It’s early morning in Seattle, and Liev Schreiber is recuperating from a long stretch of filming. He’s visiting his dad with his two young sons, Sasha and Kai, having just wrapped the final episode of season four of his show, Ray Donovan, the night before. His voice, while exhausted and raspy, seems light and relieved. He’ll soon be heading to his new house in Montauk with his girlfriend, Naomi Watts, and their boys, where he can surf and enjoy some worry-free downtime.
For the past six months, Schreiber has worked tirelessly on the L.A. set of Showtime’s hottest series, shooting 18-hour days as a man of action, not words—a Boston enforcer now West Coast-based, lying in wait, ready to pounce on the next bad guy, protecting his family at all costs. Between making script notes, trying to push the intellectual boundaries of his character and directing (Schreiber helmed the season’s first episode), he’s also had to maintain a physique most 48-year-old men only dream of having. After all, he’s starring this fall in The Bleeder (which he also produced) as real-life boxing legend Chuck Wepner, playing opposite Watts.
But Schreiber might have more on his mind during his Montauk vacation—during which he’ll also meet up with friends like Hugh Jackman—because the buzz about this three-time Emmy nominee (with two nods for Ray Donovan) is that come September, it’ll be his turn to win. I caught up with my childhood New York City pal to talk about his strengths as an actor, keeping all of his families together in work and in life, and finding joy in the little things.
Are you still in the middle of filming Ray Donovan?
We’ve been on nights for two weeks to finish up the season. It’s been insane. I wrapped yesterday about 4:30am, then I grabbed the boys and got on a plane and flew up to my dad’s place on Bainbridge Island in Seattle. We had dinner here last night; we had some Dungeness crabs and then crashed at 9. Uh-oh, my son Sasha is already wearing his quiver of bows. He got an archery set from grandpa. He’s very stoked about it.
Your character is very monosyllabic, almost language-impaired. I know you’re a man of language—did your Broadway experience help you with this character?
I’ve always thought of acting as an exercise in language. Playing a character like Ray is an exercise in adapting, which is part of what appealed to me about it. There’s less language, so you have to be more expressive without the support and specificity of words. I took the job because I was curious about it; I had done a lot of movies, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to work as intensely on something as Ray Donovan, doing it every day and watching really amazing people, like Jon Voight, Paula Malcomson, Eddie Marsan and Dash Mihok, work. In many ways, it was kind of a mash of us and film acting, and art was designed for that. Art was designed for restraint in language. Theater helped because in theater, the character is what it is—particularly doing something like Shakespeare or classical theater, it’s not like you can change the language or try to figure out what it is in the form that works for you. But Ray didn’t have a lot of words, and rather than trying to get more words—which is something I’m actually doing—it was about trying to understand what it means to not have words.
You directed the summer’s season premiere as well as the film Everything Is Illuminated, which was amazing. What are you hoping to achieve being on the other side of the camera, and how was it directing yourself?
I hate directing myself! Television, particularly a show like Ray Donovan where there are so many scenes, is about transitions from scene to scene. It’s especially true for Ray Donovan’s genre, which is kind of noir television. With so many scenes, there’s a lot of cutting up and transitioning. To do it successfully, you have to constantly be watching composition, and you can’t watch composition if you’re in the scene unless you stop and watch the playback. We’re essentially shooting half of a feature film in 10 to 13 days, and the whole machine grinds to a halt if you stop to look at playbacks. That’s the difficult part. But I wanted to do it because this was an opportunity afforded to me. By doing the show, I was learning more and more. I enjoy directing, I made a film, and when my kids are a little older, I hope to make another one. It’s something that I always wanted to do, and now I was being given the keys to the car.
This season, Ray is definitely thinking more and using his fists less. Is that direction coming from you personally for your character?
I don’t want to admit to that because all the fans will want me to use my fists more and will get angry. I had hoped that after season three, Ray would be looking for a new way to be. One of the things that scares me on a show like this is redundancies, so you try to find a new way to approach the character and the narrative.
The family dynamic seems to be the most important aspect of this season—making the sacrifices, protecting loved ones.
That’s true about the show: At the heart of the show is a story about family. Both David Hollander, the showrunner and head writer, and I felt it was important was to get deeper into that.
Are there any parallels between your character and your real life? Are you the alpha male, the protector and the caregiver at times?
Well, Naomi calls me an alpha male every once in a while, usually in a derogatory way. And then she also says it in a loving way, but I don’t see myself that way, no. In terms of the love and the loyalty that I think Ray has, it’s something I certainly aspire to. The violence, not at all.
