Liev Schreiber is exhausted. Wiped out. Beat. And, frankly, a bit distracted.
“I’m tired, boy,” groans the 51-year-old actor, director, and veteran Shakespearean. Schreiber just finished filming season six of Ray Donovan, his hit Showtime crime drama in which he plays a hard-nosed “fixer,” cleaning up messes left by Hollywood stars, sometimes with extreme prejudice. It’s a meaty, career-defining role. And one that has made Schreiber a perennial Golden Globe nominee.
Created by Ann Biderman (a veteran of crime dramas like NYPD Blue and Southland), Ray Donovan is a mean show. It’s two-fisted, whiskey-slugging, barroom-brawling programming; the type of show where hard men say hard things in menacing Boston accents. It’s tough-guy TV. And though Schreiber’s no stranger to playing the tough guy — whether as Sabretooth, the feral foil to Wolverine in the X-men movies, or the conniving congressman in Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, or even in his breakout role as accused murderer Cotton Weary in Wes Craven’s Scream — Donovan still takes its toll. “I just wrapped on Saturday,” he says, his voice heavy. “It takes a little while to make sense of it.”
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So Schreiber is decompressing, attending to chores around his New York City home. Tools clutter the hallway as he performs repairs on the heavy-duty bicycle he uses to commute around town with his two sons, Sasha and Samuel Kai. The NYC potholes have also exacted a heavy toll on Schreiber, and so he’s replacing a bike-mounted wine box he uses for storage. Despite the commotion, he has no complaints cycling around New York City with his children. As he puts it in what might as well be a polished ad pitch for cycling: “It’s fast, economical. There’s no traffic. It’s the best. Bicycling.”
It’s a far cry from the badass image Schreiber has groomed on Ray Donovan and elsewhere. But then he snaps. And the grisly tough guy peeks out. “Hang on,” he mutters, over a cacophony of bangs, clangs, and rustling. “I gotta get all this shit outta the hallway.”
Season six brings Ray Donovan to New York City, following the — spoiler alert — death of his wife Abby (Paula Malcomson) in season five. Ever the consummate pro, Donovan finds his life is thrown into chaos. “He sees an opportunity to go underground for a while,” Schreiber explains. “And to get out of the business for a while. He doesn’t have to answer to anybody or anything. But he’s got some loose ends.”
Schreiber relates to Donovan’s difficulty managing his very dirty work and the demands of his family life. Underneath the violence, the bad temper, and the hard drinking, the character represents a paragon of masculinity that resonates with Schreiber. “When I first met Ray Donovan,” he explains, “I thought this was a very interesting take on masculinity — ironically, from a woman’s perspective. Oftentimes that’s the best way to understand anything — from the opposite perspective.”
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Playing Donovan — and, he has claimed, playing any character he has ever played — Schreiber taps into the memory of his maternal grandfather, a meat distributor who helped support Schreiber’s family early on. “A big part of acting is an exploration of self and identity,” says Schreiber. “He was such a big influence on me as a kid, particularly with anything to do with what it means to be a man. I saw some similarities with Ray in terms of behaviour — on the good side! Not on the unpredictable, violent, emotionally immature part. But his loyalty, his strength, his protectiveness. The somewhat arcane code of a gentleman, which I think has been lost in contemporary culture: what a man is responsible for, and how a man behaves in the presence of women, in the presence of children, in the presence of other men. He had high standards for that stuff.”
“I’m desperate to do more comedies. This has been a really long, dark run for me.”
Masculinity. Dignity. Responsibility. It’s all very serious. But there are other shades to Liev Schreiber; beneath the steely glare, broad shoulders, and studied air of intimidation. Between his credits as a director of public service announcements, bows on Broadway, and some high-profile political advocacy (he stumped for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 U.S. presidential primary, likening the democratic socialist hopeful to pro fixer Ray Donovan), there’s a genuine intellect and humanity beneath Schreiber’s knockaround-guy posturing. There’s also his, well, softer side.
In 2017, Schreiber voiced the baddie in, of all things, the My Little Pony movie. And this winter, he’s lending his steady timbre to the animated superhero movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, as Kingpin, the burly NYC crime lord. Schreiber’s no stranger to voice acting. He played one of the fiercer canines in Wes Anderson’s recent Isle of Dogs, and has a whole side career narrating historical documentaries and HBO sports movies (most famously, the acclaimed NFL training camp series Hard Knocks). “I had a take on Kingpin that I think they liked,” says Schreiber. “In the origin story, he’s a New York street fighter. So I thought, why don’t we dive into those origins and really make him from New York, and spend time on the streets?”
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It may seem like another stock tough-guy role. But what drew Schreiber into the Spider-Verse was something considerably sweeter: his sons. “I’m dying to do that stuff,” he says. “I have a couple of kids now, so I’m saying ‘yes’ to any job that appeals to anyone under the age of 12. For the past 10 or 15 years, I haven’t really made anything that my kids can see.”
The humour in the script also appealed to him. And it makes sense. Despite his bona fides as an on-screen heavy, and as an acclaimed Shakespearean thespian (earning raves performing the lead roles in Henry V, Macbeth, and Hamlet), Schreiber is woefully underrated as a comic actor. While he got his big-screen break playing a suicidal trans woman in Nora Ephron’s bleak holiday comedy Mixed Nuts, Schreiber’s handsomeness, his burliness, and the aura of low-key ominousness that hangs around him like a thick fog of Brut cologne don’t immediately scan as funny.
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But in films like The Ten (in which he plays a suburban dad compulsively collecting CAT scan machines), the Goon hockey movies, and the criminally undervalued Larry David-starring TV movie Clear History, Schreiber excavates a felt humour and pathos under his hardened visage. He says he’s currently writing something funny with his friend, author Jonathan Safran Foer, whose acclaimed novel Everything Is Illuminated Schreiber adapted for the screen (as writer and director) in 2005. And he really hopes it’ll get made.
“I started out by doing comedic monologues,” Schreiber says, waxing a bit nostalgic. “And I’d perform them for drunk people in college. And I’d go, ‘Okay. This is a good gig. I enjoy this.’ Then I did one Shakespeare play. And it’s like that joke, you know: you screw one goat — ’ ”
He asks me if I know that one. And I tell him I do.
“I’m desperate to do more comedies,” Schreiber confesses. But he’s worried that after years of playing the glowering, hard-drinking, barroom-brawling badass, he doesn’t know if he has it in him.
“This has been a really long, dark run for me,” he says of his tenure on Ray Donovan. “Maybe I’ve forgotten how to be funny. I don’t know.”
I tell him not to worry. After all, it’s just like riding a bike.