Liev Schreiber exudes a cool, unstudied masculinity. Tall and thoughtful with stubble on a strong jaw, he breaks for a cigarette and coffee on the set of his new show, "Ray Donovan," which premieres Sunday on Showtime.
The 45-year-old actor plays the titular character — a Hollywood "fixer" called upon to cover up, deflect or mediate public relations disasters for the rich and famous.
"Our obsession with celebrities, who are really, at the end of the day, just employees in the entertainment industry, is worth taking a look at," says Schreiber, sitting on a bench in a fake foyer at Sony Studios in Culver City. "They are fallible, sensitive people, just like us."
In the neo-noir landscape of sprawling Los Angeles, the gritty drama, which was created by "Southland's" Ann Biderman, does not shy away from the ugly side of celebrity. Masturbatory stalkers lurk in the shadows of sunny beaches, famous actors display pedophilia tendencies, and dead bodies are treated not as career-enders, but as inconveniences to be dealt with.
"A lot of people have to collude for people to get away with the … they get away with," says Biderman, whose speech is peppered by frequent curse words. "To create a Michael Jackson scenario, a lot of people have to keep saying 'yes.' And the more that happens the more you're living outside of permissible boundaries. I find that fascinating."
Boundaries are nonexistent to Schreiber's Ray, for whom no door is ever really locked and whose use of a baseball bat is more Al Capone, less Derek Jeter. And although he's a pro at making the problems of others disappear, he can't quite do the same thing when it comes to his complicated family.
His wife doesn't understand him, his kids are growing up too fast and his brothers, who work at the family's boxing club, have been left emotionally stunted by the psychological abuse of the family patriarch, Mickey.
Mickey, played with menace by veteran Jon Voight, is a crass low-life who recently got out of jail after serving 20 years for murder. Ray framed him to put him there.
Needless to say, it's a series dominated by antiheroes. Voight's Mickey is sneering and manipulative. He feeds his addict son cocaine, smokes weed with prostitutes and insinuates himself into Ray's family with a sly stealth.
"We've got wonderful actors playing delicious parts," says Voight on set. "There is a television renaissance happening."
The premium cable channel has high hopes for the hard-nosed drama whose complex and ambiguous moral themes mesh neatly with many of their other series such as Emmy-winning "Homeland," "Dexter" and "Nurse Jackie."
Biderman says she was lucky when she pitched the show because the network was looking for "a big, juicy macho show."
"I think you can only do true male psychology on premium cable," says Showtime's President of entertainment David Nevins. "That was one of the things 'The Sopranos' had going for it. It was clear that Ann had unique insight into the male psyche — she knows what drives men."
Schreiber agrees, saying he was unprepared for Biderman when he first met her.
"I was expecting to meet Raymond Chandler, and here comes this small, delicate woman who has the mouth of a prize fighter," he says. "She writes men better than anyone in the business, at the heart of this toughness is a tremendous sensitivity."
Ray is indeed the embodiment of the strong, silent type. The man who tucks his daughter into bed; makes sure his wife has a stack of cash for a new dress for date night; and is tempted by lithe, young starlets. The man who would also make bloody work of anyone who would hurt any of them.
Biderman has always been fascinated by the cause-and-effect patterns of bad behavior.
"I was a freaky kid, I've had a long obsession with crime," she says, curled in an office chair, her hair in a messy upsweep. "Other girls would be watching 'Gigi' and I'd be watching 'Detective Story' with Kirk Douglas."
Many of the show's episodic scenarios seem based on nonfictional Hollywood problems and characters. To say which ones would be to spoil important plot lines, but viewers will know them when they see them thanks to the tabloid frenzies they caused.
So that raises the question: Is there a real-life Ray Donovan?
Biderman is coy about that — a fixer wouldn't be a fixer if he were in the limelight. (Although Ray is a minor celebrity among the show's universe of sycophantic publicists, cut-throat entertainment lawyers and narcissistic celebrities.) But the truth is that the character is likely an amalgamation of a variety of people who grease the gears of Hollywood's vast moneymaking machine.
Showtime hopes to have another hit on its hands. And if it emerges as one, Schreiber, who says he is "not a first-choice guy, I'm a cleanup guy" when it comes to casting, is poised to become a bona-fide leading man.
"This role is the perfect vehicle for him," says Voight of Schreiber. "With all its danger, charm and sex appeal."
With that, Voight joins Schreiber on the boxing club set in the chilly, cavernous sound stage. Spotlights roar to life, and the two men shift into character: foes in opposite corners of the ring.