Getty Image / IFC Films
First, it should be noted, in person, Liev Schreiber’s head looks nothing like a watermelon. Admittedly, this is one of those strange interview moments where I can hear the words come out of my mouth – me, telling Schreiber that his head doesn’t look like a watermelon – but at the same time thinking Why are you saying this to a person you have just met? There is context: Schreiber was telling a story about how a theater critic wrote that his head was the size of a watermelon. Now, this probably wasn’t his cue for me to sum it up for myself and come to my own conclusion, but I went ahead and did it anyway.
In Philippe Falardeau’s Chuck, Schreiber plays the title character of Chuck Wepner – and as the movie tells you from the outset, you probably have no idea who that is, even though you do. Wepner is a New Jersey boxer who got a title bout against Muhammad Ali and, in some sort of cosmic miracle, lasted until the 12th round against The Champ. Wepner still lost, but it’s a story that seems like it came from a movie. Then it became a movie, called Rocky – and then all of a sudden Wepner became kinda, sorta famous, though he saw none of the profits from Rocky. And this is when Wepner’s life starts to fall apart.
Ahead, Schreiber (and is incredibly normal looking head) explains what it’s like working with an actor who is playing Sylvester Stallone, he also makes the case why there should be an Old Man Sabertooth movie, and he gives us a preview of Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.
Your appearance in the “Golden Globes” SNL sketch was great.
I didn’t have to do much, really. But yeah, I thought it was hilarious, too.
You had to have your shirt off and look menacing.
There’s that, yeah. Shirt off, look menacing.
In this movie, Chuck uses a tip-and-strip pen. I always forget this is a thing people had in the ’70s.
That’s right. I was really disappointed that we didn’t have a better close-up of the tip-and-strip pen, because it really was quite good.
Do they still make them or it was vintage?
Those were vintage. I didn’t even know they were called “tip-and-strips”…
I had to look it up, too. I had no idea. You are also in scenes with an actor playing Sylvester Stallone. Is that surreal?
Initially, Jeff Feuerzeig’s conception of the script was that you would blend in between documentary footage and real footage. And I felt that that would be kind of alarming because the characters would be in competition with the real people. So then when we started to work on the script, well, let’s just do characterizations. Obviously, one of the things that we were most nervous about was how do you do Stallone, such an iconic character. And it was just a question of finding the right actor, and Morgan Spector turned out to be the guy.
Having real footage and then going back and forth would have been tough, because you also have Muhammad Ali in this movie…
That was the other one, how do you do Ali? And I think Pooch [Hall] did the same thing. You just can’t be intimidated by it. And it’s the hardest thing about playing characters who are alive. I can’t say I like it very much, you know?
Chuck had some tough breaks. I could imagine not wanting to portray him where it goes too harsh on the guy.
That’s right. Absolutely. That’s how I felt. I was like, are we going too far with all of this negativity and all this stuff? But I think we weren’t so much trying to make a movie about Chuck as we were trying to tell a kind of cautionary tale about fame and celebrity.
You seem like a guy who’s kept away from that a bit, at least from the outside looking in. But when you first started, were you like, “Hey, I’m in Mixed Nuts now. Watch out, here I come”? I saw that movie in the theater, by the way.
Me too, with like six other people. I remember I got a review once from the New York Times when I was in a Shakespeare play, and they said that I was the greatest Shakespearean actor of my generation.
Yeah. And I was like, wow. Exactly. I had the same reaction. And then I think I probably spent – and I apologize to everyone I came across in those two years – but I probably spent a couple years thinking that was true. And then another theater critic, who shall remain nameless, wrote a review of me in a play and said that I had a head the size of a watermelon and was an entirely somnambulistic actor. And after I looked up “somnambulistic,” I realized that if I was the greatest Shakespearean actor of my generation, I also had the head the size of a watermelon.
For the record, I do not agree with that. I’m looking your head right now. It does not look anything like a watermelon.
Fair play, but you see my point, that if I believed one, I also had to believe the other. And I think that that was a great testing ground, if you will, for the experience of really being famous – being in everyone’s living room for the past five years on television shows. You know, whoa. Suddenly, yeah, okay, that’s what fame and celebrity is, to a degree. But I was fortunate enough to have that experience early on to kind of lay the groundwork for me. And you can’t take any of it too seriously, particularly if you have kids and you have any interest in the hopes of teaching them to see the world with as much wonder as the world may or may not see them.
