Liev Schreiber is joking that he could use a Ray Donovan right about now. The title character Schreiber plays on Showtime's new drama is a fixer for the Los Angeles elite — the guy you call when your agent, lawyer, manager, publicist, Pilates instructor and raw-food chef can't help you with a crisis. A high-priced-hooker habit? A taste for drugs? A gorgeous corpse in the bathtub? That's when Ray steps in with a plan.
"It's nothing that dramatic — it's just that I've barely seen my family in five months," says Schreiber (best known for such movies as X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the Scream series), who is making his debut as a TV lead actor. "I go to work before the kids wake up and I'm home after they're asleep." The actor has two sons — Sasha, 5, and Sammy, 4 — with Oscar-nominated actress Naomi Watts (The Impossible), though his focus at the moment, he says, is on Ray Donovan: "There's more commitment and intensity and interior stuff with this character than any I've ever played." Schreiber rubs his grizzled cheek. "Well, Iago from Othello is pretty intense, too. But this ain't Shakespeare."
Ripped from the home pages of Gawker and TMZ is more like it. In the opening episode, Ray, unflappable even while wielding a baseball bat at some lowlife, intervenes when a dead woman turns up in bed with an NBA all-star, a Miley Cyrus type attracts a stalker and an action hero gets caught with a transsexual prostitute. Not that Ray himself is perfect. "His psychosexual urges are really interesting," Schreiber says. And when Ray's vicious dad, Mickey (played by Jon Voight, with murder in those blue eyes), gets sprung from prison and wants to reconnect with his grandkids, Ray finds himself facing a problem even he can't remedy. "It's one thing to stamp out a drug dealer or make a hooker go away," Voight says. "But when the bad guy is your father, and he's a killer, things get wonderfully complicated and compelling."
Showtime certainly wants viewers to feel that way. With a big-name cast that also includes Elliott Gould as Ray's unhinged attorney mentor ("Elliott's like a Sufi monk, with little gems of advice," Schreiber says. "He taught me a tap-dance routine"), James Woods as a Boston gangster and guests like Frank Whaley and House alum Peter Jacobson, Ray Donovan is the network's best hope to succeed Dexter, which will wrap after its upcoming eighth season. That probably explains the all-in atmosphere on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, where the series warrants three lavish soundstages (one suffices for most shows) and a large contingent of producers and network looky-loos.
"Pressure?" says show creator Ann Biderman (Southland) with a laugh. "If you hear an explosion or piercing screams, it's probably just one of my writers." Her team meets with cops, ex-cons, private eyes and celebrity lawyers like Robert Shapiro to get script details right, Biderman says. "There are a lot of real Rays in Hollywood. You can make a ton of money fixing the problems of the wealthy and famous."
Well into another 12-hour production day, Schreiber and his TV wife (Deadwood vet Paula Malcomson) and kids walk into a boxing gym set that was re-created, punching bag by punching bag, from a real one in South Central L.A. You can practically smell the BO. It's an important scene: the first time Ray's kids meet the uncle (played by former Golden Gloves champ Pooch Hall) they didn't know existed until Mickey got out of jail.
"The family thinks they've come to support fight night at their uncle's gym, but Ray's got an underlying reason he's not telling anyone about," Schreiber explains. Says Malcomson: "Ray keeps a lot of secrets — from his wife and from his mistresses. Nobody ever gets all of Ray."
Ray is not perfect, but he's human, and that should make him an intriguing character to front a series. "In some ways, Ray is the fantasy of what a man should be," Biderman says, adding that she cast Schreiber because of his "iconic virility." "Ray's a protector," she says. "He watches out for everybody. He's smooth and he's beyond sexy. Yet he keeps crossing a moral line, whether it's infidelity or the way he does his job. Where he steps over the line is where this show lives."
It's not giving away too much to say the first episode hinges on whether Mickey will obey Ray's direct order to stay away from his family or that it ends with Grandpa reaching out to hug one of Ray's kids. The cable net hopes viewers will want to see where the twisted father-son relationship will go and how Ray's personal demons play out. As Ray keeps tabs on the denizens of L.A.'s glittery underbelly (which will include Johnathon Schaech as a Tom Cruise-like superstar and Rosanna Arquette as a former ingenue gone psycho), it's the "interior stuff," as Schreiber puts it, that's most likely to hook fans.
"A character like Ray needs to be tormented and broken in some way, and that makes him fascinating," Schreiber says. "He's taking care of people's weaknesses, but who's watching out for him? He's confronting anger for us, but what becomes of his anger? Everybody trusts Ray, but he can't confide in anybody. His sexuality drives him — but sometimes pushes him over the edge." But will viewers follow? "We'd all love to have someone like Ray Donovan. I don't think any of us would want to be Ray Donovan. But I do hope people will want to watch him."
Ray Donovan premieres Sunday, June 30 at 10/9c on Showtime.
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