How has fatherhood changed you?
Oh, wow. Well, it certainly made me older. It’s constantly teaching me about compassion. It’s constantly reminding me to be less selfish, to try to give more, to love more and to be present more. But it has a pretty amazing payoff in the end.
I know you love to box, and you narrate boxing documentaries for HBO, and you played football in college. Do you miss being part of a team or do you prefer being on your own?
I am part of a team. Ray Donovan is several teams. I have a family team that involves my own family, but I didn’t have them for half a year, so that was tough. I leaned much more on my Ray Donovan family, and they saved my ass.
How was it taking on the role of boxing legend Chuck Wepner in The Bleeder?
Training to be a professional fighter in your late 40s is not entirely pleasant, but I enjoyed that. We shaved my head and put a wig over it so that it looked like I had thinning hair, which was insanely humiliating—it meant I had to walk around the streets not only with a handlebar mustache, but with sideburns, which is a really unpleasant look, for about two or three months. I had to spend three, 3 1/2 hours in the makeup chair every morning doing prosthetics. But it was so much fun with the cast: Elisabeth Moss, Jim Gaffigan, Naomi, everyone.
How was it playing opposite Naomi?
Naomi brings her game. We did it once before, in The Painted Veil, and it was intense then because she doesn’t mess around, and it was intense again. I love to see her play a character that she really went for, and I was very impressed. Naomi is this very attractive, kind of demure, English girl and Linda Pandoliano, Chuck’s wife, has got a lot going on. She’s a big, sexy broad from Hoboken, and Naomi went for it. I’m really proud of what she did.
I can’t wait to see it. Is there a type of part that you’d like to play that you haven’t yet?
I’ve been so incredibly fortunate. Ray Donovan was something that I wanted to do and I got to do. Having pushed in that direction of intensity and darkness, to do something light and playful like Chuck Wepner in The Bleeder was so important to me. It’s not just a boxing movie; there’s a lot of comedy and romance. I want to do more of that, particularly if I continue playing Ray.
Your role in Spotlight was fantastic, and it’s such an important film. Why do you think it resonated so much with audiences?
I told Tom [McCarthy, the co-writer and director] when I read it that this is an incredible thing that he’s done. The timing is just amazing, and it’s done with such dignity and in such a restrained and intelligent way. There’s a crisis in journalism today, a lack of solid, coherent, unbiased investigative journalism, which is so essential to our democracy. If we don’t take steps to protect that and support it, we’re doing ourselves a disservice. This current presidential campaign really outlines how important it is for us to have coherent and unbiased coverage. How important for us, not only as individuals, but as a society and a democracy, to have watchdogs on powerful individuals, corporations and organizations that inform us on how we vote and how we behave politically. I think most people agree that’s something that’s gone by the wayside. Media companies have taken over newspapers and television news and most of journalism. It’s a tricky business, but incredibly important.
On a lighter note, why the move from Amagansett to Montauk?
I just wanted to be next to [photographer, conceptual artist and friend] Dave Sokolin, to tell you the truth. That, and the fact that I love to surf. I wanted to get my kids closer to the water, and I was able to achieve both of those things in Montauk.
Who’s the cook in your family?
Both Naomi and I love to cook. In fact, Sasha likes to cook too. Sasha makes Asian greens with olive oil and sea salt, and I kid you not, it’s just exquisite.
What’s your specialty?
I like to make a nice chicken tagine with couscous. It’s fun and flavorful. I also like anything braised, like briskets and lamb shoulders.
Do you have a favorite restaurant out east?
We used to go to Dave’s Grill all of the time. When Ingrid [Sischy, longtime Interview editor and Vanity Fair contributing editor] was alive, we would always go there; it was her favorite place, and it became my favorite place. And we’re really looking forward to trying Tutto il Giorno.
What are you most proud of?
The kids, Sasha and Kai Schreiber. My best work.
Is there a flaw you wish you didn’t have?
Which one? I’ve got a bunch of them. I worry too much, and then that makes me eat ice cream.
What’s your idea of perfect happiness?
I hate to say, it’s something really cheesy—but you know those moments when you wake up before the kids and they’re in bed with you and they don’t know that they’re snuggling? That’s very much the best. Once they know, then they want to get out of bed and it’s no fun. Those moments when they kind of inadvertently or instinctually put their head on your arm, that’s perfect happiness.
I know, I have three of my own.
I think I’m going to see what mine are up to now.
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