Liev Schreiber

Esquire – Jun 2014

TV Tough Guy, Ray Donovan, on masculinity.


Liev Schreiber’s not a hard man, but he plays one on TV – Ray Donovan, a shady Hollywood fixer whom the 1% call if they happen to wake up one morning next to a dead hooker. So he thinks about hard men – about masculinity and violence. And being a cerebral type, a noted Shakespearean and narrator of documentaries, he has more than a few things to say about it.

“You’d think true masculinity was just calm and collected happiness,” he says. “So alpha male that it needs not or worries not. But typically masculine characters are always fighting – and most violence comes from some agitated level of fear and anxiety. And the moments we associate with classic noir masculinity – the deep penetrating gaze and the pain behind the eyes – they’re all about expressing emotional trauma. So there’s an irony there – iconic masculinity is really about men revealing their feminine traits, their sensitivity.”

This is more than Ray Donovan says in a typical episode. Of all the challenges of the role, memorizing lines isn’t one of them. Like a noir hero, Schreiber’s Donovan is a troubled but principled man of precious few words who communicates chiefly through pained expressions, a weariness in the ways of men, and controlled explosions of violence. “But Ray’s violence doesn’t come from his ability to fight, or the violence in his nature,” says Schreiber. “It comes from the secrets that he’s carrying.”

Schreiber’s seen a bit of violence in his time. New York wasn’t a picnic in the 70s, when he was growing up. “But the worst bar fights I ever saw were in London,” he says. “I saw a guy break a pint glass in another guy’s face in a club in the 80. It was a gay club too. Real I’m-going-to-kill-you violence, no Marquess of Queensbury rules!”

As it turns out, he’s not hopeless in a scrap himself, as middle aged thespians go. He started boxing years ago to prepare for a part – as Chuck Wepner in a movie called The Bleeder, that never came out in the end. But he stuck with boxing. When in LA, he trains at the Wild Card gym where Manny Pacquiao trains with trainer Freddie Roach.  “There was a lot of fear at first,” he says. “But there’s something cathartic in overcoming that fear of being punched in the face repeatedly.”

It’s not the smartest hobby for an actor, as he readily admits. “I’ve broken my nose twice now in the past six months,” he says. “Once was in Montreal, in a boxing gym, and then literally a month and a half later, I walked into a glass door on a set.”

But there’s an essence of masculinity in it for Schreiber. And masculinity is something he thinks about – not just because of his work, or because he’s a man in his middling years, part of a generation for whom gender roles have shifted and shifted again. But because he has kids – he and his partner Naomi Watts have two boys, Sasha and Kai, ages five and six.

“When they came along, there was something kind of terrifying and sad about it,” he laughs. “Like it was the end of my time! And I started to enjoy acting less because I wanted to be with them.”

Ray Donovan snapped him out of it. This character, this bottled-up, tortured tough guy, prompted to him examine his own masculinity, and in turn the kind he would project for his boys. “It made me think about the male role models in my life,” he says. “What my values were and what I would pass onto my children. Like my grandfather. He was real tough nut. But what I think I admired most about him was just his defiant love for my mother when she went through hard times. He put everything on the line for her, gave up his life savings – that protectiveness of her and me was very moving for me.”

Schreiber’s upbringing was chaotic and eccentric, but in other ways a source of inspiration. His father was a wealthy dramatist, his mother a hippy bohemian, and when they split up, the custody battle was as Schreiber calls it, “very bitter, very ugly”. Liev was an infant when his mother went on the run with him, pursued by private detectives. When she won custody, they often went without electricity or water, and Live was raised with a Hindu name, sent to an ashram school and forbidden from watching color movies.

“How do we know what made us?” he asks. “I love my mother and father. The older I get the more I value everything that they gave me.”

But it was his grandfather who taught him how to be a man. And his values are safe with Schreiber, who teaches his own boys,  to open the door for women, and carry their bags. However much roles may have drifted, certain principles remain.

“I think probably the most terrified I’ve ever been in my life, was on an outing to Jones beach, in the late 70s,” he says. “I threw one of those little clear jellyfish at my brother’s girlfriend, Heidi, and my grandfather just became livid that I would do something so horrible to a girl. I still have night sweats about that moment. There’s no explaining it. But when my grandpa was moved to physical action, you felt utter terror.”