Ray Donovan’s Embeth Davidtz Opens Up About Fighting Breast Cancer and Her Complicated Nude Scene

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Photo: Mike Windle/Getty Images

Spoilers ahead for Sunday night's episode of Ray Donovan.

On Sunday night, Embeth Davidtz revealed her partially reconstructed right breast on an episode of Ray Donovan. Diagnosed with Stage-3 cancer in 2013, the actress underwent chemotherapy, immunological treatment, lymph-node-removal surgery and a double mastectomy. She now has a clean bill of health, and before this, she’s never spoken publicly about her real-life battle.

When Ray Donovan executive producer David Hollander called her about a major guest role in the Showtime drama’s fourth season as Sonia Kovitzky, an art dealer who serves as a front for drug-dealing Russian pimps, he informed her the role would require nudity. Together, they forged a story line that incorporated Davidtz’s semi-restored physique, as breast-cancer survivor Sonia disrobes to seduce Liev Schreiber’s titular Hollywood fixer, whose wife also has the disease.

Davidtz admits she’s unsure how viewers will react to the sex scene — and to this very personal interview. “I had this feeling just before I called you that I was about to jump off a cliff,” she says with a laugh. “It’s been such a separation of church and state, this very private thing among friends and family. It was one step to film it, but now it’s another one talking about it.”

When did you first suspect you might be sick?
Never. I was very healthy. I’m a goody two-shoes. I did my mammograms. I did everything you’re supposed to do — eat healthy, stay fit. Three years ago, we were on holiday, and I found a lump, just by accident, not because I was checking, which people should do. I was between two mammograms, and I felt this incredibly large, oblong-shaped lump on my right breast. My pinky happened to touch the spot, and I was like, “Whoa, that’s weird.”

What was happening in your life at the time?
I was about to go shoot a Spider-Man movie in New York, and my husband said, “Did you get that checked out?” I had this momentary annoyance of, “Oh, I’ve got to go do that.” So I went to the doctor, and everything changed quickly. The tumor was big. I’d had my last mammogram 11 months before, but the kind of cancer I had is called triple-positive, which is very fast-growing. Essentially this protein causes an incredibly high-grade tumor to grow very quickly, and that’s why it was 3 1/2 centimeters, which is large.

What was your first reaction?
My world fell apart. Then I went into warrior mode. I was pissed off. I was so angry that my kids could potentially be without me, or that my great life was going to be cut short. I thought, “This is not my fuckin’ story.” People have different responses. Mine was never feeling sorry for myself. I was just really fueled by, “I’m going to fight this.”

How did you fight it?
I did chemotherapy for six months and had a great response. I worked with doctors at both UCLA and St. John’s, including people who changed the face of breast cancer by treating it with immunology. I was what they call a complete responder. By the time I did the mastectomy in June of 2013, the lump was gone. They did the pathology report, and they said there was nothing left. I had trouble wrapping my mind around that.

Why did you choose to have the mastectomy?
You know cancer, it’s microscopic, so you can’t really tell: Is something hiding out? We could’ve gone another way. I could’ve had a lumpectomy but I felt like, something’s clearly wrong with the breast tissue. Whatever it is, get rid of it. Some people think a mastectomy is hacking off part of your body, and that’s not what it is. It’s going in and scraping tissue out and replacing it. In the old days, you were sometimes left with totally concave breasts and gnarly scars, and it’s not like that anymore.

Were you worried about your appearance after the surgery?
I was one of those women in the chat rooms asking surgeons, “What am I going to look like?” There’s a shame around it, the covering up of it, the not-telling. I know two actresses who’ve had breast cancer — one had a lumpectomy and has a scar and another had surgery as well. Both of them have never spoken about it. There are quite a few of us out there. Now, some people might never end up having to take their clothes off for a love scene. But if this is what we do — tell stories and project imaginary life and try to make it look like the real world — it doesn’t feel right to just let it slip by and pretend it’s not real.

Did you try any other kinds of treatments?
I used a lot of mental tools of meditation and visualization, and I honestly believe that played into it, too. So knock on wood, I’ve been clear for three years. I built myself back up. It took a full six months after the surgery to get back on my feet. I was completely bald. I wasn’t working. I had to go to a premiere, so I was photographed with my hair very short, but I never told anyone what it was.

