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Actor Liev Schreiber.

Actor Liev Schreiber. The 32-year old's film credits include "The Daytrippers," "A Walk on the Moon," and the "Scream" movies. He's currently starring in New York in the Public Theatre's new production of "Hamlet." And he plays Orson Welles in the HBO drama "RKO 281" about the clash between Welles and William Randolph Hearst over the making of Welles's masterpiece, "Citizen Kane." It premiered last night.

44:24

Other segments from the episode on November 23, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 23, 1999: Interview with Liev Schreiber; Review of Ha Jin's novel "Waiting."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: NOVEMBER 23, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 112301np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: "RKO 281": An Interview with Liev Schreiber
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Liev Schreiber is best known for his roles in the films "The Daytrippers," "Scream 2," and "A Walk on the Moon." Now he's playing Hamlet at the Public Theater in New York. Previews begin tonight. And he's starring as the 24-year-old Orson Welles in the HBO movie "RKO 281," about the making of the 1941 film "Citizen Kane."

John Malkovich plays Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay with Welles, and James Cromwell plays newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, who was the basis of the Kane character and tried to prevent the studio from releasing the film.

In this scene, Liev Schreiber as Orson Welles is speaking to the RKO executives, urging them not to cave in to Hearst's pressure. He's comparing Hearst's attempts at suppression to Hitler's.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "RKO 281)

LIEV SCHREIBER, ACTOR: Gentlemen, I am one voice, that is all. My pictures, one voice, one view, one opinion, nothing more. Men are dying in Europe now, and Americans soon will be, so that we can surmount the tyrants and the dictators.

Will you send a message across America that one man can take away our voices?

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: Liev Schreiber spoke to us from his home in Manhattan.

Liev Schreiber, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SCHREIBER: Thank you very much.

GROSS: I think when you play a real person, it's a kind of difficult line to walk between impersonation and acting. What did you do to study Orson Welles and to get a sense of how you wanted to portray him, both vocally and physically?

SCHREIBER: Well, I was -- here I was sort of predisposed to a problem, because as an actor, I've never, ever enjoyed mimicry. I've always thought that it's a mistake. In a particular genre of theater it's wonderful, you know, the impersonator or the mime or the mimic. But I've never really enjoyed that much in my own character work, especially in biopictures, because I find that what normally happens is that you're sort of begging comparison there. And I think it would be a terrible mistake for one to try to beg comparison to Orson Welles.

So for me, I did pretty much all of the research I could. I read about five different biographies, I watched every piece of footage that HBO could get from me, and they got me an enormous amount of footage. What I knew already from doing the research and from watching him and just sort of putting it inside my head, I sort of had hoped would serve me.

And then just to try and tell the story based on the circumstances and not so much on the character was what I tried to do. It just is -- it's more interesting to me, because I -- hopefully that way you can get the audience to identify with the character rather than to say, Ooh, that's Orson Welles.

GROSS: So after studying his voice, you didn't really want to do his voice.

SCHREIBER: Well, you couldn't -- you kind of can't help it. (laughs) You kind of can't -- he had such a distinctive voice. And, you know, after listening to the tapes for weeks and weeks, it did sort of stick in my head. And I think also, you know, there are -- if there are any similarities between myself and Orson -- and believe me, I would love to find as many as I possibly could -- there was -- I have a very deep voice, and I was also a classically trained actor theater-wise.

And Orson spent a lot of time doing voice technique. He actually had a much higher voice than most people think. In fact, he had a higher voice than me. And what he was trying to do in these voice classes was to lower his voice. And there's a technique of sort of sitting on the diaphragm that gives you a deeper vocal quality -- (hums) that the effect that also has is giving you kind of a breathy delivery, which was sort of -- to me was distinctively Orson.

He would sort of sit back on his throat -- to make his voice deep -- like that. The problem is -- when you're doing that -- you can't -- get much air -- to your lungs. So -- you take -- a lot of breaths.

And it also makes for pretty dramatic pausing.

GROSS: Right.

SCHREIBER: And that was kind of -- when I sort of discovered that, I thought that was pretty fun, because it came more out of a desire to make his voice deeper than it was. He was always trying to be deeper, older, more intense than he was. (laughs)

GROSS: You gained 25 pounds for the role. If it was me, I would worry that taking off would be hard, and that I'd somehow be permanently changed by it, like I think DeNiro never really quite regained the form that he had before "Raging Bull." Though he put on a lot more weight that you had to. Did you have any concerns about how it might permanently affect your body as an actor?

