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'Ray Donovan' postmortem: Paula Malcomson talks Abby's shocking decision

Kimberly Potts
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Paula Malcomson as Abby Donovan on ‘Ray Donovan’ (Photo: Showtime)

Warning: This interview for the “Horses” episode of Ray Donovan contains spoilers.

Playing a primetime TV antihero’s wife can be a complicated job (just ask Breaking Bad Emmy winner Anna Gunn), but when awards are handed out after Season 5 of Ray Donovan, Paula Malcomson’s name should be atop the nominations lists for all Lead Actress trophies. The current season of the Showtime drama began with the death of her character, Abby, and has unfolded to reveal the crushing details behind how, when, and why the Donovans must move forward without the glue that has held the dysfunctional bunch together.

Malcomson talked to Yahoo Entertainment for a deep dive on what is one of the best TV episodes of the year, including Abby’s decision to die on her own terms, why she chose Terry and Bridget to help her, and the special gifts she left behind for Ray, and for the whole family.

Malcomson, who will reprise her role as Gem Saloon prostitute Trixie in the upcoming Deadwood movie, also shares some scoop on her upcoming turn as Superman’s great-grandma.

I just watched “Horses” again, and I’m gonna try not to cry while I’m talking to you about it.
I know, it was sad. It was really sad.

Sad, but powerful. You broke my heart, but you made me love Abby even more this season.
I’m so glad. Yeah, it was a nice way to sort of end things. It meant a lot to leave it that way. I’m glad you felt that way.

Going back a bit to the beginning of this particular story, how and when did you find out Abby was going to die?
I think it was sometime last year. It was before we started shooting. I remember the writers went back in the room, maybe somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas… I know, Happy Christmas!

Yes, really. Happy holiday season. What did you think about when [showrunner] David Hollander told you? Did he tell you at the same time the structure of how they were going to unfold the story?
No, he didn’t. He told me [Abby was going to die], and I just sort of had to take a beat and process. The character was in jeopardy, [so] I had suspected that it might be a storyline that they wanted to use. And also, getting a phone call like that, it’s often that kind of news. A little while later we all sort of got together, talked about it, and they started laying out how they wanted to do the fractured timeline, using me throughout the season. And I started to get really interested and jump on board with how this story was gonna be told, and have a little control over how it was gonna be told.

When I talked to David after the Season 5 premiere, he said the writers chose to unfold Abby’s death this way because it would be more impactful. Usually, when a spouse dies in a story, the death is shown, and we see the impact afterwards, but this was meant to show much more. Did you see the possibility of that right away? It has been powerful all season, but in this episode, where everything comes together and we put all the specific pieces together, it’s an emotional gut punch.
Right. That was still developing, really, as we started the season. I didn’t really have a map of, “Let’s say by Episode 2 we’ll be here, and maybe by Episode 4, here.” I didn’t really know. I just knew that at some point, we were gonna show all of that, and we were still talking about all the intricacies of it — how she decides to take her life, etc. I very strongly believe that she had to have absolutely no hope of recovering. It had to be her choice. Instead of leaving her children, I thought it was a way of sparing her children more pain and more awful memories of seeing their mother wasting away, and losing all her faculties. And I really needed that to be where we got to, so that that would make sense for the character, because she’s so fierce about her family. Also, just dealing with the idea of assisted suicide was really important to me, because I think that’s something that we don’t see a lot, or talk about a lot, even. I just wanted to hit that note, as well.

(Photo: Showtime)

What beats did you want to hit with that specifically? There are so many amazing moments in that entire sequence. One of the things that I love most about this episode, and it’s been true throughout the whole series and throughout this season especially, is that Abby has such respect and trust in Bridget, in how strong Bridget is. She almost never questions that Bridget will be able to handle this. That great moment where she says to her in the alley, “Someday you’ll be able to look back on this and think about what you did for me and feel really proud about it.” It also felt significant that she didn’t have Bridget help with the pills, but she did let her pour the ginger ale for her. It felt like it was a final way to really solidify that bond. Though again, Abby seems to have no doubt that Bridget is the new Abby, in the sense that she really is the strongest one in the family now.
I wanted that really badly. It wasn’t written that way initially. Bridget wasn’t around. Because we see in flashbacks, in the premiere, where Bridget’s sitting outside the room, we didn’t know yet how we were gonna play it. I had a meeting with the writers about Episode 8, and I said, “I really, really want you guys to think about having Bridget be a participant.” And I explained my reasons for wanting that to happen. That she’s becoming a woman at this moment. That Abby does believe that she’s strong enough to handle it, and that it is a very loving and generous and kind thing to do. Also, for Abby to allow her to be there, to not condescend to her child and send her away, but to see her as the woman that she is with the strength, and to take the comfort from her daughter — they hadn’t seen that until we had that conversation. I think the room started to feel a little, I don’t know, prickly, in a good way, when we were talking about it. And they went away and started to make changes in the script, and really brought Bridget front and center into it. And I really loved that.