Embeth Davidtz as Sonia Kovitzky in Ray Donovan. Photo: Michael Desmond/Copyright: 2016 Showtime

How did it feel getting back to work?
Going into Ray Donovan was the first time I really got back into the pool again. I thought it would be a great re-entry for me. I felt ready to do it. They told me there would be some nudity, and of course the first thing I thought about was that I was partway through my reconstruction. I was about to have another surgery to put the nipple back together again.

Did you use any body makeup for the scene?
We emphasized the scar and made it look a lot angrier. Right now it’s invisible — there’s just a white line. But we put a lot of makeup on it because we wanted the shock effect. So it was this moment of me huddled with my people going, “Well, there are prosthetic nipples.” I had one specially made. I could’ve put that on, and with makeup, nobody would’ve known the difference. But something felt inauthentic about where I was at this moment in time.

How so?
If you think of your body as a road map of where you’ve been, this is part of my journey. I spoke to David about it. We went into the season with this vague idea that this woman is kind of bad, but she’ll have a thing with Liev, and we’ll see what happens from there. I’d read the third script and saw there was this breast-cancer theme running through it. I went to David on a whim, and my heart was in my throat because it was the first time I jumped off the cliff. I said, “I don’t have a nipple on my right side. If you want to use this in some way … ” We’d spoken about various scenarios. I’d heard about a very famous actress whose lover had bitten off her nipple in a fit of passion, so we could approach it from that point of view. I didn’t want to get into the breast-cancer story, but we had one more conversation and David said, “If you’re okay with this … ”

How did your team feel about it?
My reps were all like, “Why would you do this? You don’t want to be thought of as some sort of freak.” I just said, “Look, I don’t see myself that way.” This is a town where almost everybody’s breasts have been sliced, diced, manipulated, and put back together. Mine haven’t been, but this is part of my journey. I said, “I feel really strongly about it. I’m going to take a leap.” I told David, “Go for it. Write what you want.” It was David’s vision, and me making myself available to it.

What was it like shooting the love scene with Liev?
He was very easy to work with. Liev is a sensitive guy in a big grumpy bear’s body. But it was the first time anyone other than my friends, my children, and my husband had seen me that way. I felt like, “Gosh, aren’t I brave?” in the moment we were shooting it.

How did you feel after it was done?
It was a Friday, and I couldn’t move for two days afterwards. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. It does have an impact, and I’m curious to see when I put the phone down, how will it feel after I reveal something like this.

How do you think fellow survivors will react?
For anyone who’s been through a parallel experience, there’s a lot of shame. In a weird way, I feel like the show embraces the ability for sexuality and beauty to exist alongside that. It doesn’t stop a highly sexual character like Ray from finding this woman beautiful, even though she’s scarred. There’s something kinky, surprising, dark, and strange about it, yet there’s vulnerability.

Do you think viewers will assume it was a prosthetic effect?
I don’t know. It was a hard decision to make to talk about it. But I just feel like, a month from now, I’m not going to look like this anymore, and there’s something compelling me to be honest about what this really is. I’m not somebody who’s messed with my face or my body. My body had to have something done to it. As a result, a breast looks a certain way, but that’s part of where I’ve been. I’m 50 years old. I’m not a 25-year-old starlet starting my career.

Had you done nude scenes before?
Yes, but I was so much younger. I was nude for a very different reason in Schindler’s List. It was a shower scene. I was nude in The Gingerbread Man because it was Robert Altman. [Laughs.] Then I don’t think I was nude onscreen for 20 years. Now, when I’m this age, I’m taking my clothes off. It gave me pause for a second, but then I thought, “Whatever!”

How did this nude scene feel different?
We were all herded together in Schindler’s List. That had a terror and a history attached to it. In The Gingerbread Man I was playing a crazy character. I’ve always had a more European school of thought that nudity isn’t a big deal. People are quite shy about showing their bodies here. I don’t want to think of myself as someone who’s ready to tear my clothes off at the drop of a hat, but when I’ve needed to, I’ve done it.

Are you anticipating any particular response online?
Maybe there will be dreadful things written. I don’t know. I just joined Twitter, and some hip-hop 20-year-old kid wrote something to the effect of, “Yeah, she’s not bad-looking for an old woman.” So I’m thinking to myself, “Good God, wait until he sees this episode! What will he think then?”

How do you think your kids will react?
My children would be mortified, but my daughter is 13 and my son is ten. They don’t watch the show. I’m hoping their friends don’t go, “My God, do you know what your mother just showed?” But they’ll live with it. I’ll say, “Okay, what is art? Art imitates life. This is a story, and we told it.”

