Martin Donovan discusses polarizing new film White Lie

Martin Donovan. Photo Credit: Shimon Karmel/Courtesy of Tricoast
Martin Donovan. Photo Credit: Shimon Karmel/Courtesy of Tricoast /

Martin Donovan previews his latest movie White Lie.

Martin Donovan is a familiar face to TV crime drama fans—but his new film White Lie is something different that will have people talking.

Genre fans will recognize Martin from a number of TV shows and other films, including but not limited to Tenet, Homeland, Big Little Lies and The Firm. He’s one of those incredible actors who makes any project better, no matter what role he’s playing.

In White Lie, he has a pivotal part: he plays the father of Katie Arneson (Kacey Rohl), who fakes having cancer for her own selfish ends. Katie’s dad Doug sees right through her deception, and is not shy about calling her out on it. Katie’s manipulation, and the no-nonsense way Doug reacts to it, will certainly get viewers buzzing about right, wrong and family.

Find out more about the film in our interview with Martin Donovan below, and stream the movie now on Amazon Video.

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Precinct TV: White Lie is not your typical film. What originally attracted you to the piece and to the role of Doug Arneson?

Martin Donovan: It seemed very fresh to me. I wasn’t aware of any feature film with a plot and a story like this. I thought there was a risk-taking going on with this story, with the lead character [Katie]—what she does, what she tries to pull off. And I just thought she was beautifully written.

It had a lot of complexity to it. It just challenged a lot of our notions about illness and believing people…This young, seemingly principled, honest woman trying to gain our sympathy, and then, as it’s revealed, for it to be not true. I thought it was a risky story to take on and challenge an audience with.

When you read a script that’s intelligent, most of the battle is won right there. Because you feel like you’re in good hands, and you’re going to be taken care of, and you’re going to be able to do hopefully good work. That just comes through, and it came through in that script…I thought the scenes I had with her were very smartly written, and being one of the first guys to challenge her, that to me seemed like a very rich and dramatic scene to play.

PTV: We don’t have much time in White Lie to learn about Doug other than his obviously very strained relationship with Katie. How did you create an idea in your head of who he was, or did you have to create that concept at all?

MD: I generally go with the script and then I, having lived on the earth for awhile, can put together pieces. Whatever the character is, whatever part I’m playing, I do it unconsciously. I don’t even think about it. I’ve been doing this for so long. When I first started out, I was much more conscious of the process.

As you get older, it’s actually a blessing to think less and less of the work and just do it. You’re not thinking about it. If I may, like a piano player or a guitar player plays guitar very well—they’re not thinking about where their fingers are. They’re thinking about the music. So I always find myself borrowing. If it’s something in myself I can use, I use parts of myself…behavior, or personality traits, or feelings or history of being hurt this way. I can plug that in. If it’s somebody that’s far away from me, then I pluck parts from people I’ve known in my life.

For this character, it’s cars. He’s sort of working class in a way. Works with his hands. Automobiles. I grew up around a lot of people like that. I knew a lot of people around where I grew up in the Valley of Reseda. There was a lot of guys who were drag-racing cars. And so there’s just that sensibility.

And in this guy’s case, yes, he has this history, which you don’t know exactly what it is, with the daughter. But he’s got a bullshit meter. He knows her, but also he knows how to read [people]. He knows bullshit when he hears it. He’s just grounded that way.

After putting those things together in my head, then I really try not to think about it. That’s the way I was trained as an actor. She walks in and says something, and you see what happens. You try to be present and in the moment and play the scene as it happens, without thinking about all that other stuff. That’s got to go out the window, and I’ve just got to be in the moment.

PTV: Did you have particular highlights from White Lie as you were filming?

MD: I do love all my scenes with [Kacey Rohl]. I think she does an incredible job. And working with [directors] Yonah [Lewis] and Calvin [Thomas]…Again, I’ve been doing this long enough, I know when I’m in good hands. They were both so clear about what they were trying to do, and they obviously had a plan. They saw the movie in their head.

Generally, I think Kasey’s amazing in it. I really feel like she’s got a hell of a career in front of her. I think she’s amazing. I do feel that our scene was really intense, and very well-written and directed. I’m proud of that whole scene.

PTV: You’ve played so many great characters across both film and TV. After White Lie, what’s the next Martin Donovan project that people should watch?

MD: Portrait of a Lady was a film that was ignored at times…I happen to love that film. I think it’s some of my best work. That’s a film that I’m very proud of. My collaboration with Jane [Campion] was just an incredibly enriching experience, and working with everybody on that. I loved working with Hal Hartley. That first season of Boss, that’s a hell of a damn good show, and that was a great role. So that’s one I would recommend, absolutely.

Any time I work with Mary-Louise Parker, it’s fantastic. She was in Portrait; we had a little bit together. We did a romantic comedy called Pipe Dream together. Then we did Saved! together. And then she’s responsible, more or less, for bringing me on to that season of Weeds. She’s one of the best actors I’ve worked with, male or female. She’s electric. Incredible to work with. Any scene you can catch me in with Mary-Louise, I’m going to be better because I’m working with her.

PTV: Speaking of, are there other performers or films that you love? What projects or people have moved or inspired you?

MD: We really are most impressed by things we’ve seen in our youth. My filmgoing youth fills up with the likes of Peter O’ Toole, and Nicholson, Pacino, Hoffman and those guys. It was a different era. There was a different attitude about films, about art, about everything. About what constitutes as a hit.

I had the great luck to be able to work with Al Pacino in Insomnia, and that was an incredible experience. He was so kind to me, and so respectful. He was just very generous to me. I loved working with him. I was very much affected by John Cassavetes. Gena Rowlands. And again, this is going back to when I was a kid. So my roots were really centered on those kinds of people. To this day, that’s who I carry in my heart as something to aspire to. That level of integrity and artistry. And having principles about what being an artist or being an actor is all about.

I think there’s so many other pressures now. So much of everything is about ratings, or eyeballs, or box office. There was always the commercial aspects of it, but I was raised in a time when there was really an understanding of the principles of art, and trying to express oneself and tell stories for the sake of our fellows in the scene… There was a core of actors who were serious. There was an understanding and a possibility of doing something that could move people. Could inspire people. Could inspire yourself. And there was a desire to connect with our fellow human beings.

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White Lie is now available digitally on streaming platforms including Amazon Video.