I think the term that I used with them was that this is “women’s work.” The fact is, this is about that Ray can’t be there. And Abby understands that he can’t be there, because he is a man of action — he has to go off and do what he thinks is best, and there’s no resentment in that, she knows her husband. It felt really lovely to have this between these two women, with Terry there as well, you know? Because he is such a feminine energy, as well. He has such heart and depth. They often talk about how Terry is sort of the surrogate mother of the family. He was looking after them when the Donovan boys’ mom died, when Mickey was off not being the father. So Terry had to step in. I thought that felt really right that those two people, Bridget and Terry, were there.

And we talked about the pills. We really, really talked a lot about these things. How the pills would be helped by Terry. Then, just in the scene on the day, when Bridget came in, I think I suggested that she take the ginger ale from Terry and pour it. You just know in your gut when it feels right. I thought a lot about it. We were all in such a raw and open state to play these things. We led up to it through such a long time. And it was something that was hanging there. And finally doing it was kind of like this release in a way. I just knew, the actress that Kerris [Dorsey] is, she’d just be so beautiful in it.

It’s a very selfless and non-judgmental act on Bridget’s part, and all of that is a tribute to how Abby has raised her.
Yeah, I think that’s right. She’s her mother’s daughter. And in my mind, and with Kerris, we had talked about that. Our story is that they talked about things. They talked about life after Abby. They talked about what sort of a woman she was gonna be. There was sort of a prelude to that where we showed Bridget helping Abby get dressed for the bar opening party, and helping her do the things that she wasn’t really able to do herself. Or if she could still do them herself, she still wanted Bridget there. I just thought those moments were so, so lovely. It hurt so much. You know, I’ve worked with Kerris and Devon [Bagby, who plays Conor] for so long, since they were just kids. They are so dear to me. I really loved that we had that time. My very, very, very first reaction was, “How could Abby do this to her children? How could she do it? How could she possibly do this to her children? I just need this to be that it’s not an act of selfishness in any way.” That it’s about leaving while she still has a little bit of vitality. She didn’t want her daughter picking her up off the floor every day, [to see her] withering away. She didn’t want that, and that was something [she and Bridget would have] discussed.

She had mentioned to Ray that she hoped to make it to Christmas; she was thinking about those things, about what their final memories of her would be and how they would tie them to certain holidays. And the family’s final time with her is at that party celebrating this dream of hers to own her own bar and restaurant.
It was a dream for the family, that they bought this place where they could be together, and it’s called Abby’s. And that her spirit would always be there, so they could go there, and they could go there to be with each other. You see that happen a lot throughout the season. When something bad goes down, they just show up at the bar, as though they’re going to Abby the way they did in the past, except she’s no longer in this realm. But there’s this sort of piece of her still. She chose every piece of furniture. Everything was to that end, that she made this lovely place for them to have without her. I think it all came out well. I think it’s the best we could do it.

(Photo: Showtime)

I love the speech that she makes at the bar, too, when she says that she wasn’t born into that family, but it’s the family she chose. I think that resonates with a lot of people. I also think for years viewers have asked, “Why is she still with Ray? Why does she stay with Ray?” That answered that for me. It was never just about Ray, she wasn’t staying just with Ray. She was staying with this whole family, all of them, all of the Donovans. They are her world.
Exactly. That had been written as a long speech. And when we got there on the day, the writers were there, and I said, “Do you mind if I don’t say any of this and just…” so I just shot from the head. Just being there in that moment… you can think about it all you want at home, like what you might think your character would say, and when you actually get there, you look at the faces, you say what comes from the heart. That was just what I could find at that time, and it just sort of felt right. It was just a very long speech of, “In years to come, this is what I hope for all of you…” and it was beautiful. But I thought it was writer-ly, and I just wanted it to be simple. I just wanted it to be something impactful and say something very brief. That’s what we came up with.

And it was very Abby. It felt very, very true to her character.
Yeah. I think when you play a character for as long as that, you can parse it down to what is the most important thing. What’s beautiful about the way we collaborate on this show is that the best idea wins. Sometimes we fight about things. Sometimes we disagree. But it always comes down to, how do we tell the story in the most elegant way we can? It’s nice to have that freedom.

