Spoiler alert for the entire fifth season of Ray Donovan.
It took five seasons for Ray Donovan fans to see the show’s tortured and closed-off protagonist completely gutted. But in the aftermath of his terminally ill wife’s suicide, Ray (Liev Schreiber) finally goes there.
The season ended Sunday with Ray’s life in total flux — the house he shared with Abby (Paula Malcomson) and his children was sold; his son, Conor, (Devon Bagby) has enlisted in the Marines; he is estranged both from his daughter (Kerris Dorsey) and brother Terry (Eddie Marsan); his father, Mickey (Jon Voight), will probably spend the rest of his life in prison thanks to him; and his business is in shambles. But his new beginning points toward New York City, where the show will be based next year.
Schreiber spoke to Vulture about the challenges of navigating Ray’s journey this season, how much he’ll miss working with Malcomson, and why he’s excited for the show to move to New York, where his sons live.
Let’s start on a lighter note. You do a great Mickey Donovan impersonation. Did it come easily to you?
It didn’t, actually. [Laughs.] I had to kind of really think about it and I had to watch Jon. I mean, I’ve been watching him for so long, but I’m not much of a mimic. I’m not one of those guys who do really great impressions so I had to think about it for a second. But he does so many things so consistently. He sucks his teeth and he hunches his shoulders up, so I just went for the low-hanging fruit. It was very odd.
It’s been a super-intense season of Ray, on a personal level more than anything. What did you think when you heard showrunner David Hollander planned to kill off Abby?
I was nervous. You know, I love Paula [Malcomson] so much, and I love working with her. She is such an asset and such an important part of our ensemble, and as a character, I feel like she holds the thing together. But then when David explained how he wanted to do it, he said “every few years, you gotta do something to create some new light on a show like this, and sometimes that means taking away something or destroying some structure you’ve built.” And I understand that to some extent, but I was nervous that if you take Abby out, the wheels really come off. And David said to me, “So are you afraid of the wheels coming off?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m afraid of the wheels coming off.” And then in that moment we both kind of went, “So let’s let the wheels some off and see where it takes us.” It feels like you create a physical force in the narrative that drives it some place, or doesn’t. You have to take risks, though, and sometimes they pay off and sometimes they don’t. One of the things I’m really grateful for in this season is that taking its wheels off allowed Paula to give a performance I think she’s really been wanting to do for a long time and has not had the material to do it. A performance to show what she’s truly capable as an actress. This season, I felt, gave her that opportunity.
What did you think of the way David chose to tell the story? You’re so surprised in the premiere to learn she has died, and then you learn what happened through flashbacks in the first eight episodes.
Again, I was nervous, but I believe that it’s always important to bank on the intelligence of your audience rather than the opposite. In other words, using a nonlinear structure for the narrative is very challenging both for us as actors, and for the audience to follow it. But that challenge makes it exciting both for the actors and for the audience. To try to keep track of the story and where it was going and all of the different elements was difficult for all of us, but sometimes that pays off, and I think it did this season. There’s a really satisfying payoff in the eighth episode, and I think part of that is due to the nonlinear stuff in one through six, if that makes any sense. It’s like when you finish a jigsaw puzzle and it feels good. That combined with the emotional payoff of Ray finally confronting his wife’s body, and Abby taking the steps to take her own life. All those things paid off in that episode.
The nonlinear approach also gave us a side of their relationship that we hadn’t seen before. There was a lot of tenderness and laughter.
I really enjoyed that because it gets really dark playing Ray, and it was so nice to see them in happy times. It’s so nice to see Ray smiling. It’s so nice to see him enjoying being with Abby. It can give you some perspective on that relationship and what’s made it so good for so long.
What do you think you’ll miss the most about working with Paula?
[Pauses.] She’s fierce, as a woman and as an actress, and I love that quality. I love it. It’s a take-no-prisoners mentality about approaching story and character. I just love it when people swing for the fences, and Paula’s that kind of an actress. She’s fearless and she’s quick. I get emotional even talking about it, but acting is very much like a dance. We just are so tuned into each other, and part of that is probably because we’ve been doing it for so long together. So I’ll miss that intimacy, you know? I’ll miss that actor who completes you. It’s very much like your partner. It’s very much like your brother, your sister, your lover, your husband, your wife. That person completes you. If I have a slow day on set, she’s there. She drives. If she’s having a slow day on set, I drive. And it works. I don’t know how else to describe it.
She told me she found filming her death harrowing. Everyone on set was crying. How was it for you?
It was difficult. It was difficult because, you know, there’s a lot going on in your mind. I knew that it wasn’t but it felt like it could be the last time we worked together for a while. And so there was a lot of emotion in me as Liev, and just being careful not to let too much of that spill over into Ray because he feels things in a very different way than I do. So that was challenging because there was a lot of pressure — being in possession of the whole season and knowing where it’s going — to deliver a performance. I think maybe all of us felt that. I know I certainly did. And at the end of the day it was just about letting go of that pressure and trusting that you know where you are, and trusting that you know what to do, and more than anything, trusting that the people that you work with have your back. Paula’s gonna set the theme so I don’t have to do more than I need to. She’s gonna do such a great job with her part that the emotion is already there. It’s tangible. It’s in the air. It’s in the scene.
