49 Minutes With Liev Schreiber

Photo: Patrick McMullan

Liev Schreiber strides out of baggage claim at Newark Airport and into his waiting black limo, tall, tanned, and cigarette perfumed, his underbuttoned shirt brimming with chest hair. He’s just back from a week scuba-diving in Tahiti with his friends Jim Clark, co-founder of Netscape and the Oceanic Preservation Society, and actor Fisher Stevens, who produced The Cove. The point was to escape for a while.

Earlier this year, he played (and was Tony-nominated for) Eddie in A View From the Bridge, opposite Scarlett Johansson. “That show really knocked me out,” he says, settling into the back seat. He’s wearing Birkenstocks. “It was harder than any show I’ve done before. So much of what drives the character is suppressed emotion, and for some reason that’s really toxic on your body. I was exhausted all the time.” He’d like to “stay away from the heavy stuff” and do some comedies for a while, but, he says, “it’s like the story of the shepherd, you know, ‘You screw one goat …’ It’s the same thing with acting: ‘You do one Shakespeare play …’ ”

On film, he tends toward parts like an accused killer in the Scream series, or Sabretooth, the supervillain in his buddy Hugh Jackman’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Onstage, he won a Tony for playing unscrupulous Realtor Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross, and has schemed as Macbeth, Iachimo, and Iago. He even chose to play Hamlet as “nefarious, nebulous, villainous,” because it seemed more “interesting” than the typical interpretation of him as a wronged good guy. “He gives that whole speech of, ‘Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?’ and then he just lashes out and rips Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a new one. Basically, he’s out to kill everybody. He manages to take out the entire court! He’s so vicious and full of self-loathing.” This month, he has the seemingly thankless role of Angelina Jolie’s by-the-book CIA boss in Salt. “He’s her friend of fifteen years, and the one who accuses her of being a mole,” he says. “He feels betrayed, and ultimately he decides he has to go after her.”

So before that opens: vacation time. His partner, Naomi Watts, whom he calls Nai (pronounced “Nay”), was going to go too, but she stayed behind with their boys, Sasha, nearly 3, and Kai, 1 1/2. “We were afraid that Kai was too young, so she was just really sweet and said, ‘Go dive. Go do this with your friends.’” Clark provided the boat; Stevens provided entertainment. “That’s Fisher in a hula-girl costume,” says Schreiber, whipping out his MacBook and showing off goofy photos, as well as some impressive videos of moray eels, sea turtles, dolphins, sharks. Mixed in are pictures of Sasha in an astronaut helmet. “Nai sent this to me when I was on the boat because I just missed him so much.” He can’t wait to get home, where the family swims together and goes on bike rides for spinach pies at Damascus bakery on Atlantic Avenue. “We stick the kids in little seats on the bikes with helmets,” he says. “It’s very cute. We’re a very cute family.” On the inside of his right forearm, Schrieber has tattooed SASHA. On the left forearm is KAI.

Schreiber’s childhood wasn’t as idyllic as the one he’s creating for his kids. He grew up in a squat on the Lower East Side. His mother drove a cab and made papier-mâché puppets. There was a nasty custody battle and a brief kidnapping by his father. Today his mother lives on an ashram in Virginia, where Schreiber paid for a pool to be built, because, he says, “even though she’s a socialist hippie, she still wants things.” The family is going to go visit her before heading to Spain and Thailand in August so Watts can shoot a movie about the 2004 tsunami with Ewan McGregor called The Impossible.

Schreiber thinks actors make good parents. “The two of us can play longer than either of them,” he says. “Naomi is probably the best little kid that I’ve ever seen. She understands that to play with kids you have to get into their game. You’ve got to fly a dinosaur around the house for a while and give the dinosaur a voice so Sasha can talk to you with his dinosaur and the two dinosaurs get to sit down, have lunch, maybe meet a dragon, and if you’re really lucky, maybe a ladybug will come along.”

As the car pulls up to Schreiber’s building on Bond Street, Watts is sitting on the steps with two impossibly blond little boys—a very cute family indeed. Schreiber pulls on his door handle so eagerly it jams. Freed, he chants, “Yay, yay, yay, yay!” hoisting Sasha up for a kiss. Watts smiles and rolls up with Kai, who has been feeling under the weather and is sucking on something fuzzy and pale blue and clearly well loved. “Caterpillars! Tompkin Park!” Sasha tells his dad. “You saw caterpillars in Tompkins Square Park?” asks Schreiber. “Did you go in the pool in the park?” “No,” says Watts, “we were waiting for you.” “Let’s go!” says Schreiber. “Right now!”

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49 Minutes With Liev Schreiber