How Liev Schreiber Fixed Himself

Liev Shreiber Men's Journal cover shoot
Theo Wenner

Editor’s Note: This Liev Schreiber cover story was originally published July/August 2015

It’s late on a Friday night, and Liev Schreiber would rather be at the theater or home with his sons. Instead, he is in his trailer on the Sony lot in Los Angeles preparing for a four-hour shoot that is supposed to culminate with a Katie Holmes make-out session for a pivotal scene in season three of Ray Donovan, Schreiber’s have-bat-will-mutilate noir thriller on Showtime. It might be the bro moment of a lifetime for another actor, but Schreiber is thinking of vetoing the lip-locking. He wonders if it is too early in their onscreen relationship for such machinations. This is a bit ironic since Donovan’s modus operandi is—to borrow an Elvis Costello line—”if it moves, then you fuck it; if it doesn’t move, you stab it.”

Schreiber details a short summary of this year’s plot and reveals—without giving much away—that Holmes plays the daughter of one of the most powerful men in L.A., and Donovan can’t stand the brat.

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“There’s this expectation that Katie and I will get it on, and I just don’t think that’s necessarily smart, to fall into those grooves of expectation when you can challenge them,” says Schreiber. “It fucks everybody up when I challenge them, because it’s ‘Oh, of course you’re supposed to get it on with Katie Holmes.’ ”

Falling into the grooves of expectation is one of Schreiber’s main worries. Sometimes the actress Naomi Watts, Schreiber’s wife, thinks her husband’s brain is too active for him to be an actor, fretting from plot to production to the other actors when he should just relax and play the scene. “His mind never shuts off,” Watts tells me. “He is not the kind of guy to flail his hands in the air and go, ‘Wow, this is fantastic!’ ” She giggles for a moment. “He is so not a fist pumper.”

Schreiber wouldn’t disagree. He has spent the season reading and revising scripts and contemplating Donovan’s motivations. There are bags under his eyes as he makes notes on his script for the episode’s writer. He then slips into his Donovan costume of custom white shirt and black suit. It is hour 14 of Schreiber’s 18-hour day, and his 47-year-old body creaks after a between-shoot midday workout in which he tossed a medicine ball, almost fell off a climbing rope, ran some intervals, and said the word oy about 50 times. He dreamily reminisced about the show’s fleeting idea that Ray would put on 25 pounds this season. “Oh, that would have been awesome,” Schreiber said, gasping as he writhed on a mat.

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There is a delay on set that allows Schreiber time to prowl and proselytize about his future and his shortcomings, one of the actor’s pastimes. Ray Donovan is entering its third season, but it’s the first without show creator Ann Biderman, who stepped down after the series went over budget its first two seasons. With new folks in charge, there have been growing pains.

A show’s third season can be difficult as producers try to keep all the plates spinning without the project careening Homeland-like into the absurd. By then, the newness of the premise has worn off, and viewers have to decide if they’re going to stay with the show based on their attachment to the lead. Schreiber was intent on Ray not going off the rails, for the sake of the show and, more important, for his own well-being. The actor’s current worry is that Ray Donovan is sliding away from its noir roots into a world where Ray thinks more and uses his fists less.

Liev Shreiber Men's Journal cover shoot
Mark Seliger

Schreiber can’t hide his anxiety as he tries to project an outer calm borrowed from his wife and from longtime friend Hugh Jackman. Even his publicist leaving a message saying, “Remember, this is an interview, not a confessional,” can’t keep him on the happy-talk track.

“I say so many terrible things,” Schreiber says as he asks for a junior-high term for making out with Holmes to be struck from the record. Actually, Schreiber just mistakes honesty as a character flaw. We talk about the new Showtime series Happyish, a dystopian half-hour comedy about a depressed creative director at an ad agency. Schreiber is obsessed with advertising, and the pontificating character seemed more in his wheelhouse. For a moment you can see a hunger in his eyes followed by disappointment. “I read the part and I thought, ‘Wow, this is the one thing I’d like to do,’ but I couldn’t. I was already doing this.”

