07/03/2012 10:04 am ET | Updated Sep 02, 2012

Interview: Actor Martin Donovan Takes the Direct Approach

"Directing this film has been an act of survival," Martin Donovan says, sitting in a Manhattan office on a warm June afternoon. "Directing a film was something I always wanted to do, something that seemed an inevitability in my development as an actor.

"I'm at an age where I thought, if I don't make a film, I'll die. It was the same at the time when I started acting."

The film is Collaborator, opening in limited release Friday, July 6th, in which Donovan plays playwright Robert Longfellow. Suffering the embarrassment of a critical drubbing for his latest play, he heads back to the San Fernando Valley to visit his mother -- and, while having beers with a stoner/wastrel/neighbor who was friends with his older brother (played with gritty wit by David Morse), he finds himself the hostage in a stand-off between the neighbor and the police.

Donovan wrote the script over a period of years but didn't approach it as a vehicle for himself: "I never thought of it as a showcase," the 54-year-old actor says. "It would not have been as good a film if that was my objective. I wanted to express myself more fully through writing and directing. It just feels like a package deal. Anytime you create anything, you try to exert mastery over your world."

In the film, Longfellow is a man at loose ends. But his neighbor, Gus, is at a dead end. Still living with his mother in his 50s, he's never held a steady job, spends his time drinking beer and smoking weed and has been in and out of jail. So he's fascinated at the prospect of picking the brain of a Broadway playwright, who teaches him a thing or two about his own abilities as an incipient writer.

"I wanted to make sure we didn't patronize Gus -- I wanted the audience to be able to empathize with him and David could naturally do that," Donovan says. "Once David and I talked about the fundamentals of Gus, I didn't have to say much."

Shot in less than three weeks, with Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, standing in for the Valley, the film offered Donovan few surprises as a director, except for one.

"The thing I wasn't prepared for is that part of the director's job is preventing knife fights," Donovan says with a laugh. "You know, the clash of personalities within the crew -- and playing den mother. Don't get me wrong -- I had a great crew. But it's in the nature of a gathering of human beings: There are going to be some disagreements or personalities that don't gel. And they all come running to you. The job is pretty overwhelming as it is -- and then to facilitate and mediate between people who want to gouge each other's eyes out is, well, challenging."

This interview continues on my website.