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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
By Marshall Fine | From Liev Schreiber, November/December 2013
Hitting It Hard
Photo/Jim Wright

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.

“I was briefly a copywriter when I got out of school,” Schreiber says. “The idea of having something to turn to when I wasn’t acting is more and more appealing as I get older. Part of what we’re trying to do is help companies develop a narrative for their brand: What’s the story that separates you from the rest of the field? I’m interested in the way we sell brands, not just products. Developing their stories is fun; in a lot of ways, it’s like making movies.”

Carlson, the founder and executive creative director of the firm, says, “He’s been involved with everything and has a real gift for storytelling: what’s the story of the brand, how do you build the brand? He’s so multitalented that I think he’d get bored just doing one thing. He’s good at everything he touches.”

That includes making films: Schreiber wrote and directed the well-reviewed 2005 adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Everything Is Illuminated, which he shot in Prague and the Ukraine, as well as New York: “I like big challenges and that was a huge challenge for me,” Schreiber says. “I learned so much; I’d like to do it again and apply what I learned. There’s an ease that comes with experience that I wished I’d had and which I actually have now.”

The discussion turns to cigars, which Schreiber says he smokes “on a very rare occasion. I enjoy them after breathing canned air—they go well with diving and sunset.”

A long-time scuba diver, Schreiber admits to being a former cigarette smoker and thinks of cigars as “cigarettes on steroids.”
“There’s a richness to cigars—they go well with brandy because they complement each other, but that’s probably not a huge revelation to anyone,” he says. “I really enjoy that feeling of being inebriated with the smoke. It’s not often my thing but, if I’m in the right place and atmosphere, it can be nice—sitting on a beach with an old Scotch. Even then, I only make it through about 10 puffs because I can’t resist inhaling.”

He’s used cigars as a way into characters onstage and on film: “One time on stage, I played this fat-cat industrialist tycoon with cloven hooves and a cigar constantly dangling from his mouth,” he says. “There’s a certain wealthy, luxurious vibe that comes with a cigar. There’s something decadent that smoking a cigar passes on to a character, something relaxed and confident—or arrogant and brash. And there’s a difference in whether the cigar is lit or not. There’s something interesting about a character who hangs on to a cigar that’s not lit and doesn’t let it go.”

Even as “Ray Donovan” caused a summer sensation, Schreiber showed up briefly in two other projects at the same time: playing President Lyndon Johnson in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and a small role as a Russian underworld figure opposite Larry David in the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star’s TV movie, “Clear History.” His version of LBJ didn’t get a lot of screen time in The Butler but did have a memorable moment, barking orders at his staff while sitting on the toilet.

“Yeah, I heard that LBJ used to like to take people into the bathroom with him,” says Schreiber, who turns 46 in October. “Apparently he was well-endowed and, as a tactic of intimidation, he would take people into the john with him. I assume the same thing would be accomplished by taking a crap in front of them. I know I’d be intimidated by a large Texan taking a shit.”

He took the small role in HBO’s “Clear History” as a favor to the film’s director, Greg Mottola, who also directed the 1996 movie, The Daytrippers, which served as a breakout vehicle for Schreiber.

“Larry had never worked with him but knew of his work and couldn’t have been happier,” Mottola says. “Larry is notorious for cracking up during takes. And the two people who cracked him up the most were Liev and Philip Baker Hall. Larry couldn’t break their concentration, and then he’d crack up because they were so serious and deadpan.”

Casting Schreiber in that role fulfilled a longstanding urge of Mottola, who’s been friends with Schreiber for 20 years.
“I’ve been dying to get Liev into a comedy since Daytrippers,” he says. “People don’t know how funny he is. They don’t know his extreme silliness. He loves a good prank or juvenile joke.”

As an example, Mottola tells the story of a time he was riding in the back seat of a car being driven down a deserted Manhattan street by Schreiber. “But we’re in Midtown, right?” Mottola says. “Liev turns around and says, ‘In the Line of Fire’ (referring to the Clint Eastwood film about an aging Secret Service agent). Then, even though he’s the driver, he jumps out of the car and starts running along beside it. He’s got one hand on the fender, one hand to his ear like he’s a Secret Service agent—while the car is still moving! It came out of nowhere and he was totally deadpan. I was terrified and laughing at the same time. That’s his sense of humor.”

Notes Gregory Mosher, “It’s the actor’s curse, being cast in the same parts over and over. And it’s all the worse when the actor is skilled enough to make you believe it each time. The secret Liev weapon is how funny he is. I’d give anything to see him as Walter Burns in the greatest American comedy, The Front Page.”