To distract himself, he watches a YouTube video in which former heavyweight contender Chuck “the Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner is tossed from the ring in a 1970s moneymaking wrestling farce with Andre the Giant. Schreiber wants to film a Wepner biopic as his next project. (Wepner once went 15 brutal rounds with Muhammad Ali; later he became a liquor salesman.) “Wepner is real; there’s nothing phony about him,” says Schreiber, who narrates boxing documentaries for HBO and himself boxes two or three times a week. (He earlier showed me with boyish glee the boxing-gym set where much of Ray Donovan takes place.)

Living a real and authentic life is at the center of Schreiber’s concerns. He and Watts have two boys, and he wants to give them the security he didn’t have in his own chaotic, bohemian childhood, but he worries about their being too safe. “Entitlement is lethal,” says Schreiber. “It’s absolutely fucking lethal.”

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In 2007, Schreiber was proclaimed the “finest American theater actor of his generation” by the New York Times on the strength of his role in the revival of Talk Radio, and Schreiber says, “It spun me.” In a strange way, the praise may have hampered Schreiber’s confidence in his ability to carry a film. He has played Shakespeare to great acclaim and co-starred in multiple films but never had the cinematic breakthrough some predicted nearly a decade ago. Ray Donovan is his highest-profile role by far. Schreiber has a succinct explanation for why he didn’t meet earlier prophecies of stardom.

“I really never thought I was that good at film,” says Schreiber, a Yale School of Drama graduate. He slips his suit coat over his arms. “And honestly still don’t. My strength is language. My background is monologues and a certain kind of Brechtian spin on theater. There’s no suspension of belief; there’s a proscenium: ‘We’re going to do some cardboard sets here, but basically you’re here because you’re interested in what this guy says, and we’re going to talk about that.’ ”

I mention to Schreiber that Ray Donovan—a Boston enforcer now prowling Hollywood with a baseball bat in the trunk of his Mercedes—is a man more of L.A. U-turns than of words. This makes him, on the surface, the precise opposite of what Schreiber thinks is his strength. Schreiber wriggles his pudding face—his childhood nickname was Huggy—into a cartoony smile.

“I know. He’s got nothing to say!”

That sounds harsh. I offer that it’s Donovan’s actions that propel the show no matter how much furniture Jon Voight, his co-star, devours as his criminal father. Schreiber will not have it.

“No, I’m the expert. My character has nothing to say.” Schreiber smiles a bit before adding, “From an actor’s perspective.”

And there’s the challenge. Schreiber is a smart-enough actor to know that it’s the man with the fewest words who drives the action in noir. He must convey Donovan with deeds instead of monologues. And many of those deeds are unpleasant.

There is a knock at the door. It’s time. But Schreiber can’t get the door open. He’s a bit clumsy and absentminded offscreen; earlier today he left the keys in the ignition of his unlocked Audi on an L.A. street for two hours. When he realized what he’d done, he chuckled and said, “That’s fortunate it’s still here.”

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Schreiber cajoles and twists the handle for a minute or two. Ray Donovan would have just kicked the door down. His assistant finally opens it from the outside. “Well, that was impressive,” mumbles Schreiber.

There is a short golf-cart ride across the lot underneath a massive Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 billboard that perhaps reminds Schreiber he is a long way from his Broadway roots. Schreiber is dropped off at a parking garage and takes an elevator ride to the roof. The door opens, and there are 50 or more crew members who are running wardrobe, hosing down the pavement—drought? what drought?—and swinging cranes into place. Holmes chews gum and stands in a long coat, alone from the crowd and silhouetted by the rays of a light pole, trying very hard to look like a 21st-century version of the femme fatale. Schreiber draws in a breath and exhales. It is time to make something out of nothing.

Every actor who ends up accepting a steady television-series paycheck has the crisis where he feels buried in the quicksand that is playing the same part for a half-decade. Schreiber is no different—his off-season is five months long, too short to shoehorn a return to the theater he loves in anything more substantial than a short run. But Schreiber’s darkness comes from, well, a less-clichéd dark place, a location so without light that he had suppressed it for almost his entire childhood.