SCHREIBER: I -- no, actually I didn't have the presence of mind to think that it might permanently affect my body.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHREIBER: I was just enjoying it too much, really. It really was just solid pleasure. I'd never sort of -- I haven't enjoyed any -- hadn't enjoyed preparing for a character so much as when I gained the 20 pounds for Orson. I mean, it was really just sort of letting go, sort of, you know, eat anything I want whenever I want. You know, it was more of a surrender to the appetites than it was a sort of conscious weight gain thing.

GROSS: Was that good preparation, just in the sense of -- like Orson Welles having a big appetite too?

SCHREIBER: Well, that's what it was to me. It was just -- you know, you know, I'd find myself out to dinner with somebody, and they -- you know, they'd ask me what I was having, and I would think to myself, and, like, you know, my actor vanity would go, Oh, geez, I'd better not have the creme brulee. And then I would realize, Well, wait a minute, now, what would Orson say?

GROSS: (laughs)

SCHREIBER: And it was great, I got to pig out for two months.

No, but I hadn't -- it hadn't occurred to me.

You know, also, DeNiro, it was, like, it's that age, you know, a guy reaches that age, which I'm, you know, on -- reaching now, where, you know, your body just does change, you know, and you're no longer that lithesome, lean 28-year-old. Around 30, 31, it all starts to shift downward on guys.

GROSS: The new Orson Welles movie that you star in, "RKO 281," is about two men who are obsessed with being great, you know, Hearst and Welles. And I'm wondering if you can relate at all to men who are really about being great. I mean, that's their goal in life, is to be great.

SCHREIBER: I think that what was interesting to me about this story was that -- and I think probably what was also interesting to Orson, although he may not have admitted it at the time -- was the similarities between the two characters.

GROSS: Between Hearst and Welles?

SCHREIBER: Yes. Both in background and upbringing and education and everything. They're two guys who lost their connection to their parents fairly early in life, had tremendous backgrounds of privilege. And I think out of that developed a lack of sense of self. And one of the ways that I think intelligent people deal with this lack of self is ambition, is trying to define themselves or live up to the mantles of other people's definitions. In Orson's case, since he was 8 years old, he was, you know, touted as a genius.

And I think Hearst, being the son of a billionaire, realized that he had to live up to that image himself also. But he was going to do it in a different way.

And I think somewhere in that tremendous ambition, you know, ferocious appetite for power and fame and success, was a very sort of innocent search for self, or trying to find self.

And at the end of that road is a kind of devastating loneliness, which is what I think Orson dramatized in "Citizen Kane," which, you know, to me, for a 24-year-old guy to have that kind of emotional maturity to understand that, not just in the context of Hearst's life, but clearly implicating himself, was really part of what made it a wonderful movie to me.

GROSS: My guest is actor Liev Schreiber. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guest is Liev Schreiber, and he's now starring in a movie about Orson Welles and the making of "Citizen Kane," called "RKO 281," on HBO.

You're now preparing to do "Hamlet" at the Public Theater in New York.

SCHREIBER: Yes, I figured I'd take a couple of light roles this year.

GROSS: (laughs) Yes. Well, it's the role actors are supposed to want to do to show that they've reached the heights, that they can take it on, that they can scale the Mount Everest of acting.

Do you think of Hamlet that way, as being like The Summit?

SCHREIBER: I honestly never thought I would play it, and I honestly never had any problem with that. I love Shakespeare, and I do about two a year, and I've been doing with the -- doing them with the Public now since I got out of graduate school. And it just had never occurred to me as a role that I would play. I figured -- you know, I've played Laertes and I've played Rosenkranz. And I figured maybe in 15 years I'll make a good Claudius.

But I never imagined in a million years that I would play Hamlet. And we had a very successful production of "Cymbeline" last year in which I played Iachimo, and it got very good reviews. And people were speaking very nicely about me and Shakespeare. And George Wolfe (ph), who runs the Public Theater, at his birthday party last year said, "You know, I'd like you to do another play." And I said, "Geez, I'd love to do another play," you know, and he said, "Well, good, and we'll talk about which one soon."

And I went home and I thought, you know, OK, maybe I'll, you know, maybe I'll try and pitch "Winter's Tale," because I've always loved Leontes, you know. Or at best, "Coriolanus."

And I go into his office prepared to talk about these two characters, and he says, "Well, I want you to do Hamlet." I went -- you know, I sort of had to catch my breath for a second. And I said, "OK, yes, I think I can work that into the schedule."

It's a wonderful play. I think the problem with it has always been that -- for me, in production is that I think you're right, it has always been a play that has signified an actor's ascension to a certain plateau or something, or a certain level. And because of that, the play is usually treated as a showcase for a particular actor's talents.

