It is somewhat surprising in the run-up to Emmy that more attention isn’t being paid to Paula Malcomson’s brave final season-long performance in Ray Donovan. Malcomson’s Abby, the scrappy Southie-born wife of the emotionally repressed Hollywood fixer, shockingly finished her long run on the Showtime series when –spoiler alert– her character ended a losing battle with breast cancer by taking her own life, a story line that is intricately woven into the entire fifth season of the drama. For the Belfast-born actress, this ends two long runs as women in male-voiced shows who drew emotion and humanity out of black as pitch antiheroes — she previously played Trixie, the prostitute/lover of Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen in the David Milch-created HBO drama Deadwood. Here, Malcomson, Liev Schreiber and executive producer David Hollander describe the pain and opportunity that came with ending a character who was the moral spine of the show, and the troubled Donovan clan.
DEADLINE: When I first met you and David Hollander at a Deadline Emmy party, my opening line was something like, I hope we’ve put Abby’s breast cancer scare behind us, who can imagine Ray Donovan without his grounding wire. You guys gave me a look I now understand fully. What a tool I am.
PAULA MALCOMSON: Would we best describe that look as sheepish? I remember that. I was in the thick of that whole thing right then, and I couldn’t say anything. A nightmare.
DEADLINE: Now, my thought is, why aren’t more people talking about your performance and Abby’s season long death spiral of a beloved character so central to core of Ray Donovan?
MALCOMSON: That’s very sweet. But, it’s kind of a boy’s show, isn’t it?
DAVID HOLLANDER: It was 100% her season, from the first episode to the last. Everything was named after her and followed her. The through line was hers. Ray’s emotional demise was about her, Ray going where he went and landing in the East River, was about her. It was a story line completely centered around Paula’s character. The elements of the hard stuff, dying of a disease we are scared of, also introduced for the first time where we writing from the female side of the story and getting drawn in, and we never really did that before. Bridget [Kerris Dorsey] had a lot of purpose, Abby had a lot of purpose and so did Susan Sarandon. It changed the dynamic of the show and it was interesting to watch [the reaction]. There’s the feelings stated by people who watch the show and liked that, and those who didn’t. But on a long running show, no one likes sameness, either. You can’t repeat yourself endlessly, that can be no fun. But when you make painful changes, there’s no fun, either. We were all really proud of the season and amazed and proud of Paula’s work.
LIEV SCHREIBER: Episode Eight…
DEADLINE: The one where, with the help of her daughter Bridget (Kerris Dorsey) and Ray’s brother Terry (Eddie Marsan), Abby ends her life and her pain, and while Ray uses his fixer skills to make a Faustian bargain to get her an experimental treatment that could save her, he was too late.
SCHREIBER: I watched that again just recently. I think Paula’s work in that is as good, or better, than anything I’ve seen on film, on stage or TV. Her work there was just gorgeous.
DEADLINE: All the more remarkable because as Paula says, it is a boy’s show. A scene that personifies the male appeal of Ray Donovan is the one where the fixer goes to Mexico to retrieve his father for the FBI. Mickey Donovan (Jon Voight) has surrounded himself with a barroom full of tough guys who say he isn’t going anywhere. Ray excuses himself. After punching in a song on the jukebox, he opens the trunk of his luxury car, carefully folds his designer shirt and retrieves his baseball bat. We hear him tear apart the bar before he drags out his unconscious father. Sure, this was a family haunted from scars left by a pedophile Boston priest, but displays of emotion? Ha. Abby’s slow deterioration from breast cancer shook the show to its core and took away the foundation that kept Donovan somewhat honest. Why did this happen?
HOLLANDER: We knew we were coming to New York and were going to change things in Ray’s world, and in his condition and emotional life. We looked at a lot of different ways to tell that story and this was the most emotional and scariest, which is probably why we chose it. It was the highest bar and frankly it was also going to be a way to write for Paula in a way we hadn’t been able to before. We all know what a genius she is, but in this world of Ray Donovan we were having a hard time reaching for her character.
So in many ways this was, let’s go out large, strong and big, and let’s make you the center of the story for once. The cost to the actor and the narrative was high. Paula understood that. We were a family and it’s hard to make changes. But from the dramatic and writing sense, we knew change was coming anyway. This was the big shot across the bow. Like any sensitive artist, Paula struggled with that reality, but I struggled with that reality. We struggled with it together.
