Liev Schreiber is a smart and articulate actor, but there’s another very good reason to listen to the man.
Whether he’s discussing his guest role on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and the art of donning latex gloves or his upcoming Broadway project “Talk Radio,” Schreiber’s silken voice is a reminder that Brits don’t have a corner on glorious pipes.
Neither does the stage or the big screen. While Schreiber is a theater star — he was deemed the “foremost Shakespearean actor of his generation in America” in a New York Times review last year — and busy with films, TV has managed to snare a bit of his talent.
Schreiber appeared in the noteworthy 1999 HBO movie “RKO 281,” about Orson Welles’ struggle to make “Citizen Kane,” and has narrated documentaries ranging from sports (“Babe Ruth”) to science (“Nova” programs).
His four-episode arc as a forensics investigator on “CSI” (beginning Thursday, 9 p.m. EST, CBS) is an unusual commitment for the actor — who insists his lack of series credits shouldn’t be confused with cultural snobbery.
“I love playing cops and robbers. I wouldn’t be an actor if I ever lost that,” Schreiber said.
“I’ve never done (a series) before not because of qualms about TV but because of the schedule. I’ve always been somebody who likes switching it up, and from pretty early on in my career I was lucky enough to do that.”
His resume is testimony to that eclecticism, with Mamet, Pinter and, of course, Shakespeare plays sharing space with the “Scream” films in which he played the ongoing, ill-fated character Cotton Weary.
His “CSI” stint coincides with the absence of star William Petersen, who took a theater break of his own to perform on stage in Providence, R.I.
A Rhode Island photo book (Petersen’s gift to Schreiber), a laptop computer and a pack of cigarettes were the only items on display in Schreiber’s studio trailer during a lunch-break interview.
Appreciates fast pace of TV
“I was kind of terrified at the speed at which they work in TV,” he said. “They’re basically producing an hour-long feature film, in terms of production quality, once a week. They do in effectively eight days what the average film company does in two months.”
“When I got into it I found the pace of it really works for the actors: you just keep going. You don’t get a lot of takes but you work all the time, so it’s easier to stay focused and not get distracted. I like it,” he said.
So he proved up to the challenge? “We’ll see,” he said, smiling. “But I certainly enjoyed the tempo.”
He’s a risk-taker but one who admits needing a nudge at times. When he was approached for the part of Welles in “RKO 281,” Schreiber hesitated at playing the monumental Hollywood figure and contacted, among others, director and Welles friend Peter Bogdanovich.
“He made the extremely inspiring comment of, ‘You know, Liev, at the end of the day if you don’t do it, some other schmuck will.’ Good advice: Take the job and be grateful,” Schreiber recalled.
“CSI” executive producer Carol Mendelsohn said it took “quite a courtship” to persuade Schreiber to fit the part of Michael Keppler, an East Coast investigator trying to make a new start in Las Vegas, into his schedule.
“He and I started a dialogue that lasted many, many months. I think he was patient with me and amused I didn’t give up,” she said. She found it more than worth the effort to bring the actor’s intelligence and sex appeal to “CSI.”
“Having Liev here, given his whole pedigree and background, you’re on your best behavior and bring your A-plus game. It was exhilarating and thrilling” for the cast and crew, she said.
Schreiber faced an unexpected but sticky challenge involving a mundane “CSI” prop.
“Try getting latex gloves on and off in under 70 seconds,” he said. “I’m supposed to look like I’ve been doing it for years. So I would go home and practice.”
Did he get any faux-investigator tips from his new “CSI” colleagues? “Well, George Eads taught me how to deal with the gloves and I’m eternally grateful to him. He said, ‘If you don’t have to take them on or off, don’t.”’
Reality shows detailing the work of forensic detectives hold a fascination for Schreiber, who found them echoed in the “CSI” format.
“Initially I thought, ‘Oh, the emotional life of the character and the plot elements were really going to dominate.’ But I figured out very quickly that, unlike some of the feature work or stage work that I’ve done, what the audience is really looking for is the next clue, because they’re solving along with you.”
Rarely recognized in publicSchreiber, 39, born in San Francisco but a longtime New Yorker, says he’s rarely recognized by the public — despite his roughly 6-foot-3 height — and appreciates the relative anonymity. He’s certainly racked up enough credits to warrant autograph hounds, however.
His films include “A Painted Veil,” in which he plays opposite real-life girlfriend Naomi Watts; “The Omen,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Kate & Leopold” and a slew of indie productions. He debuted as a director with “Everything is Illuminated” in 2005, from his adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel.
The Yale School of Drama graduate won a Tony Award in 2005 for the revival of Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.” His next project takes him back to New York for a revival of Eric Bogosian’s “Talk Radio,” which he said represents “a return to a style of aggressive work that I really loved when I was younger and would like to take a shot at.”
“I saw Eric do the original production and was blown off my feet by it. I loved him and loved the play,” said Schreiber. “It’s a powerful message at a time when I think people don’t know how to respond to media anymore.”
He’s also working on a screenplay that draws parallels between the lives of two U.S. and Iraqi youths.
Would he ever consider a full-time TV gig?
“I don’t want to make anything my full-time gig. But I’d sure do this again.”