“It was exhilaratingly humiliating,” he says during recent roundtable discussions in New York. “In thinking about it, there’s something about putting on women’s clothes that just makes men act like baby goats and they just go wild. It’s different for actors because they’re a little more sophisticated when it comes to dress-up. But for some strange reason, there’s a tremendous energy in putting on women’s clothing.”
While Taking Woodstock is based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, a guy who wrote extensively not only about his involvement with Woodstock but also about what it was like to be gay in New York in the ’60s, Vilma, the character Schreiber plays in the film, is a composite. A cross-dressing ex-Marine who’s served in Korea, he worked as a prostitute and has now become a muscle for the gay community. He shows up at Elliot’s Catskills’ motel and offers to act as his personal bodyguard. Described by Lee as “Elliot’s angel,” Vilma is a stabilizing force in the chaos that was Woodstock.
“Prior to the ’60s, guys would dress like their mothers or like famous Hollywood acts,” he says. “After the ’60s, particularly in the Haight in San Francisco, you had these drag queens doing more outrageous gender-bending stuff. They’d embrace their masculinity and dress in drag with beards or do the can-can without their underwear. They were developing a new gay culture that they then took on the streets. It was pretty bold stuff. You started to see guys doing this as a lifestyle. You saw these wonderful new characters developing.”
Schreiber tried to make Vilma a foreshadowing of that shift and made sure not to make Vilma into a joke. He quickly becomes someone in whom Elliot can confide and is one of the more developed characters in the entire film, which focuses more on the culture surrounding Woodstock than the concert itself.
“There is a risk of cliché and comedy in these types of characters, though a laugh never hurts,” Schreiber says. “[Theater director] Lloyd Richards once said to me that actors are the vehicles for plays. It’s an odd sentence, but if you apply in terms of technique and craft it makes sense because you’re promoting the essential theme of what the writer intended. In this situation if you go for too many laughs with Vilma, it becomes a shallow character. The primary function is to deliver a message of acceptance and diversity to the central character, who is Elliot Tiber.”
So how did the cast and crew perceived the burly actor? Did he turn any heads while dressed as a woman?
"Ang [Lee] said I had nice legs," Schreiber says. "It's simultaneously complimentary and insulting."