I spoke with Ray Donovan creator Ann Biderman about her obsession with Irish crime and clergy sexual abuse, Los Angeles’ seekers and social climbers, and where ethnic identity still survives in America. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I thought the pilot was totally different than what I expected, from what [Showtime president] David Nevins had told me to expect.
Why? In what way?
He told me it was sort of a fixer show; it’s super hardcore. “We’re gonna,” I think he said, “we’re going to make the Sons of Anarchy look like little girls,” which I sort of loved as a pitch.
I hadn’t heard that, that’s hilarious, that’s so funny.
What I wanted to ask you about, though, was something that really struck me in the pilot…It seemed to me like there’s this parallel in it between sort of clergy sex abuse and the treatment of women in Hollywood…I don’t know if it was me over reading but it was certainly something that seemed like it was there.
Wow, how do you figure?
Well you have this story about this man whose family has suffered this trauma, who spends a lot of his time helping men clean up terrible things that they’ve done to women. He’s simultaneously protective but has this violent response because he’s in this system where men are permitted to do these things within certain limits. It really stood out to me.
Wow, that’s so interesting. I don’t think it was a conscious thing, I really don’t, but it’s a really interesting theory. I really like it. Maybe it was subconscious or something … I think you’re giving me too much credit.
I was curious if you could talk a little bit about Ray’s job and this terrible experience that his family had gone through as sort of starting points for the show…I thought whether it was intended as a parallel thing or not, those are two very interesting dynamics to bring together.
You know I was very interested in this abuse issue. I mean that was a real impetus for me or a real source of, inspiration is wrong, but it’s been an interest of mine since the Boston thing really happened in the early nineties. I think it was ‘92 when that started happened. I was dating a cop who was Catholic, he was Irish and Italian. I remember just his response as a Catholic was “This is a rare thing” and, you know, “People are making too much of it.” And I just felt like it was like this huge thing that was going to get bigger. And I don’t know, I don’t know why a Jewish girl from Miami Beach is obsessed with (laughing) priests but I just, you know, I am. I just think it’s in the coverup and it’s just, I’m not being terribly articulate, I mean it just, it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. I mean, it’s just worse, you know, the way they move priests, the amounts of money that are thrown at victims but without any recognition of what’s really happened and no real accountability, still. It seems to me. and it goes all the way to the Vatican.
Have you seen Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa [which is about a group of deaf men who confronted the priest who attacked them]?
I haven’t, I can’t wait to see it.
It really gets at this sort of specific role and stature of priests in the way that sort of enables them and enables the church in moving them [the priests] around, saying if you repent we can let you off the hook. I think that’s what got me about the Hollywood parallels, the idea that studio heads or powerful men in any capacity have this special status.
Yes it is, but i hoped on with tenderness and humor. I hope I’m not biting the hand that feeds me. I didn’t intend to. I’ve lived here a long time and I think we all know these characters, you know what I mean? The entitlement and the babyish, it’s just, just it’s so ridiculous and funny, I think. Do you know? And just kind of heartbreaking. And everyone’s like on this spiritual journey in one way or another, as misguided as it might be, you know. Steve Feldman is wearing the string, you know, to remind him that it’s the hand of taking and the hand of giving. I can’t remember where I got that, but for years I’ve been pulling out things and collecting things and taking mental notes. It’s just a town i have great affection for.
My college boyfriend went to Harvard Westlake, so the minute I heard the name in the pilot, I thought that was a very specific bit of cultural signaling.
Yes, yes. No, because for those who know it [it’s immediately obvious] … but I think for the people who don’t they can understand what it means…You know that Abby in the pilot is a bit of an arriviste and that Ray has made this journey from Boston, do you know? And kind of who has worked his way up into this very strange job that could only exist here.
That was one of the things I wanted to ask you about, how you arrived on this middle section of the Hollywood economy. I feel like pop culture looks at people who are famous or trying to get famous and then the people who service them on the lowest level. It’s like you can tell a story about a movie star or a gardener but you don’t have stories about that sort of interim Hollywood economy.
In what way do you feel like the middle is represented the most? Through Ray?
Yeah, I mean, he’s this person who has a certain amount of power.
He has power, yes, but he doesn’t have status.
Right, and he doesn’t necessarily have as much money as he’d like.
And also, he’s in an odd position because people are not happy to see him, they don’t want to socialize with him. And he has a wife who is a little misguided. Her arriviste yearnings are deadly for him because you know there’s bound to be disappointment. People don’t want to socialize with Ray if he’s covering up their shit and their secrets, you know. He’s not invited to the party but he does have tremendous power, so that dichotomy was interesting to me. And you’re right, they’re kind of solidly—look it’s still Hollywood middle class, which is not true middle class, but by Hollywood standards, you’re right. It is kind of an investigation of that. But I very deliberately set it in Calabasas [rather than Los Angeles proper]…He has a secret life and part of what enables him to have that life is the fact that he has his family over here and his job is over here. So there’s some of that going on.
I thought the scene at the party where he gets his son out of the pool where his son is hanging out with an actor who is working with Ray to cover up a sex scandal was really tense, was telling. I wanted to ask about the general issue of writing about men and sexual abuse because I feel like we have an enormous amount of popular culture about women who have suffered assault or sexual abuse, but we have had a harder time building sort of images of men who have had these terrible experiences.
I went to Palm Springs for a few days over the holiday and there was a giant, giant poster as I was leaving, a giant billboard, that said, you know, “child abuse happens to boys, too.” I was just like “Oh my god, there’s no escaping.” You know what I mean? It was so weird this figure of a sad kid, you know. But I think you’re right. But you look at something like the Sandusky thing, you know, I mean he wasn’t into little girls, do you know? And for the most part I think the majority of the abuse is towards men.
