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‘Ray Donovan’ Takes On Women’s Sexuality

“Will you still love me if I don’t have my breasts? Am I still a woman?”

Embeth Davitz as Sonia Kovitzky with Liev Schrieber as Ray Donovan. (CREDIT: MICHAEL DESMOND/SHOWTIME)
Embeth Davitz as Sonia Kovitzky with Liev Schrieber as Ray Donovan. (CREDIT: MICHAEL DESMOND/SHOWTIME)

In a very intimate sex scene, American actress Embeth Davidtz seductively climbed on top of lead Liev Schreiber in Showtime’s Ray Donovan. Topless and baring her partially reconstructed right breast, she uttered, “Am I beautiful to you? No, don’t look away. Am I ugly?”

It’s a captivating scene that is unabashedly sexual and honest. Ray Donovan is a testosterone-filled show where its anti-hero Hollywood fixer, Schreiber, regularly gets into brawls and gun fights with mobsters and other dwellers of Los Angeles’ underworld. But the show’s fourth season is taking a different approach: exploring women’s issues.

There’s still plenty of action, but the uniqueness of this season comes from the show’s two lead female roles suffering from the same illness. Abby, Ray Donovan’s wife played by Paula Malcomson, has been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. The first few episodes explore Abby’s denial of her diagnosis and reluctance to get treatment, and reveals that the show’s villain, Sonia Kovitzky (Embeth Davidtz), a sex trafficker and drug and art dealer with Russian mob ties, suffers from terminal breast cancer. Davidtz was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 and had a double mastectomy as a result, which later became powerful fodder for the show.

Through these women, Ray Donovan draws on social issues around breasts, sexual identity, motherhood, breast cancer care, and postpartum depression. To get a better idea of why the award-winning show decided to take on women’s issues so prominently, ThinkProgress talked to showrunner and executive producer David Hollander.

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A running theme of the show this season is motherhood and all of the complicated issues that come with that. What was the impetus behind choosing such a theme?

Part of it is feeling like it’s time to explore Abby a little bit more. We’ve been historically very masculine. The focus of the show has really been masculinity and issues around masculinity — we’ll never stop doing that. But this was the right time to start to look at issues that are not just impacting women but how men see women and how certain elements not just motherhood… A lot of the focus I was working off of was the simple idea of the female breast and the objectification of it, the violence against it, the use of it, the confusion around it, and certainly this sort of new high level of medical interference with opinions about what a mastectomy is and is not. All of this is very interesting to me and so they just found their way into the show. Also, depression and postpartum issues, all of those things felt like things that were about time to refract and talk about.

You mention mastectomies which has been huge. Abby is a very gruff character, she tells it like it is, and she’s not afraid to talk about the hard things, like in a previous season when she confronted Ray about the rough sex feeling like rape. But you didn’t have her talk about why she didn’t want the mastectomy. We spend a lot of time with her on screen and you can see that she’s definitely wrestling with some identity issues around her breasts — which are very much so a complicated symbol tied to identity and gender. Why wasn’t that more clearly depicted?

It wasn’t stated clearly to Ray. I think that a lot of what the story line was investigating was the fear and the confusion and the anger, frankly, that comes around certain types of diagnoses. Abby’s diagnosis is a …. stage 0, DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) diagnosis. I wanted to write about that unique situation where it’s not black and white. It is very scary, it is very complicated. It is very isolating and so I didn’t give her a big discussion of that with Ray. As you say, there’s a certain level of fear: Will you still love me if I don’t have my breasts? Am I still a woman? And those things didn’t feel like as brave as a character as Abby is. That felt more like something like, if she were to say it to Ray, given her decision, it would feel almost like an afterthought. She’s basically saying, “No, I’m not going to do this.” And the why of it may even escape her right now. She may be angry.

