It’s not a small thing to drop a standout guest performance on Ray Donovan, a show that includes the uber-intense Liev Schreiber and a twerking Jon Voight. But five-time Emmy winner Hank Azaria (The Simpsons and Tuesdays with Morrie) has done that very thing with his unhinged, and darkly hilarious, former FBI agent Ed Cochran — earning an Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series Emmy nomination this year in the process.
Azaria debuted on the series in its second season, and enjoyed playing his “sociopathic” shady agent so much that he lobbied the writers and producers to bring Cochran back to wreak more havoc — and have more havoc wreaked upon him, thank you, Ray Donovan — in Season 3. “I just made sure they knew that I was available and enthusiastic, be it one episode or an arc, it didn’t matter to me,” Azaria says. “I’m really happy to continue to play over there, which I think they appreciate.”
Season 4 has found enemies Cochran and Ray working together on a very important project, and it’s led to some surprising, but truly delightful moments between the actors and the characters. Azaria talks about their newfound frienemyship, what makes Cochran so fun to play and watch (and why we can’t dislike him, no matter how crazy he gets), and how he’s ready to go play in the Ray Donovan sandbox full time.
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It looks like you are having a lot of fun playing Ed Cochran.
Yeah, that is definitely true. I think they enjoyed writing it, and I enjoy playing it. Really, the longer I go in this crazy business of ours, the more I enjoy my work. I consider myself fortunate and grateful that I feel that way, and that definitely, I think, comes out in this performance. I really enjoy being there and having fun with this character.
David Hollander (now the series showrunner) created Cochran for Season 2. When they first approached you about this character, what did you know about him?
At that time, they had a full arc for him figured out for Season 2, and they pretty much told me where it was going to go and what was going to happen. That is what happened, although it was unclear by the end of Season 2 whether I would die or not. It’s been a little more making it up as they go along since that, and I certainly keep thinking I’m about to die, and then he somehow survives. I kind of knew that eventually Ray and Cochran were going to team up in some capacity. That was an idea in Hollander’s head a while ago. That has happened, and now what goes on from here I have absolutely no idea.
When they told you about FBI agent Cochran and what he’d do and who he’d be, what made you say, “I’m in”?
Mostly it was a quality project with really good people. Without overthinking it, you kind of just go, “Yeah.” You never know for sure how something is going to work out. I’m a poker player. The best you can do at poker is get a hand that has a pretty good chance and bet on it. It seemed to be a decent hand, good scripts, and Liev and Jon. It’s more like I couldn’t think of a good reason not to do it.
Did you have a chance to help shape the character?
No, as far as story or dialogue. I’ll occasionally throw in this line or that line, but other than that, no. I’m just trying to glean from them and from the FBI consultants who they work pretty closely with, what would be the psychology of Ed, the attitude of a guy like this, then just trying to bring myself to that as honestly as I could. I think there’s always a biofeedback system that they’ll work in series television where they’ll write stuff, an actor comes in, they do what they’re going to do, and some of those parts are either greater than or less than. If they’re greater than, they get excited, and so they start writing to that either consciously or unconsciously. I think it was one of those nice situations where the writers and I have good chemistry.
Was the humor with Cochran on the page from the beginning?
Yeah, I think that was written in right at the beginning. It was a little more buttoned down, as he was a more responsible individual then, and then lately they’ve really been trusting, letting that really hang out. Especially since Mike Binder’s come on the show. He’s a good friend of Hollander’s, and he’s a co-executive producer over there now. Mike’s a guy I’ve known for years. His background is much more comedy, and [Season 4’s “Norman Saves the World”] was one he wrote, and he was on set for. We really had a good time pushing the limits of, “How far can you get away with being comedic and yet stay in the reality of this very stark world of Ray Donovan?”
What is the secret behind that for you? Cochran has issues that we shouldn’t even try to slap some label on, although I’m sure you could, but we can’t not like him, either. He is funny. He even amuses Ray, I think, which is certainly not easy to do. What do you do to balance that with keeping him grounded enough to fit in with the show’s tone?
