Liev Schreiber’s family ties to Ukraine push him to help its people

Long before Ray Donovan, Victor Creed or Richard Roma, the main character in Liev Schreiber’s life was Alex Milgram.

“He became like a superhero to me,” Schreiber tells NPR’s All Things Considered.

The actor, who counts those roles among his long list of credits, shares a deep connection with Milgram, his maternal grandfather and a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant to the U.S. Following Schreiber’s parents divorce in 1972, Milgram was the one who raised him in many respects.

“He was the kind of guy that would slap me in the back of the head if I didn’t open a door for somebody,” he says. “Not hard, but hard enough.”

Despite their emotional bond, Schreiber didn’t feel like he knew his grandfather’s history well. Milgram wasn’t someone who liked to share a lot of details about himself.

After Milgram died in 1993, Schreiber says he had a “powerful emotional feeling about him … that I hadn’t bothered to get to know him. It was something that really motivated and inspired a lot of the work I did from that time forward.”

He has since explored that side of his heritage — including with his directorial debut, the 2005 film Everything Is Illuminated, an adaptation of a story about an American Jewish man who goes to Ukraine looking for the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Holocaust.

And now, Schreiber finds himself focused on Ukraine again, this time for a humanitarian cause after Russia’s invasion of his grandfather’s country.

In March, Schreiber co-founded BlueCheck Ukraine, a network that identifies, vets and funds grassroots organizations providing assistance for Ukrainians. He talked with NPR’s Michel Martin about the group’s work.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On how BlueCheck Ukraine came to be

I can’t think of the word right now, but it didn’t feel good to not do anything. [Then] some friends called me and asked me if I was interested in doing something. We came up with an idea that if we could identify and fast track financial support to groups that were on the ground or even preferably Ukrainian, that would be a real service not only to Ukrainian nationals, but [also] to this huge groundswell of Americans and people all around the world that want to support them.

On the kinds of organizations that BlueCheck Ukraine is supporting

We’re working with a group called Kidsave, which is actually an American charity, but they’ve got boots on the ground in Ukraine. And we met a guy named Pavlo Shulha and his wife, Olena, who with their friends put together this network of taxis and cars and drivers. They were assigned by Kidsave to evacuate 117 registered orphans. Since he was contracted, he’s rescued well over 10,000 displaced women and children. And you can just see that him and his crew, it’s their country, it’s their family, it’s their people, it’s what they do. So they’re the best suited to do this work.

What we’re trying to do with BlueCheck is give as high a percentage as we possibly can. Right now, it’s 100%. We have no administrative costs. How long we can sustain that, we’ll see, but what we’re able to do right now is get 100% of the money you give to Pavlo and his wife.

On his plans to continue helping Ukrainians

The families, the women carrying suitcases behind them and heading to the border with their children, while their men go off to the front lines to fight a battle in which they’re hugely outgunned and outnumbered — that is the big image in my mind.

The challenge for me is sustainability: like keeping everyone interested, keeping this in the headlines, keeping people aware of what’s going on. Because I do believe they’re going to win, but they need support, they need our help.

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Transcript :

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, Liev Schreiber is an award-winning actor, screenwriter and director. You may know him for roles in projects like “Spotlight” and “Ray Donovan,” but today we’re talking with him about a real-life story, one that’s very close to his heart and history. Last month, he spent time in Poland and Ukraine serving food to refugees along the border. And now he’s co-founded a group called BlueCheck Ukraine, which identifies, vets and funds local organizations providing assistance in Ukraine. Earlier this week, we spoke with Schreiber during his visit to Washington, D.C., where he co-hosted a fundraiser to support his organization.

Liev Schreiber, so great to be with you. Thank you for joining us.

LIEV SCHREIBER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Let’s get to your why. Your maternal grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine. I understand…

SCHREIBER: And Poland.

MARTIN: And Poland. So I understand that he played an important role in your life. Would you just tell us a little bit about him?

SCHREIBER: My mother and father separated when I was very young. And so in many respects, Alex, my grandfather, my maternal grandfather, raised me in New York City. And he was a huge influence on me. And he died right after I got out of graduate school. And I had this kind of powerful, emotional feeling about him when he died that I hadn’t bothered to get to know him. And it was something that really motivated and inspired a lot of the work I did from that time forward.

MARTIN: He never talked about…

SCHREIBER: Never. No. Sometimes…

MARTIN: That’s typical of that generation, isn’t it?

SCHREIBER: Yeah. Sometimes when he would get drunk, he would speak in, like, Yiddish or a little bit of what I assumed was Ukrainian or Russian, but never wanted to talk about it. He was just – he wasn’t a big man. He was a – he played football, and he was a hockey player. And there were all these things that people said Jews didn’t do that my grandfather did that I loved. He was the kind of guy that would slap me in the back of the head if I didn’t open a door for somebody – not hard, but hard enough. And so that sadness hit me hard when he died. That part of my life was gone. And I think it motivated a lot of the choices that I made.

