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02.01.11

Pablo Schreiber on His New Off-Broadway Play

The younger brother of Tony Award-winner Liev Schreiber proves that talent runs in the family. He talks to Kevin Sessums about passing out onstage and not knowing his brother until he was 16.

“Pablo Schreiber or Liev Schreiber?” I once asked, playing a certain jaded Manhattan parlor game and finally stumping my fellow guests as they grappled with which of the two brothers they would rather have sex.

It was, in fact, the first time in the evening that such conjecture started to seem a bit incorrect, even uncouth, as we began to compare with even more drunken avidity their proven talent as actors instead of their imagined sexual prowess. Each had his champions that night, but the consensus seemed to be to call it a draw as the party drew to a close.

Though they are half-brothers who share the same father, the Schreibers could not be more different. Pablo is 10 years younger than Liev, who deciphers a role with a cerebral certitude. There is a keenness to his characterizations. Pablo’s instinctual approach is messier and, I would argue, more malleable. He takes his roles in his hands, unafraid to dirty them up in the process. For those who were fortunate enough to see him on Broadway in his Tony-nominated performance as Ralph Berger in the acclaimed 2006 Lincoln Center Theater production of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing, it was the grubby rawness of his character’s idealism that rent the heart. Since then, Pablo has given equally intense performances in Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms on Broadway and Off-Broadway in Christopher Shinn’s Dying City and Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty. He also gained notice as the young Polish-American dock worker, Nick Sobotka, on HBO’s The Wire and this season can be seen in FX’s acclaimed boxing series Lights Out, as the title character’s complicated younger brother. Monday night, Pablo opened at the Rem Koolhaas-designed Second Stage Theater in his newest Off-Broadway play, Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph, an odd and affecting two-hander, co-starring Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter,  about the literal pain we put ourselves through in order to feel somehow alive. It’s a love story.

I met the 32-year-old after his recent Sunday matinee in the bar of the new Intercontinental Hotel around the corner from the theater on 44th Street. We sat in front of a modernist gas fireplace as a menagerie of tourists came and went about us. He ordered a glass of Merlot and I gave him, as a gift, the audio version of my memoir for which I had done the reading. It was, as well, a way to start the conversation. 

KEVIN SESSUMS:  I’ve never listened to that audio version of my book. After I had done all those days of reading at the studio I just couldn’t revisit it. Have you ever listened to yourself reading the audio version of Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho? I don’t know if I’d want to revisit some of the stuff that the novel’s main character, Patrick Bateman, gets into as a serial killer. 

PABLO SCHREIBER:  I’d listen to excerpts during the recording process if I knew I was going to have to do them again. But I’ve never listened to it all the way through, no. It’s a very fucked-up novel.

“I am a gentle person. But I also have anger that needs working.”

KS:  I’m not sure all that genital mutilation would be conducive to listening to it on a long car trip. When you’d go into the recording studio, did you wear the kind of bespoke attire that Bateman wore in the novel to speak the novel's sentences?

PS:  I’m not that much of a Method actor.

KS:  Well, the Method would come in handy in the kind of plays and roles you’re drawn to. There’s a kind of brutal quality to all of them, but brutal in the way that Brando made us rethink brutality by mining the seam of gentleness in it. You have some of that same gentleness in your work.

PS:  I am a gentle person. But I also have anger that needs working. I am drawn to dark roles. The reason I was drawn to Gruesome Playground Injuries was that it was a new way of approaching that darkness. The first half hour of the play is light and fun. And then it all kind of sneaks up on you and hits you on the side of head. The craziest, wackiest most extraordinary experience in my life just happened in this show: I passed out onstage. I think the audience thought it was a part of the play. There is a scene in which the other character as her high-school self has just puked so mine wants to make her feel better and he makes himself puke, too. I do this thing where I hold my breath and turn my face red right before I run across stage to mime throwing up in the trash can. The combination I guess of cutting off my oxygen and running across the stage just caused me to pass out. It was only for a few moments but it could have been for a year as far as I was concerned. It was the most bizarre experience of my life. I woke up onstage and had no idea where I was. I figured it all out once I saw the lights and got my bearings about which scene we were in. But there was a moment there I didn’t know where I was. Since I was in the process of puking I got the biggest laugh I’d ever gotten in the play when I passed out, I was told later, because the audience just thought it was part of the performance. But then that turned into silence and it was that silence I woke up in, the what-the-fuck is happening silence that the laughter had turned into. I had a brilliant ad lib as I came to: “I think I passed out.” Some friends came to that performance and just thought that was a line in the play.  