Liev Schreiber as Ray Donovan with his wife Abby played by Paula Malcomson. (CREDIT: MICHAEL DESMOND/SHOWTIME)
Liev Schreiber as Ray Donovan with his wife Abby played by Paula Malcomson. (CREDIT: MICHAEL DESMOND/SHOWTIME)

That makes sense. While we’re on mastectomies, it’s almost like those fears, the reluctance, was more clearly spelled out in Embeth Davidtz’s scene (as Sonia Kovitzky), which was really powerful because, at least to my knowledge, I don’t know of any sex scenes or nude scenes where a mastectomied breast has been shown clearly in a non-medical way. What was the thought process behind including that?

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Embeth came to the show and I was sort of feeling out where her character was going. We had a lot of notions about who the character was and what she was going to stand for, what kind of leverage of power she may or may not have over Ray. And I had already committed to the DCIS story — and I had been going through that with my wife at home — and grappling with that idea and struggling with the complexity of these types of diagnoses. How little information was medically available. How the vast majority of medical community basically responded to DCIS with a uniform “mastectomy immediately.”

“I had been going through that with my wife at home — and grappling with that idea and struggling with the complexity of these types of diagnoses.”

So I was really writing from that mindset and had a conversation with Embeth about nudity because basically on our show it’s pretty much a prerequisite for playing with us. It’s not about sensationalism, it’s just what we do. We’re not a show that is deeply objectifying, but certainly our actors are very brave and not one of them shirks from scenes that are revelatory. She signed a nudity waiver but I could sense some tension around that. And we were having a conversation and she said, “You know I had a double mastectomy.” And then we started to talk more and more and she implied that she might be interested in exploring it creatively and I was very interested.

It was one of these situations where both of these story lines were coming directly out of — certainly directly out of real life — and finding their way into the story. It was very elegant to me because it was sort of the story where you have one character in a non-life threatening situation, grappling with it. And another character who is absolutely going to die of it. That’s not Embeth’s story but is certainly Sonia’s [her character’s] story.

The writing took off from there. They were very complementary ideas in a strange way where a villain, who is sick, and the love interest, who shares the same problem, may or may not be. And it humanized Sonia’s character enormously in the writing of her. And it also allowed, the writing process to examine that I thought was very important which is the thematic of the breast. Sexuality — Ray and Abby making love downstairs, cutting to Conor with a gun masturbating to pornography of girls shooting semi-automatic weapons to sexually trafficked children who are being murdered for that reason alone to motherhood and breastfeeding, surrogacy. Everything that it is in a way I wanted to write about.

I definitely felt like everything was coming together, especially the notion of women, who are sort of seen as the life givers and it’s supposed to be this innate, natural thing. But here you have two characters — Teresa who is suffering from postpartum depression, and Bridget who is 18 and tells her mother she has no interest in having kids because she has seen how dysfunctional life is and doesn’t want to bring a kid into this world. Can you tell me where you’re hoping to go with the notion of motherhood not always being this sort of seamless thing women can do?

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I think that obviously without having a social or political agenda, it’s sort of the way the world is evolving. Things are moving so quickly in a direction that allows for a truer exploration of what parenting is and what being a mother and father can be. And I think gender roles are slippery now.

“Choices are much less dictated: Do you want to be a mom or not? Do you have to be a woman?…The assumption that you have to be a mother is one that is slowly turning into a conscious choice in our culture.”

Choices are much less dictated: Do you want to be a mom or not? Do you have to be a woman? We’re sitting at a time where these are low-hanging fruit in the world. And I think a lot of what the characters are saying is just what makes them modern and aware. The assumption that you have to be a mother is one that is slowly turning into a conscious choice in our culture. And I think were Abby is going, where Bridget is going, where the story is going is more in a direction of less sort of sitting and waiting for things to be brought to them and more being part of the story.

Two-part question: What do you hope viewers take away from the nuances you’re trying to explore in this overall theme of motherhood and the breast? And what does it say about fatherhood as that’s something that has also crept up?