MARTIN: You never got a chance to dig into his history, though, while he was still alive. You got his kind of emotional support and imprint, but you never got to really dig into his history. So would it be fair to say that you’re kind of exploring that history came later through your work?

SCHREIBER: I started back then. Right after he died, I wrote a script about a young American who goes to Ukraine to explore his heritage. Didn’t turn out so good, so I borrowed Jonathan Safran Foer’s book instead, and I made “Everything Is Illuminated.”

MARTIN: Well, yeah. That was your directorial debut, the film adaptation of “Everything Is Illuminated.” It’s about a young American Jew who goes to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather during the Holocaust. I forget if any of it was shot on location, but…

SCHREIBER: I’m not supposed to admit this, but we stole a bunch of footage when we – I went to Kyiv and Odessa. And at one point, I had this really great tour guide who was pretty good with a camera. And we shot a bunch of stuff out of the window of a van that’s in the movie.

MARTIN: So what motivated you to co-found the organization BlueCheck Ukraine? What’s the idea behind it?

SCHREIBER: I spent a lot of time on my couch looking at these kind of hulking, middle-aged, balding men with cigarettes and Kalashnikovs and thinking, wow, is that really – it felt familiar. It made me feel like I was related. It made me feel like I wasn’t doing anything. It made me feel like I should do something. By the way, my kids were on the couch watching, too, and it didn’t feel good to not do anything. And some friends called me and asked me if I was interested in doing something. And we came up with an idea that if we could identify, vet and fast-track financial support to groups that were on the ground, or even preferably Ukrainian, that would be a real service not only to Ukrainian nationals, but to this, like, huge groundswell of Americans and people all around the world that want to support them.

MARTIN: Why is vetting important?

SCHREIBER: Vetting is important so that people know that the money that they’re giving goes where we say it’s going and that we’re being effective. You know, there’s a lot of really, really incredible people who want to help.

MARTIN: So what are some of the organizations that you’re supporting?

SCHREIBER: We’re working with a group called KidSafe, which is actually an American charity, but they’ve got boots on the ground in Ukraine. And we met a guy named Pavlo Schula (ph), who – and his wife Olena (ph), who, with their friends, put together this kind of network of taxis and cars and drivers. They were assigned by KidSafe to evacuate 117 KidSafe-registered orphans. This guy is so personally motivated. The time since he was contracted by KidSafe, he’s rescued well over 10,000 displaced women and children. And you can just see from the video that him and his crew, there – it’s their country. It’s their families. It’s their people. It’s what they do. So they’re the best suited to do this work.

MARTIN: One of the things that we’ve seen about this whole crisis is that it’s brought out things in people that they didn’t necessarily know was there. I mean, you know, we were in Romania and Moldova. And one of the things that was fascinating about it was how many – I would ask people, how did you know how to do this, like, setting up a warehouse? And they’d say, we didn’t. We didn’t know. We just did it. And I’m just wondering if – look, you’ve had a lot of life experiences. You’ve done a lot of things. But I’m wondering, what’s the image that you’re carrying with you right now from everything that you saw in the time that you were there?

SCHREIBER: It’s like you said, like how people respond in a situation. Who knew they knew how to do that? Who knew the Ukrainian people were so resilient and courageous? That’s the thing that’s stuck in my mind right now – the families, the women carrying, you know, those suitcases behind them and heading for the border with their children while their men go off to the front lines to fight a battle in which they’re hugely outgunned and outnumbered. I just – that is the big image in my mind and, I think, in everybody else’s. The challenge for me is, like, sustainability, like keeping everyone interested, you know, keeping this in the headlines, keeping people aware of what’s going on.

MARTIN: Do you feel like that could be your role now? I mean, because there is that concern that – you know, there’s a word for it. It’s compassion fatigue, that people get distracted or they just get tired of thinking about something, especially something sad, that they don’t feel has anything to do with them. And I wonder, what do you think your role should be or will be going forward?

SCHREIBER: I think if we can get the information – you know, a lot of people think I’m Ukrainian or think I have something to do with Ukraine because of my work, because of the films I made. And so they called me and said, what do I do? I said, I don’t know, you know, and I didn’t have a good answer. And now I have a better answer. You know what I mean? I did a little research because I felt bad, and now I have a better answer. And yeah, I’d love to do that job. I’d love to be able to say, I actually know exactly where your dollars can go, and I know the best person to spend them. P.S. They’re Ukrainian.

MARTIN: That’s the actor and director Liev Schreiber. He’s the co-founder of BlueCheck Ukraine. Liev Schreiber, thank you so much for spending this time with us.

SCHREIBER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.