NEW YORK (Back Stage) - Tate Donovan looks back on his early days in show business with a degree of horror.
“I was full of myself, competitive, selfish, judgmental, and not generous,” he says. “When I was a lot younger I was very arrogant. I remember saying to myself in college that if I didn’t have an Academy Award by the time I was 30 I would quit. I was so pompous. You think you’re so special. Maybe you have to be that way when you start out.”
Maybe. Now 47 and considerably more easygoing, he has appeared on film (“Good Night and Good Luck,” “Nancy Drew”), TV (“The O.C.,” “Damages”) and Broadway (“Amy’s View,” “Picnic”), and never had to take a day job. He can’t help wondering what role luck has played in all this.
It’s a topic he has been thinking a lot about lately, especially now that he’s starring in David Lindsay-Abaire’s new off-Broadway play, “Good People,” running through May 8 at Manhattan Theater Club.
It addresses many themes that resonate for the actor. Not the least of these is the question of how much choice does anyone have in life — or is it largely dumb luck?
“You need lucky breaks,” Donovan said before a preview performance. “I don’t know why I get work and someone else doesn’t. My understudy, Tony Carlin, is a great actor, yet every night I get to go out there and he doesn’t. Why is that?”
Directed by Dan Sullivan, “Good People” centers on an encounter between unemployed single mom Marge (Frances McDormand), who never left the working-class South Boston neighborhood she was born into, and her ex-boyfriend Mike (Donovan), who is from the same community but has moved on.
He’s now a doctor, married to an English professor, and living in a wealthy town just outside of Boston. This is not a love story; it’s about class and how the past may be a foreign and intrusive world.
Donovan sees a similarity between Marge, who charges back into his life for a job, and some of his old friends who think he can launch them into acting careers. “It can be awkward when they say things like ‘Hey, I want to get into showbiz. How do I do that?’ Everyone thinks it’s so easy because they may have been the funny kid in high school. That feeling of people hitting you up and you’re not really being able to do anything for them — I relate to that. It’s great to catch up with old friends, and then you want to go back to your life, especially if you no longer have anything in common with these people.”
Donovan also connects with the class issues. Though he grew up in the middle-class suburb of Tenafly, N.J., his father, a doctor, came from a working-class Irish Catholic neighborhood in Brooklyn not unlike South Boston.
One of the more interesting challenges Donovan faced focused on the “Southie” accent. Everyone in the cast has effectively incorporated it into the performance. Initially, Donovan did not want to use it because he felt Mike would have largely freed himself from it.
“But, I found once I started using the accent, it fueled the character. It changes your body and you become more urban, more relaxed, more affectionate, and more tactile. Dan said something interesting: ‘Women like it. And this guy puts people at ease.’ It’s my way of saying I’m from the hood. It’s chic and an affectation because underneath it all I’m kind of repulsed by the whole thing.”
Lindsay-Abaire’s language presented another challenge. Donovan is familiar with it: He previously played the grieving father in a Los Angeles production of the playwright’s “Rabbit Hole.” It’s so realistic that Donovan felt free to paraphrase, and that’s a mistake, he soon realized.
“There’s a difference between saying the line as written, ‘Tell Denise to give you directions,’ and ‘I’ll have Denise give you directions,’ which I’ve been saying. The line as written is a command. It is aggressive and reflects who the character is. His writing is so specific and attached to thoughts and character. Every syllable reveals something.”
He credits Sullivan — “who is quiet and wise, an invisible guiding hand” —- with helping him do his best work in “Good People.”
As a director himself, with episodes of “Damages,” “Glee,” “Weeds,” “Nip/Tuck,” and “Gossip Girl” under his belt, Donovan says actors are often better than they think they are.
“We don’t realize what we’re giving,” he insists. “We try to be fascinating and control it instead of just letting go and trusting it.”
As for the future, Donovan hopes he is as fulfilled as he is right now. Mindful of his youthful arrogance, he advises young actors to lighten up. “Study, try to be as good as you can, enjoy what you’re doing, and be kind to people. It’s much more important than you may think.”