Schreiber shrugs when asked about why he so seldom gets cast in comedic roles in film. Hollywood, he notes, is quick to pigeonhole people; with his sometimes brooding intensity and the fact that he’s played darker roles in so many films (from The Omen to Salt), he understands why casting directors see him that way. “It’s like that old joke: ‘You screw one goat...’ ” he says. “I know I come off a lot harsher and tougher than I am. I gather that. I think I realized it was a lucrative thing about 15 years ago with the Scream movies.”

Acting—and school, for that matter—were a salvation for Schreiber, who says, “I always assumed everybody’s childhood was as screwy as mine.

“I was always a scatter-brained kid—my brain was unfocused, hyperactive, all over the place,” he says. “So it helped to have focus. I was an uncomfortable and awkward kid in every situation except when I was onstage. It was sort of therapeutic for me to be onstage, speaking someone else’s words. It gave me focus and intention I don’t know that I had on my own. I enjoyed that feeling.

“I liked school; I liked boundaries, whether it was school or sports. Anything I could test myself against—school gave me intention and focus, which were important to me because my life had so little of that.”

After attending Hampshire College and doing a year abroad at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, he went to graduate school at Yale: “I thought I might apply as a playwright, but I ended up applying as an actor and being accepted,” he says. “In a classical program, you get to do plays that you wouldn’t get to do in the real world. Fortunately, I was wrong about that.”

His taste for Shakespeare started with his mother (“She had us reading it pretty early”) and continued with a teacher in high school who “fostered a love of classical language,” he says. His passion for the stage started at about the same time, playing Bottom in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at 16.

“I was making a complete ass of myself, doing the ‘I have had a dream’ speech. I remember them laughing really hard at this arcane, wonderful piece of prose,” he says.

He’s become a New York theater mainstay, whether taking on modern classics from David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (where he earned his Tony) to A View from the Bridge, or tackling Shakespeare for the Public Theater. It is a way to recharge his battery that no other kind of acting provides.

“Nothing compares to acting in front of an audience,” he says. “There’s no experience quite like it. I try to explain it to people and I can’t. You’ve got to experience it for yourself, it’s that remarkable. When you share the stage with great actors and develop a kind of kinetic relationship with the audience, there’s nothing like it.”

Actor Stanley Tucci, who’s known Schreiber since The Daytrippers, says, “Like any really good actor, he has a supreme presence, a power onstage—and that’s 90 percent of it. If you have that and you have the talent to go with it, then when you walk onstage, the audience doesn’t want to ever look away.”

Directing him for A View from the Bridge, Mosher says, was a revelation: “The character he played is a man destroyed by the secret he can’t acknowledge,” Mosher notes. “What was amazing in rehearsal was watching how deeply and specifically he buries this secret, both in his psyche and his body. The character is not a thinking guy, let alone an intellectual. Liev is super-smart—you can always see, in a good way, his brain working onstage. When those thoughts had to come out through the character’s limited vocabulary, it seemed bottled up, which was just the ticket.”

Schreiber relishes his time onstage and has plenty of ideas of what he’d like to do in the future.

“I’d love to do a new play but there are so many old plays I haven’t done yet, great plays I think every actor wants to try once in their life and which deserve to be produced,” he says. “Someone was talking to me recently about Of Mice and Men and that might be fun. I’ve been thinking about Coriolanus, maybe Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew. I’d like to play Richard III but I think I’m too big. (Schreiber is 6-foot-3.) I don’t think that works unless you’re diminutive.”

He had been trying to do a play on Broadway every year or so, but his TV commitment won’t permit it, at least for a while: “That would be very difficult with this new schedule. I don’t want to trade 14-hour days for eight shows a week. That would crush me and the kids.”

The second season of “Ray Donovan” starts filming in January 2014. When you play the title character on an hour-long TV series, Schreiber notes, each episode is “like doing a half a movie in eight days. If you’re the central character, you’re there from dusk until dawn. I was pretty exhausted by the end. I was led to believe it would be four months—like doing a couple of movies—and then I’d be done. But it was six months and it was a fairly intense experience—in a good way. That’s the thing about cable now. It draws some really great people.”

The first season wasn’t hard to negotiate because his kids were still too young for school, so they were able to travel with him.

“They’re young enough that they can handle it,” he says. “But as they get older, it becomes a question of how to split the school year. I’m a New Yorker and this show shoots in Los Angeles. “So I’m excited about this next season. But ask me again when we’re picked up for Season 4.”

Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website, Follow him on Twitter @hollywoodnfine.

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