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Hitting It Hard

Liev Schreiber’s tough portrayal of Ray Donovan is winning high critical praise and lifting the actor to new heights

The question is a simple one: What character traits does Liev Schreiber share with Ray Donovan, the eponymous central character of Schreiber’s critically lauded series on Showtime? Schreiber’s eyes widen, then narrow; he barely hesitates before answering. “None,” he says. “Not one blood cell. Not one wayward strand of DNA.” He pauses, smiles, then says, “I love Ray, but I wouldn’t want to be him for very long.” The question is flipped: In what way is Ray Donovan like Liev Schreiber? Schreiber lets the smile soften. “He borrows all the best stuff from me, all his best bits,” Schreiber says.
“The rest—well, there’s some ugly stuff. But beneath all the crap is a strong moral epicenter. He loves his kids more than life—he loves his family. And he’s very loyal. His loyalty is his thing. But when it comes to drawing the line—well, which line? That’s probably why he’s so successful at what he does: He’s good at moving the lines.”
Which may be why “Ray Donovan” has earned comparisons to everything from “The Sopranos” to “Breaking Bad.” Donovan, the “fixer” for a high-powered Hollywood law firm, is good at his job. But his job often blurs the boundaries between the legal and illegal, not to mention between what most people consider morally acceptable and downright reprehensible.
Ray Donovan knows where the bodies are buried, because he’s buried a few of them himself. But, like characters from Don Draper on “Mad Men” to Nicholas Brody on “Homeland,” Donovan seduces the viewer because he can be charming, ingratiating, even heroic—when he isn’t being frighteningly brutal.
It’s one of the reasons Schreiber took the role. Though he’d done a brief arc on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” in 2007, Schreiber didn’t have an interest in a long-term commitment to a TV series. What changed his mind?
“I read the script,” he says simply. “I was not interested in television. And I was less interested in a TV show that was shot in L.A., because I’m a New Yorker. There are so many other things I want to do. I’m involved in this little marketing agency with some friends. There are my children and the theater. That’s all difficult to do on a TV production schedule.
“But it was a really good script; there was no way around that. After I met (the show’s creator) Ann Biderman, I realized it was a pretty spectacular opportunity to collaborate with someone in a really neat way.”
“The minute his name came up, I wanted passionately for him to do it,” says Biderman, one of the show’s executive producers. “I knew how good he was. He’s an amazing actor with real humor and delicacy. Liev is virtuosic. This is a complicated character; if he were just a brute—if he were just a guy who runs people over and hits people with a baseball bat —he’d be tiresome. But he also takes care of his brothers; he’s a man with his own secrets and dysfunctions. So he is who he is.
“There are moments in every episode where I’m continually reminded how good he is. I watch those and I think, gee, how lucky we are to have him in this role.”
Adds Bryan Zuriff, another of the show’s executive producers, “What surprised me was his ability to act so beautifully when he’s got nothing to say. That’s one of the hardest things to do as an actor. But he feels comfortable when he’s not speaking.”
Biderman pointed to one episode in which, among other things, Ray spent the day commemorating his dead sister’s birthday with his siblings. The day also included Ray manhandling a landlord with a Taser to get a refund for his brother—and ended with Ray lying on his teenage daughter’s bed with her, singing her a Cat Stevens song they’d shared when she was little.
“I found that episode staggering,” Biderman says. “When I saw it, I thought, ‘Holy shit—what can’t he do?’ ”
In its first season, “Ray Donovan” was a rollercoaster ride that centered on Schreiber’s Donovan, a transplant from South Boston to L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. Ray’s specialty is extricating famous clients from sticky situations, whether it’s an unexpected dead body in a hotel-room bed or a set of embarrassing photos of a macho action star with a transgender woman in Las Vegas. He’s got two tough operatives, and a network of contacts who owe him favors, from the Los Angeles Police Department to the FBI.
But even as he exerts a certain thuggish control in his professional life, Ray also has to scramble to deal with his personal world. That includes a wife (Paula Malcomson) and two kids who want an emotional honesty Ray is hard-pressed to provide and the two brothers he feels responsible for: Terry (Eddie Marsan), who runs a boxing gym and trains fighters, but is dealing with the onset of Parkinson’s disease; and Bunchy (Dash Mihok), a man-child still coping with the effects of being sexually abused by the parish priest when he was a child.
Ray thinks he’s got it all under control until the sudden reappearance of their father, Mickey (Jon Voight), who shows up in Los Angeles after being released early from a Massachusetts prison where he’d done 20 years for murder.
(SPOILER ALERT) Mickey has his own agenda because Ray had framed him for that murder, to save the career of a rising movie star (and childhood friend of Ray), who accidentally shot a girl. Mickey has been released early because he’s been a rat for the FBI in prison and his next target is the movie star, as well as Ray and Ray’s boss, Ezra Goldman (Elliott Gould), who set him up for his prison stint. Ray has his own issues with Mickey, including the fact that Mickey had a black mistress while Ray’s mother was dying of cancer and all but abandoned Ray and his brothers. So Ray tries to send Mickey back to prison—and when that fails, he arranges to have Mickey killed, a plan that goes disastrously wrong. (END SPOILER ALERT)
“Ezra saw this tremendous potential in Ray and fostered that because Ray demonstrated his coolness in a very sticky situation, which is what Ray does,” Schreiber says. “He’s able to keep his wits about him, which is obviously something Ezra saw as a real asset in Hollywood.
“But there’s also a rage functioning in Ray that allows him to do some of the things that not just anybody would do. In some ways, he’s uniquely suited to this work. But he holds a lot in and that’s dangerous—not just to himself but to the people around him. That’s dangerous to anyone; you have to find ways to purge that stuff.”
