The much-loved American actor opens up about his directorial debut and being the face of early '90s indie cinema.
18 Oct 2012 - 3:04 PM  UPDATED 18 Oct 2012 - 3:04 PM

Martin Donovan laughs out loud at the thought that, at one time in the early '90s, he was a cult hero. It was perhaps a smallish 'cult' as actor cults go, but few would dispute the contention. He certainly seems loath to knock it.

It might be my Catholic upbringing but I want every film to be like the experience I had when I was 10 years old when I saw 2001

This writer remembers that at one time some 20 years back, Donovan's handsome but never the less mysterious visage appear to adorn every single fridge in inner city Sydney. Donovan chuckles at the thought: “I don't doubt that at all,” he says. Still, he modestly attributes whatever small fame he accrued in those years to the mystique that swirled around the films of his friend and collaborator, writer/director Hal Hartley.

“Hal's had that impact in several major world capitals like London, Paris, Sydney,” he says, with an evident and shameless fondness. “Anybody who was of a certain age and enamoured with film, Hal really had a huge influence.”

Beginning with Trust in 1990, Donovan made six pictures with Hartley including Surviving Desire (1991), Simple Men (1992), Flirt (1993) and Amateur (1994). Donovan's career has not been spectacularly visible since his days with Hartley but it's been strong and the work impressive; The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Insomnia (2002), and a lot of TV regular spots including Weeds and Boss. Donovan, tall, with sculptured good looks, has the kind of mellifluous quiet tone in his voice that might be described as hypnotic. Where so many star actors have a restless energy, Donovan's instinct seems to be about holding back and keeping things 'in'. He moves slowly, and every gesture conspires to be gentle, almost but not quite unobtrusive.

Off screen he's relaxed, assured, polite and unapologetically serious. But he's funny too, and he laughs easily and readily at those things he finds ironic and absurd. Like the fact that he no longer is so passionate about seeing new release movies, a fact often quoted in interviews. “I feel kind of embarrassed by that [admission]. I don't know whether it's good or bad,” he says with a kind of blush. “It's still kinda true.”

As he child, Donovan watched movies religiously. He was obsessed. “But something happened when I was in my early twenties: It was a struggle for me to sit down and watch a film that I found idiotic or whatever. It demoralises me.”

He says a lot of his filmmaker friends assure him that it's possible to learn something good from bad films. Nevertheless, he says, he's “slow to catch up.

“It might be my Catholic upbringing,” he continues, “but I want every film to be like the experience I had when I was 10 years old when I saw 2001. I wanted it to be like High Mass; I wanted it to have a reverence for life and the human condition and I wanted to be moved… it's got be transcendent! Of course that doesn't happen much in the cinema experience! And I'm thinking of a bunch of excuses.”

Interviewed in comfortable surrounds in a Sydney hotel lobby to promote Collaborator, his directorial debut, a fascinating and dense thriller, Donovan's conversation ranges over a wide range of topics. The GFC, parenting, AA and what might be called the 'cinema of therapy'. That is, movies which present characters, usually male and middle-aged, who find themselves in personal and emotional crisis. The dramatic action provides for them 'a way up and out' of the terrible mess they find themselves in.

Collaborator at first seems to edge into this thematic territory. Donovan plays a Broadway scribe called Robert Longfellow, famous for his tough-minded plays. After disastrous reviews have ensured his new play is a flop, Longfellow flees New York for his home in LA, a quiet little suburb. Numb, confused, and unable to work, Longfellow looks up one time girlfriend Emma, a movie star played by Olivia Williams, and frets over his sick mother Katherine and tries to avoid his old neighbour, a boozing ex-con Nam vet called Gus (David Morse), who has enough anger and frustrated rage to light up LA.

Beginning as a mild-mannered study of the self-obsessed, Collaborator, just before the halfway point, turns into a siege drama. Cornered by the cops, Gus holds Longfellow at gunpoint. To mollify his volatile assailant, Longfellow coaches Gus in the nuances of acting and dramaturg. In a darkly comic and savage irony, their lengthy duologues reveal Gus' helpless pain about life's disappointments, and Longfellow's intellectual acuity and emotional indifference.

That was Donovan's point. He sees Collaborator as the antidote for the 'if-only therapy-cinema'. “Longfellow is the walking dead,” Donovan. “He's clinically depressed, burned out and his last play is definitely crap.” His womanising, says Donovan, is not glamorous, but a self-medicating thing: “He's looking to connect 'cos he can't feel anything.”

Tense, poetic and convincing, Collaborator has not received uniformly good reviews. The New York Times called it “stagey” and “earnest”. Donovan is philosophical, describing the criticism as a “misreading”, adding that perhaps certain reviewers wanted a different kind of film. “We have highs and lows. There are certain areas of trouble in lives that we may come to terms with but it never really goes away. I think renewal and catharsis is possible [in life] but they are much less spectacular than the way we tend to dramatise them. They tend to work in ways that are very subtle and you're not even aware of them when they happen.” This is perhaps why Donovan left Longfellow's journey 'open' to interpretation. Here there is no comfort or neat affirmation.

Collaborator was shot on the Red camera in 24 days in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, which stands in for LA, specifically the San Fernando Valley (Donovan grew up in Resada). There was additional location shooting in LA and New York. Donovan says he storyboarded every scene and, despite its dialogue-heavy script, he wanted the film to be “cinematic… In theatre you look at the stage and you can 'range' over it and look where you want to. I wanted it to be cinematic in the sense that I wanted the camera to control what the audience saw.”

Collaborator, he says, took years to make and much of his own finance to get going. He has other projects but he's not sure whether he has the years or the money to get anything off the ground in the new future. Meanwhile he talks of acting in a new cable show called Rogue and perhaps there's a new feature with, of all people, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And he's still close to Hartley. “We still see each other and we're pals,” he says. “He introduced the screening at the IFC [in the US] recently. “We live on separate coasts and that makes it hard. We're in each other's lives.”

Colloborator is released in cinemas October 18.