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May 2006
The Omen: An Interview with Liev Schreiber

The Omen: An Interview with Liev Schreiber
By Kara Warner
June 04, 2006

Liev Schreiber is one of the most gifted actors in this business. He hasn’t done countless films as many would think because his passion lies in the theater world, having recently won a Tony Award his performance in the revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross”. When you see him on the big screen, what you get is an actor, not a film star. He’ll give you a performance that was written for the screen because he’s been trained that way. With the exception of the “Scream” trilogy, which gave him worldwide attention, Schreiber pretty much likes to do independent films. Then again, there are always films that grab him like “Ransom”, “The Sum of All Fears” and a few studio films. Coming up for a Liev is a chance to bring a new audience to world of classics, as he is recreating a role that screen legend Gregory Peck portrayed. In the remake of “The Omen”, Schreiber plays Robert Thorn, the father of little Damien, the one who we come to fear. In speaking to blackfilm.com, Liev talks about stepping in a legend’s shoes, working with Mia Farrow, and his upcoming projects.

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

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?

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 so 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.


Mia had a great complement for you, she says you’re ‘The Olivier of our time” and other actors have put you up into a certain category. Do you feel you have to Liev up to that and is there any kind of pressure walking into that? How do you respond as an actor?

Schreiber: It’s incredible flattering but I don’t feel that I have to Liev-up to it. I think it’s a kind of thing that is quickly forgotten if you fall on your face. I don’t ever… 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 you get to kick her in the head and hit her with a car. Looking at the script, did you ever think, ‘Can I do this?’

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.


Did you have any input on how your character developed?

Schreiber: Some. There were two scenes in particular that I had some input on. Fortunately John liked my idea of Thorn being a lapsed Catholic and on the first take of the sort of 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… he is frustrated with these people who think that our King’s scripture justify killing and it’s something about that that seemed very prescient in 2006 to me so I was glad that he kept that in as well.


How did you play the more violent scenes at the end, with this child who you’ve come to know and play with on/off set?

Schreiber: Well 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, with everything that we were shooting and 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 7-year-old.


You obviously knew this movie, so when you got the part did you go back and watch the original to refresh your memory?

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 and I just 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, you just identify with him because he was Gregory Peck and he was a good guy. There was something about trying to understand that. That he was essentially a good man who wanted to do the right thing, with a tremendous amount of pressure in the other direction.


There is a political/religious element, when you went back to the original, do you think that was there or that it was played up?

Schreiber: I think there’s a reason why this film was so successful in 1976. I think that there’s a reason why genre films in general, particularly The Omen, were successful in 1976. I don’t know specifically why, I can speculate that it had something to do with the tail end of the Vietnam War. I think it had something to do with the sense of political unrest that people were feeling, what was happening in the Civil Rights movement, and there, you know, for some reason in those situations, people like to go see movies like this. I think it meant something. I think that there are many, many parallels that can be drawn between 2006 and 1976.


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

Schreiber: Well 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 it’s 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 Lievs 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 and 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? As an actor, how do you approach that?

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.


Did your experience with Everything is Illuminated put you off directing, or is that something we can expect from you again?

Schreiber: It didn’t put me off… I was disappointed but I was also really, really thrilled and flattered and encouraged by the response that it got. I certainly would like to direct again, I think it’s just a question of, if you’re going to spend 2 ½ years of your life on something it better be something that’s important to you.


Do you think more people have found it on DVD?

Schreiber: I can’t tell. Part of me is sort of scared to know. There’s part of me that wants to get on with my life. It’s very sensitive, it’s a very personal film and there’s a part of me that wants to imagine it having a rosy future. I almost don’t want to know what’s really happening.


What’s next for you?

Schreiber: I’m rehearsing Macbeth right now which opens in previews June 13th and closes July 16th, Shakespeare in the Park at the Republic Theater. 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?

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


Who do you want to work with now?

Schreiber: I never dreamed that I’d have an opportunity to work with, you know, Mia Farrow, David Thewlis, Michael Gambon, Pete Postleftwaite, 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.

 

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