If ever there were a time Liev Schreiber wished he could enlist the lawfully questionable problem-solving acumen of Ray Donovan, the titular Hollywood fixer he has portrayed with skillful intensity for multiple seasons on Showtime, the moment would be now.
It's a balmy Friday afternoon in Venice, Calif., and Schreiber has had little to no sleep. He wrapped production on Season 5 of "Ray Donovan" around 5 a.m. and now, slightly bleary-eyed, he must contend with packing up the beachside rental home he's been occupying for a few weeks before heading to New York.
"God, I wish I could get [stuff] done, I'm pathetic," Schreiber says with an understated smirk while seated in the patio. "I have so much moving to do today. Where's Ray? I'd say: 'I don't need you to beat up anybody. I don't need you to go drinking. I don't need you to have sex. I just need you to pack this [damn] house, Ray.'"
The truth of it is, Ray probably would prefer that chore over all that he endures in the upcoming fifth season of the drama.
While Schreiber's stoic alter ego is no stranger to heartache and unrelenting lawlessness — not to mention the bruises and family chaos that result — the new season of the series (premiering Sunday) dials it up, to say the least. To say more about where the show picks up in the premiere would hamper the experience —but we can say Susan Sarandon is playing a top studio head in a season-long guest star arc.
"I think the wheels really come off this season," Schreiber says. "[Executive producer] David [Hollander] and I talked about it; how do we initiate some change, some massive seismic shift in this character and in this world? And, well, you take the ground out from beneath them."
That he's even talking about this character five seasons in is only somewhat surprising to Schreiber.
In the course of his 20-plus-year-career, the actor — who has played roles ranging from a brawny mutant (Sabretooth in the "Wolverine" franchise) and a steadfast newspaper editor ("Spotlight") to a scrupulous salesman (Broadway's "Glengarry Glen Ross") — had looked to television as a means of creating a home base for his family. (Schreiber has two sons — 9-year-old Sasha and 8-year-old Kai — with Naomi Watts, from whom he split last fall after 11 years.)
"I told my agents, 'Let's look for something in L.A.' And they found this noir-y fixer show, and I was like, 'Not likely, but let's give it a shot,' " the 49-year-old actor recalls with a raise of his eyebrow that suggests his foolishness. That shot has taken him through five seasons and three Emmy nominations for the role, including a nod this year.
"It's the most intense thing I've ever done," Schreiber says. "To work on a character again and again and again and again. I've never done more than a three-month run of a character. That your character is evolving and growing — you almost feel parental towards them.
"I've also never really, in my career, played the lead," he later adds. "I'm accustomed to figuring out what my piece of the puzzle is, how I serve the whole. That's what's been really interesting with this character — figuring out what his job is in terms of moving the narrative forward."
During this momentary respite from packing, Schreiber, much like Ray, is soft-spoken and wears his exhaustion in his eyes— but he's far more cheerful than the severe character he's inhabited on the series. He gets a kick out of Ziggy, who came with the house rental, as the dog mounts the outdoor sofa to lick his face. And he points to a few surfboards that line the fence, saying he tries to hit the water at least once a week to help wash off the emotional baggage of work.
Hollander, who serves as showrunner on "Ray Donovan," says Schreiber's extraordinarily exacting approach to his work makes embodying this kind of haunted character tough.
"He digs for and pushes for more," Hollander says by phone. "There are times I watch him from the monitors on set and go, 'Oh, you ...' He brings this stuff out. I find it very powerful and really compelling. He's always thinking about the character." A notion that is illustrated when Schreiber reveals that he thinks Ray might be "disturbed right now" by the political news cycle because he believes the character is Republican.
Others who've worked with Schreiber echo Hollander's sentiments. Philippe Falardeau, who directed Schreiber in the fight film "Chuck" — about heavyweight Chuck Wepner, the inspiration for Rocky Balboa — spoke of the actor's curiosity.
"His thought process is thorough," Falardeau says by email. "It's a perpetual research of the character's persona in relation to his social environment, always in the light of the film's meaning. … He likes to discuss the role over and over, formally or informally. We would talk for hours and then exchange pictures, songs, poems, films, anything that could spark a new idea, nourish the humanity of the character and bring traction to the story."
For Schreiber, when it comes to Ray, the motivation goes beyond making a brawl look realistic or hitting the right note of intensity during a family squabble. It's finding the truth in the demons that plague the character: His sister committed suicide, he and his two brothers endured sexual abuse from their priest, and his father's actions have wreaked havoc on the family.
"It's just pain, there's a tremendous amount of pain," Schreiber says. "There's a physicality to playing him that I don't know how to describe to people. He's gone through a lot emotionally growing up. And he has an inherently kind of volatile nature, so in a lot of scenes, you're ramping up tension and then not expressing it because that's his problem, is expressing it. And, man, does it take a lot out of you."
Schreiber says having his kids around helps him detach from that mind-set at home. Just a couple of weeks prior, he was chaperoning them during an outing at Comic-Con. Schreiber was at the annual convention to promote his new film, "My Little Pony: The Movie," a gig he took to add some family-friendly credits to his repertoire that his kids could watch,while Watts was there for her turn in the "Twin Peaks" reboot. But it was photos of Schreiber with his sons — one dressed as a "Star Wars" Jedi, the other as Harley Quinn — that quickly had the Internet talking: many praising him, others deriding him.
"I had mixed feelings about it," Schreiber says of the chatter. "It's hard being in the public eyes all the time. It's hard having your kids scrutinized. It's painful. But at the same time, you have to give them as normal a life as you possibly can. You have to allow them to be themselves and let them grow. It's just a kid playing dress-up, you know? … This is a tough gig sometimes. But I am incredibly fortunate, and so are my kids."
It's that kind of protectiveness for his kids that he shares with Ray, though his execution, he'd like to think, is less harrowing.
With all the talk of how emotionally vexing playing Ray can be, does Schreiber think about the endgame? Only in terms of what he wants for his character when the credits roll, he says.
"I want peace for him, that's really it," Schreiber says. "He deserves it. I've come to really love him as a character. I think there is something very Christ-like in many ways — that sense of he suffers for others and it's noble, misguided, but noble. There's something about him that I admire. He's so lost and in so much pain. He's in most every way not a role model, but there's something very sweet about him that makes me hope one day that he finds peace."
Then Schreiber gets to his current endgame as the interview wraps. He pulls out his phone, cues up Donny Hathaway's rendition of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy" to play over the home's sound system, and leans down to nuzzle his face against Ziggy's.
"Let's get to packing," he says.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)