After the handlebar mustache, the most immediately memorable aspect of Ross "The Boss" Rhea in the new movie "Goon" is his voice: The deliberate, rumbling cadence of a take-no-crap hockey brawler from Newfoundland, emanating from an occasional sly grin.
It's the voice adopted by Liev Schreiber, who plays Rhea and provides the film with an idol and inevitable antagonist for Seann William Scott's Doug Glatt. His gravitas balances out the cruder (and hilarious) aspects of the script by Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg, which chronicles the rise of a hockey enforcer from bar bouncer to minor league player.
This isn't the first time Liev Schreiber's voice has elevated a hockey production: His voiceover work for HBO Sports on projects like "Broad Street Bullies" and "24/7" is as vital to their success as any visual element or editing.
Schreiber, a New York Rangers fan, spoke with us on Friday about making "Goon", his inspirations for the role and the politics of hockey fighting. Enjoy!
Q. You were a hockey fan before this film, but the producers had you learn how to play hockey for "Goon." How did learning hockey inform your fandom?
SCHREIBER: Until you've been on the ice and played the game, I don't think you can really comprehend why people go so crazy for it, although there are probably millions and millions of hockey fans that have never laced up skates in their lives.
There's a very particular joy that comes from moving around the ice that quickly and playing the game. It's a really special feeling.
You watch a hockey game, and the hand-eye coordination and the speed is really miraculous; how those guys track the puck alone, just following it with their eyes. They're thinking 30 seconds ahead of every play, knowing where other players are going to be. It amazes me.
Which NHL players inspired your character and performance in the film?
I watched a lot of film, talked with a lot of guys about the game. Guys who caught my attention were guys like Dave Schultz, Brashear, Laraque. But I got the most out of watching and reading Bob Probert's book. He wasn't a guy the character was really based on, but was certainly on my mind while I was playing the part.
There's an aspect of world weariness to Rhea about being the heavyweight champ that was shared by Probert during his NHL career.
Absolutely. I don't it was just that. I think it was also the fact that Probert was a great hockey player, overall. Because he had a big boulder on his back, he was only perceived as an enforcer. But this was a guy who, until the very end of his career, was constantly evolving his game. I think that was an issue for his own life.
There is one other clue that it was Probie that I was after: The taped wrists. He used to always tape his wrists. I guess I was going to the really obscure hockey fans on that one.
Well, that's one of the joys of the flick. There are so many Easter eggs and little touches that speak to hockey fans through the movie.
I thought there were so many elements that were so realistic, and the choices that they made that weren't so realistic were just to promote the comedy, and I thought they worked too. Like the fact that Doug could make it as far as he did in the minor leagues without being able to skate is just hilarious to me.
The facial hair that your character wore; where did that come from?
It seemed pretty important to the narrative that there was a sense that the new guard was taking over from the old guard. Having narrated "The Broad Street Bullies" on HBO, that was certainly on my mind. Dave Schultz in particular. I wanted some of the older hockey fans to feel like they were being represented.
And I also liked that caveman element about it. There was definitely something passé about the mullet and the handlebar mustache.
The scene with you and Seann in the restaurant was like a hockey-centric version of Pacino/DeNiro in "Heat." I also think it presented an idea — that the crowds and media just want you to bleed — that can be applied to other occupations. Do you see any correlation between actors and hockey enforcers?
Absolutely. There are definitely parallels for me as an aging actor that were useful to me playing an aging hockey player. But I think the bigger, more impactful point of that scene for me — and because I had Probert on my mind when we were shooting this — was that his younger player was saying this very redemptive thing to this older player. That you're not just a goon, you're not just an enforcer, you're a hockey player. For all that you've given to the game, that's what you get back — your passion for the game. And that's why you do it.
I thought that was such a smart element for Jay to include because the events of the last couple of years have not been kind to the game.
The film does come from a very specific point of view, sympathetic to hockey enforcers but supportive of hockey fighting. It seemed like a brave choice given that climate in the NHL when it comes to player safety and fighting's future.
Ironically, none of that stuff was in the media when we were making this film, but what Jay and Mike have created is a great response to it. That at the end of the day, it's about the character it takes to play this game and the contributions that these guys have made to the game.
If we're talking about those deaths last summer, those deaths were due to — from what I gathered — depression and abuse of pain medication. What "Goon" leaves me with is a very redemptive message about the players and the celebration of their contribution to the game.
I think it's something that might have cheered a couple of those guys up.
What's more challenging: Fighting Stifler at center ice or fighting Wolverine in a barn? (Schreiber played Sabretooth in "Wolverine.")
[Laughs] I've actually had some time to think about this question. As challenging as it was to fight Seann William Scott, [and] ice is the key part of that, there was a lot of wire work in that "Wolverine" fight and we rehearsed it for about two months. I'm afraid Wolverine wins this one.
Special effects? So you weren't really on top of a nuclear reactor fighting Deadpool at the end of the film?
Jay Baruchel said your voice-over work on HBO is as much as performance as anything you do on-screen. What's your approach to doing something like 24/7?
I have to give all credit to a guy named Aaron Cohen, who's the head writer for most of the HBO Sports shows and wrote those "24/7" pieces. The reality is that I go in there, I read the script and then I go home. The work that the producers and Aaron do to make that language sync and sing with the images is incredible. They have a four-day turnaround.