Acclaimed actress Embeth Davidtz survived cancer and incorporated her mental and physical experiences into Showtime’s Emmy®-winning drama Ray Donovan.
Actress Embeth Davidtz has been cancer free for four-and-a-half years.
That sentence feels like the single most important sentence you will read in this interview. Cancer touches all of us. We either experience it first-hand, or we know someone who did. Embeth Davidtz dealt with an intensely difficult cancer experience but emerged stronger on the other side.
“I’m still looking over my shoulder a little bit. Everyone tells me its going to be fine, so I just like to take that as the gospel on it,” Davidtz confessed during our phone interview.
After taking time off to deal with the diagnosis and recover, Davidtz returned to acting via Showtime’s Golden Globe and Emmy-winning drama Ray Donovan. Most importantly, she received the unique opportunity to mold her character and incorporate her recent experiences into the role.
As a result, awards watchers point to Embeth Davidtz as a strong candidate for Emmy’s Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.
Her Initial Diagnosis
Davidtz’s initial cancer diagnosis emerged as a complete shock. In 2013 at age 47, she discovered a lump she thought only a cyst. As many would, she didn’t even consider cancer a possibility. By habit, she ate well, exercised, and attended regular mammograms and ultrasounds. She did everything prescribed to avoid developing cancer.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work.
“No part of me that suspected it could have been cancer. It couldn’t possibly happen to me,” Davidtz confessed.
When her radiologist revealed the true nature of the lump, Davidtz sought treatment options and formed a strong resolve to fight the disease. After all, she had two small children at the time. She felt determined to live and see them grow into adults.
Fortunately, Davidtz discovered she was “triple positive.” That diagnosis meant she could use the cancer drug Herceptin, which slows cancer growth. Without that drug, the end result likely would have been strikingly different. Her cancer appeared as a rapid growing cancer difficult to fight.
With the growth in check, Davidtz pursued standard chemo treatment. She also opted for a double mastectomy.
“Everyone said to me, ‘Why would you take off the other breast when one of them is just fine?’ To me, I felt like I was walking around with a ticking time bomb in my body. There was something that went wrong, and I didn’t want to experience that again.”
The recovery process took a great deal out of her. The drug that saved her life also made the healing process slower. Yet, Davidtz continued to make public appearances even with a “radical haircut,” as she put it.
Four years later, enter Ray Donovan.
Returning To Work and Evolving Sonia Kovitzky
Showtime’s Ray Donovan ticked off all the right boxes for Embeth Davidtz. It’s a great show airing during the Platinum Age of Television. It also shot in Los Angeles when not much else does, allowing Davidtz to remain close to her children during filming. Finally, she found herself very attracted to the mystery and glamour of Sonia Kovitzky, art dealer.
But as originally written, Sonia did not have a breast cancer backstory.
Since the character arc included love scenes, Davidtz’s contract contained a nudity rider. Rather than reveal her mid-reconstruction physique, she obtained a prosthetic nipple to avoid revealing her surgical scar. That, however, never felt exactly right.
“There was something nagging at the back of my mind. I kept thinking there was something not authentic about putting on a prosthetic nipple. Then, we’d been talking about [Sonia’s backstory]. I kept thinking about this scar, but what if we use the scar? I’d heard this story about a very famous English actress who had her nipple bitten off by a lover in a fit of passion, and so I brought that up. It was hard because I had to reveal to David [Hollander, showrunner] what my history was.”
Davidtz worried that the production would consider her unhealthy after learning of the diagnosis, but the team (Davidtz included) immediately began developing the character as a breast cancer survivor. That history informed Sonia’s reckless decision-making processes through the season.
Overall, filming proved challenging for Davidtz. She experienced some cognitive changes as a result of the intensive medication. Historically, she possessed a near-photographic memory for scripts, but on Ray Donovan, she found she needed to work strenuously to remember lines.
Ironically, filming the actual nude scene itself wasn’t as difficult as one might imagine.
“The room was so beautifully set up. It was almost like being a piece of art in an art installation,” Davidtz shared. “David really made it almost this kind of romantic thing. It wasn’t as bad as it might have been.”
Speaking Publicly After That Scene
During the fourth season of Ray Donovan, Davidtz’s Sonia shares an intimate moment with Liev Schreiber’s Ray. The scene featured frontal nudity from Davidtz, and her cancer experience revealed itself for the public to absorb. It was a nerve-wracking moment for Davidtz.
“It was really, really terrifying. I think that we, as a society, have stigmatized cancer. It’s not something I’ve had much experience with, and so when it happened to me, there was a part of me that felt there was something dirty and wrong and bad. I wondered what had I done? What was at fault? What was imperfect about me that caused this to happen to me?”
Davidtz posits that many more people in Hollywood experienced cancer, particularly women and breast cancer, than speak about it publicly. She believes few want to put themselves out there as a public face of imperfection and disease. It exists as an unspoken taboo, and for Davidtz, it was a tough choice to expose herself as an actress.
Yet, her choice helped give a voice to those who suffered from the disease. Not just a voice, but a sense that they didn’t have to be ashamed of their diagnosis or of its impact on their body.
“There was a lot of very positive feedback and women saying, ‘I felt ugly until I saw that scene. That scene made me feel beautiful,’ ” Davidtz shared. “I never didn’t feel beautiful even with the scar and even with the loss of a part of my body. That’s what we tried to show in that scene. There’s a woman who is still able to be attractive to somebody like Ray despite her body being carved up in a way.”
Learning From the Experience
Embeth Davidtz’s Ray Donovan performance merits serious Emmy consideration. But that’s not why she did it. Of course, that attention would provide an additional platform. A universal platform from which she could speak of her diagnosis and recovery. In a way, though, Ray Donovan already provided that opportunity.
Naturally, news spread of her actual diagnosis and how she helped incorporate her survival story into Sonia Kovitzky’s evolution. That revelation opened up a flood of letters from cancer survivors. She even received the opportunity to speak at a Northwestern medical symposium on representations of the female body in film and television.
As terrifying as cancer feels, the overall experience proved infinitely rewarding thanks to the incredible outpouring of appreciation from survivors.
“It was more the personal letters and personal stories of people who felt uplifted by it,” Davidtz shared. “That was the biggest reward.”