Martin Donovan on his directorial debut, playing Jesus, and figuring out Hal Hartley

Martin Donovan on his directorial debut, playing Jesus, and figuring out Hal Hartley

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Martin Donovan reigned as one of the pre-eminent icons of independent film in the ’90s, an intense young thespian whose combination of intelligence, quirkiness, and inner stillness made him the perfect leading man for iconoclastic auteur Hal Hartley. Donovan and Hartley first collaborated on 1990’s Trust and continued to work together throughout the decade on cult favorites like Amateur, Surviving Desire, Flirt, and finally 1998’s The Book Of Life, which cast Donovan as Jesus Christ. Donovan went on to work with plenty of other notable directors as well. He’s appeared in films from Jane Campion (The Portrait Of A Lady), Christopher Nolan (Insomnia), and Michael Almereyda (Nadja), and has also popped up on television on Weeds, Boss, and the short-lived soap Pasadena. Donovan made his directorial as well as screenwriting debut with Collaborator, a politically charged psychological drama, in which he portrays a playwright who has an intense encounter with a right-wing acquaintance played by David Morse. Collaborator was recently released on DVD.

Collaborator (2011)—“Robert Longfellow” / writer / director 
Martin Donovan: It was a lifetime desire to make a film, to put down in writing the raging banging in my head that has been there since I emerged from the womb. It just took me a very long time to organize my thinking, come up with something coherent, and execute the process of writing. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, and believing in yourself and not giving up after page 10 is tough. But it is something that I have been thinking about since I was at least a teenager. So, in many ways, it’s like my first album. It’s like everything I know about the world that I thought I could cram in there. And being a young child of the ’60s, I was too young to really be a part of it, but I had older siblings. I was very mesmerized by all the tumult and trying to make sense of it. That made a deep impression on me, and I think ever since I’ve been trying to wrestle with the personal vs. political, with the question, “What is it about this existence that connects us to each other socially, politically, whatever, and how much of that is ignored or dismissed or subconscious or whatever? How much of it really does impact us, and can we escape from it? Can we ignore what is going on around us, can we disconnect ourselves, our own material situation, our spiritual selves, who we are, can we disconnect that from history and the social context of our lives?”

The older I get, the more I’m convinced that we cannot, that we are social creatures. Anyway, I’m interested in the context of our lives and our connectedness and the forces that are shaping it. And the first attempt at a screenplay [for Collaborator] was at the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. I was losing my mind with the “here we go again” insanity of “let’s invade another country.” What was passing for meaningful debate was laughable and depressing and propaganda and garbage. I was frustrated and I set out wanting to put two guys in a room, where one represents an alignment with the state, with power, with reflexive acceptance of what the state is telling the population vs. the other guy who has a reflexive skepticism about official propaganda and the like. I wanted to get them in a room and see what they say to each other, basically. That was the impulse. I drew from people I knew, Gus [David Morse’s character] is based on a guy I knew growing up in the Valley in L.A. All the things I had been thinking about, about my experience in the post-war period in America, is in there. 

AVC: It seems like the film draws heavily on your theatrical background, both in your character being a playwright and with so much of it being limited to your two characters talking.

MD:
Well, yeah. The character of Robert [Donovan] had to be an “intellectual” of some kind. That was really what I was reaching for to counterpoise Gus, who is not what we’d call intellectual. I think he’s a bright-enough guy, but he hasn’t developed critical thinking. I’d go as far as to say that he was kept from developing it, but that’s another story. [For Robert] I reached for something close, which would be a playwright or someone in the arts. But it could have been somebody else. In fact, there was an early draft where he was actually a political consultant, but that was a completely different screenplay. We threw that out and started over. But there was a familiarity there. I haven’t done theater since 1992 or something. But I do have that in my background, yes.

AVC: Do you see the urge to write as a byproduct of the urge to act, of the same need to create?

MD:
Probably a mix depending on where I was. But, yeah, it’s all coming from the same place. It’s all coming from the desire to realize, to the fullest degree I can, my creative potential. When I look back on the time when I was young, you’re not thinking about that. You’re just trying to solve the immediate problem. But I think when I step back and look at it, and I think it’s true for all of us; that’s what we all really want. That’s the very definition of freedom: to be allowed to develop our own creative potential to the fullest. But it doesn’t have to be in the arts, obviously. In my case, I gravitated toward the arts. My mother was Irish; she had this great sense of humor, and both my parents loved films. There was a very vibrant discourse about politics and everything that was going on in the world where I grew up. So I was genetically predisposed to go into the performing arts. 