So for Ray to walk in and just be with her is gonna be enough. But trusting that is really hard. There was also some emotion. You asked me how it felt. I felt there was a lot of pressure, and then there was a decision to ignore it and to not feel like I had to arrive anywhere. That I just had to do it. And if I needed do it again, I’d do it again. But that’s the great thing about film is that you can just do it again. [Laughs.] And when you work with enough talented people – who can help you and guide you – it comes out okay. I think I did that two or three times, and that was because we wanted to have different levels so that when we cut the whole thing we could find the right levels.
You mentioned that Ray feels things in a different way than you do as a person. How do you handle living in those shoes for half the year? How do you detach?
Yeah, this was a hard year for Ray and for Liev. I find meditation helps. You know, don’t get too attached to anything. Ray’s a rough character to play. It can be difficult when you’re a character like him. You ratchet up tension and then you don’t express it. The guy’s carrying a lot of tension around a lot of the time, but he rarely, rarely expresses it like he did in that scene in episode eight. [Editor’s note: Ray breaks down over Abby’s body when he finds her.] Part of the satisfaction — hopefully for me and for the audience — is to finally see him express some emotion because most of the time he’s got to contain it. And it’s not like you just can’t be emotional when you’re containing emotion. You have to have the emotion and then not express it. That’s like a double whammy. And I think it’s really important to try and find a ritual where you can say, okay look I’m done with work, I’m going to stop and put that behind me and go home and have a nice time and see my kids and do something pleasant. Meditation works. Unfortunately, Irish whiskey also works really well, which probably accounts for a lot of the alcoholism in the acting business. [Laughs.]
At the end of the finale, Ray literally took a plunge. The audience doesn’t necessarily know then what the future holds for Ray, but Showtime announced that production is moving to New York City. How do you feel about that?
I think it’s important to shuffle the deck, and bringing Ray to New York is going to be very exciting for all of us. It’s great for me because my kids are here, so I’m thrilled. I think the show could use a shot in the arm. It’ll help. We’re that much closer to Boston, and that could be interesting. Of course it makes me nervous, everything makes me nervous, but that’s part of the fun of doing this kind of work, you get to mix it up. It keeps you on your toes. Try to inject new experiences and new life into the show as much as you can.
When the Harvey Weinstein news broke, it must have felt very familiar to you since the Natalie James story line (Lili Simmons) has so many of the same elements. A powerful studio head taking advantage of young actresses and other people’s complicity — did you think about that as the story broke?
I think choosing to have two strong female characters in there this season for Ray was a good choice, and each of these positions of power that were also being subverted and threatened, it was a little spooky when all of the Harvey stuff started to come out. But I guess that doesn’t feel new to me. You know what I mean? That’s been a blemish on Hollywood for the past 100 years. It’s been around. It’s not that eerie for us because it’s the impetus behind a character like Ray. Ray’s a victim of abuse and he finds himself in this morally ambiguous environment dealing with it, dishing it out, receiving more and protecting people from it. So we sort of anticipate things like that along the way.
Ray and Mickey have always been at odds, but Ray had even allowed him to move in with him. What do you think snapped in Ray to make Mickey take the fall and go back to prison?
I think it was Bunchy (Dash Mihok) going to prison. It was Bunchy paying for Mickey’s mistake, and it’s also Mickey’s meddling in Ray’s business. Mickey continually demonstrates a clear and present danger to the family, and that liability becomes a reality when Bunchy ends up in prison on four counts of homicide.
Besides your moving work with Paula, you also had some very powerful scenes with Eddie Marsan this season. When the season ends, the brothers seem like they are closer to a reconciliation, but you never know with the Donovans. What is it like working with Eddie?
He’s all heart, that character, Terry. He’s all heart. And that’s an apt description of Eddie as well. He’s an incredibly liked person. As an actor, he’s on the show because I’ve been a fan of his for years and [creator Ann Biderman] and I were talking about whether there were any people I’d like to work with, and I said this is one person I’d like to work with. She said “He’s English!” And I said, “I know. Trust me, he can do anything.” When it happened, I’m so grateful he said yes. He’s a remarkable physical actor. He works things physically in a way I really admire and try to do as well. When he started working on the Parkinson’s, it was clear that he wasn’t going to take the easy path. He was going to get it right, and it was gonna be there. It was so wonderful to see a story element come along to take that away from him. And you sort of think, oh that’s the character, but then suddenly he would just have it [Laughs]. He comes to life in a whole different way, and it’s funny, it almost kind of clears him a little bit, clears him to see more. This whole cast is filled with people I just love to watch work, which is a good thing when you’re on a television show for six years.
How are you feeling about that? You’ve never been on a long-running TV series before.
I don’t know. I went to the ballet last night and there were all these people from the theater who were asking me if I was gonna do a play. I’m like, I did one. Uh, I’ll be back I guess. This been a really interesting journey. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot doing this. And I value the experience and all the people that I work with so much. It’s hard though. Fourteen-hour days for six months. It’s hard. But, you know, I was a mason’s helper for a while. [Laughs.] This is what I do now.