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Liev Schreiber turns his past into prologue

Directorial debut ‘Illuminated’ helped him understand his upbringing
/ Source: Reuters

Actor Liev Schreiber says he is a changed man thanks to a search for his roots.

That may not mean much to people who do not know him, but it says a lot to friends and fans of the rising star and recent Tony award winner who makes his film-directing debut with ”Everything is Illuminated” in the United States Friday.

Schreiber, 37, has always been a chameleon with a past he says he has a hard time remembering, and his desire to play characters on film or the stage was fueled by “the root of an identity crisis” in his youth, he told Reuters.

With “Everything is Illuminated,” Schreiber set out to discover his grandfather’s history in Ukraine and ended up learning a lot about himself.

“I know I have the potential to care in the way that he did because of this film,” Schreiber said.

Schreiber calls his grandfather, Alex Milgram, who died in 1993, a “typical mensch, just a really, really decent human being” and “a very, very strong male figure.”

“I didn’t know that I possessed any of those qualities and was suspicious I didn’t,” he said.

Now, he thinks he does.

“Everything is Illuminated” is based on Jonathan Foer’s widely praised novel of the same name about a young American searching for his Ukrainian Jewish roots. In that way, it parallels Schreiber’s life.

Schreiber not only directed the film, he adapted the book for the screen.

The novel and the movie both paint a portrait of Ukraine’s countryside and its people, set against the backdrop of the mass murder of Jews during the Nazi occupation.

It is a people and history Schreiber never knew growing up on New York City’s Lower East Side with a single mother in a cold water flat with no electricity.

Life in turnaroundAs a kid, Schreiber was a troublemaker who stole for thrills, and it wasn’t until he began studying drama as a teen-ager that he began turning his life around. He wrote and performed his own monologues about “junkies, Puerto Rican hookers, fry cooks and orthodox Jews who sold socks,” he said.

He later was accepted at Yale University’s School of Drama for acting, not playwriting, because one of his teachers told him he had a better shot at winning admission as an actor.

Armed with a Yale degree and experience from England’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Schreiber began acting on the stage and in movies. His big break in Hollywood came with the series of “Scream” horror movies that began in 1996.

But several flops and his choice of many low-budget movie roles and stage plays failed to win Schreiber wide attention from mainstream audiences.

That began to change last year when he earned praise for playing a brainwashed politician in the remake of “The Manchurian Candidate.” This spring, he won Broadway’s Tony award, for best featured actor in a revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

Now, it’s on to film directing which is something Schreiber said he has wanted to do for years.

“Ever since I was a little kid I was obsessed with films, and I always wanted to make them,” Schreiber said.

Finding his projectHe said that in the past he had been offered screenplays to direct but passed because “none of them were at all indicative of who I was as a person.”

Schreiber even wrote his own movie about a young man traveling through Ukraine who gets involved with a prostitute and becomes a target for the mob. It sounded too Hollywood.

Foer’s novel was praised for defying literary convention, and Schreiber tries to remain loyal to the book’s eccentricity.

He introduces sections of the film by showing an ink pen writing a chapter-like titles. Shifting light blurs or sharpens images to transition between segments. The story moves at a slow, contemplative pace often with little dialogue, and the musical score includes traditional Ukrainian folk music.

Early reviews have been generally positive. Show business paper The Hollywood Reporter said the film a “effectively retains the book’s warm eccentricity and gently persuasive sentimentality.”

Elijah Wood, who stars in the film as the young American Jonathan, said he took the role in large part because he was excited about Schreiber’s ideas for making the film.

“He had a very clear vision of what he wanted to do artistically, visually,” Wood said. “I wanted to be part of that vision. It seemed so beautiful and interesting.”