Schreiber took his role as the star of the series seriously, Zuriff says: “He was an incredible leader for the troupe. Whether you were a day player or a guest star, you had to bring your ‘A’ game. Everybody came prepared. There was no slacking off because Liev never did. He was like a great general.”
Eddie Marsan, a busy British actor who was nervous about committing to an American series before he met Schreiber, seconds that thought.
“Liev is a theater animal and understands the responsibility of being a company leader,” Marsan says. “As soon as we were all on board, I got an e-mail from him, with information and things to help me. I was terrified of doing it but Liev made me feel very comfortable. Even if I was only struggling with domestic things like schools for my kids or places to live in L.A., he was there to help me. He’d send me loads of files on the Boston accent, or help me through if I was struggling with the voice.
“Some actors, if they’re the lead, feel they have to take over every scene. But Liev doesn’t do that—especially in the scenes with him and Dash and me, the three brothers. He was the leader but he always approached it as an ensemble piece.”
His band-of-brothers ethos included taking Marsan and Mihok out for regular nights at a boxing gym during the series’ production: “We did a lot of boxing training,” Marsan says. “Liev organized that. We all worked together. We’d have evenings when we just skipped rope and punched the bag. But we did it together.”
On the other hand, because of the tension between Ray and his father, Schreiber tended to keep his distance on the set from Jon Voight, Voight recalls.
“We were playful and respectful but we kind of stayed away from each other,” the Oscar-winning Voight says. “We didn’t want to dissipate the energy that was happening, so we tried not to be too chummy around the set. When these two characters come together, there’s always a lot in the balance, a lot of energy. I don’t know how I’m going to respond to him in a scene sometimes and Liev is the same way. We were both very invested in the characters, very fierce about them. Once we were into the scene, we’d refine our ideas. But there was always something of the moment when we would get together.
“Working with him is like playing at center court at Wimbledon. It’s great to hit the ball hard. And it’s great to have it come back just as hard, and with spin. It’s a lot of fun.”
“Ray Donovan” has given Schreiber the kind of visibility reserved for leading men. It’s a new position for him; though he’s played large roles in films as diverse as Defiance, The Manchurian Candidate and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, his characters seldom are at the center of the story.
“I made a career out of being a supporting actor,” he says. “I enjoy the process of understanding a script, breaking it down, figuring out where my part fits in. When I was at Yale, Lloyd Richards (the late head of the Yale School of Drama) used to say that you are the instrument through which the playwright articulates the narrative. If you’re a supporting character, it’s more clearly defined what your role is. You can look at the script and say, ‘This piece of the puzzle accomplishes this in the scene.’ But when you’re the lead, so much of the film seems to be about the charisma of the character—instead of the narrative—that it’s as if you’re saying, ‘You are the scene.’ The reality is, the lead should be doing the exact same thing: asking how do I articulate the narrative.
“I’ve taken satisfaction from doing my part. I never had any huge feeling about playing a lead or being a leader. This job has tested those instincts and I’ve enjoyed being challenged.”
Still, Schreiber has been a leading man on Broadway for a decade, earning a Tony Award (and two more nominations), while winning a pair of Drama Desk awards. He’s also played a wide range of Shakespeare’s most iconic characters—Hamlet, Macbeth, Iago, King Henry V—at New York’s Public Theater and its Shakespeare in the Park offshoot: “He’s the greatest American Shakespearean actor of his generation,” Marsan says.
So where’s the disconnect between theater and film when it comes to seeing him as someone around whom you can build a story? Gregory Mosher, who directed Schreiber to a Tony nomination in the 2010 Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, says in an e-mail interview that movies have changed, seeking pretty faces instead of solid actors.
“If Hollywood were making the films it used to make, you could easily imagine Liev in leading roles,” Mosher says, “roles that were played by William Holden, Kirk Douglas, George C. Scott, Gene Hackman and other great actors. You can’t picture any of those guys in this summer’s movies—and the studios aren’t making films like Network, Paths of Glory, The Hustler or The French Connection anymore.”
Adds Biderman, “You think of the days of the 1970s and actors like Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino. Those days are over. Now we have all these vague pretty boys who all look alike. But Liev is a throwback to a different kind of masculinity. I think he’s very sexy and beautiful, though he’s not classically handsome. But thanks to this amazing renaissance in television, well, it’s allowed people like Bryan Cranston and James Gandolfini and Liev, who don’t fit 100 percent into the leading-man box for movies — it’s allowed them to do amazing work in a way that allows them to be leading men.”
Schreiber, chatting in a Mexican restaurant in East Hampton, Long Island, on a rainy August afternoon, seems bemused by the idea of “movie stars” in general and chuckles at the notion that he might actually be one.
“I’m flattered but that seems like a bit of a stretch,” he says. “When I hear that term, I think about people like Johnny Depp or Angelina Jolie. Actually, I think of people like Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant. Those people didn’t do anything except star in movies. I mean, I act, I’m a parent, I’m an entrepreneur. I don’t know if you have anyone anymore who is exclusively a movie star.”
Schreiber is in the Hamptons for the summer with longtime partner Naomi Watts and their two children, Alexander, 6, and Samuel, who will be 5 in December. The pair met in 2005, though they have yet to marry: “To me, we’re married, though I guess that, legally, we’re a domestic partnership,” he says. “I’m just happy we’re a great couple.”
He hoped to dedicate his summer to relaxing with his family: “I’m trying to avoid everything, while I can,” he says, happily. “I just want to spend some time with the boys.” But he hasn’t been inactive; he’s been back and forth to Manhattan to work with friend Scott Carlson on a marketing firm they’ve created called Van’s General Store.
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