Major spoilers ahead for the season-five premiere of Ray Donovan.
“I just stole a fucking golf cart!” Paula Malcomson says as she runs into the Coffee Bean at the Sony Pictures Studios lot in Culver City, giggling and red-faced. “I’m sorry I’m running late. This lot! It’s confusing. It’s a little Bermuda Triangle–y around here, you know? They’re going to call the police!”
It’s a hot July day and Malcomson, who plays Abby, the wife of the titular Ray Donovan on Showtime’s hit drama, settles in for a refreshing tea lemonade, occasionally peeking out the window to check on the cart’s status. Good so far. No cops or angry bosses appear.
Malcomson’s in good spirits considering she’s about to have a conversation about the shocking events in the season-five premiere: After being diagnosed with stage-zero breast cancer and apparently recovering from it last season, Abby Donovan dies.
“I felt and feel a lot of things,” she said. “It’s definitely hard to say good-bye to a character that you’ve played for a long time. It’s never an easy thing to learn or to have to do as an actress, but I also have high hopes that it’s going to be a beautiful season.”
Viewers won’t know for a while what happened to Abby, the Donovan matriarch and “brightest star,” as her father-in-law (Jon Voight) puts it in the premiere. Showrunner David Hollander has decided on a nonlinear approach to the storytelling, filling in the blanks slowly throughout the season, with Abby appearing in dreams and flashbacks. “Grief and the complexity of memory and the complexity of how grief lingers is much more interesting to tell as a feeling state than it is as a fact state,” Hollander said. “There was a point where I was looking to write this as a linear story, but the problem is then it’s a paint-by-numbers. This happens, then that happens. The moments become obligatory. And nothing is surprising and nothing resonates. So, as complex as the web is, and how hard the math of laying this out becomes, it was really the only way we could do it.”
At the end of the fourth season, Hollander and the writers hit a fork in the road: Expand on the events of the finale, with the Donovans emerging as a tight-knit crime family, or throw the worst of consequences at Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber)? “The scarier option was the latter, so I just thought let’s get scared,” said Hollander. “So we all got really scared. Honestly, we are very nervous [about the audience’s reaction].”
Killing off Abby, and losing Malcomson, was not something Hollander wanted, he said, but the more he thought about the character’s trajectory, the clearer it became to him that it was the next step.
“I started to think about Abby’s character a lot, and I wanted to give her autonomy and power, and find ways to tell a story that allowed her to get out from under the shadow of this very masculine fixer Hollywood world where the character was templated as the anti-hero’s wife,” he said. “And I just knew Paula as an actor had so much more, and also felt like the options I had to try to create a story where she became something front and center were relatively limited. I fully felt the weight of the choice. I grieved it. I know that Paula grieved it, too. And to Paula’s enormous credit, she took whatever struggle she had with it and channeled it back into devoting herself to building up a spectacularly nuanced and beautiful performance.”
Malcomson spoke to Vulture before heading into work on the season’s penultimate episode, which includes a dream sequence she described as “as Lynchian as it gets.” She will appear throughout most of the fifth season.
When did you learn Abby would die? How did that conversation go?
Oh, you don’t want to know.
But I do! Why do you say that?
Because those things are usually like, what? In season four, we knew the character is in jeopardy. That’s the nature and beauty of television — you never quite know how this is gonna go. Sometimes the writers write themselves into a corner, and they have to find ways to get out of it or move the story forward. They thought long and hard about it.
Okay, let’s back up. Before the beginning of last season, did the producers have a conversation with you about Abby and the introduction of her having cancer and how that would go?
You never really talk about that stuff. You’re sort of in this realm of the unknown. You don’t get to see scripts ahead of time. You can intuit it, you can kind of get a sense of where a character’s gonna go but, no, it wasn’t planned out from then. It was a suspicion, obviously, on my part because why else bring that in?
Did you ask?
Yeah, I think I did. And they didn’t know at the time, or they say they didn’t know. But this was a story that I suspected would probably end with that. I also felt in season four we’d given the cancer story a little bit of short shrift. Maybe Ray Donovan is not the vehicle to handle such a heavy subject. But I was heartened when a lot of women last season told me we did handle it well. That’s always my fear — that we’re not gonna give it the time, attention, and seriousness. We’re a pulpy, kind of flimsy vehicle for that, you know?
