Tate Donovan talks Damages

The actor who portrays Tom Shayes and the co-creator speak about the third season

One of cable TV's biggest hit shows, Damages, recently started up its third season, airing on Monday nights at 10 PM ET on the FX network. Two of the biggest reasons for the show's success are actor Tate Donovan, who plays Tom Shayes and co-creator/executive producer Todd A. Kessler, both of whom recently held a conference call to discuss this past Monday night's episode, The Dog Is Happier Without Her and next week's episode, Flight's at 11:08, which airs on Monday, February 8. Here's what Donovan and Kessler had to say.

Tate, you're kind of like an actor version of a dead man walking this season. I was wondering how you felt, what your reaction was when you learned that this was what was going to happen to your character at the end of the season? Which was the stronger reaction, for example -- great story line for me or bummer, end of a good run on a show?

Tate Donovan: Well it's exactly that. It was exactly - you know, Todd called me up a couple of weeks before we started and he said, "Hey, we're thinking about doing this story," and I thought it was such a juicy, great story. I was excited to play it because I knew Tom was going to have a lot of great scenes. And then, of course, you know, it settled in that hey, it's going to be me that dies. And I love this job. It's such a perfect job for me. So it's very sad, you know. It's definitely a bummer.

Is it creepy at all to see that photo of you as a dead man?

Tate Donovan: It was creepy to sit there for a couple hours and do the makeup. I mean the guy they brought in was extraordinary. And he, you know, he's gone to morgues and stuff like that. And he showed me some photographs. And the colors they put on your face, it just - it's horrific what happens to you when you die, you know. And I sat there for a couple hours and I felt a tremendous amount of, you know, sadness and just, you know, this is where we all end up. And it's - yeah, it's a pretty intense thing to go through. You know, also it's, you know, you're just fooling around with the crew. A moment before you're in a body bag. Everyone's sort of joking around and yeah. I mean it's half and half.

Todd A. Kessler: We did do some audience testing and it turns out that kids 6 to 12 just find it hilarious. And we may be making a Tom Shayes Halloween mask for this coming up Halloween.

Oh cool. And the last thing - and either or both you, is Patty so calculating a person that she probably kept her Hewes and Associates sign handy just in case, and the stationery and the business cards, you know, with the logo on them? Just in case. Would you put that beyond her?

Todd A. Kessler: I don't think you can put anything...

Tate Donovan: I think that would be highly appropriate.

Todd A. Kessler: Yeah.

Tate, have you actually filmed the incident that causes your death yet?

Tate Donovan: No. I have not. I - I'm not too - I mean I kind of - we find out along the way of, you know, what caused his death but we have not shot that yet. And so, yeah. I'm curious. I'm fascinated with how it's all going to come to an end. It's pretty exciting.

Todd, it seems like we're sort of just kind of incrementally kind of moving forward this past week. And can you talk a little bit more maybe about the homeless man and how he's coming into the picture?

Todd A. Kessler: Sure. Well in terms of, you know, the two different time frames, one of the things that we're really going to see is integrating - and it's what happens in the second episode - is integrating characters that are in the flash forwards into the - into what we refer to as the main story. So there's the main story of the Tobin investigation and that moves forward chronologically. And then we jump forward six months. So where we met the homeless man in the flash forward, now he becomes an active player in the main story as was evidenced in the second episode where he - Tom, Tate's character, meets up with him and they get the cowboy boots. And so for us it's really, you know - the exciting thing is to create this thriller where we are functioning these two different time frames and hopefully it has resonance where we see where - how these characters enter the main story and then, as we continue the journey with them, be able to jump forward and see, in a way, that all hell has broken loose. And allegiances and the - really the ride of it is how do we get from where we are in the present to where we are in the future. So the homeless man will continue to play a role in both stories. And, you know, we think it's going to be really great fun to see how that develops.

And this is just like - just kind of like a magic dumpster that he lives by as all this is...

Todd A. Kessler: Well, I wish but it was - it's actually integrated into the story so it will make sense as you'll start to see, you know, further pieces of this puzzle - what, you know, what the dumpster's significance is, the location of the dumpster, why that's significant and how it all, you know, relates to the main story. So, you know, we're not done - you know, one of the things that we really kind of pride ourselves on is that hopefully the audience feels, because we strive for it, that we don't just put out propositions and then not answer them - that, you know, things come back into play. And we really hold on to those clues and deliver on the meaning of those clues throughout the season and absolutely by the end of the season. So the dumpster itself becomes extremely significant. And how he's able to find things in that dumpster are, you know, major plot points that will be revealed really starting in the next couple episodes.

