Liev Schreiber realizes it's ironic that he's chosen to meet for lunch at a downtown Manhattan café called the Smile. "Ray Donovan doesn't smile — it's not my fault!" he says with a laugh. "[Showtime president] David Nevins said to me, 'Could you maybe find a place to smile?' 'I had no idea I had permission. You want me to? I'll smile!' So you'll notice a bit more smiling."
The 45-year-old actor certainly has reason to grin these days: Ray Donovan has won rapturous reviews, stellar ratings (it was Showtime's highest-rated original-series premiere) and a quick Season 2 renewal from the cable network. "I'm surprised anytime anything I do is successful," says Schreiber, offering a contradictory observation worthy of his fascinatingly complex character. "I always assume it's going to be successful, and then I'm shocked when it is."
Much of that success can be credited to Schreiber's old-school charisma. As the title character — a Boston-bred tough guy who has transplanted his family to Hollywood, where he works as a fixer, cleaning up celebrities' messes — the Tony Award winner has finally found an on-screen role that captures the raw magnetism he's long brought to his stage work. (Supporting parts in blockbusters like X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Salt rarely seem to suit him.)
"I didn't want a metrosexual," Ray creator Ann Biderman explains of her decision to cast the star of such macho Broadway revivals as Glengarry Glen Ross, A View From the Bridge and Talk Radio. "Liev would never wear a baseball cap backward or shoes with no socks — none of that s--t that passes for manhood in L.A. Apart from his obvious great chops as an actor, he has an old-fashioned quality of masculinity that's very appealing."
His costars couldn't agree more. "People figured me as a leading man when I was really a character actor, while Liev has done all this character work, and I've always said, 'He's a leading man!'" notes Jon Voight, who's equally mesmerizing as Ray's pop, Mickey, fresh out of prison and looking for revenge. "This is his show, and he's just terrific. He's dangerous, sexy, touching and really intelligent, so he's a wonderful leading actor for us."
Still, Schreiber isn't completely comfortable with his newfound position above the title. "I've always been proud of my just-under-the-radar status," he says, soon after getting recognized and greeted by another diner. "You don't want to be totally under the radar — it's nice when someone gives you a table in a restaurant — but doing good work under the radar is a great place to be."
Signing on for a potentially long-term TV gig has also pushed Schreiber out of his comfort zone. "Part of the reason I became an actor was for the variety — I'm terrified of having to do the same thing," he admits. "I go nuts in plays. After three months, I can't see straight. The idea of playing a character for six years really scares me."
So what made him overcome these fears and take the role? "Ann Biderman, with the efficiency of a seal hunter, batted me over the head and put me in a bag," he says of the NYPD Blue and Southland vet. "I was impressed with her as a person and a writer, so I was excited about the potential collaboration. She just seemed so smart."
Biderman wisely allowed Schreiber to help choose the remarkable ensemble playing his friends, foes and family members, including Oscar winner Voight, Elliott Gould (as Ray's fading showbiz-lawyer mentor) and James Woods, who recently joined the cast as a long-on-the-lam Boston gangster Ray hires to try to take down his father. Rosanna Arquette also guests in the August 18 episode as a potential new love interest for Voight. "Playing Ray is like playing Hamlet — you don't have to do that much," Schreiber says. "The real heavy lifting is being done by these other actors, and I like it that way."
Voight seems like he's having a proverbial ball. "Elliott, James and I are having fun because we've never worked together but we've always enjoyed each other's company," he says. "It's been a bit of a blessing for us."
Also divine: Deadwood and Sons of Anarchy alum Paula Malcomson as Abby, Ray's steely wife. "She's an amazing actress, and Liev needs someone strong next to him," says Biderman. "She's his Edie Falco."
Biderman isn't the first to liken the series to The Sopranos, and understandably so: It's another tale of a man who's good at his outside-the-law job but often can't figure out the rules at home. Schreiber welcomes the comparisons. "It's the same premise, a blue-collar family drama with a dominant alpha male at the center," he says. "I am thrilled people are comparing us to The Sopranos — you could do a lot worse. And I won't lie: I don't think this show would exist had it not been for the trail blazed by the producers and actors on that show."
For more on Ray Donovan, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, available on digital devices on Thursday, August 15!