Martin Donovan has an impressive résumé, from his much admired collaborations with indie auteur Hal Hartley to his arc on Weeds to, most recently, his role in the acclaimed Starz show Boss. So the actor has seen more than a few directors at work. Yet when Donovan donned the metaphorical jodhpurs to helm his first movie, Collaborator, there was still one aspect of the filmmaker’s trade which came as a surprise. “No one told me that one of the key parts of a director’s job is to keep people from killing each other,” says Donovan. “This is a huge thing! People are people and they get together and personalities clash and they want to gouge each other’s eyes out. Now, I must tell you, my crew, who I adored, were very supportive. But this is the nature of human beings.”
As it happens, Collaborator, which Donovan also wrote and stars in, is very much about the nature of human beings. Although technically a hostage drama, the film is lacking in stunt-heavy shenanigans or Die Hard-esque hero-strionics. Instead, the movie zeroes in on the complex and evolving dynamic between Donovan’s dispirited playwright Robert Longfellow and his troubled, gun-wielding childhood acquaintance Gus, played by David Morse. Meanwhile, acting support is provided by, amongst others, Olivia Williams as Longfellow’s movie star paramour Emma Stiles and ex-Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Mauer, who portrays the playwright’s wife.
Below, Donovan talks more about Collaborator, which opens at the New York’s IFC Center on July 6, plays the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles from July 20, and is currently available on VOD.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In the film, your character envies Gus’ ability to operate on gut instinct. Is that an envy you feel yourself?
MARTIN DONOVAN: Absolutely. There’s something almost beautiful about Gus’s authenticity as a person. There’s no pretense there, there’s no posing, he’s not self-conscious, like Robert is, or like I am. And that’s the attraction for Robert. Meanwhile, Gus is fascinated by Robert’s proximity to fame and fortune and all that other stuff.
Is Gus based on a real person?
The starting point was a guy that I grew up across the street from. He died in a SWAT team stand-off in his house years after I moved away. He was an indelible character in my young life. So that was the starting point. But the writing turned him into something else and then, of course, what David brought. One of the reasons I wanted to cast David is, I didn’t want the obvious choice of a scary biker or an ex-con kind of guy. I wanted someone who could bring a menace or the potential violence but also someone who has a little boy kind of vulnerability.
I was surprised to learn that you didn’t know David Morse before casting him. I assumed this was a project on which you pulled in favors from friends—not because of any lack of quality in the writing but because the low budget meant you basically paid the cast in sandwiches, or whatever.
No, I didn’t [know him]. Early on, he popped into my head as a possibility and I asked Mary-Louise Parker (Donovan’s Weeds costar, who appeared with Morse in the play How I Learned To Drive) about him and she said he’s a genius. I just had an intuitive sense that he would be generous. And he is. He’s a sweetheart. And I can say that without any Hollywood bulls—. But there was a period there when I wanted David, and I had to appease the gods of finance.
Did they want Justin Bieber?
You would be surprised. But, you know, I understand the economics of it so we kind of did a little tango. I just have a sense about actors and some of the names we talked about who were right for the role would have been much more of a challenge, shall we say. [Laughs] They might well have eaten me alive. And that’s not the case with Morse.
Why did you cast Melissa Auf der Mauer who, as far as I can gather, has done either nothing or next to nothing in terms of movie acting.
Nothing. She’s never done a speaking role before. It was just a suggestion by our foreign sales agent. We were shooting in Canada and we needed to use a Canadian actress for that role and I met people and I didn’t really find anybody that was quite the person I wanted. I did not want to have the “long suffering housewife” thing. So our sales agent said, “What about Melissa Auf der Mauer?” Just out of the blue. And it turns out we have mutual friends. Anyway, we sent her the script and she auditioned on Skype for me and I said, “You’ve got to do it.” I think she’s really wonderful.
I know many actors don’t like looking at themselves onscreen. But in the post production process you must have done little else but stare at your own face for hours at a time. What was that like?
You know, for the first few years of working in films it was very difficult to watch myself. But it’s just this thing of doing it for so long and realizing that it’s not doing me any good to beat the s— out of myself. I think I am a much better critic of myself than I used to be. It was just self-loathing. Now it’s more…
No, it’s just more reasonable, you know? I can look at myself and go, “That wasn’t good. I don’t like that. That was okay.” It’s healthier. And in the case of the making of this film the film became king. I could distance myself from it. It was all in service to the film. The idea of this film liberated me. I can’t f— around! I’ve got to stop the banging of the head and the self criticism.
This year you will also be seen in a very different kind of movie: Silent Hill Revelation 3D. What was that experience like?
I didn’t know anything about it. I’m not a gamer or anything. My kids knew about it. I’m not supposed to give anything away! I’m interested to see how it turns out.
I’m unemployed now, as an actor. I’m looking for my next job. Have you got anything?
No. But you should give that director Martin Donovan a call.
You can see the trailer for Collaborator below.