March 13 (UPI) -- Actor Tate Donovan said his new film Tuscaloosa may be set in 1972 Alabama, but its central themes most likely will resonate with contemporary viewers.
Written and helmed by celebrated music video director Philip Harder, the adaptation of W. Glasgow Phillips' novel depicts what happens when dreamer Billy (Devon Bostick) romances Virginia (Natalia Dyer,) a young patient involuntarily committed to the mental hospital at which his psychiatrist father (Donovan) works.
Meanwhile, Billy's childhood friend, Nigel (Marchant Davis), joins a radical civil rights group that challenges the local authorities, leading to violence.
"We're still dealing with all these issues -- race and sexuality and mental illness," Donovan told UPI in a recent phone interview.
"Obviously, there is a great divide in our country right now," he said, noting he hopes people will find comfort knowing Americans have survived troubled times in U.S. history. "Hopefully, we will get through that as a nation again. History is sort of cyclical."
Donovan -- who said he tries to understand and not judge the characters he plays -- had no reservations about playing Dr. Mitchell, even though the widower plays cards with racist cops and practices psychiatry in ways that seem dangerous by 2020 standards.
"Working with Philip, we both agreed that he was a man who was just trying to do the right thing and love his son," the actor said.
"Everything comes out of love, even though he is super misguided and he is not the greatest guy. He doesn't express it in the best way."
Dr. Mitchell also is protective of his patients and tries to care for them the best he can using the science of the day.
"He was a good doctor," Donovan said.
"Electroshock therapy -- we all look at it as barbaric and horrific, but it saved a lot of people's lives, including people's lives in my own family," Donovan said. "I was really glad that the character wasn't just the bad guy. There are many dimensions to him. ... You just sort of leave it up to the audience to figure out who is good or bad."
Mitchell tries to discourage Billy from falling in love with Virginia because he doesn't think it is healthy for either of them, and the clash between characters led to some fascinating moments between them.
"Devon really informed my performance a lot," Donovan said of Bostick, who is best known for his work in the Diary of the Wimpy Kid franchise. "We just naturally had a chemistry together."
Moving between TV and film, and acting and directing, has kept things exciting throughout the years for Donovan, whose high-profile credits include Rocketman, Damages, The O.C., Argo, Good Night, Good Luck, Friends, Love Potion No. 9, Memphis Belle, No Small Affair and SpaceCamp.
"When we are all starting out, we all just want to be stars," he said.
"If that doesn't work out, then you're like, 'I just need to make a living.' That's a wonderful experience because you get to where [it's] 'OK, I've got to do this television show. Let's do this play. Let's do this voice-over.'
"You're just sort of scrambling constantly to stay afloat. In that, you have a very varied career. It's only in hindsight that all comes together. While you're doing it, you're just trying to stay alive."
Collaborating with young actors and new filmmakers has had an energizing effect on him, too.
"It's really fun because you see yourself in them a little bit and then also you recognize, 'Wow! These guys are really different than I am. They really approach this differently, and thank God they do,'" Donovan said.
His 14-year-old son -- an enthusiastic Stranger Things fan -- was thrilled when Donovan told him he would be working with Dyer.
"He just flipped," Donovan recalled.
The actor's vocal performance in the 1997 animated movie Hercules and subsequent TV cartoon series has likewise earned him legions of young fans.
"Everyone was just coming up to me saying: 'I can't believe you got Hercules! That's crazy! It's going to live on forever.'
"But, actually, when it came out, it was kind of a box-office flop. For Disney, at least. It didn't do half as well as the other ones, but over the years it's held its own, and I am really super proud of it," he said.
Tuscaloosa was released in select theaters and on video-on-demand platforms Friday.