It’s interesting that you bring that up. I remember that when she tells Ray that the cancer has vanished in the finale, I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Was she lying to him? To herself? Or was it real?
Not from my point of view, but that’s something you sort of have to play with those scenes. We had a scene written where her doctor calls her and says, “It’s all good,” and she’s surprised, but anything can happen with that. And the feeling I had at the end of that was that we were trying to create a finale. We weren’t really sure how we were going to leave it. Sometimes in the writing we don’t know if we have it and we have to dig in and find a period or a dot-dot-dot for the season. What is going to want to bring us back? And one of the only appealing things was that they were in this place. They were on top of the world at this point. They felt as though they’ve beaten the odds impervious to the mob, to cancer, to everything else.
It was a happy ending on Ray Donovan, which never happens.
Pretty much! And also an interesting ending, and there was sort of a promise of MacBeth, and I wasn’t sure if that could be fulfilled.
So when did you learn what would happen to Abby in season five?
I can’t remember. Maybe a little while before we started shooting, which is never a great conversation to have for any number of reasons. It’s your thing that you spend your life’s blood on for the past five years, trying to create a real character out of. I felt like when I first started this show, I fought so hard to make Abby an interesting and complex person and not just the antagonistic wife. But it’s really tough for a show of this kind to have a wife character. The wife is always the one that gets the shit because they get in the way of the guy going and fucking whomever he wants and stealing whatever he wants and killing whomever he wants and they have to be the moral compass, but also they’re aware of the life, so what the hell? So, there’s all those things that we’ve seen traditionally with anti-hero stories that I wanted to push ahead, and give her her own agency and try to give her a little bit of her own backstory, like going to Boston and things like that.
I know what you mean. Some of my favorite Abby moments have actually been with the other family members: Ray’s brothers, or Mickey, or even her dog.
I wanted it to be very much that she is the matriarch of this family. What do they do without this woman? They may take her for granted but she’s the glue; she’s what keeps them all together, and what tethers all these relationships, and tethers the show to be something more than just cartoon going out and kill everyone.
It was David Hollander who spoke with you, right? How did that conversation go?
I mean it’s always complicated with that stuff. There’s always mixed feelings. I would say probably you’re always sad you’re killing a loved character and the female lead on the show. Which comes right after Trump was elected, which is a little tricky! It’s like wait a minute, what happened? Oh, those voices, oh, we all have to be quiet now. So there was a lot going on in the world. But for me, I felt that I’d like to move on and do more stories that were more female-centric, you know? And that’s hard on this show. It’s always going to be a B story line.
Without saying how or when she dies, how do you feel about what happens with Abby in terms of her story told in flashbacks?
I think it’s a really, really big season for her, strangely enough. It’s kind of a big love story in a way, and she’s sort of front and center, which is kind of nice, finally. It’s a really good season.
What was it like to film her death?
It was harrowing, you know? It was awful for everyone. The crewmembers had to walk away and guys couldn’t pull focus because they don’t just love me, but they love the character so it was really hard. A lot of crying.
The car accident scene was intense. How did you film that?
There are many ways of doing that. We actually went to the real location in Griffith Park in the middle of the night. It was really incredible, big full moon, it was beautiful out, coyotes, everything. We did a version of that. And then we went on a stage and put it on a rig and had the car sort of crash. It moves on a rig and they slow it down and you have to time it with each other for it to work. It’s always really, really technical and crazy stuff to do that, but we had air bags going off and it is really fun. We forgot the air bags were gonna go off so we almost peed our pants. It was several days of different pieces of putting the work together with stunts. But you know, they walked out of that almost unscathed, which is again about that feeling that they’re on top of the world. It’s this very heightened sense of reality. Everybody’s a little drunk.
You mentioned that this season is a love story. Last season set that up. They had come together in a way we hadn’t seen before. In fact, the moments right before the crash are some of the sweetest beats we’ve seen between Ray and Abby.
We have to see those things because otherwise you’re like why are these people together?
Which I’m sure you get asked a lot — why is Abby with him?
