Tasked to sum up Tate Donovan's acting career, I'd use the words, "I don't know about that guy."
Donovan, who currently is starring in Hostages, laughs very hard at that. Maybe because he knows it's true.
What I mean is, he's the kind of actor who tends to get roles where his character is calm and collected on the outside, but there's always more happening on the inside. And the truth is, I think he actually could be suited to some straight-forward heroic roles, too.
"You and my mother, both," Donovan says. "Well, hopefully you'll go into casting and give me a shot, that would be nice."
For now, Donovan is playing the conflicted Brian Sanders on Hostages, which airs Mondays on CBS and CTV. The heavily promoted series stars Toni Collette as Dr. Ellen Sanders, who is supposed to perform surgery on the president of the United States. Brian is Ellen's husband, and their entire family is being blackmailed by a gang of thugs led by Dylan McDermott's character Duncan Carlisle, who wants Ellen to botch the operation.
"I know they want to open up the story, but they built a big beautiful set for that house (the Sanders family home) and the audience is going to feel that claustrophobia," Donovan says. "Obviously you can't keep an entire family inside for two weeks. They have to go to school, they have to go to work, they have to appear to be living normal lives or else people are going to start asking questions.
"But there is a paranoid, claustrophobic feeling to it, because they know everything about us, all our secrets, and the constant threat is that those secrets will be revealed to each other."
Donovan's acting resume goes all the way back to the 1980s, but recent TV audiences know him best as Tom Shayes, the dutiful but tortured right-hand man of Glenn Close's Patty Hewes in Damages. Donovan has a perfect skill set for playing opposite strong women, because his eyes always convey that there's more going on than his words are indicating.
"Oh, that's good," Donovan says. "Every scene that I do - and most actors try to do this - I try to get off the text. In other words, you don't want to mean what you're saying."
Uh ... go on.
"Very few people in life don't have subtext to what they're saying," Donovan adds. "Very rarely is it just information. Very rarely are people being 100% honest in how they feel. And so it's fascinating to watch an actor when he doesn't mean what he's saying. In every scene I try to figure out what else is going on, what else is happening in our relationship, what's outside the door, what am I afraid of.
"You never know why you're cast or what people see in you. But from a very early age, I didn't trust really good guys. So maybe I bring an element of, 'Okay, he seems like a good guy now, but maybe he's not.' "
That is Tate Donovan's calling card. Never trust him. His characters, I mean.