With a career spanning 35 years, Tate Donovan has, as his Hercules in the Disney animated classic sang, gone the distance. Crowds cheer when they see his face in The O.C., where he starred for three seasons as TV’s singularly bad dad, Jimmy Cooper, and in Friends, in which he had a five-episode arc in season four as Rachel’s crush, Joshua. He has shined as an ensemble member in the Oscar-winning Argo and Manchester by the Sea as well as Thank You and Good Night. In his latest release, the Elton John bio-pic Rocketman, available now from Redbox on DVD, Blu-ray and On Demand, he gets to party like its 1970 as Doug Weston, the glad-handing owner of the legendary music club, the Troubadour, where John had his breakout gig. Donovan reflected on some of his career highlights with Redbox, including his death-by-toilet demise in the Emmy-winning Damages that still bums him out.
Redbox: Were you a fan of Elton John growing up?
Tate Donovan: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was my first girlfriend’s favorite album.We’d listen to it in her room with her door wide open and her parents down the hall. I remember wanting to kiss her but having to listen to this album. I loved all the British artists; the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and I was totally into Queen.
RB: Did you meet Elton during the making of the movie?
TD: I never met him, but I did hang out with Bernie Taupin who is about the coolest dude you’ll ever meet. He and his wife are awesome. He just cracked up (seeing me as Doug). Doug Weston was 6 feet 7 inches (Donovan is 6 foot-tall). He wore glasses. He fawned over acts that were stars and could be vicious and brutal to anybody who threatened him.
Redbox: In your 35 years as an actor, have you ever had a better line of dialogue than, ‘Who’s up for a party at Mama Cass’ house?’
TD: (Laughs) I thought you were going to say, ‘Friends of Dick’ or “Don’t be a bummer.’ Oddly enough, none of those lines were in the script. (Director) Dexter Fletcher is a complete gas to work with. There wasn’t a lot on the page with Doug Weston, but Dexter had talked to Bernie and Elton about what Doug was really like and we improvised. We’d done three or four takes of the welcoming scene and Dexter just ran out from behind the monitor and said for me to say, ‘Friends of Dick.’ That was the one they used.
Redbox: As a character actor, you’re not really a chameleon who changes his appearance with each role. How did you like wearing the wig to portray Doug?
TD: I was a little worried. It was my first day of filming. They put this wig on me and it was like a magic wand. I just started smiling. Dexter came in and he’s like, ‘That wig’s fantastic, brilliant, let’s go.’ I went onto the set and we had a really fun time just messing around.
Redbox: You attended the University of Southern California. Did you ever go to the Troubadour?
TD: It was a heavy metal place in the 80s and the 90s. I wasn’t into heavy metal. But I saw some bands there. I play traditional Irish music; I play fiddle. I remember going to see some amazing folk and trad bands there. It’s so funny; I never noticed the huge sign outside that says Doug Weston’s Troubadour. His name is still there.
Redbox: Many actors say that acting is like tennis; you want to play with someone at the top of their game because it makes you better. What was it like ‘playing tennis’ with Glenn Close?
TD: She’s the best. She doesn’t suffer fools; you had to be on your game. She came to the set knowing the script; knowing everything more than anybody, including the director and sometimes the producers. She is really the ideal. And working with Rose Byrne was equally spectacular.
Redbox: It’s so great to see her second career as a comedic actor.
TD: Rose is so much fun to work with. We all knew she was hilarious. It’s great that she has broken out; she’s a delight.
Redbox: What was your reaction when you learned season three was driven by the murder of your character?
TD: It was tough because I loved working on that show. It was a bummer. And the way they killed me (he is drowned in a toilet)! All of my actor friends and my family were like, ‘Do they hate you or something? That was the worst death.’ The producers were very proud; they thought it was fantastic.
TD: It was amazing to be a part of that and working with animators who had worked at their jobs for 30 years. I was in New York City when Hercules opened. I was walking down the street and there was a class of first graders with their teacher on their way to see the movie. One of the teachers stopped the class and said, ‘This is the guy who is voice of Hercules.’ I said that I was and one of the kids looked up at me and said, ‘Well, we’re going to see the real Hercules.’
The O. C. and Friends
RB: What is the most remote place you’ve been recognized as Jimmy Cooper or Joshua?
TD: Italy and Latin American countries are completely obsessed with The O.C. When I’m in Italy, people stop me (affects Italian accent): ‘You’re Jeemy Cooper, I love you.’ I guess they are very into soap operas. In England, they know me as Joshua. Friends is like the Beatles in England.
RB: You worked with young people on The O.C. who became overnight sensations but found themselves tabloid fodder for some hard-partying behavior. How do you think you would have handled that kind of instant stardom right off the bat?
TD: I don’t think anybody handles it well. When I first started out and got big roles, I’m sure I was an idiot to work with. I definitely made some mistakes and took things for granted. You can’t help but do that when you’re a kid. You just naturally think your career is an upward trajectory. As you get older you realize it’s more cyclical.