Glad to be ay

In the wake of the media storm over gay parents, comes the movie. Arthouse heartthrob Martin Donovan speaks to Nigel Floyd about his role as a gay father in Hollow Reed, while (opposite) Eddie Gibb meets an Edinburgh lesbian couple determined to bring their children up together as a family.

good actor,’ maintains director Hal Hartley, ‘has the ability to turn abstract ideas into concrete action.’ Martin Donovan, a Hartley regular, familiar from Trust, Simple Men and Amateur, exemplifies this dictum: his enigmatic presence, cryptic vocal delivery and telling physical gestures helped chronicle the hopes and fears of a memorable series of handsome, angst-ridden males.

Now, in Angela Pope’s intensely naturalistic Hollow Reed, the 40-year-old actor reveals another facet of his acting abilities as Martyn, a gay father engaged in an acrimonious custody battle with his ex-wife, whose new lover he suspects of physically abusing their nine-year-old son. Although this seems like a radical change of direction, Donovan sees it as a return to basics.

‘What people forget is that I had been working as an actor for ten years prior to doing my first film with Hal,’ Donovan explains. ‘That period was sort of a parenthesis in my work, because there’s Hal’s heightened, formal conceits and then there’s everything else. The rest of the time, my acting’s all been about naturalism, behaving realistically and honestly.’

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Fathers, who’d have ’em: Martin Donovan (left) and Ian Hart ponder parenthood

Given that acting, relying as it does on pretending to be somebody else, could be said to be an inherently ‘dishonest’ profession, this use of the word ‘honestly’ is slightly paradoxical. Just how does an actor get back to the truth of the human behaviour he is portraying? Slightly reluctant to approach his craft in such metaphysical terms, Donovan prefers instead to stress its inherently technical nature.

‘I guess the only answer I have is through experience,’ he says. ‘lt’s funny because when you first start out, you’re not thinking about the acting and you can be very relaxed. You see it with child actors and first time performers all the time. But it’s being able to do it time and time again, when you have to think about it, that you can get into trouble. You have to get through that first stage and come out the other side, because then you’ve got enough experience not to get stuck in your own head. It’s all about concentration and relaxation.’

With typical modesty, Donovan stresses the importance of the director’s guiding hand. which he feels imposes a consistency of performance, in terms of both the individual actor and the film as a whole: ‘Directors have to

focus their attention, guide you through it. and know whether you’re over-extending yourself. Over the period of a long day or a long shoot. there are times when it’s just not there. You’re confused, or tired. orjust not clear about what to do. When you see that level of consistently in a film, that’s the director. As actors, we can’t always know.’

Given Donovan’s status as an art movie heartthrob. the aspect of Hollow Reed that is most likely to provoke comment is his casting as [an Hart’s gay lover. Donovan, though, says this is just one facet of Martyn’s complex personality. and prefers to stress instead the underlying themes.

‘What I remember most about my conversations with Angela is her insistence on the story’s moral ambiguities,’ he explains. ‘Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses. so it’s not clear cut which is the best choice, who will make the better parent. So the gay aspect of my character is only one of all kinds of complex issues that are being dealt with, which is what elevates the film above the usual kind of social issue dramas you see on American television every week. it’s a much more intelligent film. one which puts you through a gut-wrenching experience without resorting to easy sentimentality, or presenting you with a clear moral conclusion.’

It is surprising to learn that Donovan was born and raised in a California suburb. one he happily left behind at the age of 26, when he and his wife-to-be loaded up and drove a Volkswagen van across country with heads full of romantic notions about their eventual destination, New York.

Since then Donovan has never looked back. but his best work may yet be ahead of him. Already in the bag is his role in Jane (The Piano) Campion’s adaptation of Henry James’s novel Portrait Of A Lady. in which he plays a tubercular aristocrat who nurses an unrequited love for the leading character. Isabel, played by Nicole Kidman. The role seems destined to enhance his romantic screen image and electric effect on women, but he shrugs this off with typical modesty.

‘l’m keenly aware of how much the big screen transforms ordinary schmoes like me into something that they’re not. I don’t take that seriously at all, because I’ve been a victim of it too, looking at other actors and actresses. It’s a magical thing when it happens, but it has nothing to do with what it’s like to wake up with me in the morning.’

Hollow Reed opens at the Odeon Quays, Glasgow and Cameo, Edinburgh, on Fri 20 Sept.