When actor Liev Schreiber first came to Sydney in 2005 with his new girlfriend Naomi Watts, he was called ''Naomi's beached whale'' in the local press. You can't blame him for being offended.
''It was just after Naomi had done King Kong and she had been dating Heath [Ledger] and I showed up and they were not pleased,'' the genial 44-year-old recalls. ''Some Sydney newspaper ran a picture of me on Bondi Beach when I was quite out of shape and pale and hairy, and this is what she was with. That was my introduction to Australia. But that's a uniquely Aussie thing. After they have taken you down a couple of pegs, then they like you.''
Indeed, over time we've come to see what our Naomi sees in her Liev. He's smart, educated, handsome in a burly way, has a killer smile (and sense of humour), and brings substance to every role he plays.
Schreiber says both he and Watts endured a ''difficult and painful'' gypsy hippie upbringing and now the couple is determined to be devoted parents to their sons, Sasha, 5, and Samuel Kai, 3. ''If anything, we could be accused of spoiling our children wildly,'' he says. ''I think we are both very paranoid about how profound an effect you can have on your children if you are not careful.''
Now their kids are old enough, they are going for broke with movies. Watts has recently played Princess Diana in the feature film Diana and also stars in the tsunami thriller The Impossible, which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. ''She's on fire,'' Schreiber says proudly.
I spoke with Schreiber at the world premiere of his latest movie, Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, at the Venice Film Festival. The film follows the rise of a talented Pakistani financial analyst (Riz Ahmed) on Wall Street and his return to his homeland after the September 11, 2001, attacks. He meets Schreiber's journalist for an interview and the story is told mostly in flashbacks.
At first, Nair wanted Schreiber to play Ahmed's cunning boss (ultimately played by Kiefer Sutherland). Yet as someone who has lived in the region and respects Muslim culture, Schreiber ''felt the journalist was the only opportunity in the film to have an American character of conscience and it was very important that someone represent that''.
What comes as a surprise is that Naomi's brainy beau should portray a brash Aussie, a shark hunter called Trevor Blundell, in P.J. Hogan's Mental, the director's most over-the-top movie since Muriel's Wedding.
''I don't know what P.J. was thinking,'' Schreiber says. ''He has all these wonderful Australian actors and then he gives the most Australian role to a New York Jew!
''I am very good with dialects, but the two that I can't do for some reason are the South African and Australian. I guess P.J. assumed that because I am with Naomi I could do it. It was … really fun and scared the piss out of me. I've never been so nervous in my life than on my first day on set surrounded by that Aussie crew, speaking my first words of Australian.''
Schreiber bonded with his colleagues over sport: ''I am a surfer and there were a lot of surfers on the crew, so these guys took me in and helped me a lot. I'm actually a very bad surfer, which is good because everybody likes a bad surfer. Nobody likes a good surfer.''
An actor with a powerful presence, Schreiber, most famous for co-starring alongside Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and who won a Tony on Broadway for Glengarry Glen Ross, is a big softie. But when he first got together with Watts, emotions got the better of him when dealing with the paparazzi.
''I didn't behave well in the beginning,'' he says. ''Naomi kind of taught me how to behave.''
So what was the secret? ''Don't hit people; don't let it get you too angry; remember that everything you do can and will be used against you. And take a breath and have some perspective.
''I am actually better with it than she is now. She gets angry too fast and I am the one who is calm.''
Maybe he just has to watch what he's saying? ''I know, I never do, that's the problem. Naomi will give me a whole lecture about this interview.''
Mental is out on October 4.