Pablo Shrieiber has racked up and impressive amount of credits since 2001, though it’s his perfomances in a multitude of TV shows that he’s probably best known for, from The Wire, to Orange Is The New Black and most recently as Mad Sweeney in American Gods to name just a few.
Like his Den Of Thieves co-star O’Shea Jackson Jr. our interview found him on fine form and full of insight and enthusiasm into his portrayal of Merriman, the leader of the outlaws that find themselves locking horns with Gerard Butler’s lawman, while trying to perpetrate a near impossible heist. As Merriman, Schreiber imbues the character with kind of stoic menace and subverted heroism that makes you want to support his criminal endeavours fully, which is a testament to his performance and one that should turn more than a few heads.
“Let’s get this show on the road! What’s up Duncan!” he exclaimed down the phone as we were connected, which is the kind of reaction that rarely makes an appearance during a press junket (known for being notoriously repetitive) and things rolled on from there…
Congratulations on the film and on your performance.
Thanks, I appreciate that.
As an actor you seem quite transformative, even knowing how you look like I didn’t recognize you at first in Den Of Thieves. Is transformation quite an appealing part of acting for you?
Yeah, definitely. I mean one of my main goals as an actor obviously is to be as, not to ever let my audience, or people who know me, get too comfortable with one image of me. You know, I want to be changing from role to role, because it’s no fun unless I can. So that’s a big part of why I do what I do, is to have the opportunity to play different people every time and not just be playing the same person.
Yeah, absolutely. And how did you first get involved with film?
I’ve got involved – my agent sent me the script and I went and met with Christian Gudegast, who’s our writer/director on his first time directorial debut, he’s written a couple of studio films, but this was his first time getting a chance to direct a movie. I went and met him in Santa Monica, we talked shop and then afterwards, I think he was very excited about meeting me and needed some convincing, so my agent sent him some clips from a movie that I had coming out called Thumper, that went to Tribeca Film Fest last year, and he felt like there was a lot of parallels between the character and that it was what he wanted to see in his version, so he cast me.
And then it wasn’t until after the fact that I found out he had this script for about ten, or fifteen years and had everybody from Sylvester Stallone, to Sam Worthington attached to the same role. So, you know it was obviously an honour to be the one who brought it to the screen, but it would have been a very different movie if Sly done the role!
Quite, especially if it had been done fifteen years ago! I spoke to O’Shea earlier and he mentioned that the film been trying to get made for a long, long time but I didn’t realize it was fifteen years.
Yeah, twelve, or fifteen years something like that. So much so, that I just did a movie with The Rock in Vancouver (Skyscraper) and I went up there and the first thing he said when he saw me was, ‘Hey man, Den Of Thieves, I was supposed to do that movie ten years ago!’ So, you know apparently it got passed round a lot, but we finally got it made and hopefully people like it.
One of the things I found most interesting about Den Of Thieves is that there’s shades of grey to the characters and Merrimen for me, was actually more of a sympathetic character than Gerard Butler’s Nick. Was that an appealing aspect that stood out in the script when you first read it?
Yeah, in fact I think that’s the entire conceit of the movie. I don’t think this movie is a movie without that, without that element it’s sort of a typical genre pic and I think that’s what sets it apart, is the fact, you know, the policemen, the cops, will break the law in order to enforce the law. The criminals, or the so called criminals, come from a highly morally upright background, where they’ve all served our country and came home from deployment, with a skill set they didn’t know where to use and ended up putting it into a life of crime. But, the aspects of those lives and those comparisons, it is what makes the movie, I think, stand apart.
Yeah, I thought it was a great touch that when your crew are committing crime, the police pick up the fact that you’re not hurting innocent civilians, it’s all very moral, in its own way.
Yeah and also the contrast of the two men who grew up in the same town, or the same area, competing against each other in football, they’re two guys who very similar on the face of things and at some point in their lives, things went a little differently and under different circumstances either one of the them could have ended up in the other ones shoes, you know?
Yeah, I thought it was great as well that despite the large ensemble cast, there’s a dynamic between Nick and Merrimen where you never know who’s got the upper hand at any time and the power balance keeps going up and down.
Yeah, definitely a cat and mouse game between the two them. For sure.
I know, having spoken to Gerard Butler before, that he can psych himself up quite a lot before a confrontation scene. Did you have any methods for doing that, or did you just react to his performance accordingly, because Merrimen is quite a calm character?
Yeah for me it’s the most important thing about this character was restraint, he never shows his cards, he always keeps things hidden, never wants you to know which way he’s going to go until it’s time to strike. Kind of like a coiled snake in that way, very dangerous and always ready to strike, but never going to let you know which way he’s going.
So, it wasn’t… and in contrast to lot of characters I’ve played recently like Pornstache, or the leprechaun, Mad Sweeney, in American Gods. They’re very big, bawdy, showy characters, so it was really important to use a different performance style for this character, because it was all about restraint and doing less. The less movements and the less he talked, the quieter he was, the more scary he is and the more unpredictable he is. So, that was all very important to me.
I think it’s what makes him stand out as a leader, because the others are more a bit more abrasive, less controlled or have weaknesses, but Merrimen really shows strength through silence.
