As 'Ray Donovan,' Liev Schreiber Cleans Up Hollywood's Messes
In the new Showtime series Ray Donovan, Liev Schreiber stars in the title role as a man who knows how to handle a crisis. It's Donovan's job to clean up the messes of Hollywood's rich and powerful while trying to keep his own personal problems under wraps.
A TV series is something of a new turn for Schreiber, who's been acting onstage and in movies for two decades. But playing complicated characters is something he's earned a reputation for, with roles in films like Defiance and The Manchurian Candidate.
He won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Richard Roma in the 2005 Broadway production of Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet's drama about real estate agents who are out to get each other.
A variation on this theme draws Schreiber to Ray Donovan. Donovan is hardly loquacious and, as Schreiber tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, "not having the cloak of dialogue was another interesting exercise: How do you play these things? How do you keep a character alive without words?"
Beneath Donovan's seeming composure is a great deal of personal conflict that surfaces when his father is released prematurely from prison and reappears in Donovan's life. This tension between calm and torment, says Schreiber, is central to contemporary masculinity.
"What really drew me to the original pilot script and [to] meeting Ann [Biderman]," he says, "was her fascination with masculinity, and what it was about masculinity that was compelling and elusive. Particularly the idea that with great rage and with great violence comes great vulnerability."
On playing intimidating characters
"[I]n terms of being menacing, it's something unfortunately I was sort of born with. I often describe it as the 'arched eyebrows and Slavic fat pads.' It's just something about my face. When I started out acting I really wanted to be a comic actor, but I naturally fell into these roles.
"I think the first time I played Iago at the Public Theater I realized I had a — much to my chagrin — I realized I had an instinct for these conflicted characters, for these torn characters, for these characters who could be described as evil. I wouldn't describe them that way. I also always like them. ...
"My mother didn't let me see color films. I saw a lot of black-and-white films. The first time I saw Basil Rathbone, I was completely taken. To me, that was the epitome of great acting, was Basil Rathbone — not only in Sherlock Holmes, but the Sheriff of Nottingham, and all the terrible characters he had to play alongside Errol Flynn."
On taking his work home with him on Ray Donovan
"I didn't ever think that I took roles home with me, but this has been a lot of work, and it has been long hours and a long schedule. ... By going to those dark places day after day, hour after hour, you can feel pretty spent by the end of the day. If my kids aren't around, and Naomi [Watts] at the end of the night to remind me how really great my life is, it can get dark. It's something that I have to bear in mind. I realize how important it's going to be for me, if we continue this show, that I'm able to keep my family around me. And [that] I'm able to do some kind of meditation practice that kind of leaves work at work and keeps home separate."
On how TV work differs from plays
"The character sort of begins to take on a life of its own, and the show begins to take on a life of its own, and you sort of work almost in parallel with it. In other words, you'll do an episode, and then you'll watch the episode, or you'll think about the episode, process that information, and that will inform the next episode — whereas in a play ... you're doing the same narrative arc every night, and you're starting in the same place and ending up in the same place. The interesting thing about doing serial television is that the character is growing separate from you, the character and the show are growing, and you get to observe that and participate with it in a way that I think is actually really exciting for an actor."
On NFL films and how they inform his HBO boxing voice-over work
"The NFL Films guys had the very, very brilliant idea that there was a classical-theater element to football. ... They would shoot these weekly shows in this epic fashion in slow motion and things like that, and have that wonderful voice of John Facenda comparing these football players to demigods and characters from mythology; it was very effective. And I know it captured my imagination as a child, so I was thrilled when I was paired with a writer as talented as Aaron Cohen, who wanted to do that same kind of dramatic arc with his work."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAY DONOVAN")
LIEV SCHREIBER: (As Ray Donovan) Do you think you're the first person I've dealt with woke up in bed with a dead body? Take your fingers and feel for a pulse.
DAVIES: Liev Schreiber knows how to handle a crisis in the new series "Ray Donovan," where he plays a guy who cleans up messes for Hollywood's rich and powerful. It airs on Showtime Sunday nights. Playing the lead in a TV series is something of a new turn for Schreiber, who's been acting mostly on stage and in film for two decades. Schreiber won a Tony Award for his performance in "Glengarry Glen Ross" on Broadway.
