In Defiance, three Jewish brothers escape from Nazi-occupied Poland into the forest, where they join Russian resistance fighters and endeavor to build a village in order to protect themselves and others. Co-star Liev Schreiber tells Buzzine the details and challenges that he, Daniel Craig, and fellow cast members had in the making of this exciting film.
By: Izumi Hasegawa
Izumi Hasegawa: Would you have approached the role any differently if you were not Jewish?
Liev Schreiber: Perhaps. If anything, I would say that it had less to do with being Jewish than it had to do with being of Eastern European heritage. For me, I felt that there were cultural things that I had been afforded more time with, perhaps, than some of the other actors, because of my family and also because of the films I’d worked on in the past.
IH: Did you have family knowledge of Holocaust experiences that you could refer back to, that you knew about?
LS: No, only that I had worked on Holocaust films and I had researched Holocaust films in the past. I grew up in the Lower East Side of New York and I’m half-Jewish. Anything that has resonance for me about my family history, because I don’t know much about it, I’m drawn to. So that’s part of why I think I choose projects like this — less because I’m right for them, but because I want to know if I’m right for them.
IH: Interesting. Did you feel any similarity to your film Everything is Illuminated, where you’re exploring a lesser-known history on a bigger scale this time?
LS: For me, yeah. I think Defiance was a continuation of something that I’ve been interested in a long time. Let me go back to the beginning here. When I began researching Everything is Illuminated and some other Holocaust films that I did, in speaking to survivors, I found that most of them were really reticent about talking about what had happened to them, and that led me to a really wonderful documentary by a guy named Menachem Daum called Hiding and Seeking. I won’t go into that at any great depth, but basically it’s about a guy who takes his children to meet the Polish woman who hid his parents during the Holocaust to prove to his rather conservative rabbinical sons that there were good goyim in the world. What I discovered in that film, and in talking to a lot of the people that I talked to, was that every year when we memorialize all of these people who died in the Holocaust, in a sense we’re forgetting about the ones who survived, and some very hurtful things obviously happened to those people. I think because they haven’t had an opportunity to deal with it, it brought a tremendous amount of rage, insularism, and self-inflicted anti-Semitism. For whatever reason, in order to survive, those people had done truly horrible things, and so that was what I was interested in in Illuminated. The grandfather character — somehow, at the core of that survivor’s guilt, was the person who believed that they had no right to be alive. That if, in fact, they were honest with everyone and themselves, death was the only conclusion. That they felt they had deserved to die, and for one reason or another, escaped it by generally doing something bad. And when I started to read Nechama Tec’s book and The Bielski Brothers and I started to realize what these guys had done, I realized why this story isn’t more well-known, because the Bielski brothers didn’t want anyone to know it. And that fell in line with my understanding of what surviving the Holocaust cost people.
IH: Is it a combination of self-loathing for some of the things they did, and also just not wanting to be back in that place mentally? Like, “I just want a normal life and to pretend that didn’t happen”?
LS: That’s right. There’s no reason for them to remember it. Why should they recall that horror? I’m sure they’ve had to recall it for 50 years now. Why should they recall it to you so you can make a film? [Laughs] Hardly a good enough reason to them, if you think about it. We’re all in the movie business so we think, “Well, why not?” Well, no! [Laughs]
IH: Ultimately, in making this film, there has got to be some satisfaction in telling a story that people need to know.
LS: Absolutely. But I guess my perspective on it, as an actor, is that it has to cost something to the character or it’s not gonna be evocative in the way that it should. Which is that they can’t simply be heroic. There has to be conflict.
IH: But that conflict doesn’t have to be lurid.
LS: I think sometimes it does to get you to understand. I believe in that, personally, because I think then you can understand that it isn’t black and white. Emotionally, those people are living with things that cost them a great deal each and every day. There are a lot of heroic things they do in the film — killing other people so that these people can survive. But if you try to imagine realistically…and, to a degree, this is the actor’s job. Try to imagine doing those things. It becomes a different kind of story. For instance, the American GIs had a term called a Bielski enema. They would take a potato masher grenade, put it in a German soldier’s rectum, and let it go off, which was something that the Bielskis did. Another thing that they did is that people who collaborated with the Polish police were decapitated and the heads were left in the center of the town with a sign that said, “This is what happens to collaborators.”
IH: That’s not in the movie.
LS: No, it’s not in the movie, but if I can own it a little bit as an actor, as a character…if you feel a bit of distance from the character initially and you’re struggling with the character’s actions rather than just being asked to adore the character, you have more perspective. I guess my point in telling you that is these were brutal men, and they were brutal men before the Nazis invaded. The real horror is not just that these people were attacked by the Germans. The real horror is that, in war, it’s these kinds of people that have to rise to the top, that will thrive. When the Nazis invaded Belarus and began to speak the language of fear and terror, there was a group of men in that particular town who spoke the same language and they responded. I think if you break that down, it’s not just about individuals. It’s about societies and cultures. [Laughs] And I think if you look in Darfur, you’d see that this tribal thing is endless because of how people feel they are supposed to respond. Violence is a language.
IH: As an actor, are you drawn to something like this because of the nature of history, because of the nature of who these characters are?
LS: I think it’s who they are, and that’s what I like about what Ed [Zwick] does as a filmmaker, is that he takes these historical events and he tries to make them personal, because I think that’s an easier way to help people understand history. So for me, it’s about who these characters are and not what they’ve done.
IH: Did you ever think you’d be doing a comic book movie like Wolverine?
LS: There’s a switch. [Laughs] No, I didn’t.
IH: Very similar to this movie, obviously.
LS: Yeah. I always hoped I would, but I never did. It was a sort of natural graduation from Defiance, actually. It’s true. It was a natural next step.