Now, the problem, when you read this play, is, I really believe that this is probably the greatest piece of dramatic literature we have ever seen, or at least I have ever seen. And the problem with approaching it this way is that, you know, you spend the first couple of acts going, Geez, what a talented and smart actor this guy is, you know. Third act, you know, Oh, God, he's so talented, he's so smart. The fourth act, He's so talented, he's so smart.

By the beginning of the fifth act, you want to go get a drink, because you know how the talented smart guy's going to end the show.

And it never kind of gets at the depth of the play.

So I had -- I decided that I wanted to find a director who would illuminate the play, in a way. So I hired Andre Serban, who did the "Cymbeline" with me last year, and he's sort of a deconstructionalist of sorts. And he's been doing a remarkable job with it, just sort of taking the play apart bit by bit and finding out how it works.

GROSS: Tell me what you and he have been talking about in terms of restaging and reinterpreting "Hamlet."

SCHREIBER: Well, I think the biggest issue for us right off the bat was that you have to start from the assumption that this is probably one of the most well-known plays, if not the most well-known play, in the world. And because it is sort of so deeply woven into the fabric of people's subconscious, you have a benefit there, and there's also -- and obviously the problem that people get bored because they know the story.

So initially what we were trying to do was to find a way to approach every scene in a completely fresh and new way, with a new idea and a new interpretation, so that -- which, you know, can really annoy and infuriate some of the, you know, Shakespeare professionals. But ultimately, I feel like if you do that, what happens is, the audience kind of goes, What's going on?

And as soon as they go, What's going on? they're listening to the words, and the words hit.

GROSS: Right.

SCHREIBER: And so that was sort of the initial idea for us, was just to try and find a way to reinvent every scene as we went.

The next thing that I was interested in, and Andre and I had talked about this, was that it's a way that I -- and I've always approached character from the perspective that you are trying to get the audience to identify with the character, because that's sort of the deepest response that they can have to anything, is experiencing it themselves.

And the idea that Hamlet is the audience, and the audience is Hamlet, and what is illusion, what is reality, what is theater, how much of the experience sort of in a Brechtian way, how much of the experience is purely theatrical, and how much of the experience is personal? How much of the experience is acting, how much of the experience is real?

And in that way, trying to involve the audience in the journey of Hamlet more personally.

GROSS: One of the traditional problems that a lot of people have when they see Shakespeare is that if there are either British actors or American actors trying to be British, that because some of the language is archaic and because the accents can be kind of thick, depending on who's doing it, it can be hard to actually follow the words and understand what's being said.

And I'm wondering if you feel like you're dealing with that as a naturalistic American actor.

SCHREIBER: Well, I'm not really a naturalistic American actor. I'm an American actor, I've done some naturalism. But what Andre wants to do in this production that I think is exciting is that part of understanding that this is theater, and part of demonstrating that this is theater, in our production we kind of try to switch acting styles constantly.

I do -- I know what you mean about the language. Andre once said that, you know, if you're lucky, the audience gets one-fifth of what you say, which was sort of a challenge to us as the actors, to try and make them get at least a third.

I believe that, you know, if you're in touch with what you're saying, and you know what it means, it's conveyed.

GROSS: How has the meaning of "Hamlet" changed for you since you first studied it in high school or college?

SCHREIBER: Oh, it has changed so dramatically for me. You know, I was -- reading this play this year was -- it was so interesting to me. I had been told by Sam Waterston, who'd played Hamlet -- we had a talk about it, and he was kind enough to give me some tips. And he told me that most of "Hamlet" is based on Shakespeare's readings of Montaigne. So I started reading Montaigne's essays.

And Montaigne was this sort of wonderful Renaissance philosopher who, like, you know, most great Renaissance philosophers, spoke in the first person, which was very refreshing to people. It was -- he could only write from what he had seen, rather than write about the body politic or society as the -- his -- you know, the philosophers before him did.

And it's such a personal play, and it's so simple, it's so lucid. And I think that's why people love it. And yet what he's writing about and what he's talking about are essentially the questions that I believe the human mind was sort of designed to exercise itself on -- Who am I, and why am I here? -- in a very immediate way.

And I think all of the issues in that -- in this play have tremendous resonance in everyone's life, for me in particular, you know, the speech, "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow," the idea that what will be shall be, and in that case, he ends that speech very simply with the two monosyllabic words, "Let be," which is kind of wonderful advice.

And to me, in, you know, in picking my way through the maze of a career in film and theater, it's very easy to want to anticipate your future and want to predict your future, want to improve your career. And the problem with that is that you spend a lot of time ignoring the moment and not noticing the tremendous opportunities that are afforded you along the way, you know, if you're constantly thinking about, Well, I've got to get here so I can get this kind of job, or I've got to do this so I can do that.

