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June 09, 2015

From Shakespeare to Shakedown

For New York's classically trained Liev Schreiber, sunny L.A.'s the place for the pulpy noir of his Showtime hit Ray Donovan.

Amy Dawes

Not since Entourage has a show gone on location to capture the glamour and decadence of L.A. as extensively as Ray Donovan does.

But on a recent day, the Showtime drama was filming in an environment that could not have been more bleak — a former prison east of downtown.

Ray's brother Terry (Eddie Marsan) is already behind bars for his part in a heist set up by their father, Mickey (Jon Voight). Now he's been thrown into solitary confinement after a fight. With his Parkinson's disease advancing, Terry sees little hope for himself, even if he can manage to stay alive.

Grim as things are, there's room for humor when Ray (Liev Schreiber) visits the prison with a scar across his nose and a swollen cheek, fresh from a scrape of his own.

"What happened to your face?" bloody, battered Terry demands.

"What happened to yours?" Ray fires back, and they both laugh a little, momentarily reclaiming the bond of their shared boyhood.

Schreiber later says he improvised that exchange for himself and Marsan in rehearsal the day before, adding it to the top of an otherwise downbeat scene to broaden its range of emotion.

"You find these little bubbles of life and comedy that you can bring to the character," Schreiber says during a break. "I've learned to look for different notes I can play. That's been part of my journey."

With 12 new episodes of Ray Donovan set to begin airing July 12, Schreiber is three seasons deep in a journey he never expected he'd take — as the lead in a TV series. Even David Nevins, president of Showtime, where Ray Donovan finished season two as the premium cable network's second-highest-rated drama (after Homeland), had his doubts when he went after Schreiber for the role.

"Liev had turned down so many opportunities to do television," Nevins recalls. "I was told there was no way."

Indeed, Schreiber rebuffed the offer at first — he was too happy in his native New York, where he was thriving in serious stage productions, doing a wide range of movie roles (Defiance, A Walk on the Moon) and raising a young family with his partner, Naomi Watts. But he admired the pilot script so much that he agreed to have lunch with the show's writer and creator, Ann Biderman.

"I completely fell for what she pitched me — hook, line and sinker," Schreiber remembers. "She's such a deeply intelligent and soulful person, and we agreed on who Ray was and where he was going. And I love the genre — this kind of hard-boiled, pulpy L.A. noir. It leaves a lot of room for pathos and humanity, and exploring this notion of contemporary masculinity."

The trouble that arises from adhering to outmoded models of masculinity is often at the heart of Ray Donovan. As a well-paid "fixer" for a high-end law firm, Ray's job requires him to be the strong, silent type, cleaning up messes made by overindulged movie stars, athletes and musicians.

Constantly called upon to put out fires, he relies on discretion, detachment and his ability to out-think and out-muscle every other hard guy on the scene. But the tough, self-contained persona doesn't play well on the home front, where his scrappy, South Boston-bred wife (Paula Malcomson) feels emotionally abandoned, and his amped-up teenagers (Kerris Dorsey and Devon Bagby) give him no end of trouble.

The show gets much of its panache from Ray's professional style — he prowls the Malibu coast wearing suits by Hugo Boss and Zegna, driving a sleek black Mercedes S550 — but at its core, Ray Donovan is about family.

Not just the new one he's made, but the one that followed him out west from Boston and will dog him forever: his father, Mickey, a charismatic ex-con; and his brothers, Terry and Bunchy (Dash Mihok), who run a boxing gym in a crummy part of town. Like Ray, Bunchy also survived childhood sexual abuse, though less successfully.

From the start, Ray's self-reliance and reticence presented a challenge to Schreiber. "How do you know what I'm feeling if I never say it?" he asks. "I get about eight lines an episode. And I'm a guy who's accustomed to doing soliloquies!"

Indeed, it was Schreiber's rare gift for Shakespeare that helped launch his career on the New York stage. So the prospect of illuminating Ray's interior life was initially confounding. What he discovered was the power of doing more with less.

