Not long ago we posted the short version of this interview where Liev talked about his upcoming role in Wolverine. Now we have the long version for you where Liev has a chance to talk about the history and the complexity behind his role in Defiance. Although Defiance is lacking in many areas, when it comes to acting, the film is phenomenal and much of that can be attributed to Liev’s stellar performance alongside Daniel Craig and Jamie Bell.
It was such a pleasure to speak with Liev. If not only for his amazingly deep and steady voice, but also because he’s an amazing story teller. You can tell that he’s an intellectual and yet he’s definitely not afraid to get down in the dirt and have some fun.
He had some amazing insights about his soon to be wide-released film Defiance, as well as his upcoming film Wolverine and much more. Check it out below…
This is a story that people don’t necessarily know about. Did you hear the story before you started researching?
Liev Schreiber: No I hadn’t, which I was really surprised.
Do you have any theories on why this is a story isn’t well known?
LS: Yeah, in researching the Holocaust for work that I had done in the past and for my own film, in trying to speak to survivors looking at doc’s and things like. I found that there were very few people who were willing to talk to me. Very few people who were actual survivors who had been in the thick of it, who had been at events that I was interested in knowing about [would talk to me]. They just didn’t want to talk about it and they wanted to know why I wanted to talk about it. They were suspicious of me. Being in a film, was not a good enough reason to talk about it and as I research the Bielskis themselves I kind of started to see, maybe the possibility of why they didn’t want to talk about. You know I was really interested in the moral ambiguity of what they had done.
To me that’s what makes them heroic. It’s not the other stuff. It’s the vulnerability, it’s the cracks in the armor that equipped them to do what they did. I’m not really supposed to tell you this, but I think it’s so important. There’s a story in Nechama Tec book about a neighbor who let his goat under his fence to graze in their pasture and the two brothers went over to the guy and beat him within an inch of his life. This is long before the Germans even came into Behruz. So, I got a sense that these are guys who [were] already formidable, aggressive, and violent people. Once they lose their parents they go into a kind – it’s not in the film, some of the stuffs in the film – there is a streak of violent acts that they do that is really quite horrible. American GI’s have a term called the Bielski enema, which is where you take a potato masher grenade and put it in the rectum of a German officer and watch the person explode from the inside out. Another thing that they did with people who would collaborate with the police they would decapitate them and they would put their names with signs in the town square and say ‘this is what happens to collaborators.’ These are all documented facts about the Bielskis.
So when I looked at that I started to think these guys saw some things and did some things that they don’t care to remember and they don’t care for anyone else to discuss and yes you can have a dialectic about how heroic they are but eventually you are going to come back to this thing that they have been having nightmares about for fifty years and I think that that’s probably part of why the Bielskis didn’t broadcast their story to the four winds.
Did you get the same reaction with non Bielski kind of survivors? Is this a common phenomenon that when you talk to concentration camp survivors that they don’t want to talk about it? What are the other reasons people have for not wanting to talk about it?
LS: Well the thing that I got interested in and started to write about for my own purposes, was the guilt and shame. There’s a terrific example in a documentary by Menachem Daum called ‘Hiding and Seeking’ in which this guy goes to tell his uncle that he’s going back to visit that Catholic Polish woman who hid his uncle and his father during the war and that was that only way that this family survived. The uncle is flipped out that he’s going to Poland. He tells him “don’t go or he’s going to get killed it’s the most horrible place” and then when the guy says “I’m going to go, but what do I tell the woman who saved your life?” He says don’t tell her anything tell her I’m dead.
[The young boy] meets the woman and she says “oh yeah those boys they said they were going to send me money. Not even a postcard I get from them.” And you realize it’s really easy to cast that uncle as this horrible little Jewish guy who’s trying to rip off the Polish woman who saved his life but when you think about it from an emotional perspective that guy doesn’t think he deserves to live and he hasn’t been able to do what he wanted to do to reward that woman properly because he can’t put a value on his own life. And what’s he going to send her? A hundred bucks, five hundred bucks, a thousand dollars? In his own heart he feels like he’ll never be able to repay her except by dying because that’s what he thinks should’ve happened to him and that was what interested me about survivor guilt.
Did they have a pretty low profile once they immigrated to the United States? Did they just have normal lives?
LS: Almost less than normal. It was almost as if they were trying to blend in as easily as they could and as quickly as they could and I found that that was the case with most of the survivors that I had met or interviewed.
The grandchildren of the character you played came on the set and what was that like for you?
LS: I was very intimidated by it. It’s hard enough when you’re playing a historical character and then you have their son watching you play them. It was a real treat for me, eventually to meet him but I kind of hid most of the time those set visits were going on.
With every film there is a challenge with the location filming but in this one there was an extra special difficulty with the location filming can you talk about what it was like filming here and what it was like on set?
LS: Well it was cold. We were in the woods right outside of Donius which is give or take a hundred kilometers from where this actually happened. That’s what I love about movies is that you get to go to these places it’s really remarkable. I also think that the cold and those woods were there before we got there and they’re gong to be there a long time after we leave and Partisans were in those woods, the Nazis were in those woods, there was a real sense of a continuum. It was very inspiring to me as an actor and I think the cold also helps. The big things that I think are important as an actor rarely matter, it’s the little things that kind of lend credibility to me. When someone’s hand is too cold to hold a gun, those are the things I find emotional. When someone is shivering it’s not acting and those are the things that give me the immersion into the period and I forget that I’m watching so and so play such and such.