I think some of it is, Ed’s really smart, so a lot of his humor is observational. He has nothing to lose by telling the truth to people, which can be funny. He’s kind of sociopathic. He’s not really constrained by politeness or decorum or society’s norm. There’s no qualms doing whatever and also saying whatever to whoever, which provides a lot of comedic opportunity. I think also as he gets more desperate, a kind of gallows humor has come out from him, where he’s so down on himself. He’s either laughing or crying at his own situation.
Let’s talk about where Ray and Cochran are in Season 4. You said David always intended they’d work together eventually, but there have been moments this season where it felt like an odd buddy comedy, that there’s a weird respect for each other. Maybe Cochran even admires or envies certain things about Ray. Ray would never admit it probably, but he seems to like Cochran, begrudgingly. How would you describe their relationship in Season 4?
Liev and I have actually discussed this. We were actually talking one day like, “Why hasn’t Ray killed Cochran? He really should have, at least three times.” Part of it is, not too many people in Ray’s life could actually provide a little bit of comedic relief, a little bit of levity. I think you’re right, Ray likes the guy despite himself and is amused by the guy despite himself. I think that also, they are in a way the two people closest in temperament. They both are angry guys who feel that they are good at manipulating stuff that would to you or I seem unmanipulatable. Ray is more effective than Cochran, as we can tell, because whenever Cochran goes up against Ray, he loses. It’s almost like he’s the only close second around, and I think Ray feels like he’s a kindred spirit, just can’t bring himself to kill the only guy around who he sees himself in. He’s a lonely guy, Ray, first and foremost.
The episode “Norman Saves the World,” the scene where they’re waterboarding Nick Lull (Eric Balfour)… Ray and Cochran were like two little boys doing something they know they shouldn’t be doing, but enjoying it very much, admiring each other’s handiwork in setting up the situation. They were bonding. Was that one of the more fun scenes of the season for you?
Yes, but you’re also feeling the discomfort of another actor and a stuntman, so we’re worried about someone swallowing water, and there’s always that. But personally, I get a genuine kick out of how Liev portrays his role. We all acknowledge he’s great. He’s been Emmy-nominated, but I think it’s been even harder than it looks. I have huge admiration for anyone who can play that kind of a tough guy, where they’re basically not saying much at all or revealing much. They’re playing a character who is emotionally closed off, and yet you always know what they’re thinking and feeling. That’s so hard to do. I can’t do it. There’s very few actors who can do it. Russell Crowe is one, I think, and Clint Eastwood was one back in his day. It’s really hard to do, so I really enjoy watching his performance, including when I’m in a scene with him. I just genuinely get a kick out of it. I think Liev gets a kick out of Cochran, too. We certainly have fun each time, just working out the scene and how we’re going to do it, and not telling each other what our approach is and surprising each other. I like to see if I can break Liev up with nonsense.
Have you been able to do that? Were you able to do it during the filming of that scene?
Yeah. I don’t know about the waterboarding scene. Definitely in the scene before where we’re out in the living room talking. A few times I surprised him with things that made him laugh and break in the take. That dynamic is always alive in the scene with us. Part of what makes Liev really great in this role, and in general a good actor, is you really don’t know what he’s going to do next. Ray’s a very dangerous guy, and he could totally take it easy or he could kill you, or something in between. You have no idea, but he does need to be watched very closely. Liev is that kind of actor. You don’t know what he’s going to do, and that’s what makes him so watchable. I try to bring that to Cochran, even just for Liev’s benefit. I’ll do one take where I was really chummy, and now I’m going to do one in a really bitchy, angry way just to see if it surprises Liev. That’s what I’m enjoying. That’s what’s fun. They’ve created a space over there where they’re really open to that kind of work, so it’s fun.
How did Cochran’s musical aspirations come about?