And that has a -- that way lies a lot of confusion and depression.

GROSS: My guest is Liev Schreiber, and he's preparing to play Hamlet at the Public Theater. And he's also starring as Orson Welles in a movie about the making of "Citizen Kane" called "RKO 281." It's a movie for HBO.

Now, you studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in England after studying at Yale. Did you learn a really different approach to acting at RADA than you did, you know, in -- at Yale?

SCHREIBER: I actually studied with a junior year abroad program that was with faculty from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. And it was before I went to graduate school.

GROSS: I see.

SCHREIBER: But, yes, I learned a very different approach, and I loved it. I mean, because art is subsidized, and they're having trouble with it right now, but because art is subsidized, at least in 1987, much better than it is here in America, they have -- there is a pragmatism to teaching and learning theater, because it's a viable career in Europe. Whereas in America, it's still sort of considered kind of, you know, (inaudible) you'd call that, in America it's still kind of considered a hobby and less of a career.

And so they train very pragmatically there, which I liked. They -- there's fencing training, you have to learn to fight, because you're going to be doing classical plays. There's voice training, there's speech training. And the whole approach is very pragmatic, which I like a lot, because a lot of the sort of esoteric mumbo-jumbo of acting, I think, can get very confusing.

But it was wonderful to be able to have both, and then in going to Yale after I returned, Yale was also a very pragmatic, and it's what I liked a lot about it, was that their theory of teaching theater was sort of trial by fire. You did, by the time you graduated, about 30 productions, which were mounted with budgets and sets in front of audiences.

And for me, you know, having not had a lot of experience performing on a stage in front of people, that was invaluable.

GROSS: Is the mumbo-jumbo you were talking about like theories about how to get in touch with your emotions and portray emotion?

SCHREIBER: Yes. I think that -- you know, I think that -- you know, actors sometimes worry too much about putting themselves in their roles, rather than putting their roles in themselves. I kind of believe that it's always a good idea to try and see the actor -- the character, rather, as something beyond yourself, so that you're always reaching for something or striving towards something, rather than being complacent in character.

It just tends to make the characterizations more interesting.

GROSS: Liev Schreiber is starring as Orson Welles in the new HBO movie, "RKO 281." He's playing Hamlet in a production at the Public Theater in New York. It begins previews tonight.

He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with actor Liev Schreiber.

Earlier we talked about his role as Orson Welles in the HBO movie "RKO 281," about the making of "Citizen Kane," and we discussed preparing to play Hamlet. He begins previews tonight at the Public Theater in New York.

In this part of our interview, we'll get to his earlier work. Schreiber spoke to us from his home in Manhattan.

Let's talk about your movies. You started off in independent film, "Party Girl," "Walking and Talking," "Daytrippers." You've also made, you know, major motion pictures like "Ransom" with Mel Gibson, "Scream 1" and "Scream 2."

Is there a big difference for you between the two types of films?

SCHREIBER: Well, money is the biggest difference.

GROSS: Yes, well, that's a pretty big difference.

SCHREIBER: I enjoy them both, and I've been lucky enough to be able to do them both, because it's sort of affords me a career. But I really love doing independent films. And I think part of what I love about them is the lack of money.

It was interesting, you know, doing "RKO 281," and watching the way in which Orson made this film reminded me a lot of how independent films go down. There's a kind of desperation and a resourcefulness that is -- that comes out of the lack of time and money. And that kind of creative energy that is born out of desperation is really kind of remarkable.

And it also tends to make you do things in different ways. What was so fascinating to me about "Kane" was that so much of what Orson was doing with that film was just out of necessity. He didn't have time for a lot of coverage. And so he would do these master shots. And he had this brilliant DP, Greg Toland, who had designed this lens that had tremendous depth, so you could play everything in the master.

And that was something that, you know, studios had decided, well, that wasn't a very interesting shot, a master shot. We wanted closeups, we wanted well-lit closeups. But it was interesting to the audience, because all of the action was suddenly contained.

And things like that happen on independent films all the time, because the filmmakers are often young and inexperienced, and they don't necessarily follow the rules of editing or the rules of shooting. And sometimes a lot more interesting things can happen, certainly more interesting scripts can get produced.

GROSS: Well, let me play a scene from one of your films. This is the film "Daytrippers" that came out a little more than two years ago. This is a really funny film, and your character in this is a would-be novelist. Your girlfriend is played by Parker Posey. And in this scene, you're in a car with her whole family, her sister, who's just found a letter indicating her husband is probably having an affair. And their parents -- the mother is played by Anne Meara.

And in this scene, Parker Posey is explaining to her parents that you are writing a novel.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "DAYTRIPPERS")

PARKER POSEY, ACTRESS: It's far out, it's brilliant.