KS:  Have you ever passed out before?

PS:  Tons of times. I used to make myself pass out in high school all the time for the fun of it. Especially when I was around 15... which... oh, my God... I’m just realizing this... is the age of my character at that moment in the play.

KS:  I think you’ve just taken Method acting a bit too far. Yet a lot of your roles, especially this one, have you injured in some way or the other. I think you’d make a great Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The cast he wears on his leg and the crutch he uses would seem to fit into the injurious arc of your career if nothing else. When I went to see you and Carla Gugino and Brian Dennehy in Desire Under the Elms I kept thinking, well, they’ve got a great cast up there for Cat as well. You as Brick. Carla as Maggie. Brian as Big Daddy.

PS:  Ben Gazzara, who played my grandfather in Awake and Sing, originated the role of Brick on Broadway, though Paul Newman was cast in the role for the movie. There’s another Paul Newman part I want to play someday and that’s Hal in Picnic. Newman wasn’t even the original one to do the part.  Ralph Meeker was the actor who originated it. Newman had a smaller part and understudied the role of Hal. He did replace Meeker though when Meeker went off to do a movie. It was Newman’s Broadway debut.

KS:  I wish you had been given the role of Chance Wayne in the Sweet Bird of Youth that Nicole Kidman is bringing to Broadway as a star vehicle. Newman played him in the movie and the Broadway production. I hear the star vehicle has turned into a two-seater since James Franco is going to play Chance. I’m a Francophile but I would have loved to have seen your long body up against Nicole’s long one in those hotel-room scenes. It would have made a better stage picture. You match up better with her sinew to sinew. Nicole, though, does seem a little too young to me to play the Princess Kosmonopolis a.k.a. Alexandra Del Lago. 

PS:  I don’t know. Del Lago is supposed to be kind of faded. Nicole Kidman is the right age for that. Have you seen her in her last five or six movies? She doesn’t look the same as she used to.  

KS:  But one thinks of Geraldine Page at her blowziest in that role. Nicole’s got to unbutton a few more of her buttons. I even saw Irene Worth do a brilliant turn as the princess. Her Chance Wayne was Christopher Walken. But let’s get back to you. One of your first roles—maybe your very first one—was as Bluntschli, the soldier who loves chocolate more than weaponry, in George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man

PS:  God. That was in high school. I think it was my freshman year. It might very well have been my first real grownup part.

KS:  Well, every actor has to get through his Shaw crucible. You got yours out of the way early. Brando played the other soldier, Sergius in a summer stock production of Arms and the Man. It was a troupe he put together himself in 1953 after he already had his success in Hollywood with the film version of Streetcar. It was the last time he ever appeared onstage. Shaw has a way of always cropping up. A good friend of mine, the late Bob Borod, who was one of the last of the great old stage managers of Broadway, was stage managing the now legendary Ethel Merman/Mary Martin Carnegie Hall concert back in 1977. They were rehearsing in a studio next to one where Eva Marie Saint was rehearsing a production of Shaw’s Candida to take on the road. Bob was walking Ethel back to rehearsal one day after having lunch with her and they ran into Eva Marie in the hallway and exchanged pleasantries and caught each other up about what they were working on. As Ethel was entering her studio next door, she shouted over her shoulder, “Have fun, Eva, doing whatever the fuck it is you’re taking on the road to Canada!” Which brings us to your childhood, Pablo. You are Canadian.

