If you thought you saw Liev Schreiber this summer you must have been at the Ross School’s Hamptons for Haiti fundraiser brunch, or in Montauk at Allure editor-in-chief Linda Wells’ birthday bash at the Surf Club. Maybe it was at dinner at Nick and Toni’s, or just hanging on the beach in East Hampton, where Schreiber and longtime love Naomi Watts relaxed with their two boys, Sasha and Samuel.
Schreiber deserves a little relaxation; the actor has had a busy career portraying characters that range from movie giant Orson Welles in the HBO mini-series “RKO 281” to comic book villain Sabretooth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He’s done so much work in voiceovers and narrating documentaries that he’s practically the voice of PBS. As if that weren’t enough to keep a guy busy, Schreiber also has stepped behind the cameras as writer/director of Everything is Illuminated, adapting Jonathan Safran Foer’s original short story that was the basis for his novel.
The story of Schreiber’s childhood has been filled with as many plot twists and eccentric characters as any film imaginable. Schreiber’s father, Tell, was an actor/director from a wealthy Pennsylvania family. His mother, Heather, was a Brooklyn girl from an Eastern European family with leftist politics. Schreiber described her as a “far-out Socialist Labor Party hippie bohemian freak.” Heather, seven years older than Tell Schreiber, already had three sons from a previous marriage when Liev was born in San Francisco. Even the origin of his name was a source of disagreement between his parents: Heather claims the name is a nod to her favorite author, Leo Tolstoy; Tell says Heather named their son for a doctor who treated her. The family left San Francisco when Liev was only one, and headed north to a commune in Canada.
Commune life did not bring out the best in Heather, who spent the next few years in and out of hospitals for psychological problems. Tell wanted to have her committed to a psychiatric institution, and that was when Heather decided to hit the road with her son. A custody battle over Liev ensued. By the time Liev was five years old, the Schreibers were divorced, and Liev was living with his mother in New York City, often without hot water and electricity. Heather, driving a cab to make ends meet, continued her eccentric ways with regard to bringing up her son—she sent him to an Ashram school when he was 12, and forbade him to see color movies. Schreiber’s favorite actor was Charlie Chaplin, whose black and white films fit with the parental edict.
Somehow, Schreiber’s colorful upbringing helped him become “a professional shape-shifter,” as critic John Lahr wrote in a New Yorker profile. Schreiber’s first career goal was screenwriting, appropriate, as the word “schreiber” is German for writer. A teacher steered him toward acting, and after earning his undergraduate degree at Hampshire College, which was also his father’s Alma Mater, Schreiber went on to the Yale School of Drama for a Master’s degree, and then the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
Schreiber’s film career started out in critically praised indies like The Daytrippers and Big Night, but he soon got a break in more commercial fare. He was cast as accused murderer Cotton Weary in Wes Craven’s horror parody/homage Scream. It was a cameo in the first film, but the role grew larger in the next two entries in the franchise. An HBO original mini-series followed. It was “RKO 281.” Schreiber played Orson Welles, capturing the manipulative charm, imposing physicality, and calculating shrewdness of the young Welles during the shooting of Citizen Kane. It was a riveting performance that would earn Schreiber Best Actor nods for an Emmy and a Golden Globes award.
The roles that followed, in film, television and on stage cemented Schrieber’s reputation as an actor at home in any role in any genre. He played Laertes in Hamlet and Meg Ryan’s time-travelling ex in Kate and Leopold. In a remake of The Manchurian Candidate he was a brainwashed homicidal congressman, and then a ladies man in Love in the Time of Cholera. Schreiber was an American ambassador facing the fact that his son was the anti-Christ in The Omen and a World War II freedom fighter in Defiance. For his role in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Schreiber donned the adamantine claws to play super-powered baddie Sabretooth. The fight scenes were spectacular enough to be nominated for Teen Choice Awards for Choice Movie Rumble and MTV’s Movie Award for Best Fight.
On the Broadway stage, Schreiber has had some of his finest roles. As Richard Roma, the profoundly profane realtor in a revival of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Schreiber brought home a Tony for Best Featured Actor. Portraying shock-jock Barry Champlain in Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio, Schreiber turned in a performance that prompted The New York Times critic Ben Brantley to dub him “the finest American theatre actor of his generation.” No stranger to Shakespeare, Schreiber has played the title roles in Hamlet, and Macbeth, as well as Macbeth to Jennifer Ehle’s ambitious Lady Macbeth.
In 2005, Schreiber met Naomi Watts at a Metropolitan Museum ball. They were both free of previous relationships, he with Kristin Davis and she with Heath Ledger, whom she had parted with amicably. Like Schreiber, Watts had gotten her break in a horror film—The Ring. A year later, they would co-star in The Painted Veil, based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel. Schreiber and Watts would go on to co-star on two other productions—Sasha and Samuel. “It’s been a busy year,” Schreiber remarked in a recent interview, “I’m looking forward to hanging with my boys.”