Yeah, I think you see it most clearly in the Benihana scene, when big Nick comes to the restaurant when they’re celebrating their birthday and he wants to have this big face-off confrontation and there’s a lot of ways you can play that scene – you can man up and show your chest and be big and beefy or be whatever and it just felt like to me the quieter, the calmer and the less he did, the more effective it was going to be and I’m glad it’s having that effect.
Physical presence and the threat that stems from it is also a large part of the characters on both crews, but especially on your side – did you guys have you go through a vigorous exercise regime together?
No, they left the physical side and the workouts to us, I mean with the weapons training, we had extensive military movement, team movement, weapons training boot camp, a couple of weeks before we started shooting. But in terms of physical fitness and conditioning that was left to us. So, yeah, it was every man for himself and I think everybody knew that everyone else was doing their best to get in shape, so it kind of pushed everyone else to do better!
Talking of the boot camp and weapons training, did you almost get a more advanced form of that? Because at one point you have to use a massive machine gun and that looked like an intense thing to do?
Yeah, there was actually two separate boot camps, there was what they were doing for the cops, which was a little bit more basic and a little more geared towards the kind of training they would receive. And then there as what they did for us, because Enson and Merrimen in particular come from a MARSOC marine background, which is a highly specialized branch of the special forces of the military, so, the kind of training they would receive is a lot more technical and specific. The weapons they use are different, the way they move as a team is very different.
And I had a bit of a head start coming into it because I did a movie called 13 Hours, where I played a guy who’s special forces as well. So, I already had a bunch of that knowledge and that lends itself to the role anyway, because when we came in for boot camp, I already knew how to manipulate the weapons and knew a bunch of the team maneuvers so I could work with the other guys already in a kind of team leader aspect, which just kind of isolated our roles within the group.
Ah handy! I was going to ask about that actually and how if you’re playing the leader of a group in a film, how your role fell in line. But if you already came in with that knowledge, it must have really helped you slot in.
Yeah, exactly, you know when the movie is partially being sold on the popularity and the name of 50 Cent and he comes in and doesn’t necessary know his way around the weapons as well, it kind of gives me an opportunity to help out and show the guys where we were at in that regard.
Actually since you mentioned 50 Cent, one of my favourite scenes was the prom date scene, where he brings the guy in, as the rest of the film is so intense.
That’s cool isn’t it? I love that scene! One of the genuine laugh moments in the movie – it brings a lightness to it, which I think is really necessary at that point of the movie! [laughs]
Yeah, it’s good as well because it does give you sympathy for your group’s side of things. They’re anti-heroes in a way and it’s quite rare to be rooting for them as much as you do. It reminded me a little bit of Reservoir Dogs in that sense.
Yep, yeah for sure, I think they are definitely anti-heroes and I think they play off the personalities that are there. Specifically, like you know, Curtis is a very charming guy who you actually like a lot and in person he’s charming, he’s fun, he’s nothing like the personality of 50 Cent the rapper that we’ve come to know. And, we use that, we use those personalities in it – O’Shea obviously is a very kind of affable and likeable guy, so these different personalities within the group, I think are used to our advantage in that way.
I have to ask as well – there’s a moment where you perform a heel-cock for want of a better term, where you arm the gun with your foot, where did that technique come from?
So that was from the guy who trained us, he was special forces trained as well and he had a situation where he was in the field and he got shot in the lung and he had a collapsed lung and so all the stuff I was doing in that scene was from research I did with him, about basically what it felt like to be dealing with a collapsed lung and in that case the only way to survive that wound is you have to lay down and get on your side and essentially allow one lung to completely flood, so that you can use the other one.
And so that’s what that moment is, where I’m lying on one side, basically allowing one lung to flood and then obviously if you’ve been shot in one side, your use of that side is, you know, you can no longer use that side to reload. To reload a gun it takes two hands, right? So, I de-cocked the gun on my foot because it’s what’s available and what I can use.
So, if you had to choose which the most intense scene to film was – would it be the shoot-out at the end, or the extensive monologue where you had to give the full security breakdown in the Federal Reserve Bank? Which was the biggest challenge?
Oh my goodness! They were both huge challenges. Obviously, the two days we took to shoot the final shoot-out with Gerard was a huge physical challenge. The exposition scene! [laughs] where I tell the audience about bank we’re going to rob, was a huge intellectual challenge and it felt a little bit like doing theatre – it’s the only time in my film and TV career where I’ve had to memorize five pages of dialogue!
It was this thing I was expecting and knew was coming the whole shoot, but we ended up shooting in the last week or two, or something and of course, because filming things are a challenge and there’s always thing you don’t foresee… we ended up having about half an hour to get that five page monologue. So, I got three takes to do it, from beginning to end, all five pages and that’s what we did. And I was told – you know the thing at the time was a case of ‘Ok, we’ll just shoot it and we’ll never use this, because it’s all going to be montage and we’ll just use the audio. Then they ended up using a great deal of that in the movie!
So, for anybody who wants to pursue the art of acting, it’s another lesson of like – show up prepared and know your shit!
That’s a great note to end on! Mr Pablo Schreiber thank you very much!
Den Of Thieves is released in the UK on the 2nd February.