Martin Donovan takes the direct approach

July 3, 2012

“Directing this film has been an act of survival,” Martin Donovan says, sitting in a Manhattan office on a warm June afternoon. “Directing a film was something I always wanted to do, something that seemed an inevitability in my development as an actor.

“I’m at an age where I thought, if I don’t make a film, I’ll die. It was the same at the time when I started acting.”

The film is “Collaborator,” opening in limited release Friday (7/6/12), in which Donovan plays playwright Robert Longfellow. Suffering the embarrassment of a critical drubbing for his latest play, he heads back to the San Fernando Valley to visit his mother – and, while having beers with a stoner/wastrel/neighbor who was friends with his older brother (played with gritty wit by David Morse), he finds himself the hostage in a stand-off between the neighbor and the police.

Donovan wrote the script over a period of years but didn’t approach it as a vehicle for himself: “I never thought of it as a showcase,” the 54-year-old actor says. “It would not have been as good a film if that was my objective. I wanted to express myself more fully through writing and directing. It just feels like a package deal. Anytime you create anything, you try to exert mastery over your world.”

In the film, Longfellow is a man at loose ends. But his neighbor, Gus, is at a dead end. Still living with his mother in his 50s, he’s never held a steady job, spends his time drinking beer and smoking weed and has been in and out of jail. So he’s fascinated at the prospect of picking the brain of a Broadway playwright, who teaches him a thing or two about his own abilities as an incipient writer.

“I wanted to make sure we didn’t patronize Gus – I wanted the audience to be able to empathize with him and David could naturally do that,” Donovan says. “Once David and I talked about the fundamentals of Gus, I didn’t have to say much.”

Shot in less than three weeks, with Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, standing in for the Valley, the film offered Donovan few surprises as a director, except for one.

“The thing I wasn’t prepared for is that part of the director’s job is preventing knife fights,” Donovan says with a laugh. “You know, the clash of personalities within the crew – and playing den mother. Don’t get me wrong – I had a great crew. But it’s in the nature of a gathering of human beings: There are going to be some disagreements or personalities that don’t jell. And they all come running to you. The job is pretty overwhelming as it is – and then to facilitate and mediate between people who want to gouge each other’s eyes out is, well, challenging.”

Donovan (whose birth name is Martin Smith) grew up in Reseda, part of the same San Fernando Valley he depicts in the film. He started acting in high school and eventually moved to New York in 1983, picking up film and TV work while acting on stage. But while he was a class clown who enjoyed the affirmation he got from entertaining, becoming an actor involved “battling my own insecurities.”

“Acting seemed like the most difficult thing I could do,” he says. “I needed to do it, to figure it out. It was a grindstone where I could forge my identity.”

Making the choice and launching the career, however, were two different things: “I lived in New York for 18 years and there were a lot of years where I was just stumbling around,” he says. “I was pretty tormented. It was never easy to bring all my confusion to the process of acting. When it came to getting a job, I couldn’t figure out how to do it.”

Indeed, Donovan had been acting for a number of years before director Hal Hartley saw him acting onstage and cast him in 1990’s “Trust.” He worked several more times with Hartley but “it was still a struggle through the ’90s,” he says. “I don’t think I settled down and felt comfortable in my skin until the last 10 years – maybe less.”

Donovan has moved back and forth between films and TV. He’s had featured roles in both network series (“The Firm,” “Pasadena”) and cable (“Weeds,” “Boss”). As he points out, he’s still an actor for hire – but now he’s an actor who’s had the chance to direct a film of his own. And he’s feeling as good as he can about it.

“This film is a step along the way,” he says. “I’ve been doing this so long and there’s so much disappointment in acting. So I’m going to allow myself to feel good about it.

“Audiences do like the film and that’s very satisfying. In some ways, it’s more than I hoped. You can’t know what it will be until it’s done. But I’m very proud of it.”

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