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Exclusive Interview: Jon Voight on ‘Ray Donovan’

I had dinner with Jon Voight during the Television Critics Association press tour and talked about Ray Donovan and his legendary movie career.

Jon Voight

This interview actually didn’t happen during Showtime’s portion of the Television Critics Association summer press tour. Hallmark Channel always has an annual dinner with their Hallmark movie talent, where press can sit at tables with different casts for the night.

Even though Hallmark isn’t CraveOnline’s demographic, it’s a lovely evening and I’ve spent nights geeking out with Markie Post, Andy MacDowell and Kristy Swanson. This year I chose Jon Voight’s table because I figured his wealth of Hollywood anecdotes would be endless.

Voight is developing a series with Hallmark, but it’s so early in the works that he was really just a guest for the night. I used the opportunity to talk about “Ray Donovan” season two, in which Mickey (Voight) has been brought back from Mexico by Ray (Liev Schrieber) for a deal with the FBI. But wrangling Mickey Donovan is no easy task. Voight was gracious and personable throughout the night, as you may sense from his friendly anecdotes about his film classics.

CraveOnline: Does Mickey seem like a guy that no matter how much money or how far away he gets, he’s always going to be the same guy? He’s always going to be in trouble.

Jon Voight: Yeah, exactly right. He doesn’t have a compass. The compass, it’s like North. Mickey keeps coming back to Mickey. Even though he’s given these opportunities, he’s not going to change. He’s always going to be the same. That’s what makes him fun.

I feel like I can spot those guys coming, but how do they fool other people into letting them get them into more trouble?

He’s a charmer. With Mickey, you’re charmed by him because he has many aspects that we like. His positive attitude about everything, his sense of fun and his real confusion about why things aren’t going well for him. [Laughs]

I guess that makes me more wary of guys like Mickey, because they’re so oblivious to their own role in the trouble they cause.

He doesn’t learn. He has an ability not to learn. Basically, that’s because he’s surviving. He’s always surviving.

Has Mickey Donovan become a very definitive role for you?

Well, I think it has given me a lot of attention that I haven’t had previously.

But you have.

I’ve had my time, but this is of a different energy. Also to have a fellow like myself, I’m an older fellow, and you figure well, you must have seen all his moves. And then all of a sudden you say, wait a minute, I haven’t seen this one. That’s fun for me.

And this is the first show you’re a consistent regular character. “24” was a guest.

Yeah, I was the villain for a season, but that helped me test the water. When I got the role on “24,” I said, “How do they do it?” I was interested in taking it because I was interested in the show and how they shot it. I figured out that they had a handheld camera, or steadicam and they had some locked off stuff too. Did they do an overall lighting? All this technical stuff, and when I came to the set, the director said, “John, do you want to shoot the rehearsal?” I said sure. He said, “You can move over to the desk, you can go here, whatever you feel.”

We didn’t have marks. He just said, “Let’s see how it turns out. The steadicam will pick you up.” I said okay, that’s cool. It reminded me of when I was in an off Broadway show, A View From the Bridge. I was surrounded by audience. It was a small theater where the audience is 3/4 around. We were right in the laps of the people. That’s what it reminded me of. The camera’s right here. Everybody’s free to move around. I like that. It’s cool. So I had fun doing the show and I was able to accomplish it and people liked the part, so when I had to make a decision about this, I was positively influenced by the former experience. It seemed like an open door.

Then I walked through that door and I found these wonderful actors and wonderful writers under Ann Biderman. And each of the actors cares as much as I do about their work. Also I found them to be good people. So it was really wonderful fun. When I go to the set I’m working with friends and people I care about, and I’m happy to see after I haven’t seen them in a week.

Is “Ray Donovan” as flexible as “24?”

In some ways it is, yeah. The actors bring a lot to it. If I’m working with any of my sons, Pooch Hall, Dash Mihok, Eddie Marsan or Liev, I know those guys are going to bring a lot of stuff to the table and the scene’s going to adjust because of that energy and the energy I bring as well.

We don’t know what it’s going to be like until we all come together, and we’ll find out. “Well, if I do this, maybe I can do this and so on and so on and so on.” Sometimes we come up with a very unique idea. Hey, suppose I wake up from sleeping. He discovers me, he’s had a fight with so and so, let’s see what we can do with that. We have that ability to play.

