NPR : Fresh Air

As 'Ray Donovan,' Liev Schreiber Cleans Up Hollywood's Messes

Play associated audio

In the new FX series Ray Donovan, Liev Schreiber stars in the title role as a man who knows how to handle a crisis. It's Donovan's job to clean up the messes of Hollywood's rich and powerful while trying to keep his own personal problems under wraps.

A TV series is something of a new turn for Schreiber, who's been acting on stage and in movies for two decades. But playing complicated characters is something he's earned a reputation for, with roles in films like Defiance and The Manchurian Candidate.

He won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Richard Roma in the 2005 Broadway production of Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet's drama about real estate agents who are out to get each other.

A variation on this theme draws Schreiber to Ray Donovan. Donovan is hardly loquacious and, as Schreiber tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, "not having the cloak of dialogue was another interesting exercise: How do you play these things? How do you keep a character alive without words?"

Beneath Donovan's seeming composure is a great deal of personal conflict that surfaces when his father is released prematurely from prison and reappears in Donovan's life. This tension between calm and torment, says Schreiber, is central to contemporary masculinity.

"What really drew me to the original pilot script and [to] meeting Ann [Biderman]," he says, "was her fascination with masculinity, and what it was about masculinity that was compelling and elusive. Particularly the idea that with great rage and with great violence comes great vulnerability."

Interview Highlights

On playing intimidating characters

"[I]n terms of being menacing, it's something unfortunately I was sort of born with. I often describe it as the 'arched eyebrows and Slavic fat pads.' It's just something about my face. When I started out acting I really wanted to be a comic actor, but I naturally fell into these roles.

"I think the first time I played Iago at the Public Theater I realized I had a — much to my chagrin — I realized I had an instinct for these conflicted characters, for these torn characters, for these characters who could be described as evil. I wouldn't describe them that way. I also always like them. ...

"My mother didn't let me see color films. I saw a lot of black-and-white films. The first time I saw Basil Rathbone, I was completely taken. To me, that was the epitome of great acting, was Basil Rathbone — not only in Sherlock Holmes, but the Sheriff of Nottingham, and all the terrible characters he had to play alongside Errol Flynn."

On taking his work home with him on Ray Donovan

"I didn't ever think that I took roles home with me, but this has been a lot of work, and it has been long hours and a long schedule. ... By going to those dark places day after day, hour after hour, you can feel pretty spent by the end of the day. If my kids aren't around, and Naomi [Watts] at the end of the night to remind me how really great my life is, it can get dark. It's something that I have to bear in mind. I realize how important it's going to be for me, if we continue this show, that I'm able to keep my family around me. And [that] I'm able to do some kind of meditation practice that kind of leaves work at work and keeps home separate."

On how TV work differs from plays

"The character sort of begins to take on a life of its own, and the show begins to take on a life of its own, and you sort of work almost in parallel with it. In other words, you'll do an episode, and then you'll watch the episode, or you'll think about the episode, process that information, and that will inform the next episode — whereas in a play ... you're doing the same narrative arc every night, and you're starting in the same place and ending up in the same place. The interesting thing about doing serial television is that the character is growing separate from you, the character and the show are growing, and you get to observe that and participate with it in a way that I think is actually really exciting for an actor."

On NFL films and how they inform his HBO boxing voice-over work

"The NFL Films guys had the very, very brilliant idea that there was a classical-theater element to football. ... They would shoot these weekly shows in this epic fashion in slow motion and things like that, and have that wonderful voice of John Facenda comparing these football players to demigods and characters from mythology; it was very effective. And I know it captured my imagination as a child, so I was thrilled when I was paired with a writer as talented as Aaron Cohen, who wanted to do that same kind of dramatic arc with his work."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit


Hieronymus Bosch Died 500 Years Ago, But His Art Will Still Creep You Out

Known by some as "the Devil's painter," Bosch depicted imaginary animals and souls being violently tortured. At least one critic believes he's the father of modern art.

With A Zap, Scientists Create Low-Fat Chocolate

Scientists say they've figured out how to reduce the fat in milk chocolate by running it through an electric field. The result is healthier, but is it tastier?
WAMU 88.5

Analysis Of The Last Supreme Court Decisions Of The Term

Supreme Court decisions are expected soon on issues that include access to abortion and limits on executive power: Analysis of major decisions at the end of the term and the impact of a vacant seat on the court.


President Obama Acknowledges 'Brexit' To Silicon Valley Crowd

President Obama delivered a speech Friday at Stanford University, and remarked on the Brexit vote in front of a crowd of young, tech-forward, pro-globalization attendees from 170 countries.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.