‘Ray Donovan’: New Coast, Same Wounds

NEW YORK — When Liev Schreiber arrived on set last month to shoot a late-season episode of “Ray Donovan,” his shirt was a blazing white, his jeans were neatly creased and his face was just a mess. There was blood on his hairline, bruises wreathed his nose. This is a familiar “Ray Donovan” look. The makeup team lives for contusions.

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Alexis Soloski
, New York Times

NEW YORK — When Liev Schreiber arrived on set last month to shoot a late-season episode of “Ray Donovan,” his shirt was a blazing white, his jeans were neatly creased and his face was just a mess. There was blood on his hairline, bruises wreathed his nose. This is a familiar “Ray Donovan” look. The makeup team lives for contusions.

As he passed by, Schreiber told me that I should have seen him last week. “I was just covered in gore,” he said.

But that day something was different. Schreiber was filming in the light-drenched penthouse of a loft building that overlooked rusting water towers, regal high-rises, the Hudson’s frayed ribbon. It was a quintessential New York view. Why was Ray Donovan staring it down?

Since “Ray Donovan” had its premiere on Showtime in 2013, Schreiber, who stars as a bruised Hollywood fixer, has been a poster boy — sometimes literally — for California noir. But the fifth season drew several of the characters to New York, where Ray’s wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson), was undergoing cancer treatments. When Abby died, Ray took a free dive into the East River, risking death or at least an enterococcus infection. He survived. He stayed. The show, which returns Oct. 28, did, too.

The move to New York has been a way to reinvigorate the series and to support Schreiber, its star. The cast has remained more or less the same (Susan Sarandon, introduced last season, returns) and the story lines swerve Ray into and out of danger at the usual pace. But a new town means new troubles, a lot of them extra-diegetic (who knew it would be so hard to location-scout a bar in Staten Island), and maybe some new opportunities.

“We gave it a shot and here we are,” said David Hollander, the “Ray Donovan” showrunner.

He was speaking by telephone as he tramped up Canal Street in the rain. He’d been on a scouting mission with several other members of the “Ray Donovan” team. But he’d left the van, betting he could make better time on foot. He did. (“I crushed them,” he said.)

It was a tidy illustration of a messier problem: Shooting in New York isn’t easy. In Los Angeles, the “Ray Donovan” production team was a known quantity. It had its crew, its spaces, its blinding sun and yawning shadows style. Moving to New York has meant competing for bodies and places, retooling scripts dreamed up in a California writers room to match major metropolitan realities. The decibels are higher here, the weather is worse, the interiors are narrower, the paperwork is heftier and the props-rental houses — don’t even start.

The competition for locations is so fierce and the availability so limited that “Ray Donovan” has to rely on television magic and a lot of E-ZPasses. The Staten Island scenes are shot in Nyack and Yonkers — Yonkers plays Long Island, too. “Just getting people to let you in their homes or restaurants or businesses, it takes a little talking into,” Tom Ross, the locations manager, said by phone. Episodes take longer to film and they are costing more, Hollander said, although the incentives New York offers to film and television projects walk back most of that overage.

“The obstacles are kind of exciting,” Hollander said optimistically.

What’s a not-so-nice guy like Ray doing in a not-so-nice place like this? There are two answers. One is about trying to keep this long-running but still successful show from falling into familiar, brutal ruts. Last season’s fractured timeline and death of Abby was one way to reroute. A move across the country is another. (“Ray Donovan” switched coasts with another prestige Showtime show, “The Affair,” which moved to Southern California from Brooklyn last season.)

“Everybody felt that after five seasons, the show needed some new energy and a reboot,” Schreiber said.

The other impetus for the move was more personal. Schreiber’s two school-age sons live in New York. (He shares custody with their mother, actress Naomi Watts, his former partner.) “It relieves a tremendous pressure on me, letting me be closer to my kids,” Schreiber said.

Hollander confirmed that while this was one reason for the show to move, it was introduced as part of a broader conversation, not as a demand from his star.

Does a move to New York provide enough relief? Schreiber has said that the character of Ray — the violence he suffers, the violence he inflicts — weighs on him. “The darkness and what I’ve done, I’ve blamed on it,” he said last month at the Tribeca TV Festival.

In a car on his way to Yonkers — he’d thought filming in New York would mean less time in cars but so far no (fuzzy) dice — Schreiber described his mood during filming.

“You get kind of catatonic,” he said. “Everything is exhausting, you just want to get in bed with a pint of ice cream at the end of the day.” He said the work made it harder to engage with the people around him and though he doesn’t think it led to his 2016 separation from Watts (sorry, I pried), he said that the end of that relationship had created more sadness, more disconnect.

Despite that, he said he wanted to stick with Ray, for practical reasons — the checks pay his kids’ tuition, he feels responsible for the crew members, he worries that he’ll never work again — and for sentimental ones. If Ray was gone, he’d miss him. Still, when I asked how long he wanted to keep living with the character, he responded by asking someone in the car, “What’s the language I should use to keep me out of trouble?” So place your bets. But for now, Ray is here, and in a place “that has darker hues and far more energy and simultaneity of places and events,” Hollander said. Ray Yamagata, the production designer who gave me a set tour at Cine Magic East River Studios in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, took me through the sets for the current season, the cramped, grimy studios, the swanky lofts. “It’s been visually very different,” he said.

We entered Ray’s apartment, all hard angles and hard wood. A crew member was busy dusting an enormous leather sectional. “The intent,” Yamagata said, “was to have Ray almost overwhelmed by the beginning of the season.” The furniture is oversized on purpose. A Showtime publicist oohed over the loft’s giant bathroom. Then she noticed a pile of blood-soaked towels. New season, same spatter.

As Hollander said, “The show may have moved, but the narrative can only be where it is.” New York will change Ray, he hoped, maybe even redeem him. But not overnight.

That’s a funny thing about prestige drama. Changing coasts is comparatively easy; changing characters in any remotely honest way is more complicated. “I would like to get back to where everyone else is screwed up and Ray’s fine,” Schreiber said. But he knows that’s unlikely for an abuse victim like Ray. When a man is this deeply damaged, healing takes time.

“We owe it to the character and to anyone who relates to him to try and figure it out,” he said.

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