SCHREIBER: I don't think your parents want to hear my novel.

POSEY: Mom and Dad, do you want to hear about Karl's novel?

ANNE MEARA, ACTRESS: Oh, yeah, sure, Karl.

SCHREIBER: Well, Rita, it's an allegory about spiritual survival in the contemporary world. The main character is this freak of nature. He's this man who doesn't have a normal head. He was born with a dog's head.

MEARA: A dog's head?

SCHREIBER: Yes, you know, sort of a fantastical story.

POSEY: It's like a fable.

SCHREIBER: Yes, like "Master and Margarita," or...

POSEY: "Animal Farm."

SCHREIBER: "Animal" -- yes, exactly, very Kafkaesque.

MEARA: Karl, I'm not an educated woman.

POSEY: It's Dr. Suess for adults, Mom.

MEARA: Oh. Oh, yeah.

SCHREIBER: So everyone else in the book is normal, except for the man with the dog's head, who really only wants...

ACTOR: What kind of dog?

POSEY: Dad, it's not important.

SCHREIBER: No, no, nononono, it is important. Actually that's very important. It's a German short-haired pointer. You see, it's actually especially important that it's a pointer, because that's a crucial metaphor. Because in the book, he's sort of a visionary, you know? You know, pointing the way to salvation?

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: You're really funny in that scene, and I think this kind of pretentious would-be writer is probably a familiar character to you. You probably have met many people you could have based this on.

SCHREIBER: Yes, yes. Yes, I mean, Greg Mettola is the guy who's my best friend who actually -- who wrote "Daytrippers" and directed it, has a good dose of Karl in him, actually.

GROSS: Oh. (laughs)

SCHREIBER: But much more refined, much more refined.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Tell me more about this character for you.

SCHREIBER: I -- you know, when I went in -- when they initially gave me this script, you know, I think the woman who gave it to me said that, Oh, you'll love this, this guy's a real asshole. And I thought, Well, that's odd that she thinks that I like to play assholes or something.

And then I read the script, and, you know, I guess I kind of did have a reputation for playing kind of awkward characters or sort of weird characters. And I guess to some extent it's probably because I identify with them. And I think ultimately audiences probably do as well.

But that -- you know, we don't -- we -- I don't believe that we identify with the romantic lead. I think that we want to love them or take care of them, but I think that all of us, out of our insecurity, tend to identify with the other guy. And Karl, to me, was a terrific example of that, because here was a guy who was a completely obnoxious pain in the butt all the time.

So what was redeeming about him? What was interesting about him? Because you were going to obviously -- if you're going to play this part, you're going to get a lot of good gags, you're going to get a lot of good gags, it means you can make a lot of jokes at the character's expense.

But is there something about him that we can identify with? And what I really loved about Karl was that everything that Karl was doing that was obnoxious was in the service of being liked.

GROSS: Right.

SCHREIBER: Do you know what I mean?

GROSS: Yes, uh-huh.

SCHREIBER: And that's all he really wanted. He really just wanted to be liked. He wanted people to like him, which is something that I think we can all identify with. I mean, the ludicrous things that we do on a daily basis just because we want to impress somebody, or we want somebody to love us.

I thought it was a tremendously sweet gesture from that character. Everything that he did that was so obnoxious to me seemed wonderfully sweet.

GROSS: Let's go to another scene of yours. This is from "Scream 2," in which you play Cotton, the character who's done time for murders that he didn't commit. And at the beginning of "Scream 2," he's released from prison, and a TV reporter, played by Courtney Cox, kind of brings him to the character who he had been, you know, accused of terrorizing, Neve Campbell. And she wants to interview them both together, and Neve Campbell is just appalled that something so insensitive, you know, could be happening here.

So she leaves. Later he catches up with her in the library and insists that they do an interview together, because he's gotten this great offer from Diane Sawyer.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "SCREAM 2")

SCHREIBER: Who calls me out of the blue but Diane Sawyer? Believe me, Sid, I was as shocked as you are. Anyway, she tells me that if you and I go on the air together, she will give us the entire hour. We're talking prime time, Sid, you, me, and Diane Sawyer.

NEVE CAMPBELL, ACTRESS: Cotton, I can't.

SCHREIBER: (inaudible), this is about money. It's not like we're not getting paid, OK? There's $10,000 each, not to mention what I've got going on the side with the 900 number.

CAMPBELL: Cotton...

SCHREIBER: I don't (inaudible). You don't like depressing, I know that and I respect it, Sidney. But Sidney, it's Diane Sawyer. Hello! She's a class act, Sidney. This could be some very, very heavy exposure.