This is a traumatic ordeal for anyone, but working in an industry where beauty is such a valued commodity, does it feel even more fraught for you?
Probably, but I’ve had to deal with my aging face and neck for the last 20 years. Since I was 30, I’ve been like, “My God, I’m not 25 anymore.” Those are bigger and more fraught issues. My face is what made me. I’m no longer an ingenue. It’s a struggle, because that’s what you look at every day. This added to it.

The idea of disfigurement as being ugly has been perpetuated by the media for decades. But putting out this image on a popular show, are you hoping to counteract that?
I feel like I am. I may be in the minority, but I don’t think of it as ugly. It is shocking. When I saw it for the first time, it was a little hard to look at. But I think of it as a battle scar. There are ugly battle scars and prettier ones, but they’re part of someone’s life, and I feel heroic in some way for having fought that battle. There is beauty in the history and story it tells.

What was the hardest part of your experience?
There were moments when I was ill and I looked in a mirror and did not know who I was looking at. It didn’t have anything to do with the industry. It had to do with sheer existential identity. I was not my young self. I was not my old self. I was like a wizened, emaciated, bald old lady, and that was scary. Then after the surgery, I felt completely taken apart. But then my self came back.

There’s a line in the episode about three kinds of cancer: the slow turtle, the fast rabbit, and the bird who flies away and can never be caught. Which one did you feel you had?
I was so frightened I had a bird because of the fast growth. There’s a weird thing when you’re diagnosed. The shame you feel — you feel so dirty or broken that this ugly thing happened to you. What was I putting in my body that caused this? But you go into battle steely-eyed. I finally had an oncologist who looked me in the eye and said, “You’re going to be fine.” I said, “Please just tell me I’m going to be here to raise my children.” He said, “Absolutely, you are.” He was the only person who spoke with certainty like that. No one else wanted to commit. People are very vague about cancer because there are so many variables. He also did say because of the fast-growing kind I had, if it was ever going to reappear, we would know very quickly. So that’s why we’re all pretty convinced it’s gone. That’s what I hold onto.

You were afraid you might die, but were you ever convinced it was going to happen?
No, I was in magical-thinking mode. I would not allow the thought to enter my mind. There were maybe two times when my knees buckled underneath me. One was after a visit to a very blunt doctor who said, “I feel very concerned about the lymph nodes. I feel very concerned about the size of this tumor. And it just takes one cell … ” My husband held me up. I’ve never experienced terror like that in my life. Weirdly enough, it wasn’t about, “Oh, I’m going to die.” I never got that far. It was, “Oh my God, I can’t not be here to raise my kids.”

How did your kids react to your illness?
It was very tough on them because they were seven and nine at the time, and they couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that I looked like I was dying. When you’re on your way to getting better, you look like you’re dying. It was hard for me to see them suffering through that.

What about your friends and acquaintances?
Some people would say astonishing things that are meant to make you feel better, but make you feel worse. At a cocktail party, a woman said, “I heard what’s going on, and I can’t believe it.” I said, “I’m going to be okay.” She said, “I’m so glad to hear that because the statistics are just terrible!”

Why are you choosing to talk about this now?
I wish I’d had someone like me to look at when I was at the very start of this. I’m not some sanctimonious do-gooder, but I do think it should be demystified. A lot more women go through this than you think, and a lot of them don’t talk about it. Maybe I have the security of knowing in two months my body will be put back together again. But I don’t feel like I’m bullshitting anymore. We could’ve done things to cover it up, but it felt closer to who I am.

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned from this experience?
Compassion and kindness. I have a bigger heart about everyone going through anything. It sounds really New Age–y and silly, but it made my heart twice the size it was before, because I really do feel like I know a bit about a different kind of suffering, fear, and potential for loss.

How does the future look to you?
Very bright. I’m happy. It was good to work again. I’m not retired. A part of me had been shelved, and I missed it more than I knew. When I did it again, I felt, “Oh God, that’s what was missing!”

Do you have a message you want to convey to other people going through this?
If you think you’re never going to be seen in a sexual, passionate, or reverential light again, I want you to know it’s not true. It happens. Art can show it, and life showed it to me. Somebody might not believe it if an actress pretended to have their nipple gone and said, “Look, I’m still sexual and pretty.” But when it’s real, I hope it makes someone feel beautiful. I still feel beautiful.