Hard Choices (1985)—“Josh”
MD: I had just gotten off the bus, so to speak. I had just arrived in New York City in September of 1983, having left Los Angeles. I drove across the country with my soon-to-be wife. We arrived in September, and in October, I was in upstate New York shooting this indie film called Hard Choices. My agent in L.A. had an office in New York, so they sent me up for this thing and they cast me in this role. It was just an unbelievable experience. I think I was paid about $50, but I was in heaven for a couple of reasons: I had wanted to leave L.A., and I had always been drawn to New York City. But also I desperately wanted to experience seasons. There I was, in this most spectacular New England fall, shooting this film. That’s what I remember as much as anything: the trees. The leaves on the trees, it was just orgasmic for me to experience that New England fall. 

AVC: Do you remember anything about the role you played?

MD: I played one of the brothers. It’s Gary McCleery and John Snyder. Gary McCleery, who would end up becoming a very close friend in that period, was an older guy who had been in New York for a while who looked extremely young, he looked about 15 years younger than he actually was. It’s set in Tennessee, sort of backwoods Appalachia, drugs, crime, getting in trouble with the law. Let’s see, who else was in that? John Seitz was an amazing character actor. John Sayles has a small cameo. I ended up working with John Sayles years later. If you blink, you will miss me, but I am in Malcolm X.

AVC: As the FBI agent, right? 

MD: I do a half a chuckle. I’m on screen for, I think, six seconds. I spent the day there with Spike Lee, waiting most of the time, until they got around to our scene. Then John and I were playing FBI surveillance guys, surveilling Malcolm in his hotel room near the end of the film. 

Trust (1990)—“Matthew Slaughter”
MD: I was working in a theater company in New York, and we had this incredible setup in what is now a grossly overpriced condominium. But at the time, it was in Tribeca in a warehouse. And the owner, the management company that owned the building, this one woman was basically an angel. She fell in love with the company name; it was called Cucaracha Theater. It was an eclectic group of people, a lot of them from Bard and Yale and then guys like me from the Valley. What can I say? We were doing a ton of theater that was post performance art, experimental, cabaret. A lot of fun and excitement and interesting stuff. Julia Mueller—who was in The Unbelievable Truth, Hal’s first feature—was a member of the company, and she brought Hal and Adrienne Shelly to a performance I happened to be in. And Hal mentioned to Julia that he thought I might be right for his next movie. She told me that, and I said, “Yeah, right. I’ll wait by the phone.” And then, a year later, he did call. I went to meet with him, and I read with Adrienne and him and he cast me. 

Somewhere in that process, I think it was before we started shooting, I got a chance to see The Unbelievable Truth. And I realized this was a very interesting filmmaker, and this was something like I hadn’t seen. But at the same time, I’ve often said, this is a universal experience people have when they’re blown away by an artist or a work. There’s this unfamiliar thing that happens: It opens new doors to your perception. But, at the same time, I think there’s a sensation of coming home to something. This person is articulating a sensibility, a point of view or an experience of life that is similar to yours, but you haven’t been able to express it. Does that make sense? For me, it was like, “Wow! He’s expressing what I have not been able to express.” And in a way that I would have never been able to express. It’s a revelation. We shot the film in 24 days in April of 1990. My wife was pregnant with our first child. Again, there was virtually no money involved, but it was a very difficult experience for me because I wasn’t ready for Hal’s style of directing. 

He was basically asking me to abandon everything I’d learned in acting school. I really resisted that, so I was very difficult. I felt handcuffed. I was not happy, and I think it shows. I think it’s one of the things that added to the performance was that I was pretty pissed off. [Laughs.] It wasn’t until after I started to see the film with audiences and I got some distance from it that I realized what Hal was doing. Subsequent to that, all of the films I’ve made with him were better than being handcuffed; I felt totally liberated. Because I realized what a lot of smart people before me had: You need restrictions in order to be free. You have to have a form or a box that you can go crazy in. You can’t go crazy in an empty space. 

We did five more films—shorts and features. And the best way to describe doing a Hartley film is to look at it more like dance as opposed to acting. There was just something about movement that was so central to his conceit. It’s a trick thing. It is dance but it isn’t, you know? It’s both. I had to find a way to be present in the moment as in any other performance, like a dancer does. But I understood it in terms of movement and ballet and camera. It was really unlike anything I had done or have done since. 