I'm sorry.

CAMPBELL: Look, between the movie and the book, people know the truth. Let's get on with our lives. There's been enough exposure. Why would you want any more?

SCHREIBER: Why? Oh, I don't know, Sidney, I don't know, maybe because I (EXPLETIVE DELETED) deserve a little exposure? I mean, come on, Sidney, you dragged my name through the mud. Everybody thinks I'm some kind of psycho killer. And all I'm asking for is one little (EXPLETIVE DELETED) Diane Sawyer interview to maybe get my side of the story straight.

Now, I don't think I'm being unreasonable in that request, Sidney, do you? Honestly.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: That's Liev Schreiber and Neve Campbell from "Scream 2."

This is a really funny role, and you're playing a character who -- we don't know how psycho he really is in the audience. You know, we don't know how crazy he is, or just how frustrated he is from being wronged. And it's, like, very compelling, but you're speaking in a pretty quiet voice in this scene, as opposed to the kind of shouting and ranting you might expect.

SCHREIBER: Well, I -- you know, what I think is -- was so phenomenal about the whole "Scream" series is that Wes and Kevin Williamson...

GROSS: The director and writer.

SCHREIBER: Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson, the director and writer, what we were trying to do in those films that I think really worked well and was a great idea was to sort of take people's expectations of the genre, of the horror/suspense genre, and kind of turn them around, give the audience a little credit for their intelligence. I mean, it's the most predictable medium, really, it has become that, I think, you know, watch out behind you kind of thing.

And it was to sort of take these cliches and try and, you know, make them a little more interesting. And, you know, the idea of the, you know, the guy who's been stewing in jail, the -- who's served time for a crime he didn't commit and now wants vengeance is -- you know, it already sets you up, so you kind of want to play against it, I think, or find an angle that's more interesting.

And to me, what was interesting about it at the time we were making it, and still is, is this kind of, you know, media circus that goes on in the world today, is that everybody has their 15 minutes of fame, and they're trying really hard to make sure it's a good 15 minutes. And what to me was funny as a motivation for Cotton was that, you know, here everybody was getting famous off these murders, and he was doing time.

So he figured it was time for him to get his 15 minutes. And...

GROSS: Did you like horror films as a kid?

SCHREIBER: I hated them.

GROSS: Why?

SCHREIBER: I still hate them. Because they scare the piss out of me.

GROSS: (laughs)

SCHREIBER: And I hate being scared. It was interesting, when they first -- when I did the first one, I really just walked down some stairs, and I did it as a favor for a friend who worked for Miramax and Dimension at the time. He said, "You know, will you just do this?" And I said, "Yes, well, sure, it's the easiest money I ever made." I walked down some stairs for 20 minutes. And afterwards the writer came up to me, Kevin, and he said, "You know, I'm really glad you're doing this, because we're planning a sequel."

And I said, "Now, wait a minute, I don't want to do that." And then they said, "Well, why, why? It's really wonderful." I said, "Yes, the script's wonderful and everything, I love it, but I don't want to be in horror movies. I don't like them, I don't like the violence, I don't want to kill anybody, and I don't like getting killed."

At that time, I'd been in a lot of movies where I was getting killed, and it was upsetting my mother and me that I was dying so often in films. So I had made a promise that I wouldn't die any more. And in the second one, we put together this contract that -- it was very patient of them to come together (ph) where I would say, "Well, I don't die, and I don't want to kill anybody," and sort of this impossible task of, "Well, then, how do you act in a horror movie if you don't die and you don't want to kill people?"

GROSS: My guest is actor Liev Schreiber. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guest is actor Liev Schreiber. Let's hear a scene from his recent film "A Walk on the Moon," which takes place in 1969, the summer of Woodstock and the first moon walk. He plays a husband and father whose family vacations in a bungalow colony in the Catskills.

In this scene, he finds out his wife is having an affair. She even went to Woodstock with the guy while her husband was working in the city.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "A WALK ON THE MOON")

SCHREIBER: Where'd you meet him?

ACTRESS: He's a salesman.

SCHREIBER: (coughs) Whoo! This is great. It's like a Johnny Hume (ph) routine. So is he a traveling salesman?

ACTRESS: Sort of.

SCHREIBER: What's he sell?

ACTRESS: Blouses.

SCHREIBER: Blouses. He's the Blouseman. You're screwing the Blouseman.

Jesus Crow (ph). Why don't you screw the Dressman? At least that way you'd get a whole outfit, you know?

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: After a role like "A Walk on the Moon," I would think that you'd really understand what it -- you know, what it's like to grow up in a, you know, pretty conventional middle-class family. And then I, you know, I was reading about you, and you didn't grow up in a conventional middle-class family at all.

