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Light in times of darkness; Alison Jones talks to Liev Schreiber about Everything Is Illuminated.

Byline: Alison Jones

You may not be overly familiar with the name Liev (pronounced Lee-ev) Schreiber but you will probably be able to place the face.

The 38-year-old actor's biggest role to date had been a grandstanding turn as Orson Welles in RKO 281, the story of the film-making genius as a young man, before his waist became bigger than his talent.

And playing the Laurence Harvey role in a creditable re-make of the Manchurian Candidate opposite Meryl Streep and Denzil Washington.

Liev is instantly recognisable to a generation of cinema-goers as the unconventionally named Cotton Weary, the one who didn't do it in the Scream trilogy.

So when Liev was greeted with enthusiasm by a youth in a New York bar, he thought he was dealing with another fan of the slasher satire.

In fact it was Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the soon to be best-selling novel Everything is Illuminated, which Liev wanted to adapt for the screen.

Given the subject matter about a Jewish American writer who travels to the Ukraine to search for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis Liev was expecting to meet "some 90-year-old Jewish man from Nantucket who only communicates through his agent. I walked in and there was this 20-something kid with glasses waving and smiling at me. I was blown away."

By coincidence the actor had been trying to write a story about an American who goes to the Ukraine to investigate his heritage.

"My grandfather was a Ukranian immigrant," he says.

"He came over around 1916. His family were escaping the Pograms.

"When he died I began to write about him. I wanted to know if I was connected to anything else."

However, his depression over the death of his grandfather, who helped to raise Liev following his parent's divorce, led him down a nihilistic alley inspirationally speaking.

"I slammed the door on my character. My answer was no we are not connected. Then this kid comes along and he writes this thing with great compassion and humour and says 'yes, you are'.

"The weakness of the American culture is that it has a short-term memory. It's a country built on the idea of abandoning your culture, your ethnicity. To be an American is to be an immigrant.

"Usually they are escaping something and that makes them very driven."

Memory, or the fear of losing it, is another theme in Jonathan's novel that struck a chord with Liev.

The protagonist, played by Elijah Wood in the film, collects objects belonging to people he has known or loved, bags and tags them and pins them to a wall in his room.

"I have a terrible problem with memory," revealed Liev.

"And if you believe a human being's personality is essentially a collage of memory and history then someone who has a terrible memory has a bit of an identity crisis.

"I was OK until 1993 and my grandfather died and I started to panic that I was losing things that were important. I was no longer comfortable being by myself. Being appreciated is not nearly as interesting as being related." Though he modestly says he just transferred Jonathan's characters to his own narrative structure, Liev decided to make one of the character's Jewish in order to address ideas of anti-semitism and what it meant to survive being Jewish during World War Two.

"Part of the magic behind it was every year we memorialise all of the people who have died in the Holocaust as heroes.

"What people forget is those that survived did so by drastic measures the very least of which was denial of faith and spirituality, embracing the idea their lives were worthless.

"They live with that shame and it promotes a kind of self-inflicted anti-semetism in my view.

"These people move out into the world with an alienated sense of themselves and a tremendous amount of anger.

"I remember growing up on the lower east side in New York. My mother and I would live in these squats - she was a painter, very Bohemian and we were on welfare until I was seven - and the landlords of the time, these Jewish guys, would burn the buildings to get the people out and sell the real estate.

"I couldn't understand it. I'm Jewish these guys were Jewish, how could they do that?

"As I got older I tried to talk to more Eastern European Jews and non-Jews who had survived any number of terrible events that occurred not only in Europe but all over the world. I found a tremendous reticence.

"All these memorials, that is the second generation, their children, (the older generation) they don't want to know from the Holocaust. They don't want to remember.

"That is why in the film it is wonderfully poetic to have the most anti-semitic character run a business helping Jews who have lost their lives."

Everything is Illuminated is on at the MAC until M onday.


Elijah Wood puts his feet up in Liev Schreiber's Everything Is Illuminated
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 28, 2006
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