DEADLINE: It is understandable that the show’s chief creative architect has the right to determine his main character’s path. And actors are there to serve that vision. But rarely does a major show replace a character who was the conduit to drawing out the vulnerability in a hulking character who loathes showing emotion. Paula, what do you remember of that initial conversation when David told you this?
MALCOMSON: That it wasn’t a good one. The first one was kind of full of fu*k you.
MALCOMSON: It was because…I thought it’s too easy and there’s other ways. The show needed to make a move to New York, and going into the sixth season, they were going to have to change things up. But I thought it was too easy to take away the female lead from the show. I was like, why don’t we do something else, find another way to subvert the audience’s expectations? I think giving her cancer in the first place was already jeopardizing things. So I was dealing with that for a while, since not last November but the one before, the ‘what is this, why are we doing this?’
Now, there’s a lot going on in the world. Women are on the cusp of something, where you hear everybody saying, okay, we need our own stories. This is a guy show, and so initially this felt like it was a very male-brain impulse. The way you describe Ray Donovan as the guy who takes his shirt off and comes back to the bar with the baseball bat? I always loved that stuff, it’s great. But there is also me, as an actress, wanting to tell something that is more from the female perspective.
DEADLINE: Abby’s fit in that #MeToo mindset is complicated. She declined cancer treatment when her breast cancer was caught early; she didn’t want to lose her breasts. It was as much vanity and pride as her physicality being key to competing for this husband whose twisted psyche compels animalistic extramarital urges.
MALCOMSON: Well, so there was that initial conversation, where I was disappointed and thought we could do better, dig into her storyline, explore other things. Then when it was clear this was happening, it was, how are we going to do this in a way that makes me feel like I can do my job as an actor? But the first conversation was really not nice.
DEADLINE: What was most troubling?
MALCOMSON: You called Abby a beloved character. But the thing about it is, it took a lot for us to get her there. At first she wasn’t that. She was antagonistic. She was written in a sort of very wife trope, naggy way. And I did my damnedest to get underneath that. How after that, are you going to lose the female out of the show? And not see her replaced by a 20-year-old or whatever? These are the things we were talking about. I just wanted to make sure that if we were going to do it, we were going to do it right.
DEADLINE: What was your back and forth like at that point with Liev, your onscreen partner who is also a producer?
MALCOMSON: It was a double-edged sword because he wanted to move the show to New York. That was something that Liev needed and wanted because he lives in New York and he’s got his kids. That’s completely understandable. I think there was that aspect of he felt very guilty about that. It was hard for him. It was hard for all of us, but the decision had been made.
DEADLINE: Season Four ended with the Donovan clan emerging from a near fatal calamity to appear closer than ever. Watching Season Five unfold when it soon became clear Abby won’t survive despite her fixer husband’s desperate efforts. To those like me who felt Abby the most redemptive character in that volatile Irish Donovan family, watching the deterioration was like a blow to the gut with Ray’s baseball bat. I especially felt dumb for my comment to you at that party, and hoped you didn’t think I was belittling something you took so seriously that it sometimes felt grueling to watch.
MALCOMSON: No, not at all. I just felt bad that I had to lie about it, because that’s not me. I wanted to tell you, here’s what’s happening.
DEADLINE: Give away your death scene to a journalist with David Hollander standing right next to you?
MALCOMSON: Yeah, I got the boss standing right next to me, and I think we had just shot my death scene when I saw you. Jesus, that was so tough, but cathartic because you just said goodbye to this character, in this way, with goodbyes to the crewyou’re your fellow actors, and with the audience. But no one could know.
DEADLINE: It was clearly your priority not to glamorize Abby’s physical deterioration as cancer overtook her body.
MALCOMSON: I’d been through that; my best friend died of cancer. And I was really, really, really up close and personal with that, and it was a fu*king nightmare. It took a long time, and she was very, very, very sick, very sick. And so I had to sort of abuse myself, to get there [with Abby]. I wasn’t really very nice to myself during that time. I was not eating much. I wanted to lose weight. I wanted to be frail. I didn’t want to do a pretty version of it.
You know when you watch people wake up in bed and they’ve got their makeup on? I’m not that actress. At first, I was against the assisted suicide thing. I was like, well, fu*k, you know that’s not Abby, especially with her kids. She’s such a fighter. Why would she not…fight? And how do I get to that place? That’s why I had to get her that sick, that fu*ked up, to get her without hope. To where she didn’t want to put her kids through more. We weren’t going to do this typical, straightforward, linear cancer storyline. I was frankly worried this show wasn’t the right vehicle for that, but then I had to say that’s not my problem. There’s only so much I can worry about.