Have you ever seen, in any of your Hollywood experience, anything along the lines of what Ray Donovan deals with?

You know, you hear about certain things. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a guy who duplicated Ray Donovan’s activities week to week. He’s got a pretty full schedule. Once in a while you see one of our performers gets in trouble and we hope that there’s somebody around to see for him sometimes. It used to be in our business that if people got in trouble, the studio would protect them because they’re protecting their property. We don’t have that protection anymore, especially with the internet, so I don’t know. There’s got to be people who try to work through the odds.

A lot of your films had milestone anniversaries. Did you imagine when you were making Deliverance or Midnight Cowboy that these were films that would last?

I had a moment in each of those films where I kind of went on record to say that it was going to be a hit, both of those. Midnight Cowboy, I was shooting in Texas, it was my first big film. Everybody was a little nervous about my carrying the load. John Schlesinger and I were in Florida with a very skeleton crew, maybe five people, shooting a scene on a dirt road, one of the fantasy sequences. I’m running down the dirt road. After that, Schlesinger said, “I’m going to take a breather.” I come back to the little camper we had, there was just one vehicle I guess.

I come around the corner and I see John Schlesinger. His face is red and he’s sweating, and he’s shivering. I thought he was having a heart attack. I said, “John, what’s the matter?” He said, “What have we done? What have we done? What will they say of us? What’s it about? It’s about a dishwasher who goes to New York and f***s a lot of women. What will they say?” I knew he was having an anxiety attack and I grabbed him by the shoulders and I looked him in the eye and I said, “John, we will live the rest of our artistic lives in the shadow of this great masterpiece.”

I had to say something alarming to shake him out of it. That’s what I was thinking. He says, “You think so?” I said, “I’m absolutely sure.” “Oh, really. I don’t know, Jon. I’ve got something I’d like you to hear. Would you come by my room at the motel? I’ve got something I want you to listen to.” That was almost the first time he let me in on something. So I came by and he played “Everybody’s Talkin’” from Nilsson. When I heard that, I had chills up my arm. Sometimes you get goosebumps when things are special and right. That’s what I thought, “Oh my God, that’s perfect. It can’t be better than this.” So anyway, that was the moment when I admitted to knowing that we were going to make a great piece.

Had you thought that before that moment?

Obviously I did along the way. I was checking it to see every scene. How did we do with that scene? That’s cool. How did we do this one? Well, that’s good enough. Schlesinger was quite a brilliant guy, really good guy and he was at the top of his game when he made Midnight Cowboy so I knew we were in good shape. And he worked very closely with me and with Dustin [Hoffman]. We worked really intense, we really came to play.

When the Mission: Impossible movies became such a successful franchise, did you regret the twist with Jim Phelps? You could have continued as a heroic character in the series.

I actually wrote another ending for the first movie and I gave it to Tom [Cruise]. I don’t know if I wrote it out, but I had this idea that they found messages coming and it was from Jim Phelps. They thought they killed him but they hadn’t killed him, and he returns, and the other guys return too. The people he thought were dead were not dead. It was all to try to get the mole. He was being used by us, but it didn’t work out.

Did you discuss that with Brian De Palma?

Yeah, I think I did. He wasn’t interested.

The thing was Jim was the hero on the TV show.

I felt badly about spoiling that image. I felt bad about it.

What did you think about the “Seinfeld” about John Voight’s car?

Initially, when they said, “Would you come and do something on ‘Seinfeld,’” I said, “Well, there’s a very good team of actors. That’s a good ensemble, sure. Sure, I’d do something for you guys. I thought it was just a walk-on and that would be it. But then I read the script and my name was all over the script. It was quite shocking, but fun. It was a big compliment, so I was delighted with it and very honored by it actually.

Was it around Mission: Impossible and Heat that you experienced a resurgence? It seems like you’ve had really fruitful work ever since.

Yeah, that was good for me. Different areas. I played villains in those pieces and that’s probably what got me this piece, “Ray Donovan.” They got me into this idea that I could be dangerous, I could be imposing.