The family also had a smaller celebration for Sasha a week earlier in Virginia, where Schreiber’s mother lives. Even that occasion, explains the actor, caused him some anxiety. “I’m kind of an obsessive-compulsive person, like, neat obsessive,” he says. So when, as many one-year-olds will do, Sasha got a little hands-on with the cake, smashing it with his fingers, Schreiber says he sort of “freaked out.”
“Naomi was like, ‘That’s what’s supposed to happen.’ But I’m like, ‘This beautiful cake my mother bought! Don’t do that!’ Yeah, I got really uptight—I’m such a putz.”
At 41, Schreiber is comfortable embracing his inner “nut”—a word he often uses to describe himself—and his hyper self-analytical tendencies have informed many of the characters he’s portrayed, from the quietly suffering to the clinically villainous to the otherwise totally screwed-up. Since his breakout role as Jason Robards’s lazy son in the Harold Pinter play Moonlight at the Roundabout Theatre in 1995, Schreiber has had a stage career nothing short of dazzling. A Yale School of Drama grad, he’s delivered bravura performances for the Public Theater in the title roles of Hamlet (1999) and Macbeth (2006) and as Iago in Othello (2001). In 2005 he won a Tony for his depiction of a salesman in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, and last year, after starring as an egomaniacal shock jock in Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio, he was roundly heralded as theater’s great salvation. (The New York Times’ Ben Brantley called his performance “the most lacerating portrait of a human meltdown this side of a Francis Bacon painting.”)
Movie audiences, on the other hand, are less apt to see Schreiber as a leading man. Although he was nominated for an Emmy in 2000 for his portrayal of Orson Welles in the HBO film RKO 281 and has held his own onscreen opposite heavyweights like Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep (as a brainwashed assassin in 2004’s The Manchurian Candidate), he’s pretty much been a second banana. That may change, however, with the release of Schreiber’s next film, Defiance. He costars with Daniel Craig as one of four brothers leading a brigade of Jewish resistance fighters during World War II. Directed by Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai), the film is based on the true story of the Bielski brothers, Belarusians who battled German occupation forces, rescuing hundreds of fellow Jews from the Nazis. Craig plays Tuvia, the leader of the secret community the brothers establish in the woods, and Schreiber is Zus, who proves to be the fiercest fighter. Even though Craig gets top billing, it’s Schreiber’s volcanic performance that’s attracting early Oscar buzz. As Zus, who seems most alive when he’s firing a machine gun, Schreiber is utterly compelling (even speaking with the thick Eastern European accent Zwick had the actors use). And, for the first time in his film career, he gets to play the hero.