The outdated term "matinee idol" has been used to describe actor Tate Donovan, who appeared as a fresh-faced biochemist in the frivolous 1992 movie, "Love Potion No. 9," and would later play opposite Judi Dench in Amy’s View on Broadway, as her character’s cocky, designer-suited filmmaker son-in-law. He was also the manly voice of the title character in Disney's animated feature, "Hercules." Do these roles make him a "matinee idol"? Or do the people who write for People magazine make these decisions? (Donovan was once identified as being romantically linked to Jennifer Aniston, which gets you an instant media-created matinee-idol reputation.) If he's not a exactly a household name, as other passing matinee idols have been, Donovan is embraced in the industry as a solid actor who is now stretching himself even further by playing an arrogant, womanizing New York City cop in Kenneth Lonergan's Off-Broadway play, Lobby Hero, about two security guards and two cops posturing and sparring in the aftermath of a crime. For the role, Donovan has a cheesy mustache, stooped shoulders and a genuine leer, adding up to a major transformation since Amy’s View in 1998-99. The role is darkly charming and slightly menacing — he does carry a gun, after all. Donovan, who was nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award for the role, spoke to Playbill On-Line about playing the recognizable bully in blue, a part that will help keep him respected long after the matinee is over.
Playbill On-Line: I think Lobby Hero is one of the really great recent American plays because it asks so many difficult questions rather than gives so many pat answers. A play that asks so many moral questions is so rare.
Tate Donovan: I know, and it’s done so sort of effortlessly — it’s really entertaining and funny and sort of sneaks up on you. It’s not heavy-handed. It’s so subtle. I think the world of Kenny. I think he’s the greatest writer. It’s the first [Lonergan play] I’ve ever done, but I’ve always loved his writing and seen all his plays. I think he’s hysterical. I’m still backstage listening and cracking up. Each night some little line will get me. Even when you’re performing it, the audience gets different things each time, and it’s so damn funny. But there’s this sort of human quality: He got a lot of sentiment without being sentimental, there’s a lot of complexity and yet he has a definite point of view. You feel as though you’re watching reality unfold and yet it’s got tremendous structure to it and it’s highly dramatic. In [Lonergan’s] This Is Our Youth, you felt like you were in this dude’s apartment, and same thing with Lobby Hero — you’re sort of a fly on the wall.
PBOL: Of the four characters in Lobby Hero, yours doesn’t struggle as much with questions of honesty. You’re the bully who has all the answers. You play a cop trying to make his female rookie partner a more confident and better officer, to teach her the ropes, but he’s also sleeping with her — prompting a chain reaction of small betrayals between them and between a couple of apartment building security guards they interact with.
TD: It’s sort of wonderful to play someone who isn’t, on a conscious level, in conflict. One of the things I like about him is that he’s incredibly honest — he’s unapologetic, which is always a lot of fun to play. He tells the truth. He feels he’s [lying] for a reason. There is a lot of logic behind the character. He thinks he’s doing it to save her life. He’s helping her out. Cops do have a different mentality. When they go to work, they’re dealing with life and death situations, it’s like going to war.
PBOL: What do you do to prepare for this kind of role? Do you know cops?
TD: Last night a cop came up to me, and said, “I don’t know how you found that guy, but I go to work with that guy every day of my life and I know so many cops exactly like you.” I never once talked to a cop to prepare. I didn’t really think of him as a cop, per se. He’s the type of guy who in every scene, he’s teaching somebody something. He’s not particularly bright, but he feels as though he’s the smartest guy on the stage. Once you put that uniform on, you carry that belt...you put anybody in that uniform, and they’re gonna feel like a cop. I didn’t once think about it. The uniform changes you, immediately, absolutely, but it wasn’t like I drove around with cops to prepare.
PBOL: Are you not that kind of actor, generally?
TD: I’m not, really. I’m much more — I see what the text brings. I know it’s very fashionable to spend six months doing whatever, but I find often that kind of research limits you rather than frees you up. PBOL: Seeing you in Amy’s View, I would have pegged you as a leading-man type, and in this play you’re more of a character actor — hunched over, weathered and very different from what I recalled.
TD: The big difference I noticed was at the end of Amy’s View, women were very receptive and very sweet to me when I walked out of the theatre, and when I walk out of this, women can’t stand me. They all come up to me and tell me that they hate me. [Laughs.] I’m getting a lot fewer dates on this role.
PBOL: Where did you grow up? Did your folks take you to the theatre?
TD: Tenafly, New Jersey, right over the George Washington Bridge — no, they didn’t. My parents didn’t like theatre or movies or television. We weren’t allowed to watch television. The first play I saw, I was a kid, and my sister took me, in Central Park. It was an African play, it was in the ’70s. I’ve forgotten the name of it. I was blown away, it was the greatest day of my life: Going to Central Park, going to the Delacorte Theatre and seeing some amazing production. I dreamed about doing theatre in New York since…
PBOL: You didn’t go to the movies as a kid?
TD: Not a lot. I saw a film when I was four years old, something about medieval knights, and I said, “That’s what I want to do — I want to be an actor!” Doing theatre came a little later in life. My parents thought Hollywood and show business was made up of a bunch of drug-taking, immoral sex addicts…
PBOL: And how were they wrong?
TD: [Laughs.] You know what? It’s amazing how wrong they are, really. People who make films — everyone’s too busy and exhausted to do anything. It’s actually a very conservative group. Especially out in Los Angeles. They all got ranches and pickup trucks. I suppose there a lot of drugs and sex, but I never seem to run across them.
PBOL: You’ve done film and theatre. Do you want to keep both as parts of your career?
TD: Yeah. We had a three-week break and I did this little independent film in Colorado and it was so helpful to me to go in front of camera again. There’s a smallness there, you can trust that you don’t have to play big all the time, even if you are playing a blowhard like [in Lobby Hero]. I also felt like my film work has really been helped by doing stage because there’s a command of the language that you’ve learned.
PBOL: What would you like to do that you haven’t?
TD: I’d like to do a movie that I personally would go and see. [Laughs.]
PBOL: Like “Love Potion No. 9”?
TD: Exactly! [Laughs.] I would have seen [movie versions of] Amy’s View, I would have seen Lobby Hero, but I don’t think I would have seen anything else I’ve done. So, I’d like to continue just making films and doing theatre — what more could you ask for?
— Kenneth Jones