Though best known as a remarkable actor with range and nuance, the 40-something Liev Schrieber couldn't leave things going well enough alone. Now the Tony Award winner (Glengarry Glen Ross) and film actor (A Walk on The Moon, Spring Forward) decided to direct his first feature based on his own screenplay — an adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's quirky Everything Is Illuminated.
The L Magazine: Why did you decide to make this film?
Liev Schrieber: My grandfather was a Ukrainian immigrant. He raised me since I was four and had a big influence on me. When he died in 1993, I started to write a lot about him. I didn't know much about him, so I invested in a lot in the idea that a past lovingly imagined was as valuable as a past accurately recalled. Then, an editor from the New Yorker, Bill Buford, asked me if I would do a short story by Jonathan Safran Foer. He thought that because of the material that I had been working on, we would be a good match. I asked if I could meet him and when I did, I was stunned by the similarities in our stories and impressed by the quality of his writing. He agreed to let me adapt his novel.
The L: Are you afraid that people will forget what happened?
LS: No, that wasn't a motivation on my part. In fact, I think that
it's more common that people would like to forget it — especially those that survived it. Most Eastern Europeans that survived it, don't want to talk about it.
The L: Does this film make you even further connected to your roots?
LS: I feel most strongly connected to my grandfather. One of the clues that I had to his history was that he was a Ukrainian Jew. One of the things I love about Jonathan's novel is that it's a third generation's interpretation of events. I like the neutrality of that. It's what has happened to culture, particularly Jewish culture, over the past century. It's also a personal interpretation.
The L: Did it in any way solve any issues related to your family?
LS: The exercise of memory retention was the inspiration for the process and it was certainly successful. We got an incredible reception at the Venice Film Festival and at the Toronto Film Festival. I certainly felt my grandfather's presence during the standing ovation.
The L: Did this film help you get back to your American roots?
LS: That's what I meant when I talked about exploring my grandfather's history. One of the things I really liked about Jonathan's novel was that very unique nostalgia that a younger person has for older people. It's very rare--and very moving. The most emotional responses have been from older Eastern Europeans.
The L: Is acting more of a passion and directing more of a management skill?
LS: No. Acting was initially exciting to me because it was really challenging and frightening, but it was an expression of my desire to feel more connected to audiences and myself. For me, trying to explore content in my own life through my grandfather's life was a personal journey that resulted in a film. That process was very important to me. Honestly, making a film was a dream of mine since the first time I watched a film.
The L: In having made the film, does that make you a better actor?
LS: Absolutely. I learned a lot of about acting and not creating a large burden. I see clearer than ever about the process of distillation. It's important to create an environment that they can forget all their elements and just do their job.
The L: Did it make you appreciate your experience with past directors that you had worked with?
LS: Yeah, I've been making excessive apologies to every director I ever gave a hard time to — but not individually apologies.
The L: What is the problem with the American male?
LS: There is a short-term memory in American culture. When we come to this country, these wounded immigrants who jump into the melting pot and fall into assembly line of the American economy. What I like about Jonathan's novel is that he suggests that there is something that is lost along with that sense of culture and history that is a valuable part of who we are today.