Stuffing his hulking 6'5" frame into a chair in the lobby bar of Manhattan’s Ace hotel, Pablo Schreiber
requests a Balvenie neat and begins talking about the great outdoors. The British Columbia native (“Canadian rocky Mountains,” he specifies) spends a lot of time communing with nature, building chicken coops at his home in upstate New York and parking pop-up campers in the hills of Ojai, California. The conversation grinds to an awkward halt, however, when I mention that I’ve always wanted to take up whittling. “Whittling?” he asks with mock incredulity. “Let’s at least call it carving.”
Schreiber’s easygoing attitude tends to shock people who conflate him with the characters he plays—recently a bunch of, well, Grade A jackasses. “Thank you for saying ‘recently,’” he jokes. “It kind of makes me angry that every person in the world is like, ‘Oh, you’re the bad guy!’” He takes a calming sip of scotch. “Did I just turn red and start spitting?”
In truth, Schreiber’s career, like any good actor’s, has plotted many points on the morality continuum, from the hustling dockworker Nick Sobotka on HBO’s The Wire
to Charlie, the dutiful father-to-be in the indie hit Happythankyoumoreplease
. But random New Yorkers still give him the stink-eye for playing William Lewis, the sadistic criminal who tortured Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) on Law & Order: SVU
. “You don’t fuck with Benson,” he reasons. “She’s kind of a New York institution. I learned that the first time I took her on a three-day raping spree.”
And then there’s George “Pornstache” Mendez, Schreiber’s ruthless prison guard on Netflix’s hit series Orange Is the New Black
, which recently returned for a second season. Pornstache’s drug smuggling, inmate harassment, misogyny, and general crudeness (sample dialog: “Thanks to this missed opportunity for cradle death, you’re here with me and all these other shit-birds.”) has made him the character everyone loves to loathe.
“My agents actually put me up for Jason Biggs’s role, but a friend on the writing staff told me I should ask about Pornstache because they were writing a bunch of great stuff for him,” remembers Schreiber. “When I read the pilot, he had one scene. Normally, that wouldn’t be something I’d pursue, but since I had inside intel....” He laughs and continues: “I was very happy to have friends in high places.”
The trademark facial hair is fake, by the way, and has evolved over time. “When I got cast, I had a mustache fitting, just to see how it would look. In the first episode it’s kind of like a walrus’. But it became a lot subtler,” he says. “I wasn’t privy to the conversations—all I knew is every day I’d show up and my mustache would be a little smaller.”
Late this summer, he’ll head to Los Angeles to film The Brink
, an HBO black comedy about impending geopolitical crises, also starring Jack Black and Tim Robbins. Schreiber plays a fighter pilot on a mission to bomb Pakistan. Each season will follow the characters in different end-of-the-world scenarios, as if anyone doubted his inextricable connection to chaos and destruction.
Today, though, he’s heading back up to the Catskills, far away from the turmoil, to continue his “intimate relationship” with nature. “And that doesn’t involve whittling!” he says, snickering at his own callback joke before dropping his head contritely. “I’m being a bit of an asshole.”
-words by David Walters
-photographed by Beth Garrabrant