Why is she with him? Yeah! But I think that we wanted to see those more tender moments.
Do you feel like you had a lot of input in her story over the years?
Oh, yeah. That’s why I like TV a lot. It’s such a collaborative medium between actors and writers. Yes, absolutely — within the confines of what the show is because the show is a very male-skewed. Even though a woman created it, it’s very male-oriented.
Why did you want to play Abby?
I don’t know. I don’t think I would know now, five years later, six years later.
I’m older. There was a certain time where I wanted to work with Liev. I wanted to explore the idea of masculine-feminine archetypes. I felt like he’s very much a man, she’s very much a woman, what does that all mean? When you get a pilot, you don’t know where that’s going to go. It was a beautiful pilot, one of the best I’ve read.
Was there anything about her that you liked?
I just like her earthiness. She’s very working-class. I liked that she was a girl who really knew where she came from and was really loyal. [With] a character like that [there are] big questions, like, “Why would she stay with him if she knows he’s fucking all these other women?” Stuff like that’s great because there’s the challenge of how do you find that? How do you make this? That’s my job, to be able to define those things, to really get to the heart of it and break that open and why she’s there.
What did you think when Abby got a boyfriend? I personally thought “Good for her!”
Some people were pissed, unfortunately! What’s she doing with that guy? Really? She doesn’t get to? Yeah, that was fun. That was a nice moment.
I didn’t see that that would last too long.
I guess in the end she really loves this guy and her family.
Yes, that’s right. She loves her family. I think she knows him and she sort of accepts him. It’s interesting. I wouldn’t stay with a man like that. There’s just so much about her, and so many things about her that I absolutely hated.
That she stayed, sometimes.
That she pretended that she didn’t know things?
Yeah, that she pretended she didn’t know things, and sometimes how she’d have to become an antagonist. I always felt like the character was smarter than some of the writing at the beginning. I felt she was smarter. I felt she was more aware. I was really trying to push the writers: Can we push past all these fucking questions of “where have you been?” We’re past this. She’s been there for 20 years. She knows what’s up. Can we just stop?
Do you think the audience will be devastated when we learn what happened to Abby?
I don’t know. Maybe some people will be glad to get rid of her. I have no idea. If I’ve done my job, it’ll be devastating, but you know there are many men who watch things like this who’d be fine having boys just shoot up. That’ll please that little base. Get rid of all of the women. Violence on all of the women!
You wanted to work with Liev. What kind of process do you have with him after so many years?
We’re just very different kinds of actors, which I think has been a really great thing. He likes to talk a lot about the process. He likes to talk about the writing. He likes to question it. I like to jump in and try it. He’s a really great physical actor, which has been great for this. I trust him in terms of his physicality. He understands his body really well. He’s really great if you have to do any fighting or stunts or anything like that. It’s really great to have him around for that.
How did you reconcile those two approaches so you could work together?
You just have to be respectful of everybody’s process, you know? Sometimes that’ll take longer than I’d like. All of our goal is to make it better. Everyone has their own way of doing things.
What about working with Jon Voight? Some of Abby’s best scenes have been with Mickey.
He’s amazing and wonderful and great in his character.
He’s the comic relief. I love his dancing.
He’s very committed. His dancing is really, really great. He’ll practice that for days. It’s not like he’ll just come in and bust it out. He’ll be practicing.
What have been some of your favorite scenes as Abby over the years?
There have been so many great moments. I loved it when I found the dog. [Laughs.]
And he’s still around!
I love him. He’s one of my favorite co-stars.
What’s his name?
Rock. I love working with the kids and watching them grow. Devon [Bagby], who plays Conor. He’s celebrating his [19th] birthday and I met him when he was 12.
Do you have any plans post-Ray?
Yeah. But I can’t talk about it.
Is it TV?
Oh, yeah, I’m doing television. I’m going to do a show in England for a little while, and then there’s something else in the works. I’ve been doing some work for the BBC in England.
Yes, Broken, which was really well-received. It’s lovely how a whole country sits down on a Tuesday night and watches the show. That’s kind of a lovely thing. Everyone tunes into one show and then they all talk about it the next day.
That’s how it used to be.