SCHREIBER: No.

GROSS: Tell us something about your mother and the home that you grew up in.

SCHREIBER: Well, my mother and I moved to New York when I was about 5 years old. And my mother was a bit of an eccentric. She's a -- she was an artist, and moving to New York for her, you know, poverty was no problem. In fact, poverty was kind of an adventure for her. So we lived in, you know, buildings without electricity and hot water, and my mother had jobs, she was a cab driver, she made papier-mache puppets, she had a health food business. She did everything that she could, or everything that she wanted to, make a living. You know, and was kind of successful at it.

The -- what was so wonderful about "Walk on the Moon" was that when Dustin and I met on "Sphere," my grandfather, who had kind of been the father figure in my life, had passed away fairly recently. And I was very upset by that, and still very kind of confused with it and processing it.

And suddenly, Dustin came to me with this script. And it was one of those sort of serendipitous moments where you are allowed to work something out through your job. And the character of Marty was essentially, in my mind -- he just reminded so much of my grandfather. And that kind of work ethic and that kind of life and that kind of relationship is something that I was familiar with through him. And...

GROSS: What kind of work did your grandfather do?

SCHREIBER: He delivered meat to diners, and he had a little van that I used to go out with him in the mornings. And he would deliver meat to, like, Jones' Diner on Great Jones Street and Dubrow's up in the fashion district. And, you know, it was really hard work. But at the same time, my grandfather had this, you know, this blue-collar job, he was also a -- he also played the cello and collected art.

So that kind of contradiction in character, which I thought was Marty as well, was that here was a guy who really was very interested in science and wanted very much to pursue academia, but didn't have the opportunity because he was supporting his family and was incredibly loyal to his family, and a real, I think, mensch is the perfect word for him.

And that was very much my grandfather.

GROSS: How did you decide you wanted to act?

SCHREIBER: I think I was just one of those kids who early on in English class was always sort of volunteering to read the Shakespeare. I had for one reason or another taken to Shakespeare right away. I'd always been good with language and was an early reader, and I think maybe in feeling a little bit like an outsider, growing up, being different, and what have you, I think that I sort of leapt at the opportunity to assimilate.

And for me, oddly enough, acting was assimilating. It was showing that you could act like everyone else, you could be normal, people could identify with you, you could make jokes, you could make people laugh, you could affect people's feelings, where socially you felt maybe you weren't -- it wasn't as easy to do that. Through acting, it was not only easy, but it was safe.

And it was also a tremendous amount of fun, and I thought, Geez, you know, if I can get paid to do that, that'd be cake.

GROSS: I think for most actors, like, their faces and their bodies determine in part the roles that they're given, the roles that they're allowed to play. How do you think the way you look has affected the roles that you've gotten?

SCHREIBER: I'm not sure, you know, it's changing all the time. I think probably what has served me best, ironically, is a certain amount of anonymity that I've enjoyed for the past seven years, that people don't know who I am. And that's been great for me, because it's allowed me to do a lot of different kind of characters. I think that one of the problems with Hollywood that I've never had to come up against -- and probably will now, I'll probably be playing Orson Welles-type characters for the next year or so -- is that you are as good as your last role.

And because I've been able to do kind of supporting roles and smaller character parts and have not really done any press to speak of until this past year, it's really allowed me to do a lot of different kinds of things, which has just been wonderful.

GROSS: Yes, you've said in one interview that there's two different kinds of full-time jobs, one is celebrity and the other is actor.

SCHREIBER: Yes.

GROSS: Have you met a lot of celebrity actors who -- for whom you think celebrity has really interfered with their ability to act?

SCHREIBER: I think it can interfere with your ability to act, because what happens is, you have to -- so -- I mean, celebrity really is a full-time job if you choose to pursue it. And then part of pursuing is that it -- part of pursuing it is embracing the character that the press has assigned you. And that in itself is acting, and if you spend all of your time doing that character, your range is decreased, and the acceptance of the public to see you as anything else is also very limited.

And I think that, you know, it's like the thing I was saying before about playing character in general, is that audiences want to go to a theater, I believe, and become the characters in the film. They want to identify with the characters in the film.

And I think the more you define yourself outside of being an actor, as being a personality or as a celebrity, the more difficult it is for them to identify with the character you're playing in the film or in the play.

And there's -- the sad part of that is that it kind of -- then they lose their ability to identify with you as the character. And whereas we may want to watch the celebrity, and we may fantasize about having some sort of relationship with that celebrity, ultimately we're not as connected to the story, because we're just watching the celebrity and not participating in the story ourselves.

GROSS: Well, Liev Schreiber, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

SCHREIBER: Thank you.