Not that the man is always a downer, even if he plays one on TV and often in real life. His good friend the director Greg Mottola says he has been pigeonholed onscreen as a “politician and asshole business guy”—see films like The Manchurian Candidate, The Painted Veil, and Salt—but he has another side, a comical one that few outside his inner circle get to see. That’s the Schreiber who narrated a five-minute film, made with a friend, about a giant bunny in a suit that featured deadpanned lines like “I got turned on to drinking when I was 64 days old and drugging shortly thereafter, when the mouse at Chuck E. Cheese mistook me for a midget in a bunny suit and gave me heroin. The first hit was the best.” That’s the man Watts says “seduced me with his humor.” She describes him as a “pied piper” with their kids, Sasha, 7, and Sam, 6, and their friends at birthday parties. That’s the man who was driving with Mottola on a Manhattan street, slipped the car into neutral, jumped out, and started running next to the car, reenacting Clint Eastwood trotting alongside the presidential limousine in In the Line of Fire. He wants to do more comedy, saying he’s been typecast with too many serious roles, and repeats a Schreiber chestnut: “If you fuck one goat . . .”

So, yes, there is the bawdy Schreiber; the boisterous Schreiber taking in the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight from a prime seat; and the more relaxed Schreiber who takes his kids surfing, though he’d admit with little prodding that’s not the side that has dominated his life. And there’s good reason for that, a reason that suggests that the fact Liev Schreiber has become a decent man and a good father, much less an accomplished actor, is a massive accomplishment in itself.

Shreiber with wife, Naomi Watts, in 2006. Photograph by Todd Williamson/Getty Images

The afternoon before the night shoot, Schreiber cruises Brentwood, the family’s Los Angeles neighborhood, looking for an open restaurant, only to find many had closed by 3 pm. “This wouldn’t happen in New York, this siesta,” Schreiber says, joking. Then he makes a decided nonjoke. “I’m a little homesick. I don’t have a ton of friends out here.”

The only restaurant open is La Scala Presto, a scenish restaurant that Schreiber insists he didn’t know existed. This is plausible, since he tries to keep his knowledge of L.A. to a minimum. (He had no idea that Disneyland was located in nearby Orange County.) The sole other patron is a raffish man who scans two smartphones as Schreiber searches the menu, looking for something light to keep his naturally doughy, childlike mug looking as lean and surly as Ray Donovan’s. A few minutes later, the customer gathers his gear and makes his way over to Schreiber’s table. He mumbles a greeting, pats Schreiber on the shoulder, smiles, and is gone. It was Sean Penn. “Well, that was nice,” says Schreiber, who is sure he has met Penn before, probably through his wife. This is not always the case.

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Schreiber has had trouble remembering things for two decades. “I don’t remember things about my life,” he says quietly. Schreiber has the dark features of a matinee villain but, up close, the face of a gentler man. He wrinkles his brow, and his blue eyes go somewhere else. “I can memorize a page of Shakespeare, no problem, but could I tell you where I was last week? No.”

Schreiber’s challenge started, in a way, at birth. He has described his childhood differently through the years, varying from debilitating American gothic to Woodstockian bliss. Both are true. His mother, Heather, was an ardent socialist. (She’s changed her tune a bit, letting her son buy her a swimming pool in her dotage.) His father, Tell, came from Waspy money, became convinced Heather was off her head due to a bad acid trip, and tried to have her committed to a mental institution. They split up soon after his birth. Schreiber was kidnapped first by his mother and then by his father, at the age of three. Eventually, Heather won custody (bankrupting her family with legal costs), and she and her son settled on the Lower East Side of New York City—while Schreiber’s four siblings, including Pablo Schreiber, who plays Pornstache on Orange Is the New Black, grew up in the Pacific Northwest.