The musical aspect of Cochran was written in right from the beginning. That’s a Hollander thing. Hollander is a musician, and a pretty good one, and a tremendous fan of music. He really, really thought as part of this character from the beginning that Cochran had this obsession, was in a cover band, had an obsession with rock and roll. He made sure to not just throw it away, but really weave it into the story.
It really became what made Cochran agree to work with Ray in Season 4, to fund his cover album.
That’s sort of like the biofeedback thing. You do stuff, and… I know this very well from working on The Simpsons for nearly 30 years. [There are] these characters that have two lines in one season, but they capture people’s imaginations and then five years later they have a whole story arc or their own episode. That’s sort of true of all writing, especially in series to a certain extent. You try things with a character, and they maybe score or they don’t. If they score, you keep going to that, and if they don’t, you go away from it.
[A music obsession] seemed to work well, the incongruence of a guy like Cochran, whether he’s playing by the rules of the FBI or turning into a thug, his musical obsession seemed a fun color of the character. The idea that a guy like that, who lost everything, then said, “Well, screw it, I might as well pursue a music career.” I actually know a couple of people who have done that very late in life, very foolishly. There’s an emotional truth to it that I definitely related to. I’m a classic rock guy. The music that Ed Cochran likes is definitely from the era of music that I love, although his particular taste in music I hate. Almost every song, except for “Night Moves.” I love “Night Moves,” but almost every other song that Cochran is either humming or singing, I particularly don’t like. I sent Hollander a list of songs I do like: “Can we please do these?” He pretty much ignored that. The songs he picks, I think, are songs he likes, but they’re also songs that thematically make sense. That’s more what he’s writing to, songs that resonate thematically and less the songs that we all love. Although, you know what I love? I’m a big ELO fan, and the lounge singer, Mickey’s girlfriend Sylvie [played by Paula Jai Parker], all those lounge versions of those ELO songs she sang, I found that so quirky. I thought that was awesome.
Hollander must be a big Bob Seger fan, then.
I don’t know that he is. I know Binder actually is friends with Bob Seger. He was in touch with Seger, and Seger got a big kick out of, apparently, this whole mentioning of him and that he figured into an episode. I know that Bob Seger enjoys the fact that we’re always bringing him up on the show.
That was another great scene, Cochran forcing Ray to sing Seger karaoke before he’ll work with him.
Yeah, that’s one that even off the page, you really want to do right by this scene, because it’s such a great idea. It really speaks to Cochran and Ray’s relationship. The way that Cochran is going to seal this deal is by having Ray sing? It’s almost insane. It is insane, but it sort of makes sense. The guy is going for whatever win he can get, which isn’t too many, but that definitely is one thing he can have him do. That’s what I mean, they’re sort of both genius, crazy chess players in this dark world of using what you have on people, kind of in the same way Frank Underwood is genius on House of Cards. We just enjoy watching people who are able to figure out the way to manipulate people and who are not afraid to do it.
We’re almost at the end of Season 4, but for the future, we at least have to see him again at some point and find out what happens to his Underneath the Covers album, right?
Right. I hope so. A lot of it tends to be schedule dependent. It all kind of happens at the last minute. I’ve got a potential Broadway show that I’m doing next year that I’ll know about in the next three months, and if I’m doing that, then I’m kind of unavailable. If I’m not, then I’m completely available. That seems to happen every year. [Cochran] seemed to get a really great response, not only the Emmy nomination, but people seem to definitely be enjoying the character. I hope that maybe we make it a more formal situation. That gets into business stuff, like they already have all the set contracts they can have, so they can’t lock another actor down, it has to be sort of an episodic thing or a guest spot thing… Let’s put it this way, I’m willing to do whatever will work, because I really like playing the role.
Ray Donovan Season 4 airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Showtime. Ray Donovan Seasons 1-3 are streaming on Showtime Anytime, Amazon Video, and Hulu.