If anyone were ever to make James Bond an American instead of a Brit, Liev Schreiber would be a prefect choice. Well dressed and an imposing figure at first, Schreiber sits down at a table in one of the press boxes at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto to talk about his role as a hockey enforcer coming to the end of his career in Goon. While the comedy in the film strikes fairly broad, Schreiber’s dry wit and no nonsense demeanour shines through in director Michael Dowse’s latest film.
The classically trained actor (probably best know for his role as Cotton Weary in the Scream series and as Sabretooth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is drinking a warm beverage, but from his candour and wry grin, he might as well be sipping cognac. Much like his Goon character, Ross “The Boss” Rhea, Schreiber has a genuine love for his craft and the work that he puts in. Talking to him, one definitely gets the impression of a gentleman, but one look at him and it becomes clear why he’s so great at playing sometimes darker characters.
Dork Shelf talked to the actor recently about the research and effort he put in to become a credible looking hockey player, his past experiences with the sport, and fighting on film.
What were your first experiences with the sport of hockey?
I grew up in the Lower East Side of New York. I grew up in Ranger country. When I was a kid I had this really bad ankle thing, and my mother took me to a chiropractor, and it happened to be Denis Potvin’s chiropractor. I met him as a small kid and he just made an incredible impression on me. I didn’t know who he was or really all that much about hockey. I was just a street urchin from the Lower East Side, but I was meeting a professional athlete who was really kind to me. So that was the beginning for me. That was the first glimpse of hockey, so I had to find out who he was, and I knew he was a star.
So I went and I watched him, and then my best friend from Junior High School –who was a Rangers fanatic – started making me go to the games with him. I didn’t understand it at all at first, but I just thought, “Man these guys are fast” and I thought about how the hand-eye coordination of these guys was beyond amazing.
So I came to this movie relatively naive about actually playing hockey. They agreed to pay to send me to a really good hockey boot camp for about five weeks, and I kind of immersed myself, particularly in Bob Probert’s book (Tough Guy) and some films on him, and Dave Schultz, and (Georges) Laraque, and a bunch of other guys who felt to me in the world of what this part was. I came up to Winnipeg for filming with all that knowledge ready to go.
How did you like Winnipeg?
I actually loved Winnipeg. (laughs) Everyone told me I was gonna hate it, so it was great. Part of it was all the guys we were playing with in the movie were real hockey players, and quite a few of them were ex-pros, and they were all local. They were incredibly generous with me, because with me not really having played before these guys were incredible.
So you hadn’t even really skated before?
Not really, no. (pause) You know, frankly, the big story on this movie is me. (laughs) I’m just kidding. (pause) No I’m not. But my progression from complete neophyte to this… I actually play hockey now, and I’m pretty good. I’m not as good on the puck as I am on the boards, but I’m pretty good.
Think you could hold your own on the ice now?
Yeah. I got trained by the best, and I know it’s a really interesting art form. The guys at the camp that I trained with spent the first three or four weeks on just skating to look like you’re a pro, skating so you can stop on both sides, skating so you can turn, crossovers, skating backwards, skating with the right amount of speed so you can stop and not bump into the camera. That was a really big deal because I was thinking there was no real way I was going to be able to do this, but there was no way I was going to go in and do this all on a platform or have all my work done by a double. It defeats the purpose because for this part you really need to hire someone who knows how to play hockey. I had a fantastic double, though, for the scenes where I just go out and level people. A lot of those big, beautiful hits you see in the movie are his.
I know you’ve done some fight training for some of your past films, but fighting in hockey and on skates is an almost alien kind of style for you. What was it like learning that aspect of the game?
It was really fun and really interesting because of how technical it really is. It’s all about positioning and edges. You’ve gotta get your blades in, and it all depends, are you a southpaw or a righty? What’s the other guy? You know, you want to get into the best position for you, and you want to pivot yourself to the point where you can throw as many punches as possible with the hopes of landing one better than he can. That’s the name of the game.
And by that same token, you want to fight him, but you don’t want to take him out completely.
Right. You know, it’s a statement, and generally it’s a very well thought out statement. It’s strategic and impactful. Arguably, these guys turn the tide on games, and there’s no doubt that they protect the high value players, and the strikers and the shooters. Without them, I really think there’s an argument to be made that there might be even more devastating injuries in hockey. They really keep the game clean. In a sense, they are the policemen of the ice.
But then they have to take it all on themselves, pretty much.
Yup. That’s true. And that’s what I really liked the most about doing the movie. Because after spending so much time looking at Bob Probert and thinking about what it must’ve felt like to be considered a goon or an enforcer, I felt like it must’ve hurt. I think the guy thought of himself as a hockey player, and he was a guy who was consistently evolving his game and dealing with this thing that was hanging over his head that he was the “king of the goons” or “king of the enforcers.” He was taking on all these young guys coming up who wanted a piece of him, but at the same time, he was a real player and he always did what he knew best to help his team win the game. I think a lot of guys maybe came away from their careers at a very young age thinking “Nobody knows what I did and no one appreciates what I did.” Goon was kind of a love letter to these guys saying that we know what you’ve been through and we know what you’ve given of yourself and for your team and for the rest of the men, and we love you for that.
And your character makes that distinction apparent in the scene you have with Seann (William Scott) where you basically have to tell him that he’s a fighter and not a real player. And it’s coming from a real place because Ross is at the end of his career.
Absolutely. I think he’s depressed. He’s at the end of his run and he’s feeling a little bitter. What I love about it is that this kid comes along and reminds him how much he loves hockey and how much he loves his team. This kid comes along and tells him that he’s not doing this for nothing, and that he’s doing it for the love of the team and the love of the game, and that he does it because he loves winning and because the fans love it. That’s his life and in a few weeks it’s going to be over.
The film in a way also is about Ross extinguishing that cynicism.
Yeah, completely. That kid gave him some faith in what he does right when he needed it the most. There’s some happiness in the continuum that a new guy has come along that has the passion. There’s another Jeremy Lin in the game, because these guys have a tremendous passion.
It also helps that Ross is a really self aware character who knows his place in the league and all the things he’s done in his career, but now that he’s been bumped down to play with the minor league team he started with, you as an actor have to convey how that self-awareness can manifest itself as depression over time.
Thanks for noticing that, and a lot of that is to (co-writer) Jay (Baruchel)’s credit, and in helping those guys to find the feeling of the movie. Because this isn’t really a big part, so finding ways to articulate that like putting them alone in a diner gives you a sense of what the guy’s life is like. I don’t know how many aging pro players you know, but it’s kind of a lonely existence. You’re on the road all the time and all you’re doing is that. You don’t want to hang out with the 19 year olds and go to the strip bar. So the guy goes to the diner for a cup of coffee just thinking about who the next guy he’s going to face is gonna be. That to me, even in a broad comedy like this that’s so much fun, it touched me.
And your character in many ways, like Seann’s, is searching for the movie’s biggest happy ending because he wants to end his career on his own terms.
I totally agree! And it didn’t feel that way when I read it, but when I just saw the movie two nights ago and I think that Mike did a really great job of shaping that storyline because it did feel that way to me.