Life with his mom was both idyllic and harsh. Heather didn’t believe in material possessions, so their cold-water flat was furnished with boxes and had no electricity, and the two slept on mattresses on the floor. Meanwhile, his father shut himself out of Liev’s life. At times Heather and Liev were on welfare.

On their own, Heather prohibited Liev from seeing movies in color, but otherwise urged him to explore the city by himself. Part of that exploration included shimmying down a pole and stealing money on several occasions over the course of a couple of years from a yoga institute where his mother worked. This got him shipped off to a Connecticut ashram, where the 12-year-old Liev learned about philosophy and looked after the property’s ponies.

As part of his memory block, Schreiber didn’t remember the burglaries until a reporter refreshed him with the details when he was an adult. The only constant male role model in his life was his maternal grandfather, Alex Milgram, who spent his fortune helping Heather get custody of Liev. Milgram was a Renaissance man and tough guy with his own pitiless past. He played cello and had friends in Murder Inc., a Jewish organized-crime gang in the 1930s. Milgram also approved the lobotomy of his own wife. (Schreiber, according to Rolling Stone, met her once: “She tried to eat my hand.”) Later in life, Milgram delivered meat to New York restaurants with the help of his grandson.

“He let me come along when I got older,” says Schreiber. “My grandfather was raising me, and in many respects I was trying to understand what it meant to be a man. He was my role model.”

Schreiber grew up with his bohemian mother in an apartment with no electricity in New York City. Photograph Courtesy Liev Schreiber.

One day, Liev was driving with his grandfather when he had a run-in with another driver. He stayed seated while Milgram got out, and then Liev heard a loud noise as something hit the side of their truck. Milgram didn’t say anything; he just got back in and drove off.

When he was 16, Heather gave her son a motorcycle. This didn’t exactly help with his academics. Liev’s father reentered his life long enough to transfer him from inner-city Brooklyn Tech High School, where Schreiber liked to hit people on the football field, to Friends Seminary, a posh Manhattan school. (Lena Dunham is a fellow graduate.) That’s where he became an actor.

He went to Hampshire College and then Yale, which was followed by precocious success as Hamlet at the Public Theater in 1999 and in indie films like The Daytrippers. He cut quite a macho New York swath in those days, equal parts brilliant and difficult. Mottola, a 20-year friend and the director of The Daytrippers, remembers meeting him for the first time in a gritty Manhattan bar, with Schreiber making his entrance with a motorcycle helmet under his arm. He wanted Schreiber to play a bookish, idealistic know-it-all in the movie.

“The role he played was sort of making fun of pretentious but endearing New Yorkers, and Liev at the time was perfect for that,” says Mottola.

But even during those early days, something was starting to slip away from Schrei­ber. Milgram, his male touchstone, died in 1993, and Schreiber felt his memory of him, his childhood, and then the everyday events of his life start to slip away.

“When my grandfather died, I started to really panic that I had a serious memory issue and that I was going to lose memories unless I endeavored to write them down,” Schreiber tells me. He says he remembers little of his past before he turned 14, an obvious post-traumatic coping device for his tumultuous childhood.

“I started getting clinical psychologists and neurologists to see if there was something wrong with me.” He lets out a sad laugh. “They said, ‘No, nothing, you’re just crazy.’ ”

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Ray Donovan has his own secrets and lies. He’s the middle of three Boston brothers who escaped a Whitey Bulger–like father and moved out West with his family and siblings. It is revealed that the youngest, Bunchy, was molested by a priest, and Ray’s idea that his criminal father did nothing to prevent it led Ray to have his dad sentenced to 25 years for a murder he didn’t commit. But as the hours of the first season unwound, it became evident that Ray had also been molested, a fact he has repressed and refuses to admit.

Schreiber has insisted that there is no connection between his own life and Donovan’s; it was just a wonderful role he couldn’t resist, and the stability of a television job gave his boys a structure he’d never had. But this clearly isn’t true. You have Liev suppressing his childhood of poverty and being pulled between two narcissistic parents, and you have Ray suppressing a childhood of molestation at the hand of a sociopathic priest.

