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Pablo Schreiber Defends His Character’s Character on Lights Out

Aptly enough, Pablo Schreiber, 32, half-brother of Liev, finds himself starring in a couple of projects centered on competitive relationships involving body blows: as Johnny Leary in the FX drama Lights Out, the younger brother and manager of Patrick “Lights” Leary, and a hilariously self-destructive suitor in Rajiv Joseph’s tragicomic two-hander Gruesome Playground Injuries at Second Stage Theatre. As Lights Out's hyped-up Johnny, you can't keep your eyes off him (or his butt, as the case may be; he has one doozy of a sex scene on a copy machine). We spoke to Schreiber about pulling punches, taking licks, and saving the romantic comedy from boredom.

Can you give us a little insight into your character, Johnny, on Lights Out?
We’ll find out that he was also a boxer who sustained a torn retina while qualifying for the Olympic trials. In fact, the dad [Stacy Keach] thought was going to be the next great heavyweight, because he had the reach and the size; it just turned out that Lights had the heart.

I get the sense that Johnny may be dad’s favorite …
I think Johnny's relationship with his brother is so heavily colored by the jealousy and regret that Johnny has towards the success and the opportunities that Lights was afforded. At the same time, at one point in his life, Patrick stood up for Johnny, picked him up off his ass and gave him everything he now has. So, it’s a rich brew.

Johnny is not the most scrupulous guy in the world.
What’s scrupulous? I’ve been hearing all this stuff about him kind of being the villain of the show, but these are tough times. Their family literally has no money, and he’s doing the best he can under some pretty difficult circumstances. Maybe Johnny’s moral compass is a little looser than most, but as he says later in the season, "That’s boxing, man." He’s not the first to do that.

I get the sense that he’s the one who has to be practical because Patrick is, maybe, too much of a boy scout.
Yeah. It’s really important that you see that, because the money problems are not Johnny’s fault, at least not solely. And now that Lights is no longer a commodity in terms of being a spokesman, there’s really nothing coming in.

Gruesome Playground Injuries is a whole other world. You're a nice guy who is trying to protect his damaged best friend and secret love, played by Jennifer Carpenter — essentially by doing himself bodily harm.
That’s how he gets attention and how he fights for love. She has all these internal injuries and emotional damage, and the only way he feels he can show her that he understands her pain is by hurting himself.

I've never seen a show where the actors do nearly all the work in the scene changes. You both even change onstage.
Because the play is so much about the inability to connect and them missing each other, Rajiv wrote into the script that he wanted us to never leave stage; we should see the process of them taking care of each other, treating each other’s wounds. But that’s part of the reason I do theater; it’s almost as much of a workout or a test of endurance as it is a creative challenge.

Still, it must have pissed off the stagehands union.
We do have stagehands, they’re just backstage. Besides, I can’t feel too bad for them when it’s me that’s taking the brunt of the moving of the furniture.

You had a prominent role in the second season of The Wire, as tortured longshoreman Nick Sobotka. How important was that to your career?
To get that experience on what I consider to be the best TV show ever made was invaluable. People who are fans of the show tend to be very passionate about it, and a lot of those people are industry people, so there definitely was a huge cachet.

Funny, though, how so many people seem to have discovered the show after it ended. If it’d only had those kind of ratings when it aired …
It does seem like just in the last six months, or a year, there’s been a huge renaissance of people going back and watching it.

So you've got this Off Broadway play and a TV series — all you're missing is a movie. But not for long: You're in the indie film Happythankyoumoreplease, out March 4. What’s that about?
It’s written by Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother), and it stars Zoe Kazan, who plays my girlfriend. It’s a feel-good movie, but legitimately so, where you come out of the theater and you find yourself looking for love in everything. A lot of things that call themselves feel-good movies have the opposite effect — you know, in terms of boredom.

Photo: Patrick McMullan