"The great thing about the camera is that it loves just looking at people," he says. "Still, it takes tremendous confidence to trust that anyone would want to look at you. And if they're looking at you, the temptation is to act more, to create more. But really, your job is just to be that person in that moment. And hopefully the resources are there in your training and in the material to guide you."

As Ray, Schreiber expresses much with his eyes — the sizing up of his opponent, the shifting intentions and glittering hurts are all there.

There's power, too, in his physical magnetism: the menace of his six-foot three-inch frame, always elegantly dressed and constrained by Ray's essential vision of himself as a knight, a protector. "Ann talked about these clothes as being Ray's armor, and I took it to heart," Schreiber recalls,

He couldn't always see himself succeeding under such a spotlight. “Part of my hesitation about L.A. was a fear of rejection — that I may not look the way they want you to look in the movies or TV," he allows. "I may not act the way they want you to act."

His dark, intense looks have an ethnic, unconventional appeal: his face is wide, his chin is short, his twice-broken nose is irregular.

"I guess I got over that, by the success of actors who came before me and rewrote the model. A lot of good shows are being made about all kinds of people, and maybe they need you to play them."

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Actors cast as TV leads tend to develop a philosophy about their role in the production, and Schreiber sees his as collaborative and supportive.

"There're so many talented people working on this show, and it's about facilitating that environment where the writers can write, and feel connected to the characters they're writing for. With the other actors — it's like that bump, set, spike thing in volleyball. You can try to put it right up at the net for 'em."

In the prison scene, Ray assures Terry that he's going to find a way to get him out, fast. But Terry, bottoming out emotionally, rejects his protection, "I love you, Raymond," Terry says, his pained blue eyes focused inward, "But I don't want your help."

Says Schreiber later, of his quiet part in the exchange: "It's about listening and reacting, and trying to facilitate something. Sometimes the withholding of emotion can be hard but valuable, because structurally, there are better places in the script to put it."

To play a character like Ray, who is both streetwise and sophisticated, Schreiber can draw on his tumultuous upbringing.

His father, Tell Carroll Schreiber, a stage actor and director, was born into an old-money Pennsylvania family. But when Liev was a toddler his parents split up, and that world of privilege receded.

His mother, Heather, a free spirit descended from Ukrainian Jewish immigrants with Communist beliefs, took him to live on a commune in upstate New York and then in an illegal squat on the Lower East Side in dilapidated, freewheeling 1970s Manhattan. (Schreiber's half-brother, Pablo Schreiber, grew up with their father. Also an actor, he plays Mendez — better known as Pornstache the prison guard — on Netflix's Orange Is the New Black).

Schreiber's mother made ends meet as a New York cab driver while working as an artist and puppet-maker.

After she won a fierce custody battle to keep the boy she called "Huggy," her father, Alex Milgram, became the main male presence in young Liev's life. Milgram made his living as a delivery driver, supplying meat to restaurants, but he also collected fine art and was an amateur cello player. At one point, Heather made the boy take a Hindu name and attend an ashram school in Connecticut.

"She took a very creative approach to raising children," he says. "She would embarrass me by picking things out of the garbage for our furniture and going to the grocery store for day-old vegetables — she had a kind of glee about that. She basically hated money. But she also taught me not to buy into what other people believed about wealth and success. She felt it was important to be your own person, and to respect other people — that there's room for everybody, and that the people at the bottom are often the most interesting."

Later, his father reentered his life, supporting his aspirations as an actor and financing his education. At Friends Seminary, a private Quaker high school in Manhattan, Schreiber discovered his calling when he played Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

"The first time I made an audience laugh was an amazing feeling," he recalls. He went on to study at Hampshire College, the Yale School of Drama and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

A 1998 production of Cymbeline, part of the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park, became Schreiber's first significant break. New York Times critic Peter Marks called his portrayal of lachimo "revelatory," exclaiming in print, "More Shakespeare, Mr. Schreiber, please!"

