'The Worst Parent He's Ever Seen': Ray Donovan's Screwed-Up Father/Son Duo

A conversation with Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight about their new Showtime drama
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Showtime's Ray Donovan marks the latest attempt to wring smart, gripping entertainment out of less-than-virtuous protagonists. But the new drama from Southland creator Ann Biderman is also a fascinating father/son story--one that chronicles a damaged family while examining the Catholic Church, the Hollywood hierarchy, and changing sexual and economic roles for men.

Liev Schreiber plays the title character, a South Boston native who works in Los Angeles as a fixer, solving the nastiest problems of Hollywood's rich and famous. But his personal problems loom just as large. While trying to raise his family with his wife Abby (Paula Malcomson), he also must care for his brothers Terry (Eddie Marsan), who has Parkison's disease, and Bunchy (Dash Mihok), who is still recovering from the sexual abuse he experienced as a child at the hands of the family's priest. His life becomes even more complicated when his father, Mickey (Jon Voight), leaves prison in Massachusetts and heads for Hollywood to reclaim his family--and perhaps the love of his life--and to take a shot at living out his own particular version of the Los Angeles dream.

The show, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. EST (the pilot is online now, though), offers an exciting opportunity for two enormously talented actors to square off against each other. Though the men they play are divided by a powerful antagonism, I could tell how much Voight and Schreiber enjoy each other's company when I spoke with them for a wide-ranging phone interview about Ray and Mickey, Boston and Los Angeles, men's sexuality, and how much sons can ever really escape their father's shadows. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I wanted to start by asking about the situation Mickey and Ray find themselves in at the beginning of the show. While Mickey was in prison, Ray seems to have taken on his role at the head of the family. Liev, I was curious what you think Ray has learned from Mickey about parenting.

Schreiber: One of the things about doing television is [that it's] unlike theater or film, where you've kind of got a finite narrative arc, and you execute the arc as you understand it. Television, it's got a life of its own, which is exciting. The thing develops in a way that you never could have imagined. And the character in some respects is out of your hands. Every week, the writers--and for that matter, the other actors and the directors and the editors--make crucial decisions about the development of your part and your relationships.

I think the question that you're asking about how Ray feels about Mickey's parenting skills is a pretty straightforward one that we knew--at least I knew--from the beginning when it was handed to me from Ann. Which is as far as Ray's concerned, Mickey is absolutely the worst parent he's ever seen in his life. At least that's the way Ray feels about him at the beginning of the season. I think Ray holds Mickey responsible for everything bad that's happened to his family. And if you asked me what Ray has learned about parenting from Mickey, it would seem that the character's made a very clear decision that he's going to raise his own children in a completely different way.

That's an interesting dynamic, especially now that Mickey's back. Jon, do you think Mickey's angry about Ray's decisions? Is he coming back to reclaim his place in the family?

Voight: Well, I think Mickey's a kind of a fellow who's a survivor and is trying to put his life together. Obviously he's spent 20 years in jail, and a lot of that time's been just surviving physically. His relationship to the family is important to him, but his whole, he's got a lot of things to do with Mickey. Mickey's not a whole person, as one would say. And he's got a lot of demons. And therefore, and a lot of bad habits. He's dangerous to any society, any group in society, and especially his family. Ray identifies that.

That doesn't mean that Mickey doesn't love his family. He does. He thinks he can be helpful. He thinks he can make decisions for others and he knows the right way. But he's a dangerous fellow.

You talk about Mickey trying to survive physically in prison. One of the things I thought was interesting was how Ray and Mickey have different approaches to the sexual abuse that Bunchy suffered. Ray tries to be very sensitive, and Mickey, there's this horrible scene at Bunchy's support group where Mickey tells inappropriate jokes and tells everyone to toughen up. Does that come from Mickey's own response to the prison environment?

Voight: Part of it is Mickey doesn't want to admit there's anything wrong. He's trying to rationalize the damage that he's done. Because if he looks at it carefully, it will break him. Which is where we're headed in some fashion in the 12 chapters of our series. Will anybody ever sit Mickey in front of him and tell him who he is?

Liev, I was wondering if you could talk about Ray's relationships with his brothers. He's in this uncomfortable position where he has both made more of his life than they have, and has had to step in as a father, particularly for Bunchy, because of his substance-abuse problems. That can't be a comfortable situation for two grown men to be in.

"Mickey doesn't want to admit there's anything wrong. Because if he looks at it carefully, it will break him. Which is where we're headed in some fashion in the 12 chapters of our series."

Schreiber: I think Ray does feel like he stepped in for his father as the patriarch of his family. And I don't know that his brothers or even Ray himself is totally comfortable with this position. But Ray's taken it on. He feels obligated to play that role. Ironically, I was just thinking as I was listening to Jon, I don't think they're that different, to be perfectly honest. Mickey's developed a sense of humor that Ray, in his pain, has a harder time accessing. But in truth, they're both approaching the subject from the perspective of survivors. In other words, they're keeping it at arm's distance. I don't know how sensitive Ray is to any of it. He's caring for his brothers, and he's protective. But I think Ray's approach to things is a kind of violent one, that's a survivor's instinct. And I think in many respects he's learned that from his father.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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