Among his films are "Big Night," "The Daytrippers," the "Scream" trilogy, "The Manchurian Candidate," "Defiance" and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." He also wrote the film adaptation for and directed "Everything is Illuminated" from a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer.
When I spoke to Liev Schreiber, we began with a scene from his new series. Here, his character, Ray Donovan, is talking to an action movie star played by Austin Nichols. The star is in a drug rehab center, but he's being blackmailed by a transsexual prostitute named Chloe, who sent him a compromising video. Ray is there to fix the mess.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAY DONOVAN")
AUSTIN NICHOLS: (As Tommy) My film is opening in three days.
SCHREIBER: (As Ray) Calm down. They want money, or they wouldn't have sent it. We just got to wait for them to call.
NICHOLS: (As Tommy) No, we don't. I have her number.
SCHREIBER: (As Ray) You what?
NICHOLS: (As Tommy) I have her number. What? I called her sometimes. It wasn't always sex. She had a nice vibe about her.
SCHREIBER: (As Ray) Get her on the phone, Tommy.
NICHOLS: (As Tommy) Right now? Don't we need to, like, call the FBI or something?
SCHREIBER: (As Ray) Tony, dial the (beep) number and ask her what she wants.
NICHOLS: (As Tommy) Just like that?
SCHREIBER: (As Ray) Yeah, just like that.
NICHOLS: (As Tommy) Hi, Chloe. It's Tommy. Fine, how are you? Me, too. What are you wearing? All right, sorry. Chloe, what do you want? She wants a million dollars. Yeah, I know. And she feels really bad.
SCHREIBER: (As Ray) Set up a meet.
NICHOLS: (As Tommy) I can't leave. I'm in rehab, remember?
SCHREIBER: (As Ray) For me.
DAVIES: And that is Austin Nichols and our guest Liev Schreiber in the Showtime series "Ray Donovan." Liev Schreiber, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
SCHREIBER: Thank you.
DAVIES: Good to have you. You know, when our producer - my producer Lauren Krenzel and I were looking for scenes to play in the interview, it was hard to find a lot of scenes where your character Ray Donovan says very much. A man of few words, huh?
SCHREIBER: Yeah. That was one of the things that drew me to the character. You know, being an actor who generally takes on sort of text-heavy stuff, I thought it was exciting and interesting to take on a character who actually is - doesn't speak very much at all.
DAVIES: Right. Now, he's a guy - he's in the Hollywood environment, but not from Hollywood, right? Do you want to just talk a little bit about his backstory and his family, how that fits into the show?
SCHREIBER: Ray is from South Boston, and he's moved his family out to Los Angeles to work for a high-end law firm, and they represent Hollywood's elite. And what - Ray's job is to sort of do the dirty work for Hollywood's rich and famous, particularly the stuff that goes outside of the boundaries of what the legal system can handle.
DAVIES: Right. And the Ray Donovan here, you know, doesn't just deal with, you know, extortion. He uses some muscle when he needs to. You've been around Hollywood. Have you ever met a Ray Donovan or heard of one?
SCHREIBER: I haven't ever met a Ray Donovan, but I know that they have been around for as long as Hollywood has been around. I - in the '40s and '50s, these guys were a lot more prevalent. But when lawyers and law firms began to really take hold of the industry in the way that they have today, the work was typically handled by them. But still, there are these jobs that need to get done that lawyers can't handle and that - and they go to people like Ray for.
I don't - I haven't actually met a Ray myself, but typically, they're sort of private investigator types, or guys from the security industry.
DAVIES: There's an antagonism which is really at the heart of this drama, and it's your character, Ray Donovan's relationship with his father, Mickey, who as the series opens, is just getting out of prison after 20 years. He immediately goes - and this won't be a give-away to folks who have seen the first episode - he goes and murders a priest that he believes molested his son years earlier.
DAVIES: Then he shows up in Hollywood - and this is a problem for Ray. I thought we would listen to the first meeting between your character Ray Donovan and his dad, Mickey Donovan. They're in the gym, where Ray's brothers are hanging out, and Mickey Donovan, played by Jon Voight, comes in. He speaks first. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAY DONOVAN")
JON VOIGHT: (As Mickey) Well this is great. This is great. All my boys are together. Everyone's great.