Says the actor: "That brought me a lot of attention, and soon I was getting bigger and better auditions." He went on to do Hamlet and Macbeth for the Public Theater, and he won a Tony in a Broadway production of Glengarry Glen Ross. He performed in well-regarded indies like The Daytrippers and Big Night, hit franchises like Scream and X-Men (he played the mutant Sabretooth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine), as well as thrillers and historical action films like The Manchurian Candidate and Defiance.

He ventured into directing with the 2007 movie Everything Is Illuminated, an adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel about a Jewish American (Elijah Wood) who returns to the Ukraine to explore his roots.

In season two of Ray Donovan, Schreiber made his television directing debut with an episode that revolves around a family birthday party for Ray's son, Conor.

"Showtime said they'd try to give him an easy episode," Mihok relates, "but they gave him one with every actor in the family together in one place, which is the hardest thing to shoot. I thought he handled it deftly. He's such a good observer of life that he can see a scene from the outside, as a whole, even when he's in the middle of it."

In that episode, titled "Walk This Way," Mihok plays a scene in which Bunchy, who is never at ease socially, gets badly rattled when a pal he's brought to the party makes an unwelcome pass at him. "I'm not gay!" Bunchy insists to Ray.

"That moment — where you saw Ray giggling and enjoying that — is closer to who Liev is than we get to see most of the time," Mihok says. In general, he reports, Schreiber "doesn't act like your typical number one on the call sheet. He's said from the beginning that we're all a cast of supporting actors, and he includes himself in that. He's very conscious of what needs to happen for the other actors, and he just wants to help make it good, always."

"Liev sets the tone by his work ethic," Nevins says. "It's about creating an atmosphere where people are expected to go deep. His character doesn't speak a lot, but great acting isn't about reciting dialogue — it's about inhabiting a character with complexity and emotion, and he does that, He brings enormous intelligence to it, and that gives him a lot of power."

Ray Donovan resumed production in March with many changes afoot. Creator Ann Biderman stepped down as showrunner when her contract expired at the end of season two. She's been replaced by David Hollander, who was already a writer and executive producer on the show (the other exec producers are Mark Gordon and Bryan Zuriff).

In terms of the story, Ray has left the employ of his former boss, Ezra (Elliott Gould), and is now working for a wealthy and powerful media mogul named Albert Finney, played by Ian McShane (Deadwood), and his businesswoman daughter Paige, portrayed by Katie Holmes (The Kennedys, Dawson's Creek).

"He's using Ray to execute his business strategies, but also to control and manipulate his family," Schreiber says of the Finney character. "In a lot of ways it's medieval and reminds me of King Lear and Shakespeare."

That helps to bring it full circle for the actor, who badly misses his Soho neighborhood in New York but is finding more to appreciate about Los Angeles. A big reason for doing a series, he allows, was to bring more stability to his family life with Watts and their two boys, Sasha, seven, and Kai, six.

"It's terrific for the kids — they can be outside all the time and go to the beach," Schreiber says. And while he describes his own surfing skills as minimal, he's been able to put in time on the board, even in winter months, which brings its own rewards:

"Two weeks ago I was sitting out in the water at Malibu at sunrise, and a pod of dolphins lazily swam by, about 12 feet away. There were no waves, but still, I'm thinking, 'This is pretty spectacular.'"

That's the mellow side of his regimen. He pumps up the lean and mean at a boxing gym, like an authentic member of the Donovan clan.

"The workout is really good — it gives you flexibility and speed in your lower body, and tests you physically. It's useful for someone like Ray, who is well-versed in a very specific type of violence — the kind where you do something quick and devastating to end a fight."

Raising his own family has helped Schreiber make peace with his upbringing, too:

"Whatever I did, my mom was just like, 'Wow! You're an amazing athlete. You're an amazing dancer.' I owe her so much for that. She was so interested, so engaged with who I was becoming. I want to give that to my kids, too — just watch them become who they are and appreciate it in a real way."

The way he sees it, parenting can be similar to acting: "The best results happen when you let go of expectations and just try to be present."

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