GROSS: Liev Schreiber spoke to us from his home in Manhattan. He begins previews tonight as Hamlet in the new production at the Public Theater in Manhattan, and you can see him as Orson Welles in the HBO movie "RKO 281."

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews this year's National Book Award winner for fiction.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Liev Schrieber
High: Actor Liev Schreiber's film credits include "The Daytrippers," "A Walk on the Moon" and the "Scream" movies. He's currently starring in New York in the Public Theatre's new production of "Hamlet," and he plays Orson Welles in the HBO drama "RKO 281" about the clash between Welles and William Randolph Hearst over the making of Welles's masterpiece, "Citizen Kane."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; "RKO 281"

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "RKO 281": An Interview with Liev Schreiber

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: NOVEMBER 23, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 112302NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: "Waiting": A Book Review
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: Last week, a novel called "Waiting," written in English by a native Chinese writer named Ha Jin, won the National Book Award for fiction. But critic Maureen Corrigan admits she was behind the curve on this one.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BOOK CRITIC: Books win awards for all sorts of reasons. I should know. I co-edited a book that won an award this year, and though, let me assure you, it was richly deserved, I also think our book won because the competition wasn't all that stiff.

I don't know what kind of competition this year's National Book Award winner for fiction, a superb novel called "Waiting," faced. In an admittedly very small and informal survey, none of the people I know who follow books for a living had read it, nor had any of us read the other finalists this year.

The moral? Too many good books, too little recognition.

So I'm grateful that the National Book Award prompted me to unearth "Waiting" from my pile of unread review copies, some of them no doubt potential Cinderellas too.

It's an unusual love story that's also of great anthropological interest because it begins in China during the Cultural Revolution and extends into the 1980s.

"Waiting" has some of the still, melancholy quality of Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day," another chronicle about the repressed emotions of repressed people.

But while Ishiguro's characters are repressed by nature, because they're English, Ha Jin's lovers are rendered inert not only by their temperaments but by tradition and by the ever-watchful Chinese Communist Party that forbids extramarital relations.

"Waiting" creates a stark impression of a teeming society populated by two kinds of people, those who are trying to hide secrets and others who are trying to sniff them out. Here's the situation. For 18 years during his summer leave, a now middle-aged army doctor named Lin Kong has traveled back to his country village to beg his wife, Shu Yu, for a divorce.

Theirs was an arranged and, on Lin's part, a loveless marriage. Every year, the simple-hearted Shu Yu agrees to the divorce, then breaks down when the couple appears before the local judge. Every year, Lin must return to his city hospital and tell his girlfriend, a nurse named Mana Wu, that the divorce has been denied.

Because Mana and Lin live in the gossipy confines of the hospital compound, they've never consummated their love. They live in suspension, waiting for their life together to begin. Mana considers, then rejects, some other suitors. She endures a rape. Lin suffers guilt. Seasons pass, and eventually Mana and Lin are allowed to marry -- a gray anticlimax to all those years of waiting.

The characters in this novel, especially the submissive Shu Yu, are fascinating. But what's most unexpectedly compelling here is the way Ha Jin delicately delineates ambivalent feelings. This is not a panting love that's long thwarted. When Mana reaches the age of 27, she passes officially into the category of old maid, so she sticks even more closely to the disappointing Lin because he's her best bet for marriage.

And Lin, oh! He's a waffler of the first order. At one point, a lusty army colleague confronts the bookish Lin and lectures him. "I know your type. You're always afraid that people will call you a bad man. You strive to have a good heart, but what is a heart? Just a chunk of flesh that a dog can eat. Chairman Mao said, If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself. Trust me, my friend, sleep with Mana. You'll be more determined to get a divorce."

But determination is a quality that Lin never rouses himself to develop.

It's very hard, I think, for a writer to write vividly about emotional paralysis. Ishiguro managed it, as, of course, did the awardless James Joyce in his masterpiece, "The Dead," the sine qua non of narrative numbness.

In "Waiting," Ha Jin's character's drowse, but his readers don't.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the winner of an Edgar award for co-editing the anthology "Mystery and Suspense Writers." She reviewed "Waiting" by Ha Jin.

FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced by Naomi Person, Phyllis Meyers (ph), and Amy Sallett (ph), with Monique Nazareth, Anne Marie Baldonado, and Patty Leswing (ph). Research assistance from Brendan Noonam (ph). Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

I'm Terry Gross.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Maureen Corrigan
High: Critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Waiting" by Ha Jin the winner of this year's National Book Award for fiction, a novel which is set in China during the Cultural Revolution.
Spec: Entertainment; "Waiting"; China

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "Waiting": A Book Review
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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