Were there any special challenges of filming on the location?
LS: Yeah it was freezing! [laughter] We were all freezing and ironically with this kind of film any challenge is actually a benefit because you are getting closer to what ostensibly they went through. We couldn’t get the trailers close enough for to make sense to warm up between takes. You had a kind of quarter mile hike out of the woods to get to a trailer so you didn’t, you sat around in a group, you huddled. You drank tea and you told stories and you goofed off and that created at least for me a great sense of community.
Would you like to do that in future movies? Just hang out with all the other actors?
LS: The problem is everyone has to do it and that rarely happens. I was really shocked because this guys a major motion pick star there’s no reason why she should do that but that’s his way of working.
Given your background in stage and indie movies do you like to be an action guy?
Whats the fun of just having that machine gun and just going at it?
LS: What’s the fun? Ever play cops and robbers, or cowboys and Indians? I hate if I’m blowing anyone’s cover here. I don’t think men really grow past 22 intellectually. Do you know what I mean? Physically we just grow older and we are less capable of doing the things we want to do but I don’t think we stop wanting to do them.
You’re in this Wolverine movie coming up so how much fun did you have being in that?
LS: It was insanely fun. I felt again, I felt very self conscious initially because I knew fans didn’t like that idea of me playing Sabertooth. I think I am perceived as a kind of urbane New York… I don’t know maybe I’ve done too many movies with Jewish characters [laughter] and they’re like “It’s like Woody Allen playing Sabertooth” and I’m like no actually it’s not. I’m 6 foot 3 I’m bigger than Hugh Jackman [laughter] I can do this.
Can you take him?
LS: I can take him. [Laughter] No I really can. In fact I do. But the reality is that he’s become – Hugh since I’ve known him, I’ve known him a long time – has become this colossus of a man. He’s huge and muscles everywhere and I have to play this guy who whoops his ass. So as soon as I was finished ‘Defiance’ I began this kind of four month training period, weight lifting period, genocide of chickens phase of my life where I just got bigger and bigger. It was awful but amazing and fun. When I finally got there and I got to choreograph the fights with Hugh and get on the wire and do the work it was just a lot of fun, I saw some footage it’s pretty cool.
You are listed twice as Victor Creed and Sabertooth and I was wondering why that is?
LS: [Sinister laugh] What’s that about? Victor Creed is Sabertooth.
So that’s why it’s listed twice?
LS: Just wanted everybody to know I got a name. [Laughter]
Could you talk about how long you were filming that and can you talk about what research you did? Did you read the comics?
LS: I read the comics before I got offered the part. I mean I knew the character really well. Initially I was asked to play Striker and I asked “is there any chance I might be able to play this Victor Creed guy?” The research that I did on it. Victor’s particular mutant issue has nothing to do with his name Sabertooth, but that was the place I decided to start. Just what is a Sabertooth and how does that work? How do they move? What are their behavioral characteristics? I knew this stuff from the comic, I knew that he was just a complete savage street fighter and that was his MO but what I hadn’t seen in some of the earlier films that I was curious to kind of pursue is what drives the guy and what are the kind of qualities- I guess for be it’s the same thing with a character like Zus- rather than just say they’re a violent brute what’s the cocktail that makes the brute tick. Hopefully people will like it.
What do you have coming up next? What about you about to shot next?
LS: Nothing. I’m getting ready for another baby. Any minute now. That’s going to keep me on the bench for a while.
Are you looking to direct again?
LS: Yeah. There’s a couple things that I’ve been working on. Trying to develop further. Right now with the sheer volume of the acting stuff that I’ve done and the fact that I’ve got a kid coming I just want wait a little bit.
Are you a different actor since doing ‘Everything is Illuminated’? Did directing the move change the way you act?
LS: Yes it did. ‘Everything is Illuminated’ was for me was a wonderful experience but at the same time it cost me a tremendous amount to make that film in a lot of different ways. Emotionally, psychologically, physically, career… lot of things. That I was happy to pay, but I think that it gave me a… It was a deep sense of responsibility towards my own family, towards Jonathan the writer of the book, towards the audience and it was very overwhelming because I had taken things kind of lightly as an actor. That you could move through a career as an actor without ever engaging in what you are doing. When you direct a film, you write a film, you are responsible for the film. People can say I like your performance or I didn’t like your performance but when you direct a film its like ‘what the hell were you thinking?’ And “who are you and why did you do that?” The buck stops there. I guess the truth is that, that can cripple you or you can accept that as one of the great benefits of being an artist as that you can be responsible for your work and not have it be devastating. For instance people can say why are you doing all these action movies and it’s because I find them thrilling! They’re fun! I completely support and promote that endeavor of going to the movie,s it should be fun. But I think after ‘Illuminated’ there was a sense getting older and going, well you know, you do do have to be responsible for your work and you do have to be able to engage with what you’re doing and not have it cripple you.
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Defiance is set for wide release on January 16th 2009.