AVC: Hartley’s such an auteur that what you’re ultimately doing is realizing his vision, which is rather meticulous, as opposed to realizing your own vision. It’s subsuming your own identity to fit this greater canvas.

MD:
I think that should be true of every film. I would describe what you’re saying as being rigorous, and he is extremely rigorous. What I didn’t understand in the first film is that I thought he was telling me to do everything, which he would do. He would say, “Pick up the glass, take a sip, look out the window, and say the line.” Where I came from, I wanted to strangle him. You can’t tell me to do that. I have to find it; I have to feel it. Most filmmakers would never tell an actor to do that. But what I came to realize later was he was only telling me to do that because I was not fluid or precise enough in what I was doing. I was behaving in a “realistic” way, and that wasn’t precise enough. 

So I began to know what he was looking for in terms of that physical economy and precision of movement, and I would anticipate that. Subsequent of that, he rarely said anything to me because I knew what he was asking for. But doing it that way, I made it mine. It wasn’t imposed by him. It became my way of doing it and became organic. Hal wanted actors to be present and organic and bring what they could bring, but was forced to impose on actors who didn’t understand what he was doing, and that’s where some of the confusion was.

Surviving Desire (1991)—“Jude”
MD: I had come a long way with Hal both personally and in terms of the work, so it was much easier for me. I remember having a lot more fun, being a lot more relaxed on that film. I don’t know that Hal was very happy with it when we finished. I remember him not being very happy with it, but I think now looking back, he is happy with it. At this point our kid was born and was now a year or so old, and it was a lot of the same crew, people like [producer] Ted Hope, and we were all becoming this ensemble. We shot it in Poughkeepsie, and we were staying in the dorms of [Vassar College]. It was really an interesting time because we were all on the same page and felt like we were doing something interesting, and Hal was really full of this incredible creativity. I think we all were. It felt like a very potent moment. 

AVC: You felt like you were coalescing as a repertory, as an extended surrogate family? 

MD: Yeah, I remember he always hated the term “family.” I’d always say we were like a family, and he didn’t like that term. I kind of understand why. Family has all these other connotations and baggage to it. It was definitely a working group, an ensemble of people that worked together for a few years. 

AVC: Especially in the ’90s. You were working together constantly.

MD: The last thing was Amateur at the end of 1993, and we didn’t work [together] again until The Book of Life in ’97. 

Nadja (1994)—“Jim”
MD: That’s Michael Almereyda, who I think is just a genius. He is one the smartest people I know. He’s extremely well-read and knows his art and film history backward and forward. I learned a lot from him. If I remember correctly, there was another actor in the film that fell out, and he asked if I would do it. I’m very proud of that film. He had seen this film by this young girl somewhere at this festival where she had done an entire short film on a Fisher-Price toy camera. 

AVC: Sadie Benning?

MD:
That’s right. He was obsessed with this idea of working with this Fisher-Price camera. So we ended up shooting some of it… I guess we were shooting in 35mm film. Then he had them blown up and projected on the screen, and it was just gorgeous. I remember watching him have fun with that and being a part of that. And, of course, the amazing Peter Fonda. Meeting him. Peter loves telling stories; the guy just has endless stories. He connects like three different eras and aspects of American arts. From John Ford and John Wayne to the Beatles and acid and Bob Dylan. 

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AVC: He’s kind of a Zelig-like figure except that he genuinely was pretty important. He wasn’t just a bystander to history; he was a participant as well.  

MD: Exactly. He met everybody, he knows everybody. You could just throw a name at him, and he would tell you a story about them. It was pretty amazing. 

The Portrait Of A Lady (1996)—“Ralph Touchett”
MD: That was me sitting in New York with the phone not ringing. I needed to pay the bills, but those calls were not coming. I signed with an agency, and they saw Trust at Sundance and signed me up and oh, you know, I was going to be a big movie star. Nothing was happening and part of that had to do with aspects of it that I wasn’t comfortable with doing or pursuing. There’s no question about that, I simply had issues with aspects of the whole machinery. 

Anyway, I get this call from my new hotshot agent, who is actually kind of scratching his head. “Jane Campion is coming to New York, and wants to meet you.” And this was after she’d won the Oscar for The Piano. He was kind of puzzled by this, my L.A. agent was. It was a huge divide, in some ways, between New York and L.A., as far as Hal was concerned. A lot of people in L.A. appreciated Hal, but he didn’t penetrate the consciousness of L.A. as he did in New York. So she had seen Trust in Australia, and she came to New York, and we met and we had long conversations. This went on for a while, and I initially read for the part of Casper that Viggo Mortensen ended up playing. 

