Film: As happy as a hand grenade

To his cult following, Martin Donovan is a bumbling, kooky psychotic. Can his two new films deliver him to a wider audience? By Ryan Gilbey
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The Independent Culture
Martin Donovan's eyes say: I'm going to kill you and it will not be quick. Still, he's devilishly handsome - tall and stately and serious, with a jaw the size of a small country. And that trademark floppy haircut, like a pair of curtains tugged apart. These are the things which could make middle-aged women want to put their arms around him and promise that everything's going to be just fine. Indeed he might have a future turning down offers from For Women magazine if he didn't look so bloody bored.

Bored with what? With the fact that he's stuck in a London hotel far from home (Manhattan) and family (a wife and two young children), watching in ever-increasing despair as journalists plod into his suite and press him to unravel the secrets of his craft? Yes, there's that. But boredom is ingrained in Donovan. It's one of the things that makes him such an intriguing actor. You want to know what's behind the contempt, the disdain, the face that has been there, seen it, done it and despised it.

You'll recognise Donovan from his collaborations with Hal Hartley, the bristlingly funny and astute writer-director who cast him as an outcast in 1990's Trust. Donovan embodies the spirit of Hartley's films - a cool exterior concealing a rage and passion which threaten to go off at any moment and take somebody's eye out.

He utilises this neatly in his new film, Hollow Reed, which marks a serious departure for him. For a start, it's not directed by Hartley. Worryingly, it demands an English accent (though the actor acquits himself well). And sadly, it forbids him from venting the bitter, laconic humour which has characterised his performances so far. Hardly surprising, as the subject matter of Hollow Reed doesn't lend itself to comedy - Donovan plays a gay doctor who discovers that his son has been beaten, and struggles to win custody of him from a resentful ex-wife.

"The director, Angela Pope, and I talked constantly," he recalls, "taking everything apart and putting it back together. I know that in Hollywood there are certain stars who are just left alone to do what they want, but I need to collaborate, I need help. And I have two sons myself, so there was a lot about myself that I was tapping into there."

Although this approach betrays Donovan's years of acting classes, he has decidedly mixed feelings about his education, having surrendered an unhealthy chunk of his life to learning about acting when he should have been doing it. "I can see the value of all those years", he admits, "because you need to know the rules before you can toss them away and start murdering your teachers. But acting class is so painful. I have a tendency to over- analyse things anyway, and it made me lose that childlike element of acting".

Naturally, Hollywood played its part in helping Donovan discover what he wanted - or didn't want. As he trudged between auditions that were consistent only in their level of humiliation, he accumulated an understanding of the industry. And himself. He was given a tag: the people who matter told him he was leading man material. Bumbling, insecure, overly intense kook material was nearer the mark and his unhappiness with Hollywood saw him take refuge, and find inspiration, in theatre. "I was very uncomfortable with who I was," he remembers, "and very awkward about my body. I certainly didn't feel like I was any sort of leading man."

Yet Donovan's acting remains tinged with a sense of physical dislocation, largely due to his height, and a pair of shoulders which could underpin a human pyramid. There he is nervously pacing around his puppet-sized co-star, Adrienne Shelley, in Trust, fingering the grenade in his coat pocket, his baseball-glove hands as capable of crushing Shelley as caressing her. And in Hartley's still unreleased Flirt, where he plays a cuckold who accidentally shoots the man who's consoling him. The unreliable gun, the faulty hand grenade, the accident waiting to happen - that's Donovan in a bombshell.

"If I'm awkward now, then it's because I've become comfortable with being awkward," he decides. "With Trust, the pressure I was under exaggerated it. So much of the tension in that performance is to do with my terror - I could have murdered somebody at any point. I just didn't know how much of the movie would work until I saw it, because you don't get the effect of Hal's films when you just read the script. He works in heightened realism, it's all choreographed, more like dance than anything.

"I read Trust, thought it was OK, a little contrived. I told him that. I told him the ending was too much. 'She takes off her glasses and she can see?! Symbolism a little heavy-handed there, Hal?' He completely ignored me, as he should have. Because I see that scene now and I just sob."

What sustained the collaboration for four years and six films?

"I really admire Hal's convictions," he says fondly. "He's an arrogant motherfucker, and you have to be like that because everyone you meet is constantly telling you 'no'. He's tenacious. And he's somebody who uses cinema to its full potential. Most of the time I'm bored by films because they try not to offend. Or try to offend. And when movies are calculated, or they aren't cinematic, that makes me angry. That's why I largely stay away. Plus I'm not very good in public," he snorts. "When I do go, there's always someone behind me making a lot of noise... I really hate John Q Public."

Donovan has had to bury his rage for the time being. He and Hartley are taking a breather from each other, and the actor seems to have shifted down a gear. In Hollow Reed he is fragile and edgy - the anger is muffled, as befits the character - while his role in Jane Campion's forthcoming film of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady (in which he co-stars with Nicole Kidman and Sir John Gielgud) offers little opportunity for tossing hand grenades around or shooting people's faces off.

"There's no angst or anger in my role," he assures me. "But rage is easy for me to do. I'm basically a nice guy, though it's hard to be that way in character because there's so much tension involved in the work, and I usually rely on the tension. But Jane got me to go places I'd never gone before. She makes you feel invincible. I'm trying to be careful about throwing superlatives around, but I would crawl through acres of broken glass to make her happy."

Hollow Reed and The Portrait of a Lady may deliver Donovan to a wider audience, but there is one section of the public for whom he will be forever psychotic. "There seems to be a whole generation of film students who've seen Trust," he laughs, "and want me in their movie as some brooding, chain-smoking, grenade-throwing weirdo. But I'm just happy to have any kind of reputation."

n 'Hollow Reed' is released on 6 Sept