SCHREIBER: (As Ray) Everyone's great, Mick? Really? Bridge is dead. Terry's shaking like a leaf, and Bunchy can't stay sober more than a month. That's your legacy, Mick.
VOIGHT: (As Mickey) Hey, Hollywood big shot, I want to date Chita Rivera, Rita Moreno or Diahann Carroll. Boy, that don't take me back. Can you hook me up? That priest, I took care of him. Some very powerful people are going to come after me now, very powerful, "Da Vinci Code" type (beep).
SCHREIBER: (As Ray) You deluded old (beep). Only guys coming after you are the guys you ripped off. Only thing they need is the address I'm gonna give them.
DAVIES: And that is our guest, Liev Schreiber, with Jon Voight in the new Showtime series "Ray Donovan." And I have a feeling there's more to unfold in the plot that will reveal some of the roots of that mutual contempt.
DAVIES: But I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about you and Jon Voight, I mean, two veteran actors. I mean, I know you're seasoned pros playing parts, but when you are face to face, it is - there's a lot of testosterone. These are two bulls, you know, pacing at each other. What are those scenes like?
SCHREIBER: You know, people keep asking me that, but Jon is - he's such an incredibly charming guy. And, I mean, one of the things that has been really inspiring to me is the level of enthusiasm that he has for this part and the show, which I think he's amazing in. I was so shocked to see an actor of his caliber and his experience and his age be so excited to take something like this on.
And I can tell you that it's not an easy show to shoot, very intense, very dark characters. And to play them for an extended period of time is, you know, it kind of wears on you. But Jon's enthusiasm was always really inspiring.
I think there's a certain physical thing between the two of us, that we match up very well. I don't feel like I have - there's no frailty with Jon. So I can come at him guns a-blazing, as it were. He's a very powerful actor, and he's a very powerful presence. And it really helps, because I think he's a terrific match for Ray.
DAVIES: You've played some tough guys in your career, and I know that you took up boxing at some point. In fact, I read that you train at a gym in Hollywood which a number of actors also train at. When you're playing roles where you have to be menacing, does it help to have, I don't know, been in a gym and inflicted some punishment and taken some punishment?
SCHREIBER: I've never really inflicted any punishment in any gym.
SCHREIBER: It's always been the opposite. I think that in terms of being menacing, it's something, unfortunately, that I was sort of born with. It's - I often describe it as the arched eyebrows and Slavic fat pads. It's just something about my face. It just I - you know, when I started out acting, I really wanted to be a comic actor, but I sort of naturally fell into these roles.
I think the first time I played Iago at the Public Theater, I realized that I had - much to my chagrin, I realized I had an instinct for these conflicted characters, for these torn characters, for these characters who could be described as evil. I wouldn't describe them that way, but I also always liked them.
I think my idol growing up - you know, my mother didn't let me see color films, so I saw a lot of black-and-white films. And the first time I saw Basil Rathbone, I was completely taken. And to me, that was the epitome of great acting, was Basil Rathbone, not only in Sherlock Holmes, but in all the, you know, evil - Sheriff of Nottingham, and all the terrible characters he had to play alongside Errol Flynn.
DAVIES: So you liked the complexity of these tortured guys. And then what was that phrase you used? Slavic fat pads that you have?
SCHREIBER: Yeah, arched eyebrows and Slavic fat pads, unfortunately, I think make me look a lot more menacing that I really am.
DAVIES: You mean, like, slightly puffy cheeks. Is that what you mean?
SCHREIBER: Yes, puffy cheeks. I don't like to say puffy cheeks. I think somehow Slavic fat pads sound more appealing.
SCHREIBER: I could be wrong.
DAVIES: Well, I want to talk a little bit more about your early days in acting, but one more question about "Ray Donovan." I know that you've done so much theater acting, where, you know, you're sending dialogue to the rafters a lot of time. And in this, you know, there's so many scenes where you speak few words, and not particularly loudly, but you kind of - just talk about kind of delivering dramatic impact with sparse dialogue like that.