Meanwhile, she was pursuing some big names to play Ralph Touchett. Daniel Day-Lewis, Ralph Fiennes, people like that. But the role of Ralph, as great of a role as it was, wasn’t really the role that a Daniel Day-Lewis was going to play. Anyway, she cast me as Casper, then couldn’t find anyone to cast as Ralph so she had me come in and read for Ralph, cast me as Ralph, and Viggo played Casper. That was just an amazing experience. A beautiful role and we shot in Salisbury, England and various places in Italy. And it was quite an extraordinary experience. 

The Opposite Of Sex (1998)—“Bill Truitt”
MD: That was a script that came to me, and I read the first page and loved it. You read so many bad scripts, and those movies get made and they’re mediocre-to-bad. Then a script comes that has intelligence and wit, and you’re so thrilled. That was a script that had an immediate impact on me. I met [writer-director] Don [Roos], and they offered me the part. I love that film, too. I’m very proud of that film. I think it’s great.

AVC: Roos has such a strong sensibility in that film. I imagine it really leaped off the page.

MD:
I think he was, at that time, pretty well established as an A-list screenwriter, this was his first directing gig. It was just one of those gems, a gem of a screenplay and just beautiful. I had a blast with Johnny Galecki and Lisa [Kudrow] and Lyle [Lovett] and Christina [Ricci]. It was a great bunch. I enjoyed it very much and I’m very happy, very proud of that film. 

The Book Of Life (1998)—“Jesus Christ”
MD: Hal and I are so closely aligned in many ways, but one of the ways we’re definitely connected is being raised straight, white, suburban post-war Catholic boys, he on the East [Coast], me on the West. He grew up on Long Island. So we have this Catholic nature, Catholicism permeates us; you can’t escape it. He was commissioned by somebody in Europe to do something for the millennium. They had commissioned four or five filmmakers do one hour on the turn of the century, so he came up with this. At this point, I know Hal was being very experimental and loose, and we were just having a blast. If you look at that film compared to his other films, it’s a lot handheld stuff that, in terms of Hal’s work, is very loose and freeform. It wasn’t the kind of precision that, in some ways, his previous films had done. And we got to meet PJ Harvey, who we both had been huge fans of. 

AVC: What was the premise of the film? 

MD: Basically, Jesus has come back to judge the living and the dead with The Book of Life and the Seven Seals. He arrives at JFK with Mary Magdalene, who is his secretary and played by PJ Harvey, and he is in a suit. I remember us doing guerilla filmmaking out at JFK; we had no permits or anything, and we were running around with a handheld in JFK. Then the Devil is there, and he starts messing with his head and challenging him and, if I remember correctly, The Book of Life is a MacBook laptop, which he ends up throwing off the back of the Staten Island Ferry into the bay and chooses not to bring down the apocalypse in the end. It’s a fun romp, very Hartley-esque, and very funny and interesting, I think. 

The Great Gatsby (TV Movie) (2000)—“Tom Buchanan”
MD: All I remember about that—well not all I remember—is being in Montreal with Paul Rudd and Toby Stephens and behaving like morons. That’s what I remember: three guys behaving like adolescent idiots. We were just laughing our heads off. I had a lot of fun with Toby and Paul.

AVC: You talk about Hal Hartley being stylized. I’d imagine that holds true when you’re adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald, also.

MD: It’ll be very interesting to see how this Baz Luhrmann version turns out. It’ll be interesting to see how they take that on. Because it’s quite a beast. I don’t think we got it on that one. But it was great to meet and get to know Paul and Toby. 

Insomnia (2002)—“Det. Hap Eckhart”
MD: That was when I had just shot a pilot called Pasadena for FOX, which was directed by Diane Keaton. While I was shooting that pilot, I had read for Chris Nolan in New York for the part. I was in L.A., and I don’t know what prompted me to turn to Diane Keaton during the break and say, “Hey, Diane. I’m doing a film. I just got cast in this film with Al [Pacino]. Is there anything you want to tell me?” [Laughs.] And she just goes, “Uh, no! No there’s not!” And I said, “Oh, okay.” Only later did I realize that was an uncomfortable subject for Diane. There’s a handful of people that inspired me as a young kid, and Al is in the top five. What was wonderful was how much, at that point in my life, I felt I was ready to work with him while still being in awe of him. 

