TNWU Exclusive Interview: Heating Things Up with Inferno’s Jon Donahue

Photo Credit: David Carlson Photography
Photo Credit: David Carlson Photography

Jon Donahue, a Binghamton, NY native, is one of the nicest, funniest and charming guys in Hollywood. Over the years, he has amassed an incredible amount of credits, due to his hard work and networking skills. He has harbored a lifelong love of movies, which began as a kid going to matinees with his dad. He has worked in movie theaters, and was once a projectionist at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He has worked with renowned directors like Ron Howard, Mike Nichols, and Steven Spielberg. Jon has worked behind the scenes as a production assistant, written and edited his own television segments, and has worked as a voice actor, most notably for Antonio, the German Shepherd in Disney’s Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2. Jon has been blessed with working with great actors such as Robin Williams and Tom Hanks. It’s a movie lover’s’ dream come true, and recently, Jon took time out of this day to talk with TNWU.

Let’s Talk About Inferno – have you seen or read the first two books/movies?

Oh yeah. I loved them! I loved the history, the mystery, and the action. Inferno is a chilling thriller, it’s fun, it moves very fast. It has lots of twists and turns My character; Richard is not in the books. I play the aide to Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey, played by Sidse Babette, a wonderful actress. I’m her top guy. We’re in a race against time, and it’s a lot of fun. And Ron Howard, he’s an incredible guy, he just loves film. We can talk about movies for hours. I love Ron Howard, and Tom Hanks. Such wonderful guys.

Richard is so much fun to play – a cool, confident guy, in charge of things. His boss, Dr. Sinskey, is the head of the World Health Organization.

You’ve worked with Tom Hanks a great deal – did you seek out those experiences or was it just a happy coincidence?

(laughs) I met Tom on the set of a movie called The Ladykillers. I doubled for him as a silhouette in a doorway, and I made the back of the CD album cover. I was so happy about that. And then Tom and I became friends. As a young actor starting out, it meant a lot to me. My first Screen Actor’s Guild contracted role was in Charlie Wilson’s War, and it was a party scene. I had a couple of lines of dialogue that I don’t even think made the movie. I was Charlie’s (Tom Hanks) party guest #3. I had my own little trailer room; it was amazing. It was directed by the late great, amazing Mike Nichols, and I got to work with Julia Roberts and the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was a wonderful experience.

And then Tom and I did a few movies together here and there.

You do a lot of uncredited work as a character actor?

As a character actor and an actor, if the scene you’re in doesn’t move the story forward you always stand the chance of getting cut out. The good news is you get cast in a film – that’s a win right there. There’s a lot of actors out here that would love to be cast in a film. I’ve been fortunate enough to get cast in a lot of films and television. But if you’re not one of the main characters you can end up getting cut. But I’m not cut out of Inferno! (laughs)

I was cast in another movie while I was making Inferno. It was also filming in Budapest. I told Ron Howard, and he kind of looked at me – he wasn’t sure if I was serious or not. But then he said that’s fantastic; he was so happy for me. I told him I was shooting it on my day off. He said, well at least they don’t have to put you up in a hotel room. I got to work with director Fede Alvarez, who directed the Evil Dead remake – I’m a huge Evil Dead fan, and with Dylan Minnette – we’d worked together on a TV show called Men of A Certain Age with Ray Romano and Scott Bakula, so it was nice to hang out with him again. I got to show him and his mom around; it was really great.

How did you get started in Hollywood?

Speaking of Ray Romano, and Men of A Certain Age, I had given Ray Romano my acting reel, like a DVD. I didn’t think anything was going to happen but the next thing I knew, I had an audition and was cast as a guidance counselor. I think I overdid it at the audition, because Ray Romano said, you don’t have to try and be funny. (laughs) The dialogue is funny. And that was a big lesson for me. It’s obvious now. Ray Romano was elemental in getting me more television work. Men of a Certain Age was a critical darling; I joined in the second season, and unfortunately, the show didn’t go past that. I did 1600 Penn for NBC which was also short-lived. I just kept auditioning, and it was rewarding. You go in and show them what you can do, and it’s the connections you make and all of the hard work you put into it, that finally pays off.