SCHREIBER: You know, one of the reasons that I wanted to take on a television show is because while I've been acting in a lot of movies, I've been a student of film acting. You know, I - my training is primarily in live theater and classical theater. And I felt like doing a television show would be a great way for me to kind of hone my skills in terms of working with a camera. I've never felt as confident about that as I felt working on stage.
And I think to that end, you know, not having the cloak of dialogue was another interesting exercise, that how do you play these things? How do you keep a character alive without words? And it's just been an ongoing journey for me exploring that stuff. And getting to work with actors like Eddie Marsan and Paula Malcolmson and Jon Voight has been really wonderful in terms of me to not only get to practice myself, but to watch really, really talented people execute it, as well.
DAVIES: It's interesting, because again, as my producer Lauren and I were look at these scenes, we would think, oh, that's so great what he's doing with his face. Is it going to work on radio?
DAVIES: And there's that one wonderful moment where the guy Stu Feldman, who - I guess he's a studio exec or something.
DAVIES: And he's having this conversation in which he's hiring you to follow his girlfriend, and you're just not saying very much. And he finally says something, like, you know, you don't say much. You're mysterious. I think I give away too much of my power. A very funny moment.
SCHREIBER: I thought that was such a well-written scene, and it's the truth about me is that, you know, I'm often - we're often, all of us, so interested in projecting ourselves, that we're not present for the moment of taking in what someone else is giving. And I think that's a skill that Ray really has, that he doesn't project himself onto situations. He allows the other people to commit themselves, and then he has the information and the power.
But I also think that's kind of cultural thing from him, being a Southie, you know, in Los Angeles. And I think that's one of the delicious juxtapositions that our show represents, is you take a kind of blue-collar Southie person and you put them down in the middle of Hollywood, and there's just some hilarious interactions can occur.
DAVIES: Yeah. You said it's a little hard to play somebody so dark for so long. Do you take - do you take roles home with you?
SCHREIBER: I've never been a very sort of method person. I'm certainly not the kind of actor that wants people to call him by his character's name. And I didn't ever think that I took roles home with me, but this has been a lot of work, and it's been long hours and a long schedule, and you do, you do end up - you know, by going to those dark places day after day, hour after hour, you can feel pretty spent by the end of the day.
And, you know, if my kids aren't around and Naomi at the end of the night to remind me how really great my life is, it can get dark. It's something that I have to bear in mind. And I realize how important it's going to be for me, if we continue this show, that I'm able to keep my family around me and that I'm able to do some kind of meditation practice that kind of leaves work at work and keeps home separate.
DAVIES: Yeah, don't be Ray.
SCHREIBER: You know, I think another - you know, just an interesting point about acting in television shows, as how it relates to theater, is I could only do three months on any play, because I would just go insane playing the same character over and over again. And it was one of the things that I loved about acting, was the variety that it presents in terms of a career, is that you get to do all these different things.
And three months seemed to be about my limit. That's when I would really start to go mad playing the character. But one of the things that I've noticed about serial television work that's actually kind of interesting is that the character sort of begins to take on a life of its own, and the show begins to take on a life of its own, and you sort of work almost in parallel with it.
In other words, you'll do an episode, and then you'll watch the episode, or you'll think about the episode, and that will inform the next episode, whereas in a play, where you're doing the same narrative arc every night and you're starting in the same place, ending up in the same place, the interesting thing about doing serial television is that the character is growing. Separate from you, the character and the show are growing, and you get to observe that and participate with it in a way that I think is actually really exciting for an actor.
In that way, it's a very, very collaborative medium between the writers and the other actors and the rest of the crew, who are shaping the style of the show, that you're allowed to watch and then find a way to fit into. I've really enjoyed that.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is actor Liev Schreiber. He stars in the new Showtime series "Ray Donovan." It airs on Sunday nights. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is actor Liev Schreiber, who stars in the new Showtime series "Ray Donovan." Schreiber began acting in the theater and did some memorable independent films in the 1990s.
I wanted to revisit one from 1996. This is "Daytrippers," written and directed by Greg Mottola, who was a friend of yours, right?
SCHREIBER: He's actually my best friend, yes.
DAVIES: It's the story of a woman, played by Hope Davis, and her family. She discovers a note that raises questions about whether her, you know, whether her husband has been unfaithful. And after a lot of discussion, she and her family all pile into a station wagon and go into Manhattan to confront the husband. And so it's the story of this day trip, this family going in.
