Mathieu Young/Showtime
Liev Schreiber tries TV on for size on the dark and dangerous Ray Donovan.

The title character of Showtime’s summer series Ray Donovan may be mad, bad and dangerous to know, but the actor behind him, Liev Schreiber, insists he’s nothing like that in real life. “You play a guy like this, and people sometimes get confused about who you really are,” he says. By turns sardonic, hushed and wildly combustible, Donovan — both the series and the character, a Hollywood “fixer” who keeps unflattering stories about his clients from becoming news — are a delicious showcase for Schreiber, one of the industry’s great, underrated talents. Schreiber talks to American Way about his transition to the small screen and how he got his name.

AMERICAN WAY: It’s quite a surprise to see you on television — and a happy one at that!
LIEV SCHREIBER: I won’t lie. I was really nervous about taking on a TV show, especially a lead character. There’s always been a sort of security I’ve felt playing supporting characters in movies. The roles to me were more exciting, and the commitment was just right — there was less responsibility. But as we got into casting Ray Donovan, it was just one enormously exciting choice after another. I thought, “I’ve really landed in something super special.”

AW: You’ve done a lot of acclaimed work in the theater. How does that prepare you for work in television?
LS: I’ve been taught as an actor that your primary responsibility is to the text, and your job is to articulate those ideas as well as possible. That’s suited me very well because I enjoy hiding in characters. In theater, you really are able to go inside of other people. With film and TV, because they are such voyeuristic mediums, it’s harder to hide.

AW: How does that apply to playing Ray Donovan?
LS: I know that I’m interesting when I’m doing Shakespeare, because Shakespeare’s interesting. There’s a real terror about going out on the high wire of expectation in a role like Ray Donovan, which requires a handsome person with natural charisma and charm, which are things I never really felt I had cornered the market on.

AW: There’s some debate over your first name, Liev. Is it true that you’re named after Tolstoy?
LS: Oddly enough, my parents are in a debate over whether I’m named after Tolstoy — which my mother says — or, as my father claims, that I was named after a doctor who saved my mother’s life. But I grew up with my mother, so I tell everybody I was named after Tolstoy. Maybe it’s a better story for an actor.