Liev Schreiber, Enjoying a Tony Role as Roma Liev Schreiber stars as the real-estate salesman Ricky Roma in a production of Glengarry Glen Ross showered with Tony nominations. Schreiber, Alan Alda and Gordon Clapp are all nominated for best actor.
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Liev Schreiber, Enjoying a Tony Role as Roma

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Liev Schreiber, Enjoying a Tony Role as Roma

Liev Schreiber, Enjoying a Tony Role as Roma

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

We're sitting in Liev Schrieber's dressing room at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre in New York now, in front of a map of Chicago that he's pasted up on one of the walls. Mr. Schrieber, who stars in the current production of "Glengarry Glen Ross," is nominated for the Tony Award for best featured actor in a play. So are his co-stars Alan Alda and Gordon Clapp. The Tonys will be presented Sunday night.

It has been 20 years since David Mamet won the Pulitzer Prize for his scalding, expletives-included prose poem about seven suburban Chicago real estate sharks who compete to sell Florida swamp land to unsuspecting clients. This current production has been hailed as a kind of walking, talking textbook of great acting. And Liev Schrieber, who plays the fast-talking, cuff-shooting, finger-snapping Ricky Roma, is being acclaimed as the finest actor of his generation. Mr. Schrieber is approaching 40.

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. LIEV SCHRIEBER (Broadway Actor): Thanks for having me. At what point do you begin to approach 40?

SIMON: I figure after 37 you're crowding in on 40.

Mr. SCHRIEBER: I suppose, then, I'm at the beginning of approaching 40.

SIMON: All right.

Mr. SCHRIEBER: Let's say I'm departing from 35.

SIMON: (Laughs) All right. Fair enough. For people who haven't seen David Mamet on stage sometime, have you ever sworn so much in all your life?

Mr. SCHRIEBER: I would like to say no, but I have. It's probably one of my favorite things about this play is the immense amount of profanity that's used in it. It's really, I find, very cathartic.

SIMON: For an actor, what is the quality of David Mamet's prose that you notice and you have to master and involve yourself in to get it down?

Mr. SCHRIEBER: Ironically, you know, everyone talks about how difficult the language is and how technical the language is and that the meter is so specific, but I find that that actually makes the job of acting it simpler to a degree, because the playwright has kind of chartered a course for you that if you can follow does a good deal of the work as a performer for you.

(Soundbite of "Glengarry Glen Ross")

Mr. SCHRIEBER: I'm going to tell you something because there's something about your acreage I want you to know. Can't talk about it now. I really shouldn't. And in fact, by law I--the man next to you? He bought his lot at 42. He phoned to say that he'd already had an offer.

(To Simon) I guess the other thing for me that distinguishes Mamet is that it's also very specifically American, and I was really pleased when Joe Mantello, the play's director, said that he was really keen on setting it specifically in Chicago and sticking to the period, 1984, in which the play is set.

SIMON: We noted you've got the--like a gas station map of Chicago hanging up, the metro area, and I want to get you to talk about your co-stars--it's a wonderful cast.

Mr. SCHRIEBER: That's a very good segue 'cause Alan Alda gave that to me. He gave me a box of really excellent steak knives wrapped in a map of Chicago. And I thought that was great.

SIMON: Well, in this great cast, you are the only one who makes, to my mind, a discernible effort to actually use a Chicago accent. Now I say this as a Chicagoan.

Mr. SCHRIEBER: Everybody is--I...

SIMON: I don't mean to devalue anyone, but--yours is redolent of the Chicago River.

Mr. SCHRIEBER: Thank you. I've always wanted to be redolent of the Chicago River. I think those things are very important.

SIMON: Co-stars. Alan Alda, who plays Shelley "The Machine" Levene, the...

Mr. SCHRIEBER: Yeah. Yeah.

SIMON: ...older salesman and many ways the most desperate at that point in his career. When he begins to deliver a remarkable string of ugly epithets, do you ever sense the audience is going, `Oh, that's not Hawkeye'?

Mr. SCHRIEBER: It's funny. I completely forgot that Alan was Hawkeye. I saw on television the other night--I was in bed, and I saw him doing Hawkeye and in the "M*A*S*H" show. He's just a different guy to me. I'm really impressed by him, particularly his transformational side. It's like a kid; he loves to change. And I remember when he first came, we walked into a dress rehearsal together and we all had our costumes on, and I was playing with my cuff links and Alan came down and he had wet his hair in such a way that it was just the right amount of water that it didn't look wet, but it made his hair look incredibly thin and pathetic. And he had slumped his shoulders down and he had caved his chest in. And it was incredible. I mean, I didn't recognize the guy. And I expected him to phone it in, I guess. I didn't expect that kind of glee for acting.