You are - you play Carl, who is the boyfriend of a sister, Parker Posey. And in this clip you're going to hear, you're on your way into Manhattan, you're all in the car, and we're going to hear Parker Posey, who speaks first. You're an aspiring intellectual and novelist. And we'll hear you and then the parents, who are played by Anne Meara and Pat McNamara. So Parker Posey speaks first. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DAYTRIPPERS")
PARKER POSEY: (As Jo) Carl, tell mom and dad about your novel. Carl wrote a novel, everyone. It's great. It's just far out. It's brilliant.
SCHREIBER: (As Carl) I don't think your parents want to hear my novel.
POSEY: (As Jo) Mom and dad, do you want to hear about Carl's novel?
ANNE MEARA: (As Rita) Oh yeah, sure, Carl.
SCHREIBER: (As Carl) 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: (As Rita) A dog's head?
SCHREIBER: (As Carl) Yeah, you know, sort of a fantastical story.
POSEY: (As Jo) It's like a fable.
SCHREIBER: (As Carl) Yeah, like "Master and Margarita" or...
POSEY: (As Jo) "Animal Farm."
SCHREIBER: (As Carl) Animal - yeah, exactly, very Kafkaesque.
MEARA: (As Rita) Carl, I'm not an educated woman.
POSEY: (As Jo) It's Dr. Seuss for adults, mom.
MEARA: (As Rita) Oh. Oh, yeah.
SCHREIBER: (As Carl) So everyone else in the book is normal, except for the man with the dog's head, who really only wants...
PAT MCNAMARA: (As Jim Malone) What kind of dog?
POSEY: (As Jo) Dad, it's not important.
SCHREIBER: (As Carl) No, no, no, no, no, no, no. 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.
MEARA: (As Rita) Jo loves dogs. Remember Pepper? We had to put her to sleep.
POSEY: (As Jo) Mother....
DAVIES: And that is our guest Liev Schreiber in an ensemble cast in the 1996 film "The Daytrippers." It must be fun to hear that again. Or is it?
SCHREIBER: It's really fun to hear that again. It reminds me so much of Greg Mottola, and it's, you know, it's something that we both had in common as aspiring intellectuals who love to hear ourselves speak.
SCHREIBER: And also how completely uninterested our parents were.
DAVIES: Yeah, well, you know, we had Greg Mottola on the show, you know, a couple of years ago, and we played that clip. And he said - you know, this was a low-budget film, even though it's an incredible cast. I mean, all those folks, including Stanley Tucci and Hope Davis and Parker Posey and you and Anne Meara. And I think he said he was crouching in the back of the station wagon with the sound guy.
SCHREIBER: I believe that there's still a shot in the film that is basically a three-shot of me and I think Parker and Hope, who were in the back seat. And at one point, you see a little bald head kind of peak up behind us, and that is Greg. Yes, he was hunched in the back of the station wagon, because we didn't have any money or a follow car, and we were just sort of stealing those shots on the LIE.
DAVIES: How do you compare moviemaking in that early part of your career at that budget to what you do nowadays?
SCHREIBER: I think I was very fortunate to be working in New York during the heyday of independent film. There was just such a spirit of collaboration and inventiveness and resourcefulness, which is something that I think comes with not having a lot of money. Without money, you have to find ways to solve problems. You have to find other ways to solve problems. And everybody would do that.
It's just - it's a great exercise. I recently hosted Tropfest short film festival back in New York, which they had in Brooklyn the other night, and it's great to see people making films with nothing. You know, the only criteria was that, you know, it had to be seven minutes, and you could shoot it on any digital format. Some people shot them on their cell phones. And I just think that's exciting, because I think it makes film accessible to more people.
And, well, some people complain a lot about, you know, where film is going nowadays. I think we're really due for another golden age, you know. When you see a 12-year-old kid download footage from his iPhone onto a laptop and then just start acting like a whiz kid with non-linear editing, it's just, you realize that at a very earlier age, much younger than we were, these kids already have the tools for communicating with film. And I think that means something really special is headed our way.