Do you literally go from shooting scenes from one time period to the six months later in the same week or the same day even? Is that ever difficult? Does it give you whiplash as an actor to go from one to the other?

Tate Donovan: No. I mean, yeah. We do that all the time. We'll do a flash forward or, you know, all the time - you know, one right after the next. You know, the big concerns are, you know, continuity. You know, like okay, what wardrobe was I wearing? What state was I in? There I am and sort of arc, you know, of Tom's demise. So - but, you know, there - a lot of sharp people on the set that can help you through that. The director, the skip continuity person, Todd and all - you know, KZK, the producers and - so, yeah. It's not too hard. It's pretty fun. It's usually like last minute. Like, "Hey, this morning we're going to shoot this flash forward. Let's go for it." And we just, you know, hop to it and do it.

So it really - you really can jump from one time period to the other in the span of a few hours in a day, right?

Tate Donovan: Sure. Yeah.

It's not like it's future day all set aside for itself necessarily. It's not as maybe organized as that.

Todd A. Kessler: No, well, I mean...

Tate Donovan: Well yeah. It's...

Todd A. Kessler: Go ahead.

Tate Donovan: Well shooting is usually, you know, determined by location. So if we're going to shoot a lot of scenes by the dumpster that take place, you know, at various times in the story, then that's what we'll do. We'll shoot a lot of scenes by the dumpster or in Patty's office or - and stuff like that. It's just a more efficient way to shoot things. So - actors are very much used to sort of jumping around in time frames and - yeah, it's not - that's not a tough thing to do.

Todd A. Kessler: And also just one other thing is that in the television production schedule, you know, it's very unfeaturelike in terms of the amount of pages that we shoot a day and locations. So we have eight days to shoot these episodes and basically if you think about it, you know, the episodes are around 45 minutes, which is about half of a movie. And very few movies are shot in 16 days. So we move very quickly. And jumping in between different time frames - it's all scheduled out and everything. But it really is dependent on locations and actor availability and putting a schedule together, which is a whole kind of magical science unto itself.

Todd, when we spoke earlier this season, you mentioned that family was a big theme of this season. So I wonder if you could speak to how that sort of plays out in Tom's role specifically with the information that we've gotten that, you know, his extended family is wrapped up in this - the investment scam as well and the - you know, now that we know his wife also knows about his relationship with Ellen. I wonder if you could speak to how much we're going to be seeing of that family and sort of how that plays into your bigger family theme for the season?

Todd A. Kessler: Sure. Well, you know, one of the things that - and following up on the family theme. What's revealed in this second episode is that the case is personal to Tom in a way that no case in the season - in either the first season or the second season - have been personal to Patty or anyone in the office. And so for us it was a really kind of poignant story idea that Tom, unbeknownst to him, was actually invested in these Tobin funds. And it's something that actually is based on the reality of what happened with Madoff, that a lot of people had their money with Madoff and never knew it with - through these - what were called feeder funds. So for Tom to lose a sizeable portion of his personal wealth and also for his family, who had less wealth - but the money that they lost is, you know, extremely significant - and they lost that based on his advising that they get into the same, you know, funds that he put his money in. You know, it really just is a game changer for us and really helps raise the stakes for the character of Tom. And, you know, what we set out to do this season is very much show 360 degrees of Tom. And it's really a tribute to Tate and his performance in the role the first two seasons that, you know, he's been inspiring to us and we wanted to really jump in and give him what we hope are meaty scenes. And the scene with his wife in the second episode, I think, is one of the best performed scenes of anyone in the entire series, where they're arguing about - when this - when it is revealed that Tom made the decision and - to get into these funds and they've lost the money. So in terms of family, we do see more of Tom's family and the direct impact of losing this wealth. And it really drives him and motivates him to recover the money from the Tobins or that the Tobins have hidden in a very significant way.

Will we see more of those types of scenes with the wife and rest of his family or is that going to be sort of spread around? Or how's that going to work?

Todd A. Kessler: No. They're definitely throughout the season. I mean it's a major - I mean this, for us, is kind of the underpinning that is - Patty wants to go after the money because of all the reasons of who Patty is and trying to help people that have been bullied and taken advantage of. But Tom is personally invested in a way that, as I said, no character has been in the series before. And we will see more of his family. And we'll see his daughter. And we'll see other relatives and really, you know, trying to put a personal - look at it through a personal lens. You know, so many of the - so much of the press coverage about the Tobin - about the - well the Tobins but in terms - in real life, Madoff or Marc Dreier or these other people, has been about how did it happen in that family and, you know, the stories of actually seeing the impact on people that lost money is something that we're exploring through the character of Tom.

As for Tom and Ellen, how quickly in the next batch of episodes will we begin to see sort of how that relationship accelerated? Or is that also going to be strung out in the flash forwards? More - will we see more of that working it's way into what you call the main story line soon?

