At first, Liev Schreiber was hesitant to lend his name to a brand of celebrity whiskey.
“It’s something that makes me incredibly self-conscious, selling things to people,” Schreiber, 56, said in a recent video interview. Still, it didn’t take long for him to come around to the idea of attaching himself to the Sláinte Irish whiskey brand.
That’s because Schreiber is the cofounder and a board member of BlueCheck Ukraine, an NGO helping to deliver aid to Ukrainians during the country’s war with Russia. After Sláinte cofounder Richard Davies donated a $350,000 cask of 18-year-old single malt whiskey to BlueCheck and agreed for the whiskey company to donate $1 for every bottle sold to the cause, Schreiber was in.
In a wide-ranging interview, Schreiber discussed his charity work, his emotional connection to drinking whiskey, and the time he got roasted for his South Boston accent.
As an actor who’s played a diverse collection of roles, I’m wondering if you had a preconceived notion of a whiskey pitchman, and how you think you’re doing at it.
“It makes me self-conscious. To be honest, even the BlueCheck work makes me self-conscious. The idea that my celebrity can do something beyond get me work in the entertainment industry has actually been kind of a comforting thought. It’s been really nice. On a personal note, just to be able to show my kids what’s happening in Ukraine, and to give them a sense of perspective, and what it means to have some compassion and have some sense of perspective on the world. And we can do our part.
I’d love to chat more about the whiskey as well, but can you give me a little background on how you got involved with BlueCheck Ukraine?
“I think the story that a lot of people tend to go to is that I have Ukrainian ancestry on my mother’s side, my mother’s paternal grandparents are both from Odessa, my grandfather as well. But that really wasn’t it. For me, it was more actually doing eight years of [”Ray Donovan”] and sitting on the couch with my kids and watching this war unfold and seeing guys who look like teachers, you know, not too dissimilar from me, sort of hugging their wives and children and getting on buses to be deployed in a ground war, which is something that in our time is just unthinkable. And also understanding a larger context of [Vladimir] Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine and for that matter, many regions in Eastern Europe, it’s something that affects us profoundly as Americans. And I think we’re so mired in our own issues here, and we’re so polarized that we don’t realize how important this is. And it’s something that, politics aside, it just seemed horrific that parents and children and husbands and wives were being separated. And the odds seemed completely unfair at that time. Of course, the Ukrainians have proved this wrong over the past year and few months. They’re incredibly strong, incredibly resilient, and I actually have no doubt that they’re gonna win. I think it’s just really a question at this point of: at what cost?”
Can you talk me through what work specifically Blue Check Ukraine is doing, and where donations are going?
“The big idea behind BlueCheck is that we believe in localization of aid. In other words, if a rocket hits your house, nine times out of 10 it’s your neighbor who’s gonna rush over and pull you out of your house and give you a place to stay. Not to cannibalize the large international NGOs, but the reality for them is because they have so much overhead, and often because of insurance reasons aren’t even able to operate in country, they end up contracting the same people that we go directly to. So when those people get a portion of your money, they get it often for a very long kind of holding period. What BlueCheck does is it gets the money directly to the local NGOs on the ground in Ukraine who are doing the work. And we do it very, very quickly.”
If I can shift us back to whiskey for a moment, do you have any formative drinking memories, whiskey or otherwise?
“Well the big story is, I didn’t grow up with my father. I grew up with a single mother, and my father came back into the picture in my life when I was 19, and I was in college, and he came to visit me at college and he brought a bottle of Irish whiskey. And the two of us proceeded to drink about two-thirds of the whiskey. And that was kind of a very emotional night and formative experience, both for me as a son, as a father, and as a whiskey drinker. And that association never left me. It’s just when I smell it, or I taste it, it has that warmth, it has those memories. And it has that association with family and, oddly enough, kind of sorrow, which my father was a very poetic kind of guy, so I have a feeling that was sort of intentional. He wanted to share that bottle with me and talk about how hard it was for him that he hadn’t been in my life. That’s the kind of thing that it’s hard to shake.
“I started out as a theater actor and I had this routine where before I would go on stage — because I had this relationship with my grandfather, I was very close to my grandfather. After my grandfather passed away, I had this routine in my warmup where I would have just a tiny sip of Irish whiskey before I went on stage. And it was a sort of story that my dad had told me about how the reason they called liquor spirits is because there was a spirit in the bottle, and then when you were drinking from the bottle, that spirit was possessing you. It was just a sort of odd thing that I used to do in my process to kind of be possessed by the spirit of the character or the spirit of the theater and what I was doing before I went on stage. Eventually, the whiskey got a little too strong so I switched it to wine, and then it became water. It was my idea of allowing something to enter me that filled me with a feeling.”
What do you remember about attending Hampshire College in Massachusetts?
“That’s where I learned my Southie accent, which I screwed up.”
How did you screw it up?
“I had it pretty good because one of my pals who I played basketball with was from Dorchester, so I learned it from him. And I could do a great impression of him and it was so much fun to talk like him. But I realized I made one really critical error in the first season [of ‘Ray Donovan’] — I do the dialect pretty well, but I messed up the name. If you’re from Southie it wouldn’t be ‘Dawn-o-van’ because that ‘o’ sound, ‘Dawn-o-van,’ if you’re from Southie you’d say ‘hawkey’ (for hockey) but you wouldn’t say ‘Dawn-o-van.’ If you’re Irish Southie you would say ‘Dun-o-van.’ So after we finished the first season of the show — and people were saying it was a hit ― I remember this one guy from South Boston wrote me on my social media account and he was like, ‘it’s ‘Dun-o-van’ [expletive].’” But we couldn’t actually go back, because at that point we had already been saying ‘Dawn-o-van’ for a year.”
Describe Sláinte Irish whiskey for us.
“I think in terms of the flavor points, there’s something about it. The warmth of it has always been really powerful for me. In our blend, I think there’s a kind of caramel, buttercream thing that I just love, not too sweet. That’s kind of where I like my Irish whiskies to live, beautifully. And it has a real soft feel. I don’t really like the cask strength stuff — you hit it, and suddenly you feel like you just drank jet fuel. This is a really mellow, sipping conversation drink. And that’s for me, that’s the feeling of Irish whiskey.”
Interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.