DAVIES: Liev Schreiber will be back in the second half of the show. He's starring in the new TV series "Ray Donovan," which airs Sunday nights on Showtime. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who is off this week. We're speaking with actor Liev Schreiber who stars in the new Showtime series "Ray Donovan." Schreiber won a Tony Award for his performance in the play "Glengarry Glen Ross." Among his films are, "Big Night," "The Daytrippers," "Defiance" and "The Manchurian Candidate."
We'll talk a little bit about your background. I know that your parents divorced when you were little and you grew up with your mom.
DAVIES: An interesting life. You want to just talk a little bit about kind of what kind of life you lead with her growing up?
SCHREIBER: Well, my mom was a very bohemian person. We lived on the Lower East Side of New York. She drove a taxicab. She made puppets and sold them in the street. She later on had a health food business. She's just very creative person. She was a painter, and very early on in my life infused me with a real respect and love of the arts. Her boyfriend, when I was a little kid, was a classical pianist who would perform in the streets. Insane guy, but, you know, it was an eccentric and interesting place to grow up.
DAVIES: Right. And then she lived in communes for a period? Is that right?
SCHREIBER: Yeah. I remember at one point my mother and I hitchhiking through the South, and I guess we were trying to get to a place called The Farm, which was a - Stephen Gaskin was the guy's name who was running it. And as best I can remember, the entire place smelled like soybeans and that was the whole philosophy of that particular commune, was that you could pretty much do or make anything out of soybeans.
SCHREIBER: Later on, she went on to live on Satchidananda's ashram, which is where she lives now in Buckingham County, Virginia. I briefly went to school there when I was about 12 years old when that ashram was in Connecticut. So it was a, you know, pretty eclectic childhood.
DAVIES: And when did you get interested in acting?
SCHREIBER: I think I became interested in acting in earnest my last year of high school at Friends Seminary, a Quaker school in New York City on East 16th Street. They did a production of "Midsummer Night's Dream" and I got to play the role of Nick Bottom, the jackass.
SCHREIBER: I don't know what it was that I was just taken with the language. I had been studying and I had won a sort of citywide poetry contest when I was still at Brooklyn Tech. I don't know how authentically interested in poetry I was. I just always liked pretending and I had this way of pretending with language, and I guess pretending with language is writing poetry.
SCHREIBER: It's going to get me in a lot of trouble, that statement. But it felt like I had a flair for language and rhythm. And fortunately, I got introduced to Shakespeare early enough that I was able to kind of play some of those ideas out. And I think the first time I heard an audience laugh out loud at me I was done, I was sold. That was I think my high school production of "Midsummer Night's Dream."
DAVIES: I was to talk about "Defiance," the film that you made in like 2008, I guess. Ed Zwick was the director, where you and Daniel Craig play two Jewish brothers in Nazi occupied Eastern Europe, who escaped into the forest and managed to shelter Jews who had fled their homes and fight the Nazis. Do you want to just talk a little bit about kind of what appealed to you about this role and how you prepared for it?
SCHREIBER: What appealed to me is that I had never heard it before and I...
DAVIES: True story, right? Yeah.
SCHREIBER: A true story. And I thought that that was kind of outrageous that a story like that slips through. Typically, what we are led to believe is that during the Holocaust Jews went like lambs to their slaughter. And we don't talk enough about the partisans and the people who fought back - not just Jews, you know. People who weren't Jewish who also fought quite bravely as partisans. And the success story about this particular atriad, the Bielski Atriad, the fact that they confronted at least two times German infantry regiments and defeated them. O on top of that, they lived in the woods of Belorussia successfully for several seasons, and they not only survived but they thrived and are credited by the end of the war with bringing out nearly 2,000 Jews. I just thought that was a remarkable story and one that was really worth telling.
DAVIES: Right. Well, let's listen to a scene. Here's one in which Tuvia Bielski, played by Daniel Craig, is talking with your character, Zus Bielski, and Tuvia has offered to help some middle-class Jews from a ghetto, asking them, you know, inviting them to join the crew in the forest where times are hard and, you know, resources are thin. And you, as his brother, are questioning the decision and a discussion ensues.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DEFIANCE")
SCHREIBER: (as Zus) And what does it mean, do what we can?
