Lacking in rakish charm

Liev Schreiber.
Liev Schreiber.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Actor Liev Schreiber finds it hard to capture the seductive qualities of a notorious womaniser in the Broadway revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses

NEW YORK • On a recent evening, Liev Schreiber wandered through several rooms of 18th-century French portraiture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The museum had closed an hour before, allowing the actor private communion with the heaving bosoms and coy smiles, the swathes of silk and froths of lace.

He was not impressed. He dismissed a Fragonard painting of a woman reading a love letter as "chocolate box".

He wanted scandal. He wanted perversity. He wanted outrage. Instead, he got a powdered coquette and a petulant dog. "It's not nearly risque enough," he said. He even disparaged the brush strokes.

He hopes to bring something more risque and risky to the latest Broadway revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the stage adaptation of the infamous 1782 novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, which begins performances on Oct 8 at the Booth Theater and is directed by Josie Rourke.

I wouldn't think of myself immediately as a guy with all the right lines, a pickup artist. It's a hard part for me, an awkward, uncomfortable mismatch there for me.

ACTOR LIEV SCHREIBER, on why he finds the role of the seductive Vicomte de Valmont a challenge

Schreiber plays the Vicomte de Valmont, a notorious womaniser and the greatest rake in all of Paris, with Janet McTeer as his erotic adversary, the Marquise de Merteuil.

When Rourke's production opened at the Donmar Warehouse last winter, Dominic West of The Affair played Valmont.

Schreiber, who turns 49 early next month, has spent more than two decades as an actor. The years do not seem to have blunted the startling mix of intensity and uncertainty, audacity and anxiety, with which he approaches each role.

Onstage, he specialises in troubled and troubling leading men such as Barry Champlain of Talk Radio or Eddie Carbone of A View From The Bridge, and he has a particular line in Shakespeare villains such as Macbeth, Iago and Iachimo.

Having won a Tony as the less-than-scrupulous salesman Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross, he now carries the Showtime series Ray Donovan, as the titular character, a Hollywood fixer with a dinged moral compass.

He oscillates, as Mr David Nevins, the chief executive of Showtime, noted, between "more brutal and more refined". It is not every actor who can credibly play Sabretooth, Hamlet and, in Spotlight (2015), the editor of The Boston Globe.

As he sat on a bench in the gallery, Schreiber looked very tanned and very tired. With his fleshy face and muscular frame, he has a physical stolidity that clashes with his quickness of mind. Body of a cruiserweight, soul of a poet. And, as it turns out, the mouth of a kvetcher.

He had just returned from the Venice Film Festival, where The Bleeder, a biopic based on the life of prizefighter Chuck Wepner, had screened out of competition.

Off the plane, he had thrown himself into the first days of stage rehearsal, including a long fencing practice.

"My groin hurts so badly right now," he griped.

A groin injury may not be his chief challenge, at least according to Schreiber. He does not see himself as an obvious choice for Valmont, a man who, in the words of one of the novel's characters, "is even more duplicitous and dangerous than he is charming and seductive".

Yes, Schreiber has swagger, he has cunning, he has a smile that can turn wolfish when he wants it to. He has, in the words of Andrei Serban, who directed him in several Shakespeare plays, "a kind of fire mixed with icy coldness".

He has a sense of mischief too. When a publicist tried to direct him to a bathroom to change out of his rehearsal clothes, he instead stripped down right there in the gallery. "This is a great opportunity to take my clothes off at the Met," he said.

None of this has prepared him to play a pre-revolutionary roue, he said. When he was offered the role, he thought he was "too old and too big", he said, which is what he thinks about every role.

The involvement of McTeer and a reassuring conversation with Rourke convinced him. He also noted that Valmont's chattiness made a nice contrast to Ray Donovan's "inarticulate rage and fear and repressed emotion".

But the clothes are already a problem. In the hot and bothered publicity shots, he and McTeer project a galvanic eroticism.

This is itself impressive. They had met for the first time only hours before the thigh-grabbing, bosom-nuzzling shoot.

Schreiber looks ungainly, though, in Valmont's ponytailed wig and heeled shoes. He knows this.

"I look terrible," he said. "I look really very silly. I'm giant. I'm 6-4 (1.93m) in high-heeled pumps and pantaloons."

And he is finding it hard to capture Valmont's seductive qualities.

"I wouldn't think of myself immediately as a guy with all the right lines, a pickup artist," he said. "It's a hard part for me, an awkward, uncomfortable mismatch there for me."

Schreiber's partner, actress Naomi Watts, was asked for a comment for this article on whether or not this was true. Perhaps in the interest of sustaining familial harmony, the comment never came.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2016, with the headline 'Lacking in rakish charm'. Print Edition | Subscribe