I’ll start with fatherhood. Parenting in general, in this show, it has always been an exploration of the bad father, the father that failed, the abusive father. And the blame associated with that. I think that Ray’s character is trying valiantly to undo that, his own version of it. I think the more conscious Abby is in her role as a parent in what it means to her is going to force Ray to be a little more awake. Abby having an illness of any nature puts a lot more pressure on Ray to be a more present parent. Having kids of a certain age where they are sexual or running around with guns — getting to that age where they are young adults. Watching Ray as a father in more acute situations is going to become much more common because now their choices are things that he understands a little more. They are more in the adult realm. And part of building Abby’s character to less the sort of stay at home, wait for her husband character, will actually let us test what kind of father we think Ray is and is not.

“I’m sure that seeing a woman with a double mastectomy be sexual is probably a very complicated set of feelings for several people, it’s probably a very challenging experience to watch — or maybe not.”

To answer your first question in terms of what the audience takes away thematically…I’m not trying to manipulate anybody into having a feeling state about what the story says. I am allowing for what I think are some very true situations. I’m not sure how they’ll react. I’m sure that seeing a woman with a double mastectomy be sexual is probably a very complicated set of feelings for several people, it’s probably a very challenging experience to watch — or maybe not. If anything, stories like that that look at human sexuality with a little less glitz or fakery, they’re hard but they’re also really valuable. I’m sure there’s a whole gamut of response from relief to disgust. But that’s the point.

I know I definitely came away from the “Fish and Bird” episode thinking about it a lot. Going back to what we were talking about earlier, this is a very masculine-driven show, but it also has a history of, and what it does well, taking on really difficult themes. And this season is no different. But femininity and masculinity are usually depicted as incongruent or opposites of one another. How do you think this sort of story line could be worked into other shows that may be masculine-driven or targeted toward a male audience in an authentic way?

I don’t know, think that we’re in an interesting era where the “anti-hero” generally tends to be male and it’s sort of the flavor of the half decade. I’ll be curious to see what the true female anti-hero looks like. The heart of the anti-hero show tends to make the wife the bad guy, historically. Because she just doesn’t understand! You know? That idea that she doesn’t get it, she’s a nag, she’s upset, she’s a moral compass, she wants to take the children, she da-da-da-da-da. All that stuff.

“I’ll be curious to see what the true female anti-hero looks like.”

We’ve seen it time and time again. And I think it may be too late on our show to entirely undo that. But I guess what I’m looking at right now is the big “what if” question of at least to write the wife character as someone who is now of acceptance. That’s why when Abby says “Keep it to yourself, I don’t want to hear that,” when Ray starts another “I want to tell you who I fucked lately” speech — I thought that was one of the more important moments in that episode even though it’s hidden under way more bombastic moments.

Yea, their relationship has taken an interesting turn…

Or just by letting her hold a gun and shoot somebody. That old trope (chuckles). The man doing it, it’s like “of course” but when a woman does it it’s like “Oh.” You know what I mean? So what is interesting with the concept of the show that historically had a wife who was built as kind of a complainer and…I think the cancer plot gave us an ability to do other things. It’s a schematic shift in the character. Again, I don’t know whether it’s for the best or not. All I know is that when a show stays on air as long as this one has, things have to become elastic. And the exploration of women’s issues become possible in a story that has been hyper-masculine.

“All I know is that when a show stays on air as long as this one has, things have to become elastic. And the exploration of women’s issues become possible in a story that has been hyper-masculine.”

And it seems like this isn’t like a one-show special sort of thing. You’re really looking at an overview in a way — as much as seems natural in terms of writing — to kind of have these women be more integrated and have the issues they face be more of a topic of conversation.

So far in the first six episodes of this season, it’s been very prevalent. That alone becomes seeds from which the story grows because you can’t undo what you’ve done. There’s no turning back once you sort of ring certain bells. Shows change, you know, they have to. And in our iteration this year, I think our biggest change has been to slow down a little bit and investigate not just the female gender but the role that a character can play. Ray is entirely motivated by his daughter and now very deeply entrenched with a wife who is far more knowledgeable of him and accepting, but a woman who has a lot of leverage and power over him.