Mia Farrow calls him 'the Olivier of our time'

Liev Schreiber is an actor's actor. He's worked with some of the greats and they've heaped an astonishing amount of praise on him. Case in point, Mia Farrow, his co-star in The Omen, has called him 'the Olivier of our time'. He has this gravitas that is rarely seen in modern actors. Liev does a fine job recreating Gregory Peck's character. Fans of the original will like his updated interpretation of 'Robert Thorn'. Liev will next be seen on stage in this summer's Shakespeare in the Park presentation of "Macbeth".

The original film is a horror classic. Did you revisit it in your research? Were you at all intimidated recreating Gregory Peck's performance?

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Liev Schreiber: One of the things about doing remakes, particularly when they're good in the first place, is you've got source material. The other great thing is that you've got the benefit of hindsight, so you can look and say is there anything that's weak we can improve on? Is there anything really good that we can borrow? A lot of actors don't like that, they don't want to be influenced; but I love it. I don't think there's any danger of me ever reproducing Gregory Peck's performance. I just don't think that's possible. But having said that, I thought there were things we could improve on or that we could borrow. There's a kind of credibility and dignity that Gregory Peck brings to things as an actor, and maybe I'm projecting a little bit of "To Kill a Mockingbird", but there is a sense of an honorable man and I thought that was very valuable. He made up for what might have been missing in terms of scene work with just his credibility. There was something about trying to understand that. He was essentially a good man who wanted to do the right thing, with a tremendous amount of pressure in the other direction.

Did the original leave an impression on you? Was that why you wanted to do it again?

Liev Schreiber: I remember that it made a big impression on me. I think I saw it in the 80's. I was a big fan as I was of "Manchurian Candidate". I really don't think you should bother trying to remake a movie unless it was good in the first place.

Did any of your religious beliefs come into play in preparation for the role?

Liev Schreiber: No, not really. I had made a decision early on that he was a lapsed Catholic and that's something I'm only superficially familiar with. I spent some time familiarizing myself with the New Testament, in particular the Book of Revelations. But no, I've never had a problem with any of my own beliefs getting in the way of a character I play.

Did you have any input on how your character was developed? There are substantial differences from the original.

Liev Schreiber: Some. There were two scenes in particular that I had some input on. Fortunately John [Moore, the director] liked my idea of Thorn being a lapsed Catholic. On the first take of the final conflict with Damien on the altar, I improvised the Lord's Prayer and he liked that. I was very happy to see that he decided to put that in the film. Then there was a scene where we had gone to see Michael Gambon's character, Bugenhagen, where David Thewlis' character is panicking that I'm going to quit. Thorn's observation is that he is frustrated with these people who think that scriptures justify killing. It's something that seemed very prescient in 2006 to me, so I was glad that he kept that in as well.

Speaking of the altar scene, how do you play that with a child you've probably become close to on set? Or did you keep Seamus [Fitzpatrick, Damien] at arms length during filming?

Liev Schreiber: I didn't play that scene at the end. That was a dummy. I didn't feel comfortable holding a knife over his head. The exercise was pretty much to find the game that would get us what we needed. That usually involved some kind of slugfest where they would say go and he would just start to beat on me. He liked that game a lot, so we did well. But I didn't really find it appropriate to really discuss the details of who he was or what was happening. I didn't feel like that was important or useful to a seven-year-old.

Mia Farrow had a great complement for you. She called you 'The Olivier of our time'. Other actors have also praised you and put you into a very select category. Do you feel you have to live up to that? How do you respond as an actor?

Liev Schreiber: Its incredible flattering, but I don't feel that I have to live-up to it. I think it's a kind of thing that is quickly forgotten if you fall on your face. I try not to take any of it too seriously. But that, I like that very much.

So you have a chance to work with Mia Farrow and, without revealing spoilers, give her a pretty thorough beating. Did you ever imagine that ever happening in your career?

Liev Schreiber: I had the same situation with Paul Newman in a film called Twilight. I finally got to work with Paul Newman and here I am just kicking his butt all over the pier. And yeah, I had the same thing with Mia Farrow. It was a treat, both times.

Can you talk a little about the 9/11 scene and as a New Yorker, how it makes you feel?

Liev Schreiber: I think that these things exist in the collective consciousness, or the collective unconsciousness, rather. And whether or not you tap into them as filmmakers, they're there. I think that it's something that's important not to be afraid of because when you talk about people's images of evil, those notions about what is evil, those images exist and those images are provocative to them. I don't think you should be afraid of being provocative. I think its part of what we're supposed to do in this business. So I really feel like it is appropriate. There's a kind of censorship I think could come into play here and you need to be sensitive to those who lost their lives and to their families at the same time. What you're dealing with in an audience is a living, breathing, feeling, body of people; who are responding to their own fears and anxieties. That is certainly a major one if you talk about today, in 2006, what is our collective angst.

You're an actor who uses silence well. Does it say 'pause' in the script? How do you keep that continuity? How do you approach that?

Liev Schreiber: It's one of the challenges, I think, of working in film. Part of what's so fun about acting on film is that actually the script will have six lines, and you'll say to the director, 'Can I do those three and let me see if I can do the other three without saying anything?' Because I think that's what works. I do think that a good relationship with an audience is kind of like a puzzle and that the more they're extending themselves to your consciousness, the better. So if you're telling them what you're feeling, it's not often as effective as letting them invent it and go after it. So to that end, a lot of times I think it's good to go through the script and say, 'I don't need to say that. I don't need to say that.' Let me make them feel it so they say it for me.

What's next for you?

Liev Schreiber: I'm rehearsing "Macbeth" right now, which opens in previews June 13th and closes July 16th, Shakespeare in the Park. Hopefully in July I'm going to spend a little more time writing and thinking about trying to make another film.

Is this your second time with Shakespeare in the Park?

Liev Schreiber: It will be my third or fourth, actually. "Tempest, Cymbeline, Henry IV"

Who's left on your list of greats to work with?

Liev Schreiber: I never dreamed that I'd have an opportunity to work with Mia Farrow, David Thewlis, Michael Gambon, Pete Postlewaite, let alone in the same film, so it's hard to imagine. There are so many actors I'd like to work with, picking one rules out so many others. I'll politely pass on that one.

The Omen creeps into theaters June 6th and is rated 'R'.

Julian Roman