Liev Schreiber is not an obvious choice to play a tough, violent partisan. Unlike Daniel Craig, his co-star in the film Defiance — which is released today — Schreiber does not have a hard-man image. In fact, his upbringing was about as far from tough as it gets. He was raised as a vegetarian in a series of hippie communes by his liberal, free-thinking papier-mâché puppet-making mother. When he left home, he graduated in drama at Yale and became one of America’s leading Shakespearean actors. Streetfighter he ain’t.
Yet director Edward Zwick felt that Schreiber could pull off the part of Zus Bielski, one of three Jewish warrior brothers who fought the Nazis, who gathered in Jews from the ghettoes and who survived in the forests of Belarus for four years despite repeated German attempts to liquidate them.
However, Zwick had to fight hard to persuade Schreiber to play the part. Ironically, it was the toughness of the character which ultimately persuaded him to accept.
Schreiber, urbanely suited and sipping a cappuccino in the bar of a London hotel, reflects: “To be frank, I was initially very hesitant just because I have been involved in a lot of Holocaust projects and it felt like an area I didn’t want to revisit. But what changed my mind was that this was a remarkable story — a triumphant story. It sets out to redefine the Jewish image — that of fighter rather than victim. We all know tough Jews like that. My own grandfather was incredibly tough and athletic and was the main male role model in my life.”
He feels that while Jews have spent years memorialising the six million who died, somewhere along the line we neglected to venerate those who fought and survived. Defiance, he feels, is a way of correcting that balance.
If Schreiber’s upbringing reinforced the image of Jews as intellectuals and scholars, he was also inspired by the feats of a different kind of Jew. He jokes that all American Jews point to baseball player Sandy Koufax and swimmer Mark Spitz as evidence that the stereotype of the effete, cerebral Jew is not true. They even take a little pride in the fact that there was a Jewish equivalent of the mafia.
While nothing like the mafia, once the conflict started, the Bielski brothers had no qualms about using brutal violence against the Nazis.
Schreiber says: “Film narratives tend to go for the traditional heroic arc. The interesting thing about this film was the moral ambiguity.” Indeed, if the Bielskis were heroes, they were certainly a different type of hero.
“They were in trouble long before the Nazis arrived. Violent people rise to violent situations. There happened to be some very destructive people on the Jewish side too. What the Nazis were doing to the Jews, the Bielskis were doing to the Nazis — the Germans were speaking a language of violence that these guys understood and they responded to in kind.”
He admits that many contemporaries were unconvinced about his ability to play tough. He did not share their doubts.
“A lot of people considered me a New York Jewish actor who doesn’t play physical roles. But I was convinced I could do it and do it well.”
Part of the key to his understanding of the character he was playing came through language. The Jewish characters would have spoken Yiddish to each other and these scenes are played in English in the film. But Zus defected to the Russian partisans and many of his scenes were played in Russian, which Schreiber learned for the part.
“I tried my best to pick it up. I can read the alphabet now and speak rudimentary Russian. One of the tricks to getting a dialect right is trying to learn the word rather than doing it by phonetics. That’s how you pick up the rhythms. Russian is a very masculine language, a very frugal language. It’s such a male language that anything flowery or baroque like ‘my darling’ or ‘my sweet’ is just ridiculous. Understanding that helped me to express Zus’s character.”
Defiance is the latest in a series of films with a Jewish theme that Schreiber has acted in — or, in the case of the adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Everything is Illuminated, directed. Despite the fact that Schreiber’s father was not Jewish, he acknowledges that he associated more with his Jewish side, probably because he was brought up by his mother following his parents’ divorce.
“Like most actors, I’m the victim of identity crisis. One of the great things about being an actor is that you are allowed to explore things that others don’t have time to do. For me that was following leads on identity.”
In fact, he was writing a book not unlike Everything Is Illuminated, about his search for his own identity following the death of his Ukrainian-born grandfather, when he came across Safran Foer’s work. “My writing was paranoid, neurotic and self-deprecating whereas this guy, 19 at the time, had done the same thing with humour and love,” he says.
Although Schreiber was made aware of his Jewish heritage as a child, his upbringing was certainly not a traditionally Jewish one — after all, not many Jewish kids experience life on a commune other than a kibbutz.
“I suppose my upbringing was eccentric. I think most people have an eccentric side to their childhood, but then most people don’t have to tell it to the press. Sure I was in several communes — the first when I was six — but I didn’t have much choice. And I didn’t know anything else. My mother was free-thinking and philosophical. Perhaps for this reason I tend to be a little more disciplinarian. That’s the backlash, I guess.”
Despite the fact that Schreiber married a non-Jewish woman (British-born, Australian actress Naomi Watts), he considers his two boys, 18-month-old Sasha and Sam, born last December, to be Jewish.
“They both had a proper bris, with a mohel and a Hebrew naming ceremony. I’m not an observant person but I love the idea of a bris in the same way I love the Seder. I really appreciate the sense of continuity and relatedness in Jewish culture.
“Other people — Asians, for example — have the same, but for me it is distinctly Jewish. If we witness the poor helpless child having his foreskin cut off, for the rest of our lives we owe him a debt and we owe him compassion. That’s very moving to me. Everyone who was there witnessed something profound and painful and disturbing.”
The other passion in Schreiber’s life is live theatre. While he enjoys film, he feels his real talent is for the stage. “Nothing compares to spending a night with a live audience. Of course, eight shows a week will break you down faster than anything, but it’s the greatest two hours of your life.”
For this reason, one of the biggest thrills of making a film is that popcorn moment at the premiere. “Just sitting there, seeing how the audience is experiencing the film and watching them react — it’s the nearest it gets to live performance. That’s the buzz.”