I was wondering if you could talk me through Ray’s team a little bit because you have this incredible set of actors. I love Katherine Moennig, I’m so glad she’s back on the screen. I’m curious about the motivations for each character, in protecting these people who don’t seem to deserve it.
I just think they’re all kind of wounded in a way, you know, I think that’s what I was going for. But they’ve all been involved in some scandal or some secret or something that makes them terribly hurt or vulnerable…I think for her character, for Lena, I think she’s had a scandal that she kind of couldn’t get past, that kind of ruined one version of her life and kind of made her need to really turn a corner and do something else, which we’ll get into a little bit.
And Avi‘s kind of a mysterious character, do you know? It’s like you don’t ever quite know. I just wanted someone kind of wounded, large and wounded and vulnerable in his own way with extreme fealty towards Ray. That was important. And in order, I think, to have that kind of fealty, there has to be a kind of whacked out allegiance based on some kind of primary wound that every character has and can relate to, do you know? To have that kind of allegiance, I think there has to be something that he either got them out of trouble or he understands them or they understand him, do you know? And they’re able to all kind of maintain each other’s secret lives. You know, they’re all enablers in a way. They all enable this stuff.
As much as it’s dark, it’s also a funny show.
I’m so glad you thought it was funny, because it’s meant to be. I’m just falling on the floor laughing when i’m writing it, just to have this kind of uncontrolled id in Mickey is so delightful, do you know? He’s just such a character, you know, and to have John embody that character is just — good God.
Tell me a little bit about the interplay between Boston and L.A. on the show, just because I thought the decision to dye the stalker green, it’s such a Boston thing to do, Boston Irish.
Yes. Oh good, I’m glad you got that reference. I’ve just been interested in Irish crime, you know? Other girls would fantasize about their wedding and I would fantasize about capturing Whitey Bulger. I’m a nut with all this stuff, and I’ve always been very interested in Irish crime, you know?…I mean I’ve always been interested in crime and I think it was just a natural kind of jump from Mafia Italian to the whole Bulger thing and Irish crime and all that….And then the conflation of that with the priest scandal coming out of Boston, it was a way to kind of conflate these two interests, you know, in priest abuse and that whole scandal with the whole Whitey Bulger and all.
So what grabs you about Irish crime as opposed to Sicilian crime? I’m reading ‘The Godfather’ for the first time right now and the sort of Italian stuff in Hollywood is very interesting.
AB: Well it all interests me. All of it interests me. There’s no great division. It’s just, it’s American crime, I suppose, and these are two lineages that are profound and interesting and I think still going on.
I feel like in a way the crime families are one of the last places where white ethnic Americans have resisted assimilation. They’re still Irish, they’re still Sicilian, even as they’re American.
Yes. Can you please say that I said that? So that I look smarter than you are. God, that’s brilliant. No, it’s true. I think that is true, actually. So the idea of Mickey showing up in L.A. and he can’t assimilate, but is trying to kind of is the American dream, you know?
Yeah, I mean you’ve almost got an inverse Michael and Vito here, where the son is actually successfully assimilated in a lot of ways and now the father’s showing up.
Yes, and wants what the son has and feels he deserves it. So all of this stems from something that happened that’ll unfold, something that happened in the past that ties together Hollywood and Boston, I hope successfully.
How much could you have these so called procedural elements in the first episode? How much of the show is going to be sort of “an episode a week” and how much of it is going to be a longer arc?
You know, I made very, very clear — that wasn’t what interested me. I like a good procedural as much as the next person but that’s not really the focus of the show. I was really interested in telling a story about this family — and both sets of this family: Ray’s immediate nuclear family and then this other family and the brothers and the father — and his Hollywood family in a way…But the procedural element — I made a very conscious effort with the pilot to kind of discharge that in the first 10 minutes. I wanted to get it over with, you know? And it was hard coming up with it. It was difficult, but I worked on it for a long time so that I could kind of do something that was fun and just get it done with and tell the story that I wanted to tell, but still set up in a kind of way.
Speaking of family, I thought Ashley’s character was very interesting as this sort of potential threat to Ray’s family. And you have this very sympathetic moment, she’s having an epileptic seizure and this herbs and yoga and everything else
And again, another character who’s kind of looking for salvation, you know?…As silly as they might appear, I take them very seriously in their quest for — you know, she really has been trying to cure it with yoga and herbs, doesn’t want to take the medication and is fucked up and a bit of a stalker and has issues with older men and protection and her parents and being a pop star and all of that. So as much as I delight in poking fun at them, there is something that I just kind of feel for all of them, simultaneously.
Do you think being sort of a seeker is one of the determining qualities of, or one of the things that defines, L.A.? Because I’m not sure I would have put that together. Maybe, I’m from the east coast, I’m a crab, I look at these people and I’m a little cynical.
I am too. I am too. Look, it’s pointed humor but underneath I’m hoping there’s kind of some tenderness and that it is real and that everyone here is kind of trying to do the best they can with this ridiculous sense of what — you know, I have people tell me they’re broke, and what they really mean is that their $4 million house — it’s like there’s poverty and there’s Hollywood poverty…The whole thing is so whacked out, but within that I think people want the same things…You know, they want to feel good in the morning. They don’t want to feel guilty. They want to do the right thing. I think. I hope.
Well and you want to get your kid into Harvard-Westlake for the status but also it’s a fabulous education.
Yes, and there’s no getting around that. It’s a great school. So the fact that Abby is so desperate for that is — on the one hand it’s silly and desperate and on the other hand it’s absolutely real. It is the best education and hopefully her children won’t have to — you know, you kind of hope that your children will stand on your shoulders a little bit and be one step past where you are.