Corpses even fake ones give Liev Schreiber the creeps. Here on the Burbank set of CSI, the stage and film actor should be rehearsing his next scene as a visiting crime-scene investigator, but he can't bear to paw the grotesque replica of a fatal burn victim. ''I'd rather not look at cadavers more than I have to,'' admits the 6-foot-3 Schreiber. ''They invited me to [a real] morgue when I got here, and I said no. It feels wrong. Which means I'd make a lousy CSI.''
Perhaps, but the New Yorker is bringing his Shakespearean training to bear on TV's most popular drama and don't call it slumming. ''CSI is the top of the food chain!'' says Schreiber of his first series. ''This is something that people are really interested in. I grew up in this artsy-fartsy house, but my mom always had the sense to remind me to never underestimate the collective consciousness.''
Currently starring in The Painted Veil with girlfriend Naomi Watts, Schreiber, 39, was approached by CSI's producers to temporarily fill William Petersen's chief-investigator shoes (the series lead was performing in the play Dublin Carol in Providence; his character, Gil Grissom, is on a four-week teaching sabbatical). Schreiber had just enough time between playing a womanizer in the upcoming Love in the Time of Cholera (an adaptation of Gabriel García Márquez's 1985 Mexican love story) and starring on Broadway next month in Talk Radio to shoot four episodes of CSI, which air starting Jan. 18. But unlike most TV guest stars, Schreiber who made his writing and directing debut with 2005's Everything Is Illuminated would take the role only if he had a say in the story line.
''It's something we hadn't tried before, but we wanted to make the creative process as exciting for him as possible,'' says exec producer Naren Shankar, who had envisioned a ''tragic'' arc for Schreiber's character, Michael Keppler, a brooding, buttoned-up investigator from Trenton, N.J. The actor suggested another tack. ''I thought it would be nice to play a redemptive character, because I've played so many who aren't,'' he explains, referring to his many dastardly roles, from Macbeth to The Manchurian Candidate's brainwashed Raymond Shaw. Unfortunately, he won't spill details about Keppler other than to say he's got a lot of baggage and is a magnet for corpses. ''Oh, let's see!'' Schreiber chimes. ''I've found three transient girls dead, a burnt ex-con in a welding shop, a dead politician shot in the car, and lots of dead hookers.''
Born in San Francisco to theater actor Tell Schreiber and painter Heather (they divorced by the time he entered kindergarten), Liev or ''Huggy,'' as his parents reportedly call him bounced to Canada and then NYC, where he and his mom squatted briefly in an apartment building while she drove a cab. Luckily, his father financed much of his education and the avowed Charlie Chaplin fan studied drama at Yale and England's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. There, he mastered fencing and prepared for a career on and off Broadway, where he earned a 2005 Tony for David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. On screen, Schreiber's noble presence has lent integrity to cheesy movies like Kate & Leopold and Sphere, and to the many docs he has narrated, including Chicago 10, about the 1968 Democratic Convention, premiering at this month's Sundance Film Festival. But Schreiber is best known for such indie gems as Walking and Talking, The Daytrippers, and Big Night. ''When I got out of school, I never imagined I would have the kind of opportunities I've had,'' he says. ''I was convinced that at best, I was going to be a spear carrier in Shakespeare plays for 300 bucks a week.''
The charmed run extends to his personal life, in which he enjoys a refreshingly scandal-free relationship with Watts, 38, whom he met at a Metropolitan Museum ball nearly two years ago. Ask about their relationship, though, and they keep it strictly professional. ''He is writing and directing now, so his creative mind stops at nothing,'' says Watts. ''His dedication to the theater is really something. He will always be connected to the theater probably more than anything.'' Schreiber, who is at work on a screenplay but won't reveal details, happily returns the props: ''I would love to see Naomi on stage. She's got crazy skills.''
Back on set, Schreiber admits it's not just crispy dummies that trip him up. ''Those latex gloves are like a nightmare for me to get on my hands!'' confesses Schreiber, who's open to doing more episodes. ''One thing I've learned quickly is to study your prop carefully, because that's 50 percent of my job right there. So I have to practice at home.'' Cadavers not included.