“Everything I do is connected to memory,” Schreiber tells me in his trailer. “I’ll give you a takeaway.” He says it reluctantly, wondering if he’s giving away too much of Donovan and himself. But then Schrei­ber does it anyway. He makes his face go blank and looks into the distance, as if he’s trying to remember something in his mind that is like a toy a child can touch but can’t quite grasp. It’s the same look I saw at the restaurant, and I realize it’s the same look Ray Donovan gives when he’s confused or troubled by the violent man he has become.

“That’s a Ray face,” explains Schreiber. “He’s trying to remember something. It’s a feeling that comes from . . .” He trails off and pauses for a moment. He takes a deep breath. “It is an emotional recall that is painful and angry.”

Since his grandfather’s death, Schreiber’s career has been driven by his search for his personal past. A decade ago, he dove into two projects that let him pick his scabs perhaps too thoroughly. In 2004, he starred in a remake of The Manchurian Candidate, the story of Raymond Shaw, a war hero and vice-presidential candidate who slowly learns his memories of heroism are just mind-control implants and that he’s the tool of corporate interests.

“I was getting in touch with that fear, that anxiety about being blank, being nothing,” says Schreiber. “I don’t know if so much of it was memory, but it was identity. You know, Shaw had no identity; he was nothing without the suggestion of his mother or the powers that be.”

Schreiber balks at drawing a direct correlation with his own mother. His attempts to write about his family’s history and his grandfather’s Ukrainian roots were superseded when he read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. The book concentrated on the similar theme of a young man returning to Ukraine to find out about the people who saved his grandfather from death at the hands of the Nazis. He adapted the novel and made his directorial debut with the project shortly after filming The Manchurian Candidate.

Shreiber with wife, Naomi Watts, in 2006. Photograph by Todd Williamson/Getty Images

Maybe it was all too much. Dwelling on his past so obsessively left Schreiber wondering what to do with the second half of his life.

“I was at a crossroads,” says Schreiber. “I was going, ‘Am I really an actor?’ I still wanted to direct and write, but I felt like acting was easier and more lucrative and that’s why I was doing it. That existentially eats at you.”

Schreiber thought about quitting the business. He contemplated going into advertising. He had majored in semiotics in college, and the art of persuasion—whether it’s selling cornflakes or Hamlet—always fascinated him. “In college, we talked a lot about subliminal seduction,” says Schreiber. “Everybody else in the class was going, ‘Oh, those bastards!’ and I was saying, ‘That’s pretty slick.’ ”

Schreiber eventually did start a boutique ad agency, Van’s General Store, with a longtime friend. He’s not exactly Don Draper—the company uses its Lower East Side storefront to do performance-art pieces for niche clients like Vespa. But he still wasn’t sure about what else to do. Fortunately, a woman and a superhero changed his life.

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A couple of years ago, Schreiber, Watts, and their two boys were out for a walk when the paparazzi descended on them. The Schreiber clan is catnip for paps: the brooding father, the film-star mom, and two adorable towheaded kids. Despite a couple of warnings, a photographer moved in close, and his lens brushed against Sasha, Schreiber and Watts’ older son. Schreiber’s tendency would be to go, well, all Sean Penn on the photographer.

“I was about to lose it, and then Naomi reminded me about the kids,” says Schreiber with a guilty smile. “They’re not going to remember why Dad went nuts; they’re just going to remember that Dad went nuts, and it was scary. You can’t act the same.”

Watts was proud of him: “For a man who is an alpha male and really wants to protect his family, he’s learned to keep that part of him at bay.”

Schreiber and Watts met at the Met Ball in New York in 2005, soon settled in as a couple, and had a son two years later. Watts was raised in an almost equally unorthodox manner—her father was a road manager for Pink Floyd who died when she was young—so she intuitively understands Schreiber’s pain and history.

“Most of my life I’ve spent pushing people away,” Schreiber tells me. “Most of Naomi’s life she’s spent gathering people around her. They both have their pathologies, and they can both learn from each other.” Schreiber then grins. “She helps me say the right thing, she helps me look presentable, and all the things women have been doing for centuries.”

