatic and so much his own person, it still all comes screaming through. I could never do the part as well as Eugene, that's for sure."
As an actor, Schreiber has worked with a wide range of great directors, including Jonathan Demme, Norman Jewison, and Ron Howard. He has also, he admits, worked with his share of not-so-good directors. His advice on getting through those times is simply to do the best work you can. "You don't take it personally, you don't get caught up in whatever they're caught up in, and you try to stay in line with what they're asking but stay true to your instincts and yourself," he says. "And trust it'll all come out in the wash."
Schreiber isn't sure he'll direct again—asking him that now, he says, is like "asking a woman in the midst of a Caesarean if she wants to have another child"—but he is proud of his work on the film and has been mulling over the experience. "For the longest time, I thought, 'Shit, what is a good director? What do I know? I know acting. So how do I at least act like a good director?'" he muses. "It probably wasn't until I had nearly finished the film that I realized the role of the director is truly to illuminate the talent of the people he's working with. That's your job: to find the talent in the people around you and illuminate it. If you do that, you're 90 percent of the way there."
Ultimately, Schreiber cites his talented cast with making the experience so positive. "They were so patient with me," he raves. "There were moments when I was directing that, if I were me, I would have hit me." BSW