By Jamie Portman, Canwest News ServiceAugust 20, 2009
Liev Schreiber talks about playing a drag queen in in Ang Lee's film adaptation of Elliot Tiber's personal memoir.
Photograph by: Stephen Lovekin, Getty ImagesNEW YORK -
Liev Schreiber, the hunkiest Shakespearean actor around, may be playing a drag queen named Vilma in the upcoming Taking Woodstock - but the performance is definitely not according to stereotype.
Not with those muscular arms popping out of the sleeves of a sack dress which hangs unbecomingly on Schreiber's six-foot-three frame and looks as though it was grabbed off a basement clearance rack. Not with that undeniably masculine jawline framed by a hairstyle which has never seen the inside of a beauty parlour. And certainly not with that serviceable handgun which Vilma wears tucked between her legs.
Schreiber says audiences attending the movie opening Aug. 28 need to be reminded that while Vilma may be a cross-dressing male, she's also an ex-marine, a Korean War veteran, and proud of it.
"She seems to really embrace that," the 41-year-old actor suggests. "I think she was probably at her happiest surrounded by soldiers."
Vilma is a key figure in Ang Lee's film adaptation of Elliot Tiber's personal memoir of his experiences of the 1969 Woodstock Music And Arts Festival, a seminal event in the history of pop culture. The film, which touches on one small but evocative piece of the Woodstock legend, tells how the youthful Elliot - idealistic son of two immigrant motel owners - helps make the festival happen and in so doing changes his own life and that of the community. Vilma becomes part of the story when she shows up on the scene and takes charge of the security detail for the decrepit family motel which finds a new lease on life as the Woodstock invasion begins.
Some journalists who have interviewed Schreiber don't really get his performance. They figure that a drag queen should be "all femininity" and that because Woodstock became a symbol for the peace movement, there should be no violence in her.
"That's a real under-estimation of who Vilma is. Vilma was a Korean War veteran who also worked as muscle in the West Village. And she wears a gun in her groin. She's a relatively dangerous person - and she's clearly pretty good at it."
Schreiber, last seen on the big screen as a Jewish resistance fighter in Defiance and as Sabretooth in Wolverine, was only a toddler when Woodstock happened, yet its sensibility became part of his life growing up.
"Swami Satchidananda, the guru who spoke at Woodstock was my mother's guru. My father was a hippie. My mother was a socialist more than a hippie. So I had some experience with the culture."
And besides, the chance to play Vilma was an offer that Schreiber - who won a Tony Award three years ago for his work in a Broadway revival of David Mamet's ultra-macho Glengarry Glen Ross - couldn't refuse. He knew the key to getting her right was to communicate her complete matter-of-factness about her lifestyle.
"You really run the risk of cliche with characters like this," Schreiber points out. But he notes that Vilma was also a pivotal figure in the life of young Elliot (played in the movie by Demetri Martin) because she helped him come to terms with his own homosexuality.
"It seemed to me that a real function of her character was to kind of deliver a message of acceptance to Elliott, and I think that her own contradictions make her uniquely suited to deliver that message - particularly if she's very comfortable and matter-of-fact about who she is. I mean if someone like Vilma can be comfortable in her own skin, it should be a walk in the park with someone like Elliot."
Schreiber researched Vilma as zealously as he researched his award-winning stage performance as Hamlet, and discovered it's impossible to make sweeping assumptions about the drag queen culture.
"What was going on in the sexual revolution as it pertains to the gay community in the 1960s and 1970s, and the drag subculture, is that prior to the 1960s, most drag queens were either dressing like their mothers or iconic Hollywood actresses. With the '60s, you saw some very bold moves in gay culture, and particularly in drag culture, where guys were going out on the street with it, and living it as a lifestyle, and not just as a cabaret act. They were incorporating elements of their masculinity that had never been present before. You would see groups like the Cockettes in San Francisco with beards and fantastical makeup and they would do the can-can without any underwear on, and in a sense kind of embrace their masculinity in their drag shows. I thought it was important to infuse Vilma's character with a bit of that, so his masculinity is still as much a part of who he was as his femininity."
Schreiber, who is married to actress Naomi Watts, says that curious things happen to most males when they put on female clothing.
"I've watched guys put on dresses, and every single one of them becomes almost completely giddy the moment he puts it on. . . . There is something about that that is truly inspiring - even for a 40-year-old heterosexual guy like me. Suddenly you develop this immediate feminine vanity . . . ."
Schreiber recently completed a different kind of film - a complex thriller called Salt with Angelina Jolie co-starring and Philip Noyce directing.
"Angelina does some incredible stuff in it, but I can't really talk about it because I'd kind of give the film away. She plays a CIA agent and I'm her boss and her friend and she's accused of being a Russian mole. The story is basically trying to figure out whether she is or not. It was originally written for a man and rewritten for her."