Director Ann Biderman on Ray Donovan: Exposing the Hollywood dream's flipside

New drama focuses on Tinseltown's shadowy army of fixers

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

How do you cover up a Hollywood scandal? In these days of TMZ and Perez Hilton we’re used to up-to-the-minute breaking news telling us everything from which star is snorting their talent away to who spent last night in a cell after one tequila too many.

Yet what of the stories we never hear? Hollywood has always been a town that hides as many secrets as it reveals and if we don’t know about that big name star’s spiral into drugs and depression or this up-and-coming starlet’s regular walks on the wild side then that’s largely because of Hollywood’s army of fixers, the men and women whose job is solely to make sure those issues never see light of day.

New drama, Ray Donovan, which starts on Sky Atlantic this month, moves those shadowy figures into the spotlight.  Ray, played by Liev Schreiber with the sort of gloriously laconic masculinity that recalls Robert Mitchum in his heyday, is the man who’ll make all your problems go away whether it’s a drugs bust or a dead body in a hotel room. Like a more brooding, less talkative version of Harvey Keitel’s dinner-suited fixer in Pulp Fiction, he’s the guy you turn to when the chips are stacked against you and all your other options have slithered away.

“I’ve always been intrigued by the history of Hollywood and the idea that these guys have always existed,” says the show’s creator Ann Biderman, who also wrote acclaimed cop drama Southland. “It’s not so much celebrity that interests me as the town, its excesses and its crazy rules. Writing about a fixer seemed to offer a way in which I could tell a crime story without having to tell a police story, which I’d already done with Southland. This seemed to be the other side of the coin.”

And it’s certainly the case that the role of the fixer is a fascinating one, equal parts private eye, PR and, when needed, hired muscle. During the studio system’s heyday in the 1920s and 1930s fixers such as Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling did everything from covering up Loretta Young’s illegitimate child to ensuring that the murder of Jean Harlow’s husband stayed out of the papers. In the 1950s and 60s former cop turned private eye Fred Otash reportedly carried out surveillance on everyone from Rock Hudson to Marilyn Monroe, telling the Los Angeles Times in 1985 that actor Peter Lawford had called him at midnight on the evening of Monroe’s death and asked him to remove anything that might incriminate Lawford’s brothers-in-law, John F Kennedy and US senator, Robert Kennedy.

Meanwhile as late as 2006 the arrest of ‘private investigator to the stars’ Anthony Pellicano on charges of wire-tapping and extortion reportedly had half of Hollywood quaking. A piece in Vanity Fair commented: “For the last 20 years when things got nasty LA lawyers turned to Anthony Pellicano, who monitored, investigated, intimidated, and in some cases wiretapped their opponents.” Among the hundreds of big names alleged to have made use of Pellicano’s services were Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner and Michael Jackson. The private investigator is currently serving a 15-year sentence in a federal prison in Texas.

“We didn’t use a specific advisor for the show but we did do a tremendous amount of research,” says Biderman. “We talked to tabloid journalists, to agents, to lawyers, to security consultants…we met up with celebrities and heard their stories…it was important to create a world where the foundations felt solid and right without forgetting that this is still a work of fiction.”

It is also, and crucially, about more than a Hollywood fixer and his cases of the week. For while Ray’s job provides an entertaining insight into the dark underside of the Hollywood dream this is ultimately (as so many American dramas are) a story about families and the damage that they do. Thus we learn that Ray has moved not only his wife and children but also his two brothers from the rough south Boston neighbourhood they grew up in to LA’s tarnished lights. It’s a move largely driven by the desire to escape both the malignant influence of their father Mickey, a man who as the series starts has been released early from a 25-year jail sentence, and a past filled with abuse, both sexual and physical.

“It’s really a show about the past and how that comes back and is played out in Hollywood,” says British actor Eddie Marsan, who plays middle brother Terry, a boxer struggling to cope with the onset of Parkinson’s disease. “The thing about Hollywood is that everybody’s slightly a fish out of water, everyone feels slightly disconnected but the Donovans being from Southie [a working class Boston neighbourhood] really feel that and I loved those dynamics – these guys are like the worst Irish family you could live next door to and they’re in Beverly Hills.”

If that sounds a little as though this show is The Fighter meets LA Confidential with a bit of Rescue Me thrown in, what elevates Ray Donovan into something worth watching in its own right is tight writing, a detailed and always convincing family dynamic and some superlative acting from a clever cast (in addition to Schreiber and Marsan there are scene-stealing turns from Jon Voight as the menacing yet peculiarly charming Mickey and Elliott Gould as Ray’s grief-stricken mentor).

“Basically you had to have people who felt properly working class, blue collar actors", says Marsan. “You have these men who are going through incredible trauma inside, they’re very inarticulate and don’t know how to express themselves and you needed actors who could say as much without words as with them…it’s a very intense story and emotionally exhausting.”

It’s also a very masculine one, as Biderman admits, laughing. “When I met Liev to discuss the show he asked me what do you see in me? And I found myself shouting loudly in the Chateau Marmont I need a man,” she says. “But honestly I’m tired of manorexic boy men. If you’re working in film right now the only parts are for superheroes or mumblecore neurotics. Television is where the interesting work is for actors of a certain age. I wanted to do a show that tapped into that, that referred back to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Robert Mitchum but that also tackled family dynamics and looked at what kind of wound there would be if you’d grown up with a father that narcissistic and a mother who died young.”

And ultimately why Ray Donovan works is because it is neither simply a darkly dysfunctional family tale nor a knowing peek into the flipside of the Hollywood dream but a clever conflation of both. “I didn’t just want to do a procedural show where Ray had a case of the week,” admits Biderman. “Once I married it to the idea of a Boston Southie family transplanted in Hollywood that’s when I realised this could work.”

Ray Donovan starts on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday July 16th at 10pm

Film stars on TV

Liev Schreiber isn’t the only big star feeling the pull of the small screen these days, here’s our guide to some of the most eye-catching turns:

Kevin Bacon, The Following, Sky Atlantic

The serial killing drama may have its flaws but the effortlessly charismatic Bacon is clearly having fun as beaten-down FBI agent Ryan Hardy.

Mads Mikkelsen, Hannibal, Sky Living

The Danish actor is so good as a young pre-Silence of the Lambs Hannibal Lecter that he almost makes you forget Anthony Hopkins. Almost.

Zooey Deschanel, New Girl, E4

America’s indie darling has won over a whole new crowd as the occasionally irritating but generally loveable Jess.

Dustin Hoffman, Luck, Sky Atlantic

The show may have come to a premature end but Hoffman’s restrained performance as elderly gangster Chester Bernstein remains worth catching on DVD.

And three that are still to come...

John Malkovich, Crossbones

Few people chew the scenery with as much enjoyment as Malkovich, which should make this pirate drama from Luther’s Neil Cross worth catching.

James Spader, The Blacklist

Spader was one of the first film stars to make the jump to television and the buzz from early screenings was that this FBI drama is a worthy vehicle for his creepy charm.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Dracula

The high-cheekboned one returns to the small screen three years after the end of The Tudors to give us his take on the ultimate prince of darkness.