Tate Donovan has been an actor for 30 years, yet he admits he still gets panicky before each project.
“Every time I act or direct I’m nervous. That’s the most interesting thing … I still get totally nervous, and think, ‘I’m not going to be able to pull this off’ or ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ You’d think I’d be like, ‘Oh, I got this.’ But never,” he says at a cocktail table in a lounge in Pasadena, Calif.
“There are moments I’ve felt, ‘I’ve got this. I don’t have to worry about it.’ And then something happens and I trip up or think I didn’t prepare enough. So it’s fascinating. The most surprising thing about life in show business is how you continually get nervous.”
He didn’t have to fret about auditioning for his role as the wealthy son who is suspected of murder in NBC’s Deception. But playing him is a whole other challenge.
Best known for Argo, Damages, Friends and as the voice of Hercules in Disney’s animated movie, Donovan often portrays the stalwart good guy.
“I was very intrigued to play this character because the whole world thinks he’s guilty of murdering this woman and raping her when he was younger, and he got off because he was super wealthy. You know when you have a kid and you tell him he’s a bad seed, they become bad seeds. So he really doesn’t care what people think of him. I think he prefers it if people don’t like him. It’s more his comfort zone.”
Donovan is just the opposite. “I want people to like me, everywhere I go. I’m an actor — I desperately want people to like me,” he says. “So it’s a very liberating, fun experience to play someone who doesn’t give a darn about how you feel about him.”
The New Jersey native has had a lifetime of caring what people think. When he finally admitted to his family that he wanted to be an actor, his father didn’t speak to him for four years.
That breach continued to fester. “The death of my father — literally dying in my arms — was probably the most amazing intimate experience I’ve ever had,” he says folding his hands on the table.
“It changed me, I guess because I had a lot of anger toward my father and seeing him suffer and being so close to him just burned away all that anger and made me realize that it doesn’t matter whether you think your parents are good parents or bad parents, or they messed you up, or you’re angry at them, it’s their tremendous impact on you.”
He says he became less judgmental. “I understood things a little bit more … That has actually helped me in my acting and directing — which is to get away from ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and to get more to what’s the effect? Is my character a good guy or a bad guy? That’s meaningless. It’s like, ‘What am I doing? How can I make this scene better as opposed to judging it?’ Once an actor or director judges something as good or bad or good or evil then he’s distanced himself from it. If you’re intimate with it, if you accept the gray of it, it’s generally a lot more compelling.”
Donovan, who has courted Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock (to set the record straight, he says, she broke up with him), is divorced. Divorce was a brutal experience, he says. But he’s willing to try again and would like to have a family.
The youngest of six himself, he says, “I think I spent my entire childhood desperately trying to get attention. I think more than getting attention, I grew up in a pretty chaotic household — six kids, the ‘60s. There was a lot of sex and drugs, and my brothers and sisters rebelled tremendously. The Vietnam War, it was a very tumultuous time. I found that acting was a wonderful therapy. I learned a lot about myself, how I really felt and who I really was by being in plays and watching movies. It was a profound pleasure.”
He did not join in his siblings’ revolt. “I was a good kid. My rebellion was when I went to college and declared my major to be theater.”
While he attended USC he toiled at several odd jobs, one of them at the Concord Resort Hotel in the Borsht Belt in New York.
“During the day I was a cabana boy and I would do the follow-spot (light) for all the big acts. I did huge acts like Sammy Davis Jr., Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, Peter Allen — all these amazing entertainers. It was a great experience … After the show there was a midnight swim and I was a lifeguard. So I was working 24 hours a day.”
While he was still in college he met David DeCamillo, who was just starting a small talent agency. DeCamillo took him on as his first client. They’ve worked together ever since.
“He’s been so supportive of me no matter what,” says Donovan, 49. “I’ve been fired from jobs. I’ve been unemployed. I’ve had ups and downs and he’s always been there for me … I’ve been very lucky to have someone else besides myself champion me. My whole family — every single one of them — said, ‘You can’t make it in Hollywood. You can’t be an actor. What are you, stupid?’ And, ‘It is ridiculous to think you can make it as an actor in Hollywood.’ But to have someone believe in you … it’s amazing.”