The next great cable anti-hero

Posted: June 27, 2013

* RAY DONOVAN. 10 p.m. Sunday, Showtime.

LIEV SCHREIBER isn't the obvious choice to play a quiet man. Strong, yes. Silent, not so much.

As a narrator, he's been heard everywhere from HBO's "Hard Knocks" to PBS' "The American Experience," supplying the voiceovers for documentaries on a dizzying array of topics.

As an actor, "a lot of the time I play characters, at least in the theater, and particularly in Shakespeare, who talk a lot, if not too much," said Schreiber, in a recent phone interview.

But the voice that an HBO Sports executive once singled out in a New York Times piece for its "distant passion, like your grandfather telling you stories," won't be getting as much of a workout in Schreiber's new Showtime series, "Ray Donovan," where he plays a Hollywood fixer with a complicated family life.

Because while there's no mistaking Ray's passion, distant or otherwise, he often doesn't have a whole lot to say.

"You noticed," Schreiber said, laughing.

"It was one of the things that intrigued me about the character when I first read the script," he said. "The opportunity to play a character who wasn't text-based was a really interesting challenge to me."

Plus, though he's been working in movies since the 1990s, "I think there was something about film acting that I felt I didn't know as much about, and I had some room to grow. And this felt like a good opportunity."

The Tony Soprano effect

Turning to television to learn more about film might have sounded odd once, but "Ray Donovan," which premieres Sunday after the return of "Dexter," is the latest in a line of cable dramas, starting, perhaps, with "The Sopranos," to offer actors more scope than they can hope to find in most movies.

More long days, too.

"I had no idea what I was getting myself into," said Schreiber, laughing, as he waited to begin his final day of shooting in Los Angeles before taking a red-eye flight home to New York. "It really is intense."

As much as he loves theater, "it's always been really difficult for me in terms of the schedule, doing eight shows a week over and over and over and over," and he's found working on "Ray Donovan" to be "very similar, in terms of the intensity of the schedule," he said.

"But the thing about theater is that, you know, the play is a complete thing. It's finite. Every night you will start at A and you will arrive at B, whereas what's interesting about series television work is that you play the same character, but the character evolves," he said.

Television "is a much more collaborative medium, as far as acting is concerned, because the directors and the editors and your fellow actors have a much bigger impact on your performance. And the writers, of course. And so you can actually watch the character grow, regroup and then start again. And that's a really interesting kind of way to approach character and acting. I guess what I underestimated was the intensity of the schedule. And the speed."

One thing, I told him, that I hadn't expected from "Ray Donovan," a show about a man who can fix everything but his family, is how funny it could be.

Cod in a sushi town

The family in question hails from South Boston and is a whole school of fish out of water in the world where Ray plies his trade, cleaning up after overdoses and fending off blackmailers.

One Donovan brother (Eddie Marsan), a boxer, has Parkinson's. Another (Dash Mihok) was abused as a child by a Roman Catholic priest. Ray's wife (Paula Malcomson, "Deadwood") wants desperately to see their children (Kerris Dorsey and Devon Bagby) accepted in a world where her accent alone makes her an outsider, but also wants them to know their charming, scary grandfather, Mickey Donovan (Jon Voight), who's just out of prison.

"When I first met with Ann [Biderman, the show's creator], I said one of the anxieties I had about approaching this role is that it's so insanely dark. And that to stay in that place for an extended period of time" would be hard, Schreiber said.

"I'm no Method actor - someone who becomes deeply emotionally connected to his roles - but just the sheer act of playing those emotions over and over again is intense and kind of grueling," so "I begged her that we really tried to enhance the humor element . . . and she agreed that that was essential. And I think it's part of the style of her writing."

It doesn't hurt that "the culture clash of a blue-collar Southie guy and, you know, Los Angeles' . . . elite celebrities, athletes and wealthy people is a kind of wonderful arena for humor," he said.

"The hard part was to find a way that Ray could participate in that humor in as exciting a way as Mickey does," because Ray is "essentially a reactive character," Schreiber said.

In the pilot, there's a "scene between Ray and [a fast-talking] studio executive, where the guy says, 'You don't talk too much. I like that. I'm going to try doing that.' And all you can do is sort of take that in. How does one respond to that? And I think that for me, that scene is kind of really a great indicator of Ray's humor."

Family guys

Was there anything in the character he identified with?

"Oh, God, yeah. Certainly not the violence. But I think the emotionality around parenting, and, I think, also the isolation that Ray feels are both, you know, strong elements in my life," said Schreiber, who has two sons with actress Naomi Watts.

"What are the issues around raising our children? And how do we affect the rest of their lives? And how can we help them avoid some of the pitfalls that can be in store for them?"

And then there's the father-son dynamic between Ray and Mickey, which "is everything, both for me personally and for the show. What shocked me about Jon, and what made it really nice working with him, was the level of enthusiasm he had for it. I mean, there was no doubt that this was an incredible role and a really great opportunity for an actor. But Jon's enthusiasm in approaching it and how excited he was about the job, particularly in light of my own anxiety," he said, laughing, "was inspiring."

Schreiber didn't go looking for real-life counterparts to talk to before playing a fixer.

"I think Ray really is an invention of Ann's, so for me, [she] was the best source," he said. Though "I kind of believe the essence of the character is in the line. And that's tricky with Ray, because there aren't a lot of lines."


Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: ph.ly/EllenGray

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