IH: It is an interesting counterpoint. Like, did Hugh [Jackman] have any advice for doing that kind of movie for you?
LS: Lift weights. [Laughs]
IH: And did you?
LS: I did. I lifted weights and I ate an army of chickens.
IH: Was it fun for you to be working in Australia on that?
LS: It was fantastic. It was really nice to be in Australia and have a life — to not be visiting. It was great. It’s a great lifestyle there. You wake up at 6:00 in the morning and walk along Bandi and Tamarama, and the best coffee in the world, and have a swim and then go to work. It’s really just cushy.
IH: What can you say about that film [Australia], just to touch on it a little, as a character…
LS: I’m very excited about it. I’ve seen some footage, and I think it’s gonna be really very good.
IH: How bad-ass do you look?
LS: It’s hard for me to say, but I’m really looking forward to people seeing it.
IH: Is it fun doing a movie like that, that is such a release from a picture like this, which is so much more intense and so much more serious?
LS: I found it to be really intense. The character I play is incredibly brutal and feral — has blood lust unlike any other character I’ve ever played. Much, much more than Zus. Zus is basically a lover. This guy is a real killer.
IH: Why did you want to do Wolverine? What was the attraction?
LS: I hope I’m not blowing anyone’s cover here, but I don’t think men really mature intellectually and emotionally beyond 22. Your bodies evolve, but nothing else, really. And so why should I stop wanting to be in a comic book movie?
IH: What was your point of entry? Were you familiar with your character from the comic books at all, or was it…
LS: No, I was a fan of the comic books. I just loved the character of Wolverine. I always have. That deeply ironic and very urban sensibility in a superhero was something that I thought was really groundbreaking. And the style of writing was…particularly the very sort of editorial style — I just always loved it, and I think that we were able to capture some of that darkness in this movie, so I’m very proud of it.
IH: Did you enjoy working with Hugh? Hugh has such a laconic persona, and I’ve known him for years.
LS: I love Hugh. Hugh is the reason I did it. We’d been friends for a long time, and it’s just so much fun to work with him.
IH: You’re a kind of self-appointed member now of the Australian mafia, aren’t you?
LS: I guess so. But Hugh — to do fight scenes with Hugh was really terrific because, as a dancer, he has that kind of discipline and choreography. I always studied to be a fight choreographer and always wanted to be a dancer too, but didn’t quite have the feet for it. But we had some remarkable fight scenes together, and I’m looking forward to people seeing those.
IH: Did you have to speak in Russian?
IH: How was that experience, working with the language? How did you establish the brotherhood, especially Daniel [Craig]‘s character? You guys really were brothers in this film.
LS: Thank you. The language meant everything to me. I really loved it when Ed called me and said, “I want you guys to speak some Russian in these scenes.” And I got together about three months before we started with a UCLA student here who’s a linguist — a guy named Stanislav Srabin, who’s a wonderful teacher, who started to teach me Russian. And that was really useful to me because I felt that there are a lot of things culturally in the language that were terrific clues into the character. It’s a very masculine language; it’s a very direct language. I enjoyed it. I also think, if you’re gonna do a dialect, at least spend a month trying to learn the language. You’ll get the dialect that much better. As far as getting to know Daniel, we were in the middle of the woods in Lithuania and I was just so impressed with the fact that this major motion picture star wasn’t going back to his trailer in between takes. It was freezing out.
IH: They said it was a 30-minute hike.
LS: Well, that could have been part of it, but he was out there. Some of those set-ups took an hour and a half, two hours to accomplish, and he’s out there the whole time. It wasn’t quite a 30-minute hike. They might have been exaggerating a little bit, but we were out there. We were out there with nothing to do but spend time with each other, telling stories, and having snowball fights, and…we were very childish. There was a lot of goofiness, and I think that was about us recreating the childhood that we hadn’t spent together.
IH: I think you can’t look at the circumstance of the characters and wonder, “What would I do?” Did you do that kind of self-evaluation? And how did you measure up in your own eyes? How would you deal with that?
LS: You know, I did do it when –- it was a scene that I wasn’t in — but in the scene where Daniel goes and speaks to the elders of the ghetto about taking the people out of the ghetto. That was a scene where I thought, “Would I leave the comfort of this structural building to go and live in the woods with these nutsin this mass exodus of the ghetto which anyone could be shot from?” And I thought, “Certainly not.” As far as the other stuff, in terms of trying to imagine having lost my own family and the kind of vengeful rage that might create -– I can’t even begin to imagine. So, yeah, it’s possible.
IH: What’s next for you? Do you plan on returning to the stage any time soon?
LS: What’s next for me is a production that Naomi [Watts] and I have been working on for approximately nine months that is coming out any day now.
IH: When is that happening?
LS: It’s imminent.
IH: For the holidays, what sort of gifts are you giving, considering these economic times we’re in?
LS: I can’t give that away beforehand. She’ll hear it.
IH: Oh, not to each other, but to others.
IH: I’m just wondering if it’s impacted your holidays that way.
LS: Well, no. I’m always looking for an excuse, but I have to admit, no, it hasn’t. I worked a lot this year. But we have a new baby coming.
IH: Will you go back to Australia for that?
LS: Of course, yeah.
IH: Are you guys both here [in Los Angeles] right now?
LS: No, she’s in New York; I’m here.
IH: So you’re on red alert, in case…
LS: I’m on red alert.
IH: So it’s gonna be a Christmas baby?
LS: It’s gonna be a Christmas baby.
IH: Or Hanukah baby, really.
LS: Or a Hanukah baby, yeah.
IH: …Depending on your perspective.
IH: Just remember: double the presents. Don’t skimp. No one-present birthday/Christmas. Don’t do that.
LS: I am kind of doing that. Now I’m terrified.