Paula Malcomson as Abby and Eddie Marsan as Terry (Photo: Showtime)

You talked a bit earlier about Abby and Terry. They’ve always been a great duo. In this incredibly intense episode, they even managed a funny moment — the scene with them in the alley when she busts him for sneaking cigarettes. Did you, from the beginning, have that chemistry with Eddie Marsan?
I think Eddie and I are just cut from the same cloth, as actors and sort of as people, as well. There’s a real connection. He’s just such a great actor, so every chance I would get — any of the boys, I was always so happy to have scenes with them, because they’re just brilliant. Sometimes I feel like we don’t see them enough. They could all equally, any one of these characters, have a show about them, because they’re fascinating. They created such fascinating characters. It’s always incredible fun to work with Eddie. There’s a lot of humor. Even when we’re doing really hard stuff, we both like to work with a lot of levity to it, a lot of silliness in between takes. I think that really helps with things like that, when you can bring in all those different colors.

Abby’s physicality was such a part of this. She continued, obviously, to look more and more frail as her illness progressed, and it almost felt like her body was kind of folding into herself in a way. Did you lose weight specifically for the story to play out?
I did. I sort of had a ringside seat to losing someone this way.

I’m sorry.
I think a lot of people have the same. There were times when I felt, I don’t know, like I was sort of channeling someone else, the person that I’d lost, and some of her physicality started to just come into mine. I like how you put that, that she was sort of folding in, getting smaller. It’s hard to explain, but yes, I did lose weight. I can sort of beat myself up with it to have that be as authentic as possible. I thought that that was really, really important. I felt like I didn’t want to cheat that and make that be some sort of pretty version of what it is.

(Photo: Showtime)

You also, of course, played the emotional and mental state of it. Abby’s angry. She’s sad. She’s resigned. When she first sees the painting of the horses, the one Terry bought for the bar, she looks very peaceful. Is that moment when she made the final decision that she would die on her own terms?
I think there are stages to it, but yes, I think there was something about seeing the painting. There’s these wild horses — you know, the spirit sort of going somewhere else. There’s some kind of magic in that painting, as well. It had some other sort of significance for me personally. There were a few different notes of that, sort of layers of synchronicity with that painting. I think there were stages of her letting go. It was like, the painting is on her wall, the bar is ready. She’s getting ready. As she’s sort of working, working, working, and she’s got all the boys, the whole family, working on this project with her. And that’s the final nail in the wall of, we’re ready to go. I think that was a nice thing. If you see what it said on that painting — it says, Cave Hill, Belfast. Nobody knew on the show, the art department found that painting, but Cave Hill, Belfast is somewhere that I went as a child. It’s a very special and magical place for me. And nobody knew that. So it was just utter serendipity that that was there. Just one of those weird things that happen, you know?

Wow. Did you keep the painting? That sounds like something you should have.
I don’t have it. No, I’m not very sentimental like that. I don’t have keepsakes from shows, really. It’s in the work. It’s all there. I don’t need the things, you know? You just kind of have these very special moments. That’s the magic that you’re given sometimes when you know you’re in the right place. And this is sort of a sense that there’s some kind of, I don’t know, guidance from some other place when things like that show up — little things that feel magical, that feel special.

That is amazing. Did you share that with your co-stars and everyone on the set?
I started to cry, and they all sort of looked at me like, “What’s going on here?” Then our DP, Robert McLachlan, was going home that night, and he switched on the radio, and there was a song about the Cave Hills by Van Morrison on the radio that he’d never heard before. And he called me and said, “This just happened. It’s too much.” I love that, and it’s a very special place.

Abby is the moral center, the glue of this family, and that influence will continue. But will we continue to see this story unfold this season?
Well, it’s sort of the end of that story, and then this becomes more back through Ray’s prism, his nightmares and dreams of her, so we see a little bit of that. Not a whole lot. Little glimpses, where she sort of becomes this revenant that he can’t shake. It’s that thing where it’s like are you asleep, are you awake? Are they gone, are they alive? He sees a woman, and he thinks it’s her. Or is it her? It’s going back to this thing where he’s tormented by the loss of her.

She left that treasure box, and it looked like she specifically placed it under his pillow. Did she leave it for him?
Yes.

(Photo: Showtime)

Was that a picture of Conor or young Ray that she looked at and placed inside the box with the necklace Ray gave her?
That was young Ray. Sort of to remind him of who he was.

Wow.
Yeah, I know.

