Depending on how old you are, you may be a fan of Tate Donovan’s work on TV shows such as Damages (as Glenn Close’s doomed law partner Tom Shayes), The O.C. (as Mischa Barton’s shady dad) or Friends (as real-life former fiancee Jennifer Aniston’s boyfriend). What you may not realize is that Donovan has an extensive theatrical resume in New York, Los Angeles and Williamstown, MA. Two of those credits are plays by David Lindsay-Abaire: the L.A. production of Rabbit Hole and the current Broadway premiere of Good People. Donovan is cast as a successful doctor who escaped the South Boston housing project he grew up in, only to have a reluctant reunion with a former flame from the neighborhood, played by Frances McDormand. Sporting a dapper salt-and-pepper beard, the charming Donovan chatted with Broadway.com at the Friedman Theatre about sharing the stage with strong women, his friendly relationship with famous ex-es (including Aniston and another former fiancee, Sandra Bullock) and the fun of juggling acting and directing.
What drew you to Good People?
The writing is just spectacular. I’m a huge David Lindsay-Abaire fan. If I could write, I would want to write like him. There isn’t false beat or a false sentence. And I’ve never run across a writer who is so different in every play. It’s amazing that he’s the same guy who wrote Fuddy Meers and Rabbit Hole. The only thing that’s consistent is that his writing is always funny and emotionally true.
Your character left the old neighborhood and became a doctor, only to get sucked in to the problems of his unemployed high school girlfriend. What’s your take on him?
I can relate, because my father had a similar situation. He came from a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, one of six kids, Irish Catholic. His parents didn’t even go to high school, and he became a doctor, which was pretty extraordinary. My father left and never looked back—he did not want to hang out and have beers with the guys. He was like, “I am not that person.” So I understand that desire to escape and not look back.
During the play, you get heat not only from Frances McDormand’s character but also from your wife [played by Renee Elise Goldsberry]. What’s the audience reaction been like?
It’s different every night, and it’s so much fun. When I read the play, I was like, “My character is a great guy!” I felt very connected to him. Then we got into rehearsal and it was like I was being beat up every day. At one point, Renee said, “How does this make you feel?” And I started thinking, “Oh my gosh, the audience is going to hate me.” In [the 1999 Broadway drama] Amy’s View, all I did was talk about how boring theater was and rip into Judi Dench, right after she had won the Oscar. Then I did Lobby Hero and I was this serial sex addict cop who was terrible to my partner. So we’re reading this play, and I thought, “Jeez, they’re going to hate me again.”
I bet you were pleasantly surprised!
The audiences have mixed emotions, and they should, but I think they relate to me. Our audiences are well-to-do, successful people. How would you feel if some person from your past shoved her way into your life and hit you up for a job, who’s abrasive and won’t take no for an answer? It’s unbelievable what I have to go through! [Laughs.]
Had you ever worked with Frances McDormand?
No, but I’ve been big fan. Fargo is one of my favorite movies. She is spectacular; she’s like a force of nature. Literally, there were times in rehearsal where I was on my heels, she was so good. I was like, “Ooh boy, just hold on, Tate! Just give her the cue and you’ll be all right." [Laughs.]
You’ve worked with lots of strong women, from Judi Dench [Amy’s View] and Amy Ryan [Rabbit Hole] to Glenn Close [Damages] and now Frances. Obviously you’re not threatened by that.
No. It’s like playing tennis with somebody’s who’s great. You hit the ball better when somebody hits the ball at you hard. It’s true, I do a lot of plays with powerful actresses. But that’s one of the great things about theater. There are so many wonderful parts for women.
You’re the youngest of seven children. Were you the pampered baby of the family?
I was not the pampered baby, no. I’m five years younger, and my parents were actually very strict with me, more strict than with the other ones. The first and the last sort of got, “We’re not going to let you fuck up.”
After growing up in New Jersey, did you go to U.S.C. to study acting?
Yeah, but I didn’t tell my parents. They wouldn’t have paid for college. They didn’t want me to become an actor, and [the idea of] studying it was ludicrous.
Is it true that you and George Clooney were college party pals?
George Clooney didn’t go to U.S.C., but his best friend, [producer/screenwriter] Grant Heslov, did. I’ve been playing basketball with George for 25 years or more. He’s a much better basketball player than I am. I should say that I’ve been fouling George Clooney for 25 years.
By the time you got out of U.S.C., you got an “Introducing Tate Donovan” credit as the star of the movie Space Camp.
Which was a major flop. It came out right after the space shuttle exploded [in 1986], so nobody could bear to watch it.
You’ve done a ton of movies and TV over the years, including a thankless part on The O.C.
But that’s when I started to direct, which was really nice. I was bored to tears on The O.C., so I started shadowing directors and I absolutely loved it. They gave me a shot, then I directed a couple of Damages and Gossip Girl; my Valentine’s episode of Glee was just on.
What was the atmosphere like on the set of Glee?
Working with the cast of Glee was inspiring. To be around a group of kids who work so hard and love what they do is so refreshing. Oddly enough, it reminded me of Williamstown—just the TV version. If they aren’t rehearsing a dance number or recording a song, they’re shooting a scene. They are constantly working on something, putting in long days, but loving it.
Why do you think the show has become such a phenomenon?
Glee has this unique way of being profound and moving, without being preachy—it’s just fun and songs and humor. I often find myself tearing up. It has a beautiful message of acceptance and love.
Are you ever tempted to give up acting and just direct full-time?
No. One of the great things about directing is that it makes me love acting more. When I was just acting, I would think, “Anybody can do what we do” or “It’s such a stupid way to live.” But when I became a director, I realized how much I admire actors. “Narcissism” is a bad word, but there’s a healthy narcissism to acting that I just adore. Actors just put it out there! This has actually been one of the greatest years of my life—getting to direct all these different shows and then work on this piece of literature on Broadway.
You’re very sweet when speaking about your famous ex-es. [Donovan was engaged to both Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Aniston and dated Lauren Graham.]
I ran into Jen at the Golden Globes a couple of years ago; that was great. I ran into Sandy recently at a memorial service. I mean, it was 1,000 years ago when we dated, so if you can’t be friends…and once you fall in love with someone else, everything is like, “Ah! I’m sorry!” or “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.”
Are you super-eligible now?
I’m pretty eligible, yeah. I’m divorced and I’m pretty eligible.
You must have women lining up at the stage door.
Everyone says that! I guess I’m just not putting it out there [laughs].
You could do a dating guidebook for guys.
Look, I’m single and I’m 47 years old. What kind of guidebook would that be? You should talk to some guy who’s been married for 25 years.
What’s your life like in New York? Are you living like a monk during previews?
It’s been a bit of a monkish experience. I can’t wait until March rolls around, because I’ve got a lot of friends who are doing plays. I’m friends with Josh Hamilton, who will be in Fat Pig; Bobby Cannavale, who’s in The Motherf**ker with the Hat; and I know Billy Crudup down the way [in Arcadia]. Once our plays are up and running, it’s going to be a lot of fun. Being on Broadway is a rare and lucky and wonderful experience. It's a special place, and I'm going to enjoy it.
See Tate Donovan in Good People at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.