(Soundbite of "Glengarry Glen Ross")

Mr. ALAN ALDA: Do I want charity? Do I want pity? I want sits. I want leads. Don't come right out of a phone book. Give me a lead hotter than that, I'll go in and close it. Give me a chance, that's all I want. I'm going to get up on that board, and all I want is a chance. It's a streak and I'm going to turn it around.

SIMON: Ricky Roma is obscene, and explosive and exploitative. Do you like any parts of him?

Mr. SCHRIEBER: I gotta say I do. I find Ricky oddly ethical. He has a code and he does live by it. But I--Ricky's just the kind of guy that I would never take anything he said at face value.

SIMON: Look, I know it's just an honor to be nominated, and you never thought you would be nominated, but all of that being said, you have three of you nominated for the same award.

Mr. SCHRIEBER: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: And you're going on stage night after night and kissing and hugging, wishing each other well. May I ask is there any sense of only one of you's going to walk off with that, or maybe someone in another show, I suppose.

Mr. SCHRIEBER: Well, you know what happened is this was kind of an amazing thing that four days before our opening night, we were given the Drama Desk Award for the best ensemble. That was such a great thing to have happen because this performance, more than anything probably I've ever worked on, is built on that sense of ensemble and that buoyancy of language, keeping the ball in the air between six actors.

(Soundbite of "Glengarry Glen Ross")

Mr. ALDA: Read it. Bruce and Harriett Nyborg. What happened here?

Unidentified Actor #1: Somebody broke in. Eight units.

Mr. ALDA: Roy Ebsen(ph), get on the phone. Call Mitch.

Unidentified Actor #1: They took the phones.

Unidentified Actor #2: Aaronow.

Unidentified Actor #1: Took the typewriters, they took the cash, they took the contracts, they took the leads.

Mr. ALDA: What?

Unidentified Actor #3: We had a robbery.

Mr. SCHRIEBER: I want to strangle the Tony committee, frankly, for nominating the three of us in the same category because we can only go down from here.

SIMON: In what ways do actors resemble salesmen or vice versa?

Mr. SCHRIEBER: I think it was a huge movement in this country--sales was such a major force in American culture. I was working on a script about a guy who reinvents himself based on Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends & Influence People," and in sort of doing some research with the Dale Carnegie Institute in Long Island, I realized what a huge phenomena he was and that sales is this touchstone of American culture. There's something empowering about the notion of free enterprise and the American Dream, and the fact that we can redefine ourselves as people by selling. And even if we don't have money we can still sell beyond our means. We can sell ourselves. And I think that that's what actors do in an exaggerated sense is that we change ourselves; we represent things which we are not. But we sort of do that openly, whereas sales--it's a little more covert.

SIMON: I must say between seeing this play and then, of course, all the attention that Arthur Miller's death occasioned to "Death of a Salesman," I guess it reminded me that salespeople get the worst of it in some of these great works of literature. Are they sometimes too convenient a target?

Mr. SCHRIEBER: Plays about desperate people are humane plays. For me, those characters in those plays draw the most focused attention to our condition, and it is easier for me to understand my fellow man by understanding his pain. Joy is so personal, but pain is for me shared.

SIMON: I read something where it said that David Mamet had called you to say great news that you're playing Ricky Roma, but that you hadn't returned the call.

Mr. SCHRIEBER: Well, he'd left a message on my machine that said, `Hi, Liev. This is David Mamet and I just wanted to say I'm excited that you're playing the part,' and he left his phone number. And I thought, `Well, should I call him and say, "Yes, I'm also excited that I am playing the part"?' And I just got nervous. I--I mean, I didn't know what I would say to him.

SIMON: You've met and...

Mr. SCHRIEBER: He came up opening night and that was the first time I met him. My mom was in here and about six or seven agents, and the room kind of just froze when he walked through the door, and I think it's probably so many industry people--they all knew who he was and, of course, my mom had no idea, and so I turned to her and I said, `Ma, this is David Mamet. He wrote the play.' And my mom turned to him and with this kind of gleeful smile, she said, `Oh, what a great vehicle you've written.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHRIEBER: And to his credit, David cracked up.

SIMON: Mr. Schrieber, thanks very much for all your time.

Mr. SCHRIEBER: Thank you.

SIMON: Liev Schrieber, one of the stars of the Broadway revival of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross." He is joined on stage by Alan Alda, Frederick Weller, Tom Wopat, Gordon Clapp and Jeffrey Tambor. Messieurs Schrieber, Alda and Clapp are all nominated for the Tony for best featured actor in a play. The Tonys will be awarded tomorrow night. To see a clip of Liev Schrieber on stage in "Glengarry Glen Ross," visit our Web site, npr.org, and we'll warn you: Most clips from that play are X-rated.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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