DANIEL CRAIG: (as Tuvia) We will send for everyone who was left the life.
SCHREIBER: (as Zus) And if there are hundreds, Tuvia?
CRAIG: (as Tuvia) Then we will provide.
SCHREIBER: (as Zus) And when the Germans follow these hundreds, what then?
CRAIG: (as Tuvia) I won't let that happen.
SCHREIBER: (as Zus) You won't let that happen.
CRAIG: (as Tuvia) No. I will bring them out myself.
SCHREIBER: (as Zus) From the ghetto?
CRAIG: (as Tuvia) Yes.
SCHREIBER: (as Zus) So, now you are Moses, huh?
CRAIG: (as Tuvia) Let's go back to work. You're wasting time.
SCHREIBER: (as Zus) I'm not the one who is wasting time, Tuvia.
CRAIG: (as Tuvia) I cannot have you questioning me in front of the others. We're family and we have to stick together.
SCHREIBER: (as Zus) Why? So we can die alongside these (foreign language spoken).
CRAIG: (as Tuvia) No (foreign language spoken), they're people. They're the Jews.
SCHREIBER: (as Zus) Pretentious Jews. Jews who stuck up their noses at us. Jews who would go out of their way to lock their daughter's away fm our dirty hands. You are nothing to them, Tuvia. They only follow you because they're too weak and afraid to fight for themselves.
DAVIES: And that's our guest Liev Schreiber and Daniel Craig in the film "Defiance."
And it's a fascinating story because these guys, you know, they're morally ambiguous characters at times and...
DAVIES: ...you know...
SCHREIBER: Worse than morally ambiguous. I mean, that's one of the things that I really loved about the story is that these are very hard men. These men did not have a great reputation in their village. There were a lot of criminal accusations about them on a number of different levels. And as you can hear from that scene, Zus, the character I played, wasn't crazy about helping anybody. In his mind, all he really wanted to do was kill Germans. But I think what was so transformative about their journey is that over time they came to appreciate who they were and their responsibility towards protecting people and caring about people was really interesting.
Another thing that I liked a lot about the metaphors in that particular story is that, you know, these were violent guys. And when you have someone coming into your village who is speaking the language of violence like these, the Nazis were, it's going to be the people who understand and are familiar with that language who are going to respond. And I just felt that it was important that we understood that those characters existed in Jewish culture right alongside the ones who had no choice but to submit to the cruelty that was inflicted on them.
DAVIES: There's also some interesting linguistic choices here. I mean I gather that the Bielski's spoke Yiddish to one another.
DAVIES: And in those scenes in the film you guys speak with this sort of Slavic accent.
DAVIES: But then...
SCHREIBER: No, I got to say, I was kind of cringing as I was listening to that.
DAVIES: Well, yeah, it's an interesting - I mean it's a tough choice that you make for American audience; do you subject people to subtitles or do you do this? But there are a lot of scenes that are in Russian, and I gather you actually learned some Russian for your scenes.
SCHREIBER: Yeah. Well, I've always felt pretty strongly that you should let characters speak the language that they spoke. However, people like Ed Zwick know a lot more about what sells movies than I do. And if we had spoke Russian during the film, the film would be a lot less accessible and popular. You know, in my film "Illuminated," there's very little English. They're speaking Russian almost the entire film. And, you know, the opening numbers for my film were obviously a lot smaller than the opening numbers for "Defiance."
SCHREIBER: But, yeah, I had to speak some Russian in the film and I had to do a Russian dialect or a Belorussian dialect with a hint of Yiddish as well, because the primary language for these guys would have been Yiddish. I just find it, you know, aside from doing the normal dialect work, one of the best ways to learn a dialect is to try to learn the language because then you have a sense of where the emphasis is and words and the sounds that are maybe not as familiar in your native dialect.
DAVIES: Our guest is Liev Schreiber. He stars in the new series "Ray Donovan," which is on Sunday nights on Showtime. And we'll be back after a short break and talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and our guest is actor Liev Schreiber. He stars in the new Showtime series "Ray Donovan." It airs on Sunday nights.
You know, you've done a lot of narration of documentaries. I mean you are really a go-to guy, particularly for sports stuff. I mean I thought we would listen to a little piece of one of them that you did in the HBO series, "24/7." It's a boxing piece.