It’s really nice because it’s been so long. It used to be like that. That was really lovely to have Broken happen like that, just to be received in the hearts and minds of people, and a little bit of a different audience in terms of how they watch. Things are really messed up in England and the U.K. these days. It’s nice to do something that spoke to that, the choices that people are faced with when they have absolutely nothing. It was great.
Why do you like TV so much?
I like the journey. I like living with a character for a really long time and what can open up with that. It’s the Holy Grail to going deep, having the lines blur.
A lot of actors feel like it’s too much of a commitment, too much of your life devoted to a single role.
To me, movies is just scratching the surface for the work. There are people who are so, so great at that. Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of the greatest character actors in the world because he could just walk in and [snaps fingers] “I’m in it.” He could find this incredible character. That’s what I try to do in TV. It just takes longer and I want the writing to support it. Phil was kind of magical.
You mentioned earlier that you wouldn’t take a role like Abby now.
I don’t think so.
What are you looking for?
More of a female-centric voice.
Are there any shows with those voices now that you really like?
I love Happy Valley, I love Transparent, I love Fleabag. There are tons of great things happening. I loved Girls.
So something that has a strong female voice in it.
Yeah! And maybe less violence.
A little bit more. [Laughs.] Really, how could I curse more?
Are you committed to drama, or would you try comedy?
I’m in for the long haul with people who do drama.
Is this definitely your last Ray season? No chance you’ll be back?
Who knows? Don’t know. If they want me, they work it out. That’s not my problem.
Is this your favorite season of Ray?
I don’t know. It was definitely a tough season. They were tough for different reasons. Shows can have teething problems in the first and second years. That can be tough, to try and find those voices. This was tough in different ways. It was physically very difficult.
Will you watch it? A lot of actors say they don’t like to watch their work.
You can’t always believe them though. Actors aren’t the most reliable narrators. “I don’t like to watch myself,” and you walk in, and there are screens everywhere. But sometimes you know better than to watch it. Sometimes, it’s important to do it if it’s an ongoing thing.
What are you going to miss the most?
The crew. An amazing crew. When you start doing a show like this you sort of have to say to everyone, “We’re going to do this for a long time so we better get really comfortable with each other.” It’s gone great. They’ve been a great, great bunch.
You mentioned killing off the matriarch of the show in the current political climate struck you as not having the best timing. Can you explain that?
I think it’s dangerous, actually. Because then what do you have left? You have a teenage-boy fantasy after that. What’s going to tether this show to something that’s more substantial than just going up and beating up thugs? I feel like that’s dangerous stuff, and I’m not kidding, I think it’s time for more female voices and that’s the trend we’re going toward anyway. The most interesting shows on TV these days are female-centric. That’s a way of balancing things out because it has been a boy’s club for so, so long, for always and ever. But I love the voices that are coming out of women because it’s fresh ideas. I mean the anti-hero thing, we’ve done it really well, we’ve seen it and it’s a lot of fun, mind you. But it’s sort of these fresher, more progressive voices that I’m interested in.
There’s also been that trend of the woman who excels at whatever she does for a living but then is a disaster personally. She can’t do anything right when it comes to her personal life. People always say to me, “Who do you want to come back as if you’re reincarnated?” And I always say “a guy,” because you go to work, you come home, you watch some fucking sports, scratch your balls and go to bed. You don’t think about anything. Really. How are we not seeing these stories? You know, those women who are cops and are still coming home and dealing with their kids, and these girls who work on our crew have got three or four kids, and they’ve got long days here and they’re working it out. They’re responsible for all of it. The emotional weight. And that’s a little tiresome, but that’s the culture of misogyny, you know? If you have the woman as president you have to make them a fuck-up at home. How else do you get to hate them?
That infuriating question of likability that always comes up.
The question of likability! The very word makes me want to scream when I hear it from writers. Oh, she’s so much more likable. It’s a very sort of American concept as well that you’ve gotta be pretty and likable and all these things.
As a viewer, I’ll be sad when Abby’s not around anymore, but it sounds like you’re at peace and this is a good move for you.
It’s gonna be a beautiful season. It’s really a real kind of testament to her. I think it will be lovely. I hope it will be lovely. But, yes, it’s time.