Guest of Honor

Liev Schreiber on ‘Ray Donovan’ and Hybrid Dogs

The acclaimed stage actor makes the transition to TV in the hit new series "Ray Donovan"; the role has earned him a Golden Globe nomination.

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Photo by Jeff Riedel/SHOWTIME
Photo: Jeff Riedel/SHOWTIME

For two decades, Liev Schreiber has been acting in a wide assortment of theater and film – but he never wanted to do a television show.

That, however, was before finding himself in the starring role on Showtime’s new series, “Ray Donovan,” where he plays the title character, a South Boston native who lives in L.A. and works as a fixer for a high-end law firm. And although he solves the problems of the rich and famous, he has problems of his own, not least of which is his father’s early release from prison.

He talks about how much he loves working with his fellow actors, how much he dislikes a certain bit of automotive product placement, and a thesis project that involved wearing elaborate costumes – but had nothing to do with acting.

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Brendan Francis Newnam: Liev, this show has two major storylines. In one, your character zooms around L.A. and helps the rich and famous make their problems disappear. And in the other storyline, there’s Ray’s turbulent family life. From an acting standpoint, which one of those stories do you prefer? Which is more fun to play?

Liev Schreiber: The family stuff is a lot more fun – but it’s not very interesting why it’s fun. It’s fun because I like those actors. And I like working with those actors.

When you’re doing the fixer stuff, you’re working with people who are on for a day or two. But the real heart of the thing for me is the ensemble, it’s this really, really stellar group of actors. And they play my family, so I only get work with them in the family scenes.

Although, I do enjoy swinging a bat at a stuntman every now and again.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And you get to drive a really vicious-looking Mercedes.

Liev Schreiber: I hate that car.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You do?

Liev Schreiber: I really hate that car.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Do you think it’s not the right car pairing for Ray?

Liev Schreiber: I just think that that’s just a ridiculous little car. It’s too small. I hope Mercedes isn’t listening, because I’m sure somebody made some sort of deal with them to get that car on the show.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh yeah.

So I heard you talking about Ray Donovan on another public radio show, Fresh Air… I used to work there actually.

Liev Schreiber: Yeah. Oh really? What happened?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, I wanted to be Terry.

Liev Schreiber: Oh, yeah, Terry doesn’t take kindly to that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, and you know, she’s not going anywhere.

She has her compatriot Dave Davies to help her, and in fact, you were talking to him about your show, and specifically you were telling him what it’s like being on a serial television show.

This is the first series you’ve starred in, and you said, “The interesting thing about doing serial television is that the character is growing separate from you, and as an actor, you get to observe that.” Can you talk about that a little more?

Liev Schreiber: Well, you know, I never wanted to do a television show. And I guess when I first got into acting, to be honest, I was cruising, I was like, “Wow, this is really easy and they pay you, and it’s kind of a great lifestyle.” And the best part was that there was such variety, that you go to do something different all the time.

And then you know, if you’re lucky enough to get into the movie business, they really pay you, and they take you places you probably would never get a chance to go, and they teach you things like how to play hockey, or you know, how to speak another language.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s like summer camp, but you’re getting paid a lot of money.

Liev Schreiber: It’s fantastic. And I thought “Wow, this really is the life for me.” I’m someone who’s always been drawn to change, constant change. And so for that reason I thought, “I’m never going to do a television show, because I couldn’t imagine doing the same thing over and over again.”

What I discovered once I started doing a couple of episodes was, that you’re not doing the same thing all of the time. What’s fascinating about it from an acting perspective is that the thing grows and changes separately from you. There are a lot of other people collaborating on this thing: writers, directors, editors, other actors.

The character is developing in a way that you can almost watch it grow, and then sort of meet it at this next new place and take it to another. It’s like you’re all contributing something to it, but no one’s really in control of it, and that’s very exciting. No one person is in control of it. That’s an exciting way to work.

Brendan Francis Newnam: We have two standard questions we ask on our show. The first question is, what question are you tired of being asked in interviews?

Liev Schreiber: That one.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Really?

Liev Schreiber: I’m so sick of being asked what question am I tired of being asked in interviews.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What? No way. I’ve never… You’ve been asked this question really?

Liev Schreiber: They ask me a lot the same questions.

You know which question that I am kind of tired of? I’m kind of tired of the question about what’s the difference between theater and film. That one’s annoying.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s why I didn’t ask it. I know the answer. Do you want to ask me?

Liev Schreiber: What’s the difference between theater and film?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, theater is an actor’s medium. With theater the actor’s in control of the performance. But with movies, the director and the editor ultimately control what’s on screen.

Liev Schreiber: Who told you that?

Brendan Francis Newnam: That was Joseph Gordon Levitt.

Liev Schreiber: I think I’ve given that answer. It’s not the best answer, but I’ve given that answer.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, we have another question, a request actually. Tell us something we don’t know. It can either be a personal fact about you, or an interesting piece of trivia.

Liev Schreiber: Well, my senior thesis at Hampshire College, undergraduate, was on the subject of canine vocalizations, which is a fancy way of saying dog barking. Basically, I had to go out in different costumes in front of a kennel of dogs.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Are you being serious? This happened?

Liev Schreiber: This is serious. I did this. I went and I had a clown costume, I went in a dress, I went dressed all in black, I went dressed normally.

We were trying to see the frequency of the barks and what it meant, and as they got to know me, how they would change, and which breeds would change more. There were more feral dogs, and there were these dogs called F12 hybrids.

My senior project was not that interesting, I’ll admit that now. Two interesting facts: one is I wanted to be an animal behaviorist, and two, my teacher developed this dog that was called the F12 hybrid.

What’s so fascinating, if you know anything about working dogs, cattle dogs, there are two kinds of dogs. There’s a UCD and a UPD. One’s a conducting dog, and one’s a protecting dog. Conducting dogs are like border collies, which are essentially hunting the sheep.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Like shepherds.

Liev Schreiber: Stalk behavior – and that’s basically what conducting dogs are. Protecting dogs are big dogs like maremmas and sheepdogs, that actually protect the animals as if they’re part of the herd. And [my professor] Ray’s project was to develop a hybrid that could do both. It would revolutionize the cattle industry.

Brendan Francis Newnam: This is the F12?

Liev Schreiber: The F12 hybrid.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I have one last question. Preparing for this interview I found that you have a son named Kai. Our sister program is Marketplace, Kai Ryssdal’s the host, are you familiar?

Liev Schreiber: Kai Ryssdal, yeah. I know Kai Ryssdal. I mean I don’t know Kai Ryssdal, but I listen to Kai Ryssdal.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So and did that inspire the name or anything?

Liev Schreiber: Absolutely not.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Cause I was gonna say Brendan… not a bad name…

Liev Schreiber: Brendan’s a nice name.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, if you have another kid, you might want to… Better than Terry.

Liev Schreiber: I wouldn’t name my kid Brendan, but it’s nice too. It’s a beautiful name.