(SOUNDBITE OF HBO SERIES, "24/7")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND CHEERING)
SCHREIBER: There is an expectation in boxing that even the most storied, the most ferocious, the most competitive of conflicts can be settled over the course of a trilogy.
ANNOUNCER #1: Fire against fire. Down the stretch.
SCHREIBER: But for Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines and Mexico's Juan Manuel Marquez, 36 rounds over the past eight years have not been enough, regardless of what the scorecards have produced...
ANNOUNCER #2: I'm calling it another draw.
ANNOUNCER #3: To the winner, Manny Pacquiao.
DAVIES: And that's our guest, Liev Schreiber, narrating one of the HBO segments for "24/7." How did you get into this thing of being a narrator?
SCHREIBER: I was fortunate enough to have David Espar from WGBH see me in a play and asked me if I would narrate a documentary that he had worked on, a wonderful documentary - called "The History of Rock 'n' Roll." And I had such a positive experience doing that I thought, this is the kind of work I would really, really love to do. And then Ross Greenberg from HBO heard me, I think, on that documentary and hired me for the HBO sports gig. To be fair, those are Aaron Cohen's words that you just heard. And I think it was a kind of confluence of - I've always been a big John Facenda fan. And I don't know if you remember who he was.
DAVIES: I was going to ask you about John Facenda. Folks will remember his deep intonations on "NFL Films."
SCHREIBER: And the "NFL Films" guys had the very, very brilliant idea that there was a classical theater element to football. And that, you know, if they would shoot these weekly shows in this kind of epic fashion in slow motion and things like that, and then have that wonderful voice of John Facenda kind of comparing these football players to demigods and characters from mythology; it was very effective. And I know it captured my imagination as a child, so I was thrilled when I was paired with a writer as talented as Aaron Cohen, who wanted to do that same kind of dramatic arc with his work.
DAVIES: It was interesting listening to the narration after, you know, seeing so many of your film performances. And I wondered what the approach is to getting the voice for a narration, as opposed to a character in a play or film. They do sound very different to me. I guess every character is different, but what's the approach here?
SCHREIBER: That's what people say to me. They always say, that doesn't sound like you. My own mother doesn't recognize my voice when I do a narration. I don't know why that is. I think early on in my career, when I first started going on additions for voiceover gigs and things like that, people would say to me, you know, you sound very New York, and that's OK. And I knew what they really meant was that I sounded very Jewish. And they were like, that's OK but it doesn't necessarily work for Peoria.
SCHREIBER: And I thought oh, OK. So I have to adjust my dialect a little bit so that I don't sound like such a whiny Jewish New Yorker. And I guess that affects me in some aspect, but it's become completely unconscious at this point. You know, that's just the voice that I do. It doesn't feel artificial to me and it doesn't feel like I'm putting anything on, but people say that.
DAVIES: So it's not a different voice for a boxing narration or a, you know, a nature special or some other kind of documentary?
SCHREIBER: No. I think that what I'm doing is I'm just following the cues of the writer. And they are different, but I don't think I consciously affect my voice in any way to do a boxing show versus a science show versus "The History of Rock 'n' Roll." When it's not sports, I believe in noninvasive narration. In other words, if you can get the audience to feel like it was their idea, then you've done it. But if it's too opinionated or too arch or too emotional, I think we pick up on that and it gets in the way of us realizing our own brilliance.
DAVIES: I was going to ask you to give us a bit of narration for how you would describe FRESH AIR and Terry Gross. But maybe you need brilliant writing to do that?
SCHREIBER: I think you do.
SCHREIBER: You know, I'm looking at this thing here that says, how to record split track phoners in the prod rooms. And if I were reading something like that I would just say: From the kiosk console, select the split reset button. Press the on button on the mic one and phone faders. Move both faders about three-quarters of the way up to zero. So I think my voice kind of naturally adjusts to how interesting what I'm reading is.
DAVIES: That was very moving.
SCHREIBER: Thank you. Thank you.
DAVIES: Well, Liev Schreiber, it's been great to have you. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.
SCHREIBER: Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Liev Schreiber has the title role in the new series "Ray Donovan." It airs Sunday nights on Showtime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.