PS:  I was born there. So I’ll always have Canadian citizenship. But I also have American citizenship because my father (acting professor Tell Schreiber) was born here. My father taught at a college in western Canada but when I was 12 my folks split and I moved with him to Seattle. He was originally from Bucks County in Pennsylvania and no matter how long he lived out West, he always had this East Coast you-have-to-be-a-success thing that was important to him and I felt a lot of pressure from my dad to make something of myself because of that. But the pressure wasn’t just to be a success. It was also to be smart because being thought of as an intellectual was important to him, too. That part came easily to Liev. Liev is usually the smartest person in the room.

KS:  Do you think your father feels any jealousy or even resentment toward you and Liev because you have achieved more success than he has?

PS:  No comment.  Look—honestly?—I think it’s hard for him and at the same time it is also amazingly fulfilling and wonderful. It is the center of his universe, the fact that he has these two talented, successful sons. But I empathize with him in the mixed emotions he has about it all in that we are getting to do what he didn’t get the chance to do to its fullest. He likes to compare himself to Archie Manning. 

KS:  Is your mother Latin and hence your name?

PS:  No. I was named for Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet. My dad is a literary guy. Liev is named after Leo Tolstoy.  

KS:  Hmm ... every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, huh. That line from Tolstoy has almost become hackneyed, that is until it is proven true yet again. Nature, though, had more to do with your career and Liev’s than nurture since you have a father in common but not a childhood. Liev’s mother divorced your father and brought him back to the East Village and you grew up a continent away. You didn’t even meet each other until you were 16.

PS:  That’s almost the truth. He visited once for a weekend when I was 6 and he was 16. But I think the fact that our upbringings were so dissimilar resulted in the same outcome. Because our father was an acting teacher it was just something that I was always around. For Liev, maybe his pull toward acting is all about the missing father and making up for that. At least that’s my take on it. You’d have to ask him his take.

KS:  There’s a line in Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales that goes, “It snowed last year too: I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked him down and then we had tea.”  You and Liev—for all the hype of your being brothers—seem to have missed out on all the knocking-down part of what it means to be brothers, that special bonding that goes on during boyhood, and skipped straight to the having-tea part.

PS:  It has been an interesting dynamic getting to know someone who is your brother because you’re already... ah... well... let’s see. Let’s put it this way: It’s been an interesting dynamic to make a relationship with someone because he’s your brother. There will always be similarities because of the DNA involved. On the other hand, that person may not be the kind of person who you would hang out with. But because the other person is related to you, you make a go of it. It’s very interesting to get to know a person you didn’t know your whole life and then begin to see your father in that person and see yourself in that person and to try and piece together what is important for you in that relationship. To be totally honest, for me our being brothers hasn’t been the big narrative of my life like it becomes when others look at us and like to talk about it and focus on it.

KS:  Do you truly feel like you’re his brother, Pablo?

PS:  I don’t think that’s a fair question to answer because I don’t think this is finally the forum for it. I wouldn’t want that answer to be just another answer to a question in an article. 

KS:  We’ll talk more later when the tape stops whirring. The most important relationships in your life now anyway are those with your wife, Jessica Monty, and your son, 2-year-old Timoteo, a Spanish name given him in honor of Jessica’s Cuban heritage. Jessica is a yoga instructor with quite a following in Manhattan. (jessicanmonty.com)

PS:  Yes, she’s not only a gorgeous woman but also an amazing yoga practitioner. 

KS:  When she was a child though she wanted to train dolphins.

PS:  How did you know that? That’s true.

KS:  Well, you sort of have a bottlenose dolphin look about you so maybe that’s part of your allure for her. She also had a girlhood crush on Clint Eastwood.

PS:  True again. If Clint Eastwood and a dolphin had sex, I would be the spawn. We’ve just figured out the basis of my marriage.

Kevin Sessums is the author of The New York Times bestseller Mississippi Sissy, a memoir of his childhood. He was executive editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. He is a contributing editor of Parade. His new memoir, I Left It on Mountain will be published by St. Martins Press.