I caught up with the mesmerizing Jack Donner on his last day of shooting Joshua Grannell's All About Evil. As the maleficent Mr. Twigs he exudes charming menace with his craggy countenance, raspy voice and piercing eyes and--with scarce a trace of effort--has nearly stolen the show, according to co-star Cassandra Peterson. He strikes me as one of the great character actors of his generation, as accomplished as Vincent Price or Peter Cushing if not as well-known by name. His face is eerily familiar on an almost unconscious level. As a child in the '50s, I often caught episodes of As the World Turns and The Guiding Light, soap operas my mother, aunts and female cousins watched faithfully and which--now and again--I watched with them. Perhaps I first saw him there? Or perhaps it was during the '60s when he guest-starred on many of my favorite television programs: Mission Impossible, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Streets of San Francisco, Mannix, Kojak? Or perhaps when he appeared as a Romulan in Star Trek? Or later as a Vulcan priest in Star Trek: Enterprise? All I know is I couldn't take my eyes off him from the moment I first saw him. I was curious with the sense of knowing him and was especially pleased to have a chance to get to know him. [This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!]
Michael Guillén: Jack, as one of the core group of extras, I was lucky enough to be seated in the front row of the Victoria Theatre watching you perform multiple takes of your final monologue and fell in love with you.
Jack Donner: Really?
Guillén: You've got a good chance of stealing this show with your wonderfully wicked performance as Mr. Twigs. You've been performing for quite a while?
Donner: Oh yes.
Guillén: How did you come to be associated with this film All About Evil?
Donner: The standard way. My manager submitted my resume to the casting people, they called me in, I read for it and they hired me. [We're temporarily interrupted as craft services delivers some hot tea and cookies.] This company's been so caring and lovely.
Guillén: It seems that way.
Donner: It is! It's the first company in the 50 years that I've been working that I'm really feeling sad about leaving because--as you know--today I wrap. The people have been a considerate, professional, smart and talented group. This set is heads above many of the indie film sets I've been on.
Guillén: So you had never met Joshua before or knew nothing about Peaches?
Donner: Not at all. This was all brand new for me. But they liked my audition, said it was fantastic, and I agreed with them. [Laughs.]
Guillén: Has it been odd to be directed by someone in half-drag?
Donner: I guess it was. Once I saw him a few times, I got used to it. I just related to him as my director. I've been directed by some oddballs who--though they have been dressed in a typical way--were screwy as hell.
Guillén: Tell me about your character Mr. Twigs.
Donner: I liked him when I read him. I had to give him some dimension for being a killer; but, he's spent his life in the projection room and became introverted and angry, shut down and isolated, so when Deborah's step-mother Tammy threatens to sell the movie theater, Twigs goes a little unhinged and haywire. Not only out of anger and rage, but fear. When he sees--not only Deborah killing her step-mother on the security camera; but, the fact that she enjoys it--he realizes, yes, murder and revenge is the thing to do, this is how to get his anger out. So as an actor, that was my job: to give him dimension through the tics in his eyes and the fiddling with his hair and the rumbly laughter. All of that seemed to express his psychosis.
Guillén: You've done a lot of genre films?
Donner: I've done a lot, yeah. This is probably about my eighth, ninth or tenth horror film. I've worked for about five decades except for a long hiatus between 1976 and 1991 when I got very ill and couldn't work. When I became ambulatory, I was still too weak to work so I decided to go to the university and--10 years later, or whatever it was--I came out a licensed psychotherapist. In 1970 I was diagnosed with adult onset asthma, which the doctors prognosticated would become emphysema, and they gave me about three years to live. They wanted to keep me comfortable with heavy medication. I had already fallen in with a group of people practicing a theory of emotional release listening, deep listening and questioning, so I told the doctors that I didn't want the heavy medication; I only wanted whatever it took to keep my bronchioles open so that I could breathe and I would take care of the rest. So for the next three years I had an emotional release session at least five times a week, which was all connected to early family trauma. It took me about three to four years to heal this thing and I'm still here.
Guillén: Excellent! If I were to go to the video store, which of your early performances would you want me to check out?
Donner: Everything. [Laughs.] I'd like you to look up the videos that have my performances from the Mission Impossible television series. I did 11 of those. They loved me on that show.
Guillén: Did you play the same character?
Donner: No. Different characters. Always bad guys, except for one. But they loved the way I died, so.... I'd also like you to look up a short 45-minute film called Cool Air based on the H.P. Lovecraft story. I loved that role because the emphasis was on his emotional psychology more than the horror of it. You might remember, perhaps, that the story is about this doctor from Spain who had to live in a refrigerated room when he came to America. That, plus certain chemicals, kept him alive. He had actually died and his doctor friend brought him back to life with this cold environment. That was one of my favorites. And then there's a fun little movie called Retro Puppet Master. I think it was the last of the Puppet Master series. Those are the performances I would love for you to take a look at.
Guillén: What's it been like working with Natasha Lyonne?
Donner: Fun! She's professional and truly interested in--not just her performance--but the timing, and the chronological development of her character. It's very difficult, you know, to keep hold of a character in a movie when you don't shoot in sequence. You have to keep your eye on the development of the character and figure out where a character is at any given point so that you can keep artistic control over the development of the character. She was great to work with in that regard. We chopped off heads, sliced off breasts, and--in terms of gore--this reminded me of another film I've done Farmhouse, which I'm not sure has been released yet.
Guillén: Talking with others on the set, it's become clear you are well-loved on this shoot.
Donner: Really? That's great to hear.
Guillén: I know that the budget for this film has been stretched thin over every aspect of this shoot. What has been most challenging for you?
Donner: The night shoots have been hard and demanding. About 10 days ago we had several days in a row where it was not just nighttime shooting but daytime too. We were in overtime working 12-15 hour days. And then the weather here in San Francisco is cold! And this building, the Victoria Theatre, is frigid! It's a warmish kind of day outside today but you wouldn't know it, it's so cold in here, and my fingers are always rigid. But that's not really a complaint, just a statement of fact.
Guillén: As someone who has worked with many directors over the years, how has Joshua's done as a first time director?
Donner: Superbly! It was as if he was well-experienced with directing. He knows his story very well and he knows what he wants, yet he's very flexible. He listens to the actors, accepts their ideas, and he'll adapt his approach while keeping the integrity of the story intact. He's done a great job.
I didn't ask idly, and followed through seeking out Donner's recommended performances from his long and established career. As Dr. Muñoz in Bryan Moore's 1999 black and white short film Cool Air, based on the eponymous Lovecraft tale, Donner inflects the film's structuring monologue with an understated yet riveting charisma, commanding a mastery of the countenance and elocution requisite to the narrative atmospheres of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe. For those able to access Netflix Instant Watch, this title is currently available.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.