Todd A. Kessler: No. It definitely enters the main story line soon. And it's something that we're very - we're really very excited about because it's also taking the show to a place that we haven't gone before. So, you know, what is actually happening between them and how that's presented and how that puzzle comes together, we think is going to be just very exciting to follow.

If you could offer any teases about the character introduced last night with two - Tobin's mistress and then the accident with Joe Tobin there at the house. Can you give us any teases of how that's going to play into the bigger picture?

Todd A. Kessler: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Well this third episode, which is, you know, next week, where we've taken - we're doing something that we've never done before in the series, which is that the entire episode takes place in one night. And, you know, the unity of time and how that helps the thriller telling and the kind of the ride, we've just never done it before. And we really think it's one of our best episodes that we've ever done. And so that story line, picking up with Joe hitting Danielle with the car, really forms the basis of that night. We pick up right after he hit her with the car and we move forward in that night as Patty and Tom are trying to figure out where she is and prevent her from getting on an airplane to leave the country. And then Joe and Winstone, as played by Martin Short, are trying to deal with this crisis of Danielle having been hit by a car.

I was trying to really listen in closely to what Todd was saying and I'm not quite sure I'm convinced that Ellen and Tom are romantic. Can you - maybe - I can see the chemistry but I'm not sure if that's where the story is going. And if I can't tell if - Todd was confirming that that was what the relationship is. Can you talk to me a little bit about that whole - the chemistry and the possible romantic relationship?

Tate Donovan: Well, you know, there's always a lot of chemistry when I work with a beautiful female. Sorry. No. I'd - you know, I - basically what happens is they get involved in something that gets involved in a lot. That's basically what - I honestly, yeah. That's about as succinctly as I can put it.

Todd A. Kessler: Well it's something that, you know, they - the bond between Tom and Ellen in many ways is very strong. And the relationship that they have is one that - from the very beginning, you know, Ellen - Ellen's entry into Hewes and Associates in the first season was that Tom interviewed her and spoke to her. And, you know, it's really, for us, following up on the seeds that were planted from the very beginning of these two characters and how their lives are entwined and how they, you know, their relationship has evolved. So I know I'm being intentionally cryptic because I don't want to ruin the story for anyone. But we really think that it's going to deliver and not disappoint people.

One more about another relationship we're looking at, Patty and Phil's divorce. And I'm wondering if that feeds in at all into any of the mystery of this season or is that a side story that will never really touch the, you know, the main murder and the Tobin incident?

Todd A. Kessler: Well I mean one of the things, in terms of the theme of Phil and Patty and - you know, Patty's son Michael is going to play a significant role in the season. He comes back. So in certain ways it's not directly - right now we're pursuing that as the story line of Patty and her family life. And it absolutely has colorings and influences what she does professionally. But the intersect of Phil and his connections and the business world with the Tobins is not something that we're exploring. We're using it more to really get to the themes of Patty and her family. And we're going to learn some significant things that we have yet to learn about Patty as the season progresses in terms of her personal life and history.

Tate, Todd mentioned in last week's call that you were going to be directing some more this season. I just wondered if you could talk about the challenges of directing a show that you're also in front of the camera on?

Tate Donovan: Yeah, it gets kind of confusing sometimes. But fortunately everyone is very - sort of has your back when you go on the camera. And as a matter of fact, we had a funny scene where Patty - you know, Rose, Glenn and I were sitting around a table and, you know, I don't call, "Action," when I'm acting but I will call, "Cut." And we, you know, did the master and then we do close ups. And I was the last one to go on the close ups. And so I was like - I did my, you know - did the scene and then I sort of was like, "All right, cut." And Rose was like, "I think you want to go again." I'm like, "Really? I thought I - I thought it was pretty good." And she was like, "Yeah. No. You should go again." So we all - I think we all feel free to give me as much help as I need when I'm sort of switching hats between director and actor. It's a lot of fun I would say. You know, the tone of the show is so deadly serious but, you know, generally our biggest problem is, you know, the cracking up and, you know, we have a little fun sort of on the set. So it's a good job.

Todd A. Kessler: Also just - I don't know if - fully known but, you know, Tate has directed a couple episodes for us last season and is directing this season, but has also directed some episodes of Nip/Tuck and other shows as well. And is really - just arrived on the scene as an extremely talented director.

Tate Donovan: Oh Todd.

Todd A. Kessler: I'm just reading what you gave me. Did I miss any?

And which episode or episode numbers are you directing this year?

Tate Donovan: Episode 9. We just finished last week.

Damages airs on Monday nights at 10 PM ET on the FX network.