On a recent chilly morning, Liev Schreiber was eating breakfast in a downtown Manhattan restaurant while a swarm of shutterbugs hovered outside on the corner near his apartment. ¶ However, Schreiber wasn't exactly the one whom the photographers were after. "It's her," he said, with a weary grin. ¶ He's referring to his partner, Oscar-nominated actress Naomi Watts, with whom he has one son, and at this point, another on the way (Watts gave birth to their second son two weeks after this interview). The paparazzi were hanging around for pictures of a pregnant Watts or maybe they could even catch her and Schreiber en route to the hospital. ¶ "Stupid," Schreiber said, again smiling wryly. Schreiber was talking about the photographers, with whom he has tussled in the past (you can catch one melee on TMZ.com). "Some of them hunt you like prey," he said. "And when people treat you like that, you start acting like it." ¶ And yet, Schreiber added that he may owe a paparazzo or two an apology for how he has reacted to them in the past. Such an admission may be surprising at first, but there's something very gentlemanly and old-school about the 41-year-old actor. Sporting a short beard and a tweed cap, slightly askew on his head, Schreiber completed the picture of a hard-working thespian from another era -- and it didn't take much to see why he was cast in his current role, as a Holocaust-surviving Jew fighting Nazis during World War II.
In "Defiance," along with costars Daniel Craig and Jamie Bell, Schreiber plays one of three brothers who lead a gathering of dispossessed Jews into the Belarusian forest, where they develop a community and fight off the Nazis. The film, which is based on the true story of the Bielski brothers and opened in theaters on Wednesday, allowed Schreiber to dig deeper into his own Jewish roots -- his mother is Jewish, his father a Pennsylvania WASP -- which he has done before, having directed "Everything Is Illuminated" in 2005, about a young American tracing his grandfather's roots in the Holocaust, and costarred in 1999's "Jakob the Liar," the ill-received comedy featuring Robin Williams.
Schreiber, whose parents divorced when he was young, grew up with his "bohemian" mother -- an artist, she also drove a taxi on and off for several years -- in Manhattan's Lower East Side, where she'd take him to see black-and- white movies at the local rep theater. His interest in acting began in the sixth grade while playing the bass clarinet in the school band.
"We were performing the Mendelssohn wedding march in Mrs. Bain's drama class, which was doing 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' " he recalled. "And Andrew Gross was playing Nick Bottom in the famous play-within-the-play scene. And he couldn't squeeze a laugh out of it if his life depended on it. Well, that's not true. But I was so envious, I was sitting in the orchestra pit and I was thinking, 'He's not making it funny. I bet I can make that funny.' "
It was also in those formative years that Schreiber's interest in Jewish identity -- especially as it related to the Holocaust -- was spawned. He recalled hearing his mother's "incessant reminders of my Jewish heritage; that Jews are the Chosen people. And if anyone really doubts us, there's always Mark Spitz and Sandy Koufax."
But, living in a part of town where slum lords were burning people out of buildings -- "and the landlords were old Jewish guys" -- he began thinking, " 'Wait a minute, why is this happening? These are our brethren.' And I became fascinated by this contradiction in character."
Which is to say, Schreiber did not take his role in "Defiance" lightly. "Every year, we memorialize the people who died," he said. "And we forget the people who survived, the people who did anything possible to survive -- unimaginable things."
Schreiber explained that making "Defiance," which was shot in a remote, wooded area in Lithuania, about a hundred miles away from the location of the Bielski brothers camp, was not just some walk in the forest; "It was cold, we were out in the woods," he said. "But to a certain degree there is a self-consciousness to making a film about the Holocaust; that your suffering is nothing compared to the people who lived through that situation."
"Defiance" director Ed Zwick said he cast Schreiber because he wanted an actor who could go "toe to toe" with Craig (who's better known as the new, hardscrabble James Bond), and he was more than satisfied with Schreiber's intensity, noting that Schreiber not only learned to speak Russian phonetically -- which was called for in several scenes -- but that he mastered the language enough to take on the seasoned Russian stage actors cast as soldiers.
"Language is very important to Shakespearean actors," said Zwick, which is how he sees Schreiber, noting that he primarily knew his work on the stage, mentioning his turns in several Shakespeare productions and his Tony-winning role in the 2005 Broadway revival of "Glengarry Glen Ross."
Indeed, unless you've seen some of the smaller of the small-budget 1990s fare, films such as "The Daytrippers," "Walking and Talking" and "A Walk on the Moon," it would be easy to miss Schreiber, who studied drama at Yale. And despite his powerful performances in those films, and equally impressive turns in secondary roles in mainstream movies such as "Sum of All Fears" and the "Scream" movies, he's hardly become a marquee name. A few years ago, there was a spell when Schreiber did test those waters, when he was cast in remakes of "The Manchurian Candidate" and "The Omen," but both disappointments hardly helped remake the actor's career.
Nevertheless, Schreiber has always considered himself fortunate. "I've been insanely lucky," he said. "I have really not had to struggle that much in this business, except for my own frustrations and ego. But, financially? Career-wise? I have been nutty lucky."
In 2009, Schreiber will continue to show his range, as Sabretooth in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," and Oscar-winning director Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock." Both films should keep him in the spotlight, but he says he'll be happy to step behind the curtain for a while.
Although he will do some screenwriting, Schreiber has no plans to return to the stage, or even a film set (at least not for paid work). "It's Naomi's turn. I think she needs to, to feel reconnected to what she loves," Schreiber said of the "King Kong" star whom he met at a Metropolitan Museum gala three years ago. "And I'm eager to watch my kids grow a little bit. I may have to free myself up to be with Naomi on set."
If this morning is any evidence, he should slip into the shadows effortlessly. After breakfast, Schreiber walked home, passing within arm's reach of the paparazzi, who didn't stir. Standing at his door, Schreiber glanced back at them, later crediting a quick turn of his shoulder for why he went unnoticed.
But then again, it's her they are after. Not him.