I’ve thought of you as a very well-known actor for a long time. Did it really change with the Ray Donovan?
I think probably X-Men was the beginning, probably. And then Ray Donovan, I would get recognized pretty much on a regular basis.
The most popular show is NCIS, so I bet Mark Harmon probably probably can’t walk down the street because he’s on everyone’s TV.
But he was already famous before that, wasn’t he?
Yeah. He was a quarterback at UCLA. He was in Summer School.
Wasn’t he on another television show before NCIS?
I remember him playing a doctor.
That’s it. On what show? Maybe something like that. St. Elsewhere? I don’t really watch a lot of television. [Note: It was St. Elsewhere.]
Denzel Washington was on St. Elsewhere.
I had no idea.
Actually, I think we did pretty well on Mark Harmon’s career.
I’m going to Google it right now. What was Mark Harmon on before he was on NCIS? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.
This is your third boxing movie? Speaking of Denzel Washington. The Hurricane counts I think?
Oh, right, The Hurricane.
And then you did some voiceover for Creed.
And for Creed, yeah. Fourth, then. In Jakob the Liar, that character was a boxer.
But this is the first in which you box.
Yeah, I’m actually boxing.
Is that fun? It looks fun.
It actually was fun! It really was! Because the actor who plays Muhammad Ali, Pooch Hall, is my sparring partner in real life. So we got to sort of develop the choreography together and it was really fun developing the style of fighting. Because we wanted to have real contact. So it was fun trying to figure out how to do that without knocking me out twice a day, and thank God it was Pooch.
It came off like a real fight. A lot of….
Yeah, lot of those little punches behind the head when the fighters are entangled.
To Philippe’s credit, that’s what he wanted. And that was part of the idea about hiring a director who didn’t know anything about boxing. He wanted to know what boxing was, and he watched a lot of fights, and he said, “Wow, you know, most of the time, nothing’s really happening.” And we were like, “Yep.” And he’s like, “Ah, that’s good. Let’s do that.” And in reality, the really nasty stuff was once Chuck knocked Ali down, then Ali got back up and he was angry. That’s when it got nasty. And most of that stuff, you don’t really see.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not looked upon as the most favorable of the Wolverine movies, but people loved you in it. Would you be opposed to doing something else like that? Or was that not a good experience?
It was a great experience. Working with Hugh was a really great experience. Working with everybody on that film, I really had a very good time. And it’s my son’s favorite thing that I’ve ever done, but probably also the only thing that my son really knows that I’ve ever done.
What would you show him next?
Well, I’m hoping My Little Pony or Wes Anderson’s movie, Isle of Dogs.
I cannot wait for Isle of Dogs.
Yeah, I’m really looking forward to that, too. He’ll be able to watch those. There’s not much that I do that he can watch, including Victor Creed. But I know it would mean a lot to him if I could play Victor Creed again. It better be one of those “Old Man Victor Creed” stories, because I don’t know how much longer I can do anything else.
You should get your own old man superhero movie…
There you go. Sabretooth with a limp.
Speaking of Isle of Dogs, Do you know the plot? Can you tell what it is?
Yeah, but I don’t think I’m supposed to.
I don’t think you are either.
Yeah, I bet.
In a lot of Wes Anderson movies, people come in, people come out. So I didn’t know if you had read the whole thing…
Oh, no, I’ve read it all. It’s terrific.
This your first time working with him?
That’s actually surprising.
Yeah, I would have loved… I mean, it was definitely on the bucket list, so I’m glad it happened.
Was being on set as magical of an experience as I like to imagine it is?
Well, to be honest, I didn’t really have the experience of being on set with him, because I’m just voicing a character.
In Fantastic Mr. Fox, they were all on the set together even though it was an animated movie, so I thought maybe this was similar.
No, it was just me and him in a recording studio. But, you know, he’s got the world so kind of fully realized in his mind before he starts to work – and all of the Japanese art and all of this stuff that has influenced him. He would show me, and some mock-ups of the character. But once we had done that, it was really sort of a very sort of honest and straightforward and sincere character approach to the character – not to be funny or animated or in any way like for children. It was just, who was the character and what was the voice and what were you trying to convey in any given moment? And that’s absolutely right.
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