DEADLINE: When did it feel right?
MALCOMSON: At first I had this feeling like, there’s no way, I want to come in and talk to you guys, after they written one of the early scripts. I told them what I was thinking. But I came away feeling that maybe this would be a good thing for assisted suicide, that it could be something important and something I haven’t seen on television. It was hard but I tried to make that leap with Abby. And the beauty of it was, we were all going through it together, the writers too, and nothing was set in stone. They were just incredibly respectful of my feelings. I got a say. I think they weren’t going to do her sickness so strongly. And I wanted her to have no hair and to really show the physical toll.
DEADLINE: It was a stark contrast to the vibrant physical relationship that existed between Abby and Ray.
MALCOMSON: They had such a dynamic. Even though he’s out fu*king other women, they had a very dynamic physical relationship. From the very beginning, I really wanted that to be as robust as possible. It was not going to be these two people who don’t have sex. They have sex, and he has sex with others. We weren’t going to be Carmela and Tony. This was a different way to go.
DEADLINE: In the Tony Carmela Soprano dynamic, I recall Edie Falco’s character rationalizing Tony’s infidelity by saying to her it was like masturbation, even though it didn’t hide her hurt and betrayal. Abby raged over Ray’s infidelity, but never conceded and even once took on her own lover.
MALCOMSON: I think that was such a strong part of their dynamic, that she always wanted to get to the truth. Over the years, this was something I’d talk to the writers about, like really, guys? Is she really this surprised at this point? But there are some givens in this show, it’s set up a certain way, we can’t change it that much, but I always tried to open things up.
I couldn’t portray the cancer quite the way I wanted to, because we were jumping around with time. Flashing back to the nice, good days, happy times [between Ray and Abby]. And then she’s sick again, so everything was kind of elastic. It was tough to do those things while trying to keep this through line of the cancer story. I’m glad you felt like you got hit with a bat to the stomach. That’s what I wanted, because that’s what it is.
DEADLINE: What did sacrificing Abby allow you to explore as a writer, David?
HOLLANDER: When the scripts started coming and we sat down to read and talk about them, Paula clicked in to what the story was and how she wanted to perform it. And we never really looked back after that. She was a joy throughout the year, devoted to that through line that was [Abby]. She gave brilliant performances in scene after scene, and almost doubled her efforts to make the season what it was.
What I found was, the saddest and hardest things are often the most creatively satisfying at the same time. Episode 8, Abby’s death, was the most painful to shoot. It is also an episode where people brought their finest acting and filmmaking to. It was a combination of being riveted and amazed by the work, while at the same time feeling blue that this was happening.
The joyous thing was an ability to reach into Ray and Abby’s relationship in a way we never had been able to do before. The joy they felt together, remembering funnier times, from Vegas to the ice skating episode, things we really hadn’t been able to access because of the forward momentum of a show about a Hollywood fixer, and frankly the male muscularity of the show. This gave us an access point to their relationship we never had before. There were discoveries along the way. It became a love story of a very different dimension and personally I thought that was gratifying and challenging. The whole thing was challenging to us as artists but also to the audience as well. Sometimes that’s the way you have to go to get deeper into stories and character.
SCHREIBER: Abby was so many things to Ray; you could argue she was everything to Ray. One thing she always was to me and how I thought about Ray, was a lighthouse. She was his barometer of sanity, of what is right, what is home and what is safe. That was part of the pitch when David first started talking about whether or not we would lose Paula. What happens to Ray, what happens to the train if we take the wheels off? For me, Abby was for Ray a beacon, a way out of the storm. For a guy who’s so tightly wound and insecure around intimacy, she was his safe place.
I subscribe to the theory you are only as good as the people you work with and I’ve never had a better screen partner than Paula. She pokes, she prods, she catches, she pushes, she floats, she’s just always present and active, asking questions and challenging herself and everyone she’s working with. That’s something I’ve come to love and need and the idea of parting with that last season was very hard for me.
It really felt like we were breaking up a double act and I was left feeling like I didn’t know if I was going to ever have another partner like that.