I was in this mode of feeling ready and not beneath him, you know? I didn’t feel inadequate. That’s a healthy place to be in. He was extremely generous and prepared and mesmerizing to watch and all those things.  I don’t want to sound like a bullshit Hollywood actor going on and on, but it’s a fact. He was. We had a couple of really great scenes, and I’m very proud of those scenes. And, of course, I got to work with Nolan. I think it’s one of the most overlooked performances of Al Pacino’s film career. I don’t know what happened, but I think it was some of the best work he’d done in a long time in that film. It was so subtle and nuanced, but there were moments when I was absolutely pinching myself because I couldn’t believe I was working with Al Pacino. 

AVC: There’s a real element of exhaustion in the film, as suggested by the title. Did that slip into the filming of it as well? 

MD: Well, the premise, of course, is insomnia. We’re up north in Alaska and the sun is not setting, and Al’s character can’t get to sleep; that’s the subplot to the whole thing. It’s adding a layer to the whole thrust of the plot, his concentration level is shot and he’s trying to figure out this crime. The set was relaxed, it was very low-key, and Chris is very deliberate and quiet. There’s no drama, there’s no histrionics, he just goes about it very quietly and he’s very pleasant. I was just very focused on my work and working with Al. I think one of the things I wish I could have been able to do is spent more time observing Chris. But I really had my hands full, you know? It was a very enjoyable set to work on, a very relaxed set. 

Pasadena (2001-2002)—“Will McAllister”
MD: Again, here I was working with another extremely talented person [creator Mike White], and I was excited about it. Dana Delany I had worked with before, we played husband and wife in this thing, and she was great. And I knew Mike’s work, and I knew how smart he was. We all thought this show had great potential, but it was the same year Fox launched 24. And 9/11 happened, and they just killed Pasadena and put all their chips on 24. It was a much more nuanced genre. Ostensibly, it was kind of a nighttime soap, but it was Mike White so it’s not going to be just a soap. It’s had darker, more subversive elements to it. It was about American wealth and alienation and the old Protestant guard of Pasadena, which is what Mike grew up around, in that milieu of white privilege and the L.A. establishment. So it had all of that going for it, but it was probably just too subtle and nuanced against 24 with the mood that the country was in after 9/11. Subtlety was not in vogue at the moment. 

RFK (TV movie) (2002)—“John F. Kennedy” 
MD: We can skip over that! Next! [Laughs.] Moving right along! Not my best work, thank you!

Saved! (2004)—“Pastor Skip”
MD: Well, what’s to say? Brian Dannelly, who was very much impressed and influenced by The Opposite Of Sex, came to me and offered me that part. A fun part, not something I had done anything quite like before. An amazing cast of young people and I got to work with Mary-Louise [Parker] again. What can I say?

AVC: It was another exploration of faith. 

MD: Yep. Faith and being the outsider. Faith and the whole high-school clique and the ins and outs of being accepted in the, for lack of a better term, “cult” of Christianity. And Brian, he’s not really a bomb-thrower. He wasn’t anti-religious or anything. But you’re right, I think it’s more about faith and accepting people and getting past fears and prejudices. But it’s a very fun movie, a very funny movie. 

Dark Shadows (TV movie) (2005)—“Roger Collins”
MD: That was just one of those things where [whistles through his teeth] I can barely remember. John Wells offered me that. I met with him, he offered, and, “POOF!” Pilot made, pilot gone. It didn’t get picked up.  I never saw it. Who knows? The network just didn’t like it, they didn’t want to do it, they didn’t want to get behind it. 

Weeds (2005-2006)—“Peter Scottson”
MD: That was Mary-Louise, my good friend, and Brian Dannelly had directed the pilot. They had talked to me about being one of the regulars on the show; I can’t remember which one. They told me up front that they would be bringing me on for a season, and I would be dying at the end. So I knew that going in. Working with Mary-Louise is a joy. She’s one of the more watchable actresses working today, I just love working with her. She always keeps you on your toes, and she’s so committed to the work. She’s a good friend, and it was a pleasure. 

Masters Of Horror (2007)—“Cliff Addison” 
MD: That was Rob Schmidt offering me that part. He got to direct that episode, and I had a blast on that. I think Rob is an extremely bright guy, and it’s deliciously perverted and real, pure horror. It’s disgusting and despicable, and I just think it’s really fucking hilarious. At the time we, were laughing so hard doing this stuff. It is horror, and it is horrific, but it’s got a real dark comic sensibility to it.