What was your final day on set like?
Well, it was sort of like different versions of Abby’s final day. It was like sort of saying goodbye to her and then saying hello again. But the final day, the day of her dying, was very special. It was very loving. The room was so beautiful. Everybody was just on tenterhooks. Like I’d be walking, and I’d just feel someone hold my hand, or a hand on my shoulder, or somebody rubbing my back. It was just very, very, very loving, very supportive. I mean, I’ve just never heard such quiet and such reverence, that we were doing something that was very — I don’t know what the right word is, but something unusual was happening. There was the feeling the crew was really holding this space for me in order for me to be able to do that work. Such a group effort. It was me going through those motions, but it was everybody’s energy really directed into this thing. And it was hard for a lot of them. It was very emotional for a lot of the crew.

Paula Malcomson as Abby and Liev Schreiber as Ray (Photo: Showtime)

What was it like going into this new storyline and circumstance for Abby and Ray’s relationship? We’ve never seen him this powerless, even though he isn’t accepting that and that’s what his whole trip to New York is about. But he is ultimately powerless to make sure that he gets the outcome he wants here. And Abby takes this opportunity with him gone to make sure she gets to make the choice for herself. That wasn’t always the case; she was often forced to deal with Ray doing whatever Ray wanted to do.
I think, for the first time, she had some kind of power, and he was a devoted husband. Also, we wanted to show why they were together — some of that lighter stuff, and the big connection that they have, the things that make them laugh together, the years and years and years of knowing each other from when they were children. Not having Abby be the antagonist and asking him where he’s been and what his business is. That’s all gone. This is about them spending this kind of precious time together, and it’s great. And because there’s flashbacks through his prism, it’s all through his point of view, maybe they’re a little sweeter than they really were. We didn’t want to say that this is suddenly a sweet and easy relationship. We weren’t trying to say that. We were trying to say, this is all we have now, these memories, and he’s gonna make them as sweet as possible. I think we had a really good time with it, Liev [Schreiber] and I. And knowing that it was gonna be over soon — it’s quite lovely to know that we only have this amount of time together, so it felt special.

I think it also shifts the focus from “why does she stay with him” to “why was Ray ever straying outside of this relationship?” They had, still are having, those great moments together and laughing and being playful with each other. Why did he make the choices to be out doing the things he was doing? It was fun to get to see how their relationship was at its best.
Yeah, that was really fun. I think he’s a very wounded person. He’s a victim of abuse. Intimacy is hard for people who’ve suffered that. It’s hard for everyone, especially hard for people who have been sexually abused, and have had to do what he’s had to do. Abby understood him, even though she didn’t know. She didn’t know about that priest. She didn’t know about all those things, but she did know. There’s knowing, and there’s knowing — knowing someone, and knowing someone’s heart and their actions. Ray’s a complicated character, for sure.

Up next for you, you’re starring in Come Home, a BBC drama with Christopher Eccleston?
Yeah, I’m about to start that in a little while. We’re in preparation for that. In the meantime, I’m playing — I don’t know if I’m gonna get this right — Superman’s great-grandmother. But Superman’s not alive yet. It’s [in] a prequel [scheduled to debut on Syfy in 2018] called Krypton. I thought it would be fun — something very, very different for me. She’s kind of a badass. I just thought maybe I needed a little change of pace for a second. It’s not a long commitment for me.

That sounds fun. And I’m excited to see you and Christopher Eccleston as a married couple, a family in crisis, in Come Home.
I haven’t met him yet, but I was supposed to do a reading with him years ago, and I didn’t do it. I regretted it ever since. I just think he’s incredible. I’m really looking forward to it.

And the Deadwood movie really seems like it’s going to happen?
Yes. I’ll come back [to the U.S.], I believe, to do Deadwood, which I think now has attached Alan Taylor as the director. It’s inching along. I never believe anything until it happens, but it’s starting to look that way. Then once that’s said and done, I’m gonna think about what’s next for me. I like to work long term on projects. It’s fun to go in and out, and get in there and do something and leave it behind, but to me, the real satisfaction is doing five years on a show, where you’re really just up to your eyes in it. It’s part of your life. That’s what makes me the happiest. I haven’t really thought about it yet because I just thought it was fun to do these other projects. “Fun” isn’t maybe the right word, because they’re all pretty dark. But, yeah, soon I’ll be back to see what’s going on and what I can do to make something happen.

Do you have a wish list of what type of role or type of show you would like to do?
No, I don’t really. I always go for just really, hopefully, great writing and great acting, being in the company of great actors. I’ve kind of got this notion about playing a cop lately. I’ve been watching detective shows, like Wallander and the Danish The Killing. I’m like, “That would be kind of fun to do.”

Ray Donovan airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Showtime.

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