It’s been a great summer of interviews! And last week I was lucky enough to take part in a conference call with Tate Donovan — one of the stars of DAMAGES, FX’s latest addictive drama. Here is how the call went down.
Has starring in a high-profile series with the super popular Glenn Close rubbed off on you? Has it affected your life and/or career in unexpected ways?
Tate Donovan: Working with Glenn Close is a fantastic experience. But you have to bring your ‘A’ game when you work with her. She’s really prepared. It’s actually really a joy because she asks the director and the producers the best questions. Every time, she’s sort of like, “Well, hold on a second. Why is this?” She was asking about the plot, because it’s very confusing to everybody, exactly what’s going on in the case, since we’re not really lawyers. She’s very inspiring in terms of just the questions she asks, and you’re always going, “Geez, I wish I had asked that question,” like “Why does Frobisher do da, da, da, da, da?” Yes, she’s wonderful, a total inspiration.
The writing and the characters are so nuanced in Damages. There is no clear-cut bad or good, just all sorts of shades of gray and in between. Your character, Tom, is for the most part, an on-the-level guy, but are you hopeful that the character will veer into the dark side more or stay more above the fray and above all the machinations that Patty has up her sleeve?
What’s kind of exciting about Tom is that he, like all of us, are just trying to do the best we can. I think he lacks that killer instinct that Patty has in spades. She’s a genius. She knows exactly how to go in for the kill. Tom, I think is more interested in being liked. Patty doesn’t care, she just wants to win. It’s funny; a lot of people are like, “You are the worst kind of evil, because he’s a nice guy and he’s evil.” I don’t particularly see him as evil. I see him as just a guy who is trying to survive in a pretty cut-throat environment.
Tom is kind of Patty’s right hand man. And we saw him basically stay with her, even though she wouldn’t fight for him. I was just wondering, is the character simply happier in her shadow or does he kind of see them as making an unbeatable team when they’re together?
When we shot the pilot, I said, “Tom is sort of like Patty’s wife.” The producers were like, “Yes, you’re absolutely right, totally.” That’s kind of how I play it. There’s a certain power in being behind the person who has the power. D you know what I mean, the obvious power? I think Tom sort of shines more brightly when he’s not in that first chair.
How did you prepare for this role of Tom?
I have an uncle who is a corporate lawyer, so I spent the day in his law firm. Actually, I brought Rose with me, too, Rose Byrne. We both spent the day up there. There was a young female lawyer that she spent the day with, and I spent the day with my uncle. I also went down to the courts in New York City, and I went to see some corporate trials. It was actually pretty funny, because I started talking to the lawyers. Anyone can just walk into any courtroom in America, which I had no idea.
I started talking to lawyers and they were like, “Listen, pal; this is the most boring stuff in the world. Why don’t you go to a good murder trial down the street?” So I went to Center Street, which is where the huge courthouse is for New York City, and I followed the most intense murder trial. I couldn’t believe it. Every day I had off, I would jet over to the trial and I watched lawyers. It was a sensational murder trial. It was brutal. Actually, I was there when they convicted him. It was amazing. So that’s how I prepared. That and I learned the lines! Haha!
The show is on a parallel time line (six months before and then the present day) – how will that pan out towards the end of the season? Are you guys going to keep going with that, if it goes into a second season, or will the story change; will it go somewhere else?
It starts out six months apart, and the final episode will be real time. In other words, it will be the same time, because we sort of answer all the questions that are posed six months in advance. Do you know what I mean? In other words, the murder mystery that happens with Rose and David Conner will be solved by the end of this season. Next season will be a new case. It won’t be Frobisher. So that case will be resolved, and I think the murder will be resolved; although, to tell you the truth, I am about two weeks ahead of the audience. They don’t tell us a thing, which is kind of liberating actually as an actor. It’s kind of fun to not have to really worry about the plot of anything!
I know you appeared on stage and have done film as well as television. I believe you even directed on THE O.C. I was wondering if you could tell me just what aspect of the business is the most interesting to you, and do you see yourself continuing to basically do it all? How do you see your career going?
I’d definitely love to do more directing. I found directing to be unbelievably exciting. In the second season, if we get picked up, I’m going to direct an episode, which is really exciting. I love doing plays. For actors, it’s the most fun and the most exciting to do a play. Film and television is a great way, definitely, especially when you’re on a show like this that’s really smart and fun; the cast is really great. I’m sort of pinching myself that I get to do such a great job, and it’s set in New York City, which is where I’m from and my family is here. I’m a lucky guy; you know what I’m saying?
