Liev Schreiber claims he hasn't been intentionally choosing dark and brooding roles lately, but between the villainous Sabretooth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the vicious company boss in Repo Men and now the hard-nosed CIA agent Winter in Salt, he seems to spend more time than anyone these days scowling onscreen. Luckily, he's good at it, and even luckier for me and my fellow reporters, he's as gregarious in person as he is menacing onscreen.
We caught up with Schreiber last week in D.C. to talk about Salt, a movie with so many twists and turns-- many involving his character-- that entire sections of the conversation had to be stricken from the record (sorry, guys). What we did manage to keep in, though, is worth it-- his revelation that not all CIA agents are nerds when he met famous outed agent Valerie Plame, how he diffused any sexual tension between himself and Angelina Jolie by talking about their kids, and the TV show he wants to film with Salt co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor called Sassy and Butch. Find out who's Sassy and who's Butch by reading below.
What was it like filming that big church scene in New York, especially as a New Yorker familiar with the city?
That was amazing. That’s probably up there with running through the Washington mall in my dress shoes. But that was just amazing to me, that we were at St. Bartholomew’s church and not only had we stopped traffic but there were like 20 bagpipers marching up the middle of Park Avenue. It was like, wow, this is really decadent.
Could it have been the same if you filmed in Toronto?
No offense to the Canadians, but I believe location is like a character and authenticity really matters. When you’re in a place like New York or DC you just can’t beat it, and it’s so hard to recreate because they are both such distinctive places. I think it’s pretty easy these days to tell films that are shot in Toronto.
What did you take away from meeting all the spies before filming?
The first thing I was intrigued by was the fact that the average CIA operative was not ex-military or special forces or in anyway lethal looking or James Bond-y. The average CIA agent looked more like Aldrich Ames than they did Daniel Craig. That was interesting to me because it turns out most of them are analysts. They’re language students, poli-sci students, who are selected through an elaborate process. But then it was contradicted again because than I met Valerie [Plame] and I was like wa wa wow! Talking to Valerie I found out she had extensive weapons training and extensive combat training and I was like, "I guess I was wrong, you’re not all nerds."
But I like the fact that they’re nerds. I like duality in character, I like the opposition. I think that’s what’s so successful about Tom Clancy’s books and with Harrison Ford. As attractive as he is, I think one of the things he was able to bring to it was the sensibility of a middle-aged man. He had a bad back and people would shoot at him and he would dive behind cars and his back would hurt. I thought that’s interesting and compelling because he’s humanizing it. That’s an exercise for an actor. I’m not that interested in working with impervious people.
I hadn’t known her very well, at all. I was very nervous in the beginning. I get very nervous around famous people and I get nervous around beautiful women. This was a big double whammy for me and initially really uncomfortable, which was worrying me. I felt like the important part of the job for me was to develop familiarity with her because that was the humanizing factor. But then we bonded over kids very quickly. I have 2 small kids and she has 2 small kids and it quickly became, "Oh you’re doing time-outs now? That’s just teething." And all the sexual tension went out of the room. All the anxiety about her being very famous and a super-human celebrity kind of went away and I found this very nice easy person that I could relate to.
I love that you and her are trading drag roles, since you did drag in Taking Woodstock and she does drag in Salt?
I’m actually nervous because Angelina is very powerful in Hollywood and she's got in her head that she wants to do a movie with her, I, and Chiwetel, where Chiwetel and I are the girls and she’s a man. I have a feeling that she’s actually going to make this happen. I’ve been thinking about doing a cop show with Chiwetel where we’re cross-dressers called Sassy and Butch. I’m Butch.
You've been playing a lot of dark characters lately. What has been drawing you to them?
I don’t think I play a dark character in this movie, but I don’t look at it that way. I also don’t have as much control over what I get as you think I do. I think there’s that perception of me. A lot of times in Hollywood you’re as good as your last job. You do something well and people go, 'Oh that’s what he does.' When I was in school everything was comedy, all I did was comedy. I haven’t been able to get back to comedy in ages. You screw one goat…