I’ve always loved movies, I’ve loved them since I was a kid. My dad would take me to a matinee, and we saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, all of the stuff like that, and in the 90’s, as a teen, I got a job at Universal Studios in Florida.

Tell us about your Universal experiences?

I worked at [the original] King Kong, which was an aerial tram. And then I went over to the Jaws ride, which is where I really wanted to be. (laughs). Everybody wanted that extra 50 cents an hour to do that spiel, that show. But for me, it was the ride. It was this giant animatronic shark; Jaws was one of my all time favorite films! So I finally went over to Jaws and worked at Jaws for a few years until I got an audition at Nickelodeon Studios as a “gak meister.”

A “gak meister” – what did that entail?

I threw gak and slime in a little show. It was a little game. I slimed kids. I can’t think of another job I’ve had where I went in and just played all day. I can’t think of a better time in my life, where I hung out with my buddies and just had fun. But unfortunately, the money ran out, and I went back to Binghamton, New York, and I got a job at a TV station, a CBS affiliate, where I got to learn the ins and outs of a news station.

Funny enough, “gak meister” was on my resume and my boss said, I’d never seen it. Nickelodeon Studios came to town in a touring road show, and my friend was working, and I asked someone if I could go interview my friend because I thought it would make a great story. So the reporter and I went out, and they slimed me on camera. It was a blast. I came back, and they saw the footage, and they asked me if I wanted to be their regular entertainment reporter. And I got to do all my own stories. If there was something entertainment related coming to town, I would take the cameraman, and our stories would air on the news. 

I got to interview Gregory Hines, and John Stewart, right before he started The Daily Show. I got to work on the editing and do the voice over. And they would see my work, and it went on the news. It was incredible, I had carte blanche. I got to write, edit and air my own stories.

When did you move out to Los Angeles?

I went to L.A. in 1999, and I needed a job right away, so I got a job with Universal Studios Hollywood as a tram tour guide, and I saw my old friend Jaws again. (laughs) I would hand out my resume on the lot of Universal Studios. Because of my entertainment background, I got a job at E! Mysteries and Scandals. I had a cubicle overlooking the La Brea Tar Pits, and I knew that’s where I didn’t want to stay. Then I got a job as a production assistant on Big Momma’s House. I learned to connect, and to network which I’ve been able to do since I was a kid, and worked my way in free to the movies, and one thing led to another, and I started getting small roles

I went down to where E! Was doing Talk Soup, and my first role was on cable TV, in one of Talk Soup’s skits; I was a fireman. You have to put in that legwork; you can’t sit and wait for the phone to ring.

We’re called Talk Nerdy With Us. Do you have any nerdy hobbies? I heard you collect movie posters.

(laughs) I do. That goes back to my days as a kid at the movie theaters. In the 90’s in Binghamton, I think the biggest movie theater had three screens. All of the theater managers got to know me, and by the time I was 12, 13, 14, I was getting in for free. And my dad and grandmother would drive me around, and I would go around and ask theater managers for movie posters, and they would give me whatever they had. I would come into the house with a cardboard standee of The Last Starfighter, and it would go in my tiny little room. It was an interesting dynamic there. 

I got a job at a movie theater when I was 16, and that was my dream job, to work in a movie theater. I think the first poster I collected was in 1982, a poster for Blade Runner. There was a Raiders of the Lost Ark movie poster, and when I went to work for the theater, the manager still had it, and I got it, and when I came out to L.A., I had Steven Spielberg sign it. 

To be able to go to the movies when you’re a kid, and love Raiders of the Lost Ark so much, it really changed my life, it made me love movies. It was magic to me. And then to work on a movie, Bridge of Spies, with Steven Spielberg, and have him say, “Let’s get Jon in a close-up” – I can’t even tell you what that feels like.


Be sure to catch Jon in Inferno – opening in theaters nationwide this Friday, October 28th.


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