The Sum of All Fears
Interview with Liev Schreiber
interview by Paula Nechak, 31 May 2002

Direct. It's a good word for Schreiber, who wastes no time on frills and polite banter in the interview.

He's arguably the new-style Jimmy Stewart of the indie circuit, a guy who is nice at heart, but has en edge, and doesn't always get the girl. He's tall and lanky and just handsome enough to squeak by in romantic leads yet interesting enough for character roles. And while he's garnered a firm film fan base from his appearances in Walking and Talking, A Walk on the Moon,  Hamlet, Twilight and the Scream trilogy, he's also an established stage actor who's tackled Hamlet, Othello and recently opted to take a stroll on Broadway opposite Juliette Binoche in a revival of the Harold Pinter play, Betrayal.

He's here to talk about his role in the Phil Alden Robinson directed production, The Sum of All Fears, however, a role which plunks him into his first bonafide cloak-and-dagger blockbuster. Schreiber co-stars with Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman, taking on the part of John Clark, and he insists he had no qualms over tackling a role that was acted previously by Willem Dafoe (in A Clear and Present Danger). In fact, he seems genuinely pleased to be a presence in one episode of the franchise of films based on Tom Clancy's bestselling novels. The Sum of All Fears is set prior to The Hunt For Red October, Patriot Games and A Clear and Present Danger and it's a film that Schreiber feels has great relevance in this time of redefining how we live now, in the shadow of September 11th.

Paula Nechak:  You were born on the late Œ60s to artistic parents and in the city of peace, free love and rock and roll - San Francisco. How did your origins within the Hippie culture affect you and shape your choice of a career? Did it prepare you for the vagabond lifestyle that goes hand-in-hand with a film career?

Liev Schreiber: Probably. The moving around was mostly because of the commune lifestyle my parents were into. I think it's consistent with many actors that there is often moving around in childhood. I don't know what that means. I never really felt there was a lot of choice anyway. It happened.

PN: You were educated at Yale and at RADA. Did such intense theatrical training prepare you for a film career?

LS: It certainly prepared me for a theatre career. Most of that's just about reading (laughs). But it's absolutely useful for a film career though I also think a film career is just as useful for a theatre career. I mean, I don't think they would have let me play Hamlet at the New York Shakespeare Festival if I hadn't been in so many movies.

PN: You've worked with three of the finest in that lexicon of "actresses:" Diane Lane, Catherine Keener and Juliette Binoche. Is what you learn from a female actor different than a male actor on a set or on the stage?

LS: Absolutely. That, for me, has been the luxury of working on the jobs I have - the people. It's remarkable to think back on who I've been able to work with and you just named three of my favorites. I would also include Anne Heche in there. As screwy as her personal life is she's an intense actress who knows her stuff and it was wonderful to work with both Catherine Keener and Anne on Walking and Talking because they're completely antithetical in style. It was wonderful to watch them work off of each other because Keener has this ability to just sit back in the pocket while Anne is very aggressive with character. She pours it on while Catherine has an enchanting, naturalistic ability where everything is OK, she's just coming to understand the world. That naiveté is charming because it's an intelligent naiveté.

PN: You seem equally comfortable handling leads, romantic leads and character parts. Do you have a preference?

LS: The funny thing is it's easier to have a smaller part in film. On stage it's more difficult because I like to be active. I like to be working all the time. I don't like to sit and wait or be patient. I want to be engaged at all times and there's an aspect of me that disengages when I'm not. I want to spend as little time as possible in my life disengaged (laughs).

PN: The role in The Sum of All Fears is a good supporting role and an instrumental one. Did you have any trepidation at stepping into a film that contained characters previously established by other actors?

LS: No. No one's going to compare me to Willem Dafoe and if they do I don't mind because he's a great actor and I like him.

PN: Was it exciting to be part of an action picture instead of performing internal or intellectual action?

LS: There really wasn't a lot of physical action for me. Ben had a lot of it and oddly enough, for as much of a ninja as people think John Clark is, he really doesn't do much. He doesn't have to until he has to.

PN: Any hesitance at taking on a film that sways from your own political ethos or is it just another exploration for you?

LS: I'm not a very political person and it's all about human things to me. I had no problem playing a CIA operative. Now, more than ever, we're curious about our human intelligence because in the past year it's become an issue to demystify and debunk it a little bit, to make it accountable and to personalize it instead of saying, "They're the CIA and we're the civilians." I mean, who is the CIA? Ninety-eight percent of them are language students or analysts, people like you or I who come from good backgrounds and educations and were simply recruited. They have a patriotic connection to the country and nine out of ten times don't know what's going on in the CIA themselves (laughs). That's why Tom Clancy's novels are so popular. It's much easier to identify with Jack Ryan than James Bond.

PN: Do you see any value in the current crop of war and espionage films as cautionary tales that ask us to change our thinking - or do you see them as panic inducers, a kind of propaganda similar to the spate of movies Hollywood pumped out in World War II?

LS: I don't feel The Sum of All Fears is propaganda. It was completed before 9/11 so it wasn't in any way in response to that. The book was written eight years ago so I think it's just another in a line of films about this character. I hope very much that it doesn't add to the hysterical fear of terrorism that is present now. I think the core of what the film is about, and it's in the title, is that cooler heads will prevail. My being a New York-er and what I remember so vividly about that day is not the event itself but the reaction to it which was amazing and bigger news to me than the destruction of the World Trade Center. The compassion and potential strength of character existed within us in such a unified way, across the board, regardless of class, economic breakdown or race. Everybody wanted to do something and did do something. It was such bigger news to me and I think that is the core idea of the film. The central moments around which the characters hover is the moment when [CIA Director] Cabot is on the stretcher and Ryan comes back to report all that's going on in Russia and all Cabot, in his last breaths, cares to say is "How are the people close to us?" That's the reality of it and a testament to our nature. Regardless of what is thrown at us we'll survive and we'll do it with grace, compassion and diligence. This film is about the right kind of reaction to terrorism. The irony is in this last year we saw a better example of that than Clancy could have ever imagined.

PN: What do you look for in a script and after talking about our humanity, where would you fit the Scream trilogy?

LS: I had a lot of fun on the Scream films. They redefined a whole genre and were incredibly exciting. There was a reason those films were so popular; people tend to reject things when they become popular but they did exactly what they were supposed to do. There was something inventive, almost Brechtian about them (laughs). It was all about letting people inside the genre and they've been doing it in horror films since they began and it's called talking in the movie theatre and that's what we did. We talked in the movie. People loved it and it was so much fun. After awhile the gore factor got to me but it was just inventive. I don't really have ideas about the kinds of script I'm looking for. I just respond to things, I wait for the next thing to come along that I've never seen before or thought of or seen done before. I tend to want to depart from whatever I did last.

PN: Have you achieved an ultimate state of accomplishment as an actor and exceeded where you believed you would ever be? And where do you go from here?

LS: I like to think of my craft as more than acting and I'm now officially a screenwriter because I optioned the rights to a book called Everything Is Illuminated. I lucked out because I found it early on when nobody knew about it. A couple of months ago it made the cover of The New York Times Book Review  and now everyone in Hollywood is asking "who's got the book?" So it feels good, very good. The writing is going well and though I don't know what will happen with the movie, I'm cracking myself up doing the screenplay. I'm excited because it's a dream that's been seven years in the realizing and I had an idea about the type of film I wanted to make and this book came along and fit perfectly...and yes, I will direct it as well.

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