She was my Lady Macbeth. There was a thing with us that had to do with picking up on each other, like good scene partners, musicians or figure skaters. Sometimes I would take more of the weight and sometimes she would. Sometimes we would share it, but we were very linked to each other, intuitively.
DEADLINE: We always hear actors covet great death scenes, and here you had one that lasted a season.
MALCOMSON: There was more story to tell than that, though. I’ve always been kind of the supporting actor and the role is to truly serve the story. So to me, I was passing that to Kerris and it was very important that she was in that scene with me at the end. Eddie [Marsan] too. They brought this incredible empathy, and there was something incredibly beautiful and serene about doing that scene. I don’t know that I thought like, oh my god, this is mine, because whatever you give me emotionally, I’m going to throw down with it.
My way with anything is to try and hit people and touch nerves and make people feel, and that’s what this has done and I’ve been happy to hear it from people because I feel like I’ve done my job.
DEADLINE: Did you hear it even from the male viewers drawn to Ray Donovan as the prototypical tough guy who sees emotion as weakness?
MALCOMSON: Grown men have come up to me in New York City, like, ‘I fu*king love you, Abby, what the fu*k?’ There was a lot of hugging. People in the street just coming up and picking me up off my feet and hugging me.
DEADLINE: It seems unlikely to imagine a season of the most male-centric series on television belonging to a woman. But the show has been so full of shocking surprises, starting with the revelation that pedophile priest’s victimization extended to Ray himself. Did you see all that potential in early scripts when you signed on to do this after Deadwood?
MALCOMSON: There was a bit but it was all [Ray’s brother played by Dash Mihok] Bunchy’s thing then. And then we just started to get more into that world. It’s why I love TV so much, because as a character, you don’t know where you’re going. And so you’re a co-author, planting little seedlings and the writers are picking up on it. I just love that process so much. I don’t find that as much in films.
DEADLINE: Because the 112-page script is the whole movie?
MALCOMSON: Yeah. There’s something about digging into that unknown place; it’s like a real psychic journey, and you’re bringing in your own stuff. I’m a real admirer Philip Seymour Hoffman who could go into a movie and bang, right there, you know in that instant who his character is. I always felt like I have this slower burn. It’s something David Milch taught me, the whole lead and follow with your writers approach. I have tried to be a real writer’s actor. When I do films, I find I leave going, god, I wish I had thought to do this or that.
This is the thing for me with this show, and Liev. We built this relationship, around which all these shenanigans happened. To me, what my job was is to tether this thing to reality so that it’s not just…I mean, the stuff is fun, but it can get hold. How many times are you going to see him go and beat people up. I think that what we did was so beautiful. Take the antihero story and tether it to some real family stories. There’s no end of stuff to get into with family.
DEADLINE: What did you do, after Paula’s final scene?
MALCOMSON: I think we all went and got drunk, maybe. I don’t know.
HOLLANDER: I directed the final episode, and Paula and I were standing together on the East River when she was playing that kind of ghost that comes back and Ray sees. It was the last shot of the season and her last shot, too. Paula is a dear friend of mine and we never run out of things to say. We didn’t actually say a word, which was different for us. We were very quiet and just stood together through that final take. There was something remarkable about that silence, standing there and knowing the journey she’s been on and what a brave process she went through. That was probably my most emotional moment with her, in that last shot, and the quiet moment.
SCHREIBER: The last word between the two of us? We shied away from it. We had a last day in LA, and then in New York when we shot on the roof. On both days, I was sheepishly avoiding it, I didn’t want to think it was over. You think, oh, well, we’ll still hang out, I’ll see you all the time and it will be fine. That has not turned out to be true unfortunately, and that is the nature of this business. Though we talk occasionally.
DEADLINE: So where next, Paula, after starring in two well written male-centric series, playing women who pull emotion, empathy and vulnerability out of dark men?
MALCOMSON: I don’t know. I went home to Ireland and did a series about a woman who leaves her children. That was an idea that I’d been waxing on for a while. It got me back to Belfast and it was a different character, not like Abby. As far as the next bit, I don’t know what it’s going to be.
DEADLINE: What is your mindset?
MALCOMSON: The older I get, I have to be more careful. You have to fall in love. When I was younger, it was like, just fu*k first and hope you fall in love. But if what is next is going to be another five or six years, I look at it differently. What do I want to do, what do I want to say, what kind of company do I want to be around? Because I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked with great actors and great writers. And Liev, who is the best there is.