'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.

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.

And what makes Ray so good at his job is directly descended from his father. There's a fearlessness that he learned. And it's impossible for a child not to harbor some deep connection to that parent who is missing. And Ray inherited a kind of brutality that is born out of both the pain of his relationship to his father, and what he thinks a man is, as proscribed by his father's behavior.

Ray seems to believe he's evolved beyond his father's way of doing things. But I was struck in the way he's just more careful about being violent. When he threatens a stalker in the first episode, he's threatening someone who doesn't have a lot of power. Mickey, on the other hand, we meet when he's shooting a priest, an act that is bound to be investigated. It's not as if Ray has become more evolved so that he doesn't use violence, it's that he's more evolved in how he uses violence.

Schreiber: If you think Mickey is insensitive to the pain of his children, the first act he does when he gets out of prison is to commit murder in retaliation to his son's abuse, if that makes any sense. In a funny way, the antithesis is true about both characters. The guy who seems callous and unfeeling is willing to risk his own life as an emotional response to something that happens to his child. And the one who seems more sensitive is actually kind of profoundly shut down emotionally from the real needs of his family, which is a kind of unity, and openness, and lovingness.

Ray wants to sort of get away from the problem, and Mickey, in this almost damaging way, wants to get involved. Has Ray ever been to Bunchy's support group for sexual abuse survivors? Even though Mickey botched it by telling awful jokes about sexual abuse, he still went.

Schreiber: I don't think Ray's ever been to Bunchy's support groups, no, I really doubt it. I don't think Ray can handle it. I think that's too much for Ray.

Another thing that struck me as similar between Mickey and Ray, even though they don't acknowledge it, was the way both men approach sex and sexual abuse. Mickey is a bit of libertine. And Ray thinks of himself as this upright family man, but he almost gives into temptation in the pilot.

Schreiber: I think that Ray is running from that side of himself. But I think in some respects, there's an anguish and an anxiety about sexuality that Ray has that's a little different, that develops over the course of our season.

Voight: Well, I think that the thing that we find appealing about Mickey is that he's not politically correct in any way. He says what he thinks. And yes, he's a complete libertine. But on the other hand, he has this great loyalty and love for Claudette [a woman with whom Mickey had a child outside his marriage]. He's absolutely a romantic. He's in love with love, and he's set his sites on this gal.

Liev: Are you familiar at all with any of the 12-step stuff?


Liev: Well, it would appear that Ray and Mickey fall into the classic categories of love addict and love avoidant, if that makes any sense. I think Ray, from the loss of his father and the loss of his mother at a very early age, is really struggling in particular with his relationships to women. He's kind of developed this kind of white-knight syndrome, which may on the outside seem like a dignified, honorable position, but it's not a terribly healthy one. Ray has real confusion about his relationship to women, which is, I think, partially because of the loss of his mother and father at a very early age, and partially because of the Catholicism, and I think there's some other factors that as they play out will become clearer about that.

One of the things I loved so much when I first read Ann's work was this deep sort of insight she seems to have into the psychosexual world of men, and why I thought it would be an interesting character to take a shot at, because the roles for men have shifted so much in the past century. And it's something that we don't really acknowledge that much. As you said, men are still kind of functioning under the presumption that they are the protector-hunter-gatherer-breadwinner types. And the reality in today's society is that's generally not the case anymore. That lack of a role, particularly when you're missing a father and mother, is a profound. That missing piece is really difficult for a lot of men, particularly men like Ray.

Is Mickey more secure in his sexuality than Ray is? Mickey tells Ray's son Conor that he knew some good gay men in prison. When we see him at a club, he's actually dancing at a gay club, presumably because it has the kind of music that he likes. Ray, on the other hand, has seen his brother's abuse, he worries about his son developing a friendship with an actor who's involved in a sex scandal. He seems wound a little tighter, where Mickey, even though he's from a different time, seems to be more sexually liberated.

Schreiber: You know, you read the reviews, but then you talk to someone, and they say something like that, and you feel very successful. I think you're absolutely right. I think that's a really good read on the characters. And what I love about that in terms of the writing is it's so unexpected. It would appear on the surface that Ray is a confident, dominant male. And the behavior suggests something entirely different, which is really, I think, exciting.

Jon, I was curious about that element of the role. Again, you'd mentioned Mickey's physical safety in prison. Did he have relationships with men in prison? Is he strictly straight?

Voigt: If you do 20 years in prison, you have to make do, you have to deal with all sorts of things. And one of them is how do you express your sexuality? How do you get through that? You know, he had to find a way to get through that. And whatever way he did that--with his sense of humor, and his guile, and whatever--he made it through intact as far as he can tell. And he said he learned a lot of things in prison. "I'm a wise man," he says to Conor. "I learned a lot in the can."

Schreiber: I personally loved that about Mickey's arc, at least in the first half of the season. It's another thing that Ann has tackled, which is the prison systems. And when we talk about rehabilitating criminals, what they're taught in our prison systems. And when you put them back into society, how they interact is based on how they were taught to interact in prison. It's impossible for a lot of them to function when they've done that much time.

Jon: I know a little bit about this, I've done some research at different times, and have some great friendships with people. Several have expressed that they're frightened when they get out of prison. I've said, "Why would you be frightened?" They said "Because someone can stab you in the back and leave the country and you're never going to find them. But in prison they have to be accountable. If someone goes after you and you survive, you'll find them." That restriction on people's behavior.

Do you think Ray sees Hollywood as like the Catholic Church? Does he think his children are at risk from Hollywood figures the same way his brothers were at risk from priests?

Schreiber: I certainly think Ray approaches Hollywood with the same cynicism with which he approaches the Catholic Church. Yes. The same guardedness, and the same anxieties.

Voight: On the other end of this line you have Mickey. I'm laughing at everything.

What has Ray had to do to turn himself from someone who fit in Boston to someone who fits in in Los Angeles? And what does Mickey make of Los Angeles? He seems to see it as a ridiculous playground.

Schreiber: I think that Ray learned a very valuable skill on the streets of Southie, which is to keep his mouth shut. And that is something that serves him very well in Hollywood. He has been able to contain things, that's his survival skill. He has been able to suppress, repress, and contain things. And that works very well for his job, where the stakes aren't very high, because they don't emotionally affect him in the way his family does. But I think his father is a different subject. His father is probably the only person other than his wife and his mother, and maybe his brothers, actually, but his father most of all, [who] has the ability to access the gooey core.

Voight: He's concocted this dream world out of Hollywood. And now he's living in it. And has some access to it because of what his son has created. So he has a way into it. And it's been a dream of his to be in Hollywood, so he has a very unrealistic view of it. But he deals with it just as he would South Boston. He knows there are certain people you pay attention to, certain people you have to avoid, and there's a lot out there for fun and pickings if you play your cards right.

Schreiber: I also get the impression that Mickey could actually be a player in Hollywood. In terms of that who love addict and avoidant thing, Mickey is a natural for Hollywood. He's a romantic, there's a creativity to him, there's a sense of humor about him, there's a glamor to him that I think makes Mickey perfect for Hollywood. Had he not become a thug, he could have been somebody, at least in Hollywood.