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Tate Donovan on Last Night’s Damages and the Fate of Tom Shayes

Last night, FX’s loopy legal drama, Damages, kicked off its third season with yet another spit-take-worthy shocker. (SPOILER ALERT!) A flash-forward showed a corpse being hauled from a dumpster, and it was revealed to be that of Tate Donovan’s Tom Shayes, longtime right hand to Glenn Close’s diabolical litigator, Patty Hewes. Considering the show's history of not-what-it-seems twists, we had to wonder: Was this a brilliant, ballsy gambit on the part of the show’s brain trust — executive producers Todd Kessler, Daniel Zelman, and Glen Kessler (known around the set as KZK) — or is there an infuriating Bobby Ewing–in-the-shower moment awaiting us in the finale? We cross-examined Donovan, who took a break from directing the season’s ninth episode.

So, as far as you know, Tom is, in fact, dead?
Oh, yeah, I’m definitely dead. Absolutely. I’m dead. You see my body in the morgue, so ...

But, this being Damages, one might think the possibility exists that he’s not actually dead.
I know, but unfortunately, it’s the real deal. I wish it weren’t true.

Tell me how you heard about Tom’s fate.
About a month before we started shooting. Todd called me up and said, “Hey, we’re thinking about this story line ... ” And I told him, “That is a fantastic, amazing story line. Sounds great. I just wish to God I wasn’t the actor who’s playing Tom Shayes.”

And the only reason they gave for doing it is that it would make for a good plot point?
Yeah, I guess. They thought this was the juiciest thing they could do, and so they went for it.

You hadn’t been looking to leave the show, were you?
No, not at all. Are you kidding me? This is the best job I ever had. I mean, the cast, the crew, working with Glenn and Rose [Byrne], and KZK are the best bosses I’ve ever had.

C’mon, you must have pissed someone off ...
You know, they act really nice around me, but maybe the whole thing’s been a total ruse.

To lose such a central character seems a lot to give up for a single shocking plot twist. I mean, couldn’t they have killed off, say, Michael Nouri’s character, Patty's ex-husband? Nobody gives a crap about him.
I think that’s the reason they wanted to do it. This is the most emotional, difficult thing to pull off, you know? And I think that’s why they chose it.

Are you still having to shoot scenes as a corpse for additional flash-forwards, or did they do all of those in one go?
Yes, unfortunately they did not do all of them in one go. And the makeup! It’s very difficult to sit there for hours and watch your face just become decrepit. It’s awful-looking — I mean, the greens and the blues ... But it’s very impressive.

And you’re lying there the whole time knowing that you’re done. That must make the process a bummer ...
It did. I found those days to be very sad. Not to mention that you’re looking in a mirror the whole time and you’re, like, "Wow, this is what we’re going to end up looking like." But they’ve given me fantastic stuff to do this season as an actor, so.

You know what would be funny? If you finally got a Supporting Actor Emmy nomination — for playing half the season as a corpse.
No, no, no! I don’t play half of it as a corpse, okay! It’s only for a couple of shots.

Still ... talk about a backhanded compliment!
Yeah. But I would love it. And hey, it happened to Zeljko Ivanek, who played Ray Fisk.

That’s true! In any event, the good news is Obama has passed two extensions of unemployment insurance.
Oh, gosh.

What’s this 2010 project listed on your IMDb page: Below the Beltway?
It’s a great little independent feature about lobbyists in Washington, D.C. Fun cast.

And you’re the lead in that, yes?
Yes.

Do you make it to the end credits alive?
I do, oddly enough. My career as a lobbyist doesn’t, but I do.

Well, that’s a death we can all be happy about.
Yeah, right.

Photo: Timothy White/FX