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Liev Schreiber: The best actor of his generation?

The ”Salt” actor lends class to blockbusters, earns raves on Broadway, and goes head-to-head with Angelina Jolie. What’s next?

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The phrase ”Greatest actor of His Generation” has been thrown around a lot lately. Sean Penn. Robert Downey Jr. Christian Bale. Johnny Depp. Philip Seymour Hoffman. All of them have at one time or another been on the receiving end of that flashy superlative. But Liev Schreiber is probably the only one of them who still has to tell people how to pronounce his name. For the record, it’s LEE-ev, rhymes with Chicken Kiev.

On a recent summer night, the native New Yorker shows up at a downtown restaurant across the street from where he lives with actress Naomi Watts and their two young sons, wearing jeans, flip-flops, and a suntan. He’s just returned from a scuba-diving trip to Tahiti and still feels too rubbery and mellow to talk about his new movie — the Angelina Jolie conspiracy thriller Salt. But he insists he’s ”a company man,” so he’ll give it a shot.

In the film, Schreiber plays Jolie’s mentor at the CIA who is blindsided when she’s named as a Russian sleeper agent. It’s basically the Joan Allen role from the Bourne movies with a slight twist. And, as usual, he nails what little he’s given. Taking a swig of beer straight from the bottle, Schreiber admits he hasn’t seen the finished film yet. ”I hear it’s good,” he says, before adding, ”They had to reshoot a lot of the ending, and they made me say some dumb things. I was miserable. Mis-er-a-ble! I was telling the director, Phillip Noyce, ‘F— you! This is garbage, no way! You can’t make me do this!”’ Schreiber starts to laugh, realizing that it might be wise to downshift a gear or two. ”Phillip’s a great guy. He appreciated the fact that I cared about being good.”

In person, the 42-year-old is taller, more handsome, and a lot funnier than you’d expect from watching his somber, brooding performances in films like The Manchurian Candidate and Defiance. He’s a born storyteller with the kind of deep smoker’s baritone that’s tailor-made for selling Infiniti sedans on TV and narrating HBO sports documentaries — both of which he does when he’s not busy with his day job. It’s also the type of voice that blows like a foghorn from the stage — the medium where, to date, he’s done his best work. Not only is Schreiber a classically trained Shakespearean actor, but he also won a Tony for his turn as real estate shark Ricky Roma in 2005’s revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, and was nominated again this year for playing the lead opposite Scarlett Johansson in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. In between the two was 2007’s Talk Radio — in which he gave a performance that prompted The New York Times to call him ”the finest American theater actor of his generation.”

Still, for the past decade, Schreiber has lived a strange sort of double life as one of the most acclaimed and versatile powerhouses on Broadway and yet one of the most overlooked and underused actors in Hollywood. It’s as if his Q rating drops 50 percent the second he steps off the plane at LAX. ”When I got out of [Yale Drama] school, no one wanted to do classical theater,” he says. ”There was a dearth of people who wanted to work for 300 bucks a week. So I was able to fill a hole. And I think that’s what I do in movies — I fill a hole…usually playing someone a little naughty. They’re good holes.”

When asked if he wishes he were more famous, like his Salt costar, Schreiber weighs the question, taking another pull on his beer. ”Actors like Angelina and Brad Pitt and Matt Damon are kind of one in a million,” he says. ”So what you’re basically asking is, How come you’re not lightning in a bottle? I’d love to be the guy who can finance a movie, but I’m dead in the water once I start trying to be that.”

Schreiber has juggled juicy parts in indies (The Daytrippers, A Walk on the Moon) with simmering second-banana roles in big commercial hits (the Scream trilogy, X-Men Origins: Wolverine). He always comes off as totally believable, despite all of the pressure he puts on himself and his directors. ”He’s harder on himself than he is on anyone else,” says Defiance director Edward Zwick. ”There are actors I won’t name whose ideas are only in the service of themselves or their vanity. That’s not Liev.” Adds Salt‘s Noyce: ”He has a process that is arduous for a director. I mean, he really makes you work. He’s a perfectionist, and he makes you justify your choices. But at the end, I felt he was the best actor I had ever worked with.”

Still, most critics agree that it’s the theater where Schreiber is at his most hypnotic. And while he won’t come out and say so, you get the impression that he believes this too. For him, walking on stage is like going home. All the more so because his own chaotic childhood never really gave him a sense of safety and security (he was caught in a brutal custody battle between bohemian parents and was briefly kidnapped by his father when he was 3). It’s the same feeling of belonging and home he gets with Watts, with whom he costarred in 2006’s The Painted Veil. ”We share so many things,” he says. ”Not just from being in the same business — we’re very similar people as well. Naomi lost her father when she was very young, and I was separated from my father when I was very young. And I think people who’ve been through that speak in code to each other. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone who can read the code.”

Actors are all about codes. And as he polishes off his second beer, Schreiber’s bouncing leg seems to be shorthand that he’s growing a bit antsy. He has to get on a plane in the morning, and he fears that a third beer might be a bad idea. But before he goes, there’s still one last question that has to be asked. Namely, what he thinks about that whole Greatest Actor of His Generation thing…

”Well, how can you argue with The New York Times?” he says with a sly grin. ”Look, I have a different perspective, but I’m glad they have theirs. Really glad. But if you’re going to accept that, you also have to be prepared to accept when someone calls you ‘the somnambulistic Mr. Schreiber with a head the size of a watermelon,’ which someone actually wrote once. I had to look up somnambulistic. It means someone who puts you to sleep. So if you’re going to be okay with being the best stage actor of your generation, you also have to be okay being the boring guy with the watermelon head.”