There was a man who did the same for him. Schreiber was cast as Sabretooth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. In preproduction, he met Mr. Wolverine, a.k.a. Hugh Jackman. Before that role, Schreiber had always believed the accoutrements of film actors—managed diet, trainers, a workout regimen—to be the part of acting he detested the most. Jackman taught him it was something else.

“My style was always intuitive,” Schrei­ber says. “I never used to believe in working on your body. Anything that smacked of vanity to me was bad for your acting, but I learned that wasn’t true. There’s a whole set of tools available to you, and you’re not using them because you’re insecure or lazy, and I was both.”

Since then, Schreiber has regularly worked with a trainer and surfed on the weekends. He has tried to learn other things from Jackman, including meditation. “He’s very professional,” says Schreiber. “He’s disciplined and knows exactly what to say. That’s why I’m with Naomi and why I like Hugh, because I’m hoping they’ll rub off on me.”

The approach hasn’t completely taken. Earlier he revealed that one of the reasons he took Ray Donovan was to give his boys the stability of at least one parent not always being on the road. (Watts was away filming in Vancouver at the time.) “I wanted them to have consistency with their friends, to have playdates with other kids that don’t change every month,” said Schreiber. “Naomi was not going to do it, so I’ve got to do it.” He paused for a second. “Don’t say that. I’m going to get in trouble.” He chuckled. “I’m still a loose cannon.”

But things are looking up. In addition to having a sketchy memory, Schreiber claims he hadn’t remembered a dream in three years until last night. That’s when he dreamed that he was directing Sacha Baron Cohen in a film.

“It was a Keystone Cops kind of thing,” says Schreiber. “There definitely were about 10 guys dressed up as Brownshirts chasing him. I thought it was funny, and he liked it, too.”

Schreiber opens his palms as if to suggest the memory vault is now empty.

“And that’s all I got.”

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Back on the roof, Schreiber huddles with the Donovan senior staff while the shot is set up. It is four months into a six-month shoot and the end of a 60-hour week. Gallows humor has set in. The staff reminisces about an earlier scene, set in a motel in which Ian McShane, who plays Holmes’ richer-than-God father, was supposed to have his big moment with Ray, but everything went wrong. The location was a mess, and then a painting fell off the wall in the middle of filming. Schreiber went ballistic, something he regrets. But it wasn’t for no reason.

“I feel like Ray kind of quit that day,” says Schreiber. He sounds like a man whose best friend betrayed him. “He kind of bailed.”

For the next three hours, the crew shoots a short scene in which Holmes parks her car next to Schreiber’s and they have a conversation about a deal going down. Then, after reaching an understanding, they kiss. Schreiber has now consented to the make-out session but isn’t happy with its execution. They shoot it over and over again, but Schreiber isn’t buying it, and it shows in his performance.

“Everyone wants to be Lauren Bacall, the femme fatale with a cigarette,” says Schrei­ber between takes. “But there has to be a base for that first. Then we believe it.”

Schreiber and the director talk about cutting a Holmes line or cheating the scene by doing it as a series of cutaways, but then Holmes surprises them. On the seventh or eighth take, she delivers her lines differently, with more crazy-eyed manic energy. After the cameras stop rolling, Schreiber happily trots back over to the video village where the scene is being played back.

“That works! That was like Sean Young. It’s a little over-the-top, but Ray is drawn to crazy.”

They shoot a half-dozen more takes. Schrei­ber has recaptured the Ray face he’d shown me earlier, a mixture of a man intoxicated by a woman as he tries to remember that such a dame should make him run for his life. Around 11:30, the production wraps for the night. Schreiber gives Holmes a hug and a pat on the back. The actress disappears with her entourage. Schreiber wanders toward the elevator and, finally, a ride home, where he can look in on his sleeping sons and then collapse. He says one last honest thing.

“Now, I believe it. I’m happy.”

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