What’s next for Tom Shayes’ character? Is there anything you can reveal to fans of DAMAGES right now?
The only thing that I know is that I get more involved in the murder case. I’m sore of brought back into the firm in the last episode that was shown, and I start working on the Frobisher case. Then there is the murder mystery that’s about five months ahead of that with Ellen Parsons. I start dealing with Ellen Parsons in jail, and trying to figure out what’s going on with her and that whole murder thing. I get involved with that as well. Honestly, I’m not being secretive. I literally have no idea what happens with Tom. It’s kind of funny!
Can you give your fans an idea, people who aren’t savvy to being on a set and in production, what a typically shoot day is like for you, how it starts, how early it starts? Just in a nutshell, what the process is and how arduous it is, whether you’re on location or in an interior set? Just give them an idea or a flavor of a work day for you.
I hate to say it, but it’s not too arduous. As much as actors like to complain about how hard they work, on the set, it’s the easiest job there. Basically I tend to ride my bike to work as much as possible. Sometimes the day will start around 6AM or maybe 7AM. You go, you show up, and hopefully you’ve learned your lines the night before. You go into makeup and hair, and the sprinkle a little makeup and touch your head. Then you rehearse the scene with the other actors. The director is like, “Hey, listen; I want you to stand here,” or “Can you enter here?” You go, “Okay. That’s a good idea,” or not. You rehearse a couple of times, and then you walk away and they light it and put the cameras in place. Then you just sort of shoot it from all these different angles, and different things come up.
Working with Glenn Close, she’s such a consummate, great actress, and she’s a lot of fun. Especially Rose Byrne is a lot of fun, too. She’s Australian, I don’t know if everybody knows this, but she’s putting on an American accent. She’s a blast. She’s really funny to work with. I’m pretty luck. I work with a really fun cast. It’s not a lot of hard work. I know that we all like to say how brutally hard, but having been on the other side of the camera, and directing an episode, let me tell you something, actors have it made!
What is your favorite thing about Tom?
My favorite thing about Tom is that he’s a little bit of a goofball, especially around his daughter and his wife. He’s a family guy. Being liked is important to him, so he’s a little bit warmer of a human being than, say, Patty, but he’s also complicated. He’s also very ambitious.
To tell you the truth, it’s funny; to talk about my character, I feel like I’m discovering it just like you guys are. I feel as though sometimes the audience should be telling me what Tom is, because I’m just sort of going there and doing my best and learning my lines and having fun and trying to not look like a total idiot. That’s my favorite thing about Tom is he’s trying not to look like a total idiot.
I kind of noticed, in the last few years, it seems like you’ve been switching roles. It seems like you used to be kind of the playboy love interest of the female character, and now you’re plying the father more and more. How has that transition been for you?
It’s the natural process, I believe. We’re all getting older, and my hair is turning a little gray. I guess people look at me a little differently. Yes, that’s sort of beyond my control. You sort of get the role that you can. It’s not like I have any control really of “Hey, I’m going to do this now.” It’s sort of like “Hey, can I be in this show? Okay, great. Thanks. Thanks for having me”
I noticed online that you’re a marathon runner and had a pretty good time, at least a couple years ago, in the New York Marathon. I was wondering if that’s still something you do and if you could just talk about what the attraction is to running, if you’re still active.
Yes, I still do triathlons. I’d love to run another marathon. It’s just a matter of time to train that much. It really takes a lot out of you to train, but I love it. Running the New York City Marathon was one of the great experiences of life. To run through all those neighborhoods and to have two million people cheering you on, even though, at mile 24, I hit the wall, and I felt like my organs were shutting down. It was the most painful two miles of my life, the last two, but it was still worth it. What a fantastic experience. I highly recommend everyone to try to run a marathon, especially the New York City Marathon, because it is just spectacular to just run through these neighborhoods.
I try to ride my bike as much as possible. I ride it to work every day and run, and I love to swim. There aren’t too many great places to swim in New York City; but when I go back to California, I try to get out there in the ocean. It’s pretty awesome.
Just as a follow-up to outside activities, I know you play the fiddle and used to play in several different bands and had a CD out at some point. Do you still have time to do that?
Yes. I don’t play in that band anymore, but I do play traditional Irish music. I go to sessions every once in a while, which is just like and informal improv where you just go with other traditional Irish musicians and play in a pub somewhere. It’s fun. It’s definitely beautiful music. If you like traditional Irish music, it’s great.
He was every bit the charmer I thought he would be. He’s so far been my favorite character – I can’t wait to see how his story continues. The next new episode of Damages airs September 4 at 10 Eastern on F/X.