Donna Hanover is arguably one of the most versatile people in the industry today. She has had an active career for the past four decades that has spanned film, television, and theatre. Donna started working as a broadcast journalist at WKTV in Utica, New York in 1973 and has since gone on to anchor various broadcast programs. She transitioned into the world of acting in the 1980s first playing several reporter roles. Donna can now be seen in Gore Vidal’s play, The Best Man, at the Gerald Shoenfeld Theater. Her Campus NYU got the chance to talk with Donna about her current role, her previous acting and journalism experience, and her advice for college students.
HC NYU: You have played journalists in film and theatre, how have you found your roles different from and similar to your real-life career?
DH: I was anchoring news for channel 11, at WPIX TV, and at that time, there were major directors like Sydney Bumout and people like that who wanted the reality of a news anchor. So I had the opportunity to do that. And then in the early 90s I meant Neil Forman, who was about to direct The People VS. Larry Flint, and he asked me what I think about a different role, and that is when I played Ruth Carter Stapleton in that movie. And then I went on to be a real estate agent, and a judge, and all kind of other things in movies, but I occasionally go back to being a reporter and a newscaster.
HC NYU: How would you describe your character in The Best Man.
DH: It is the early 1960s, and she is a tough cookie, and she wouldn’t get this job among all these men if she wasn’t. And she is a woman who expects to get her questions answered. And she has got a great sense of humor, which I would say is similar to me, and that is why she enjoys interviewing former Secretary of State, William Russell, one of the candidates vying for the nomination in Gore Vidal’s play. He has got a great sense of humor, he is very literate, and she is also pretty smart and enjoys that humor, so you see that interplay. But she doesn’t let him get away with anything; she is always asking the tough questions.
HC NYU: How would you say that her style of journalism is similar to yours?
DH: As a journalist myself, I always feel that it is a benefit, of course to your readership and your audience, but also to the person you are asking questions of, because if you ask a tough question, people with a good answer will rise to the occasion. It will give them a good opportunity to really explain themselves. Of course, if they don’t have a good answer, it reveals that as well. But if they have really thought things out and have a good answer, most people don’t mind a tough question. I’m not talking about a “gotcha” type of question, but serious questions. So in some ways she is similar to me, but this is before women had really got a chance to have the opportunities that they have now in journalism, so she probably had to fight her way in and she is pretty tough.
HC NYU: Did you have any role models in your career that you based your character off of?
DH: When I was at NYU, one of the other professors was Marlene Sanders, she was also my adjunct professor when I was at graduate journalism school at Columbia. So she is woman who had a remarkable history, and I have been her student, and I have been a co-teacher with her at NYU, and she is one of the people on whom I based my character. She was a few years ahead of me, and she had to have a certain toughness to achieve what she did and help lead the way for women. So in some ways I based her on Marlene and also on Nancy Dickenson who was a wonderful journalist who has passed away now. But my character hasn’t had the benefit, as I have, of having lots of girlfriends in her work environment. Her work environment is mostly male and she has had to manage with that.
HC NYU: You’ve worked in several different mediums of journalism: television, radio – what is your favorite medium to work in?
DH: I was really trained mostly in television. And although I like everything, all different forms of journalism, I really enjoy television the most. And the reason is because I love to pull together sound and video and interviews and my own narration. So you have four sources. And in thirty seconds with those four sources working together, you can have such an impact, you can tell so much more of the story, then you can on the radio if you have the opportunity to put the visual in there as well. In some ways television is harder, because you do have to have visuals. You have to be able to be in there on the spot with the camera or get video from somebody who was in order to get the impact. But I really do love television. And I’m currently also working at CUNY TV, I do a monthly show called Science & U. It is the thing that I was trained to do [since college], and the thing that I love to do the most.
HC NYU: What has been your favorite anchoring position or program that you have worked on?
DH: Of course your current job is always your favorite one because you like having work, so I very much like working at CUNY TV. Of all of the jobs that I had, probably Good Day New York was the most fun, because I liked the combination of serious news, I would certainly do serious interviews about the news of the day, but also we did fun stories; we did celebrity interviews. I had a chance to go down to Quantico and train like an FBI agent, I had a chance to go to Giants’ Training Camp and run patterns with the Giants, I skated with the Rangers, rehearsed with the Rockettes. So I had a chance to do some extremely fun things in addition to handling serious news. And of course loved the live aspect of it, very much. Good Day New York was the most fun journalism job that I had, although I appreciated each and every one.
HC NYU: How has your journalism training helped you with your acting career?
DH: Well, I was a journalist first, so I kind of went backwards into acting, first playing a journalist. Then I realized I need more training to really do some acting, and I did do that, I took acting classes with a wonderful coach, Sondra Lee, for quite a few years. So being a journalist is how I became an actor, and it is the kind of thing that you really love having both going at the same time. My job at CUNY TV – being a part-time job – allows me to do theatre and to do the occasional television or film spot, like last year I did an episode of Louis. I like doing both at the same time. What they have in common for me is that I became a journalist because I wanted to meet and get to know interesting, influential, creative people. So as a journalist I sought them out to do stories about them, and of course you find that people with a lot of energy and a lot of intelligence rise to the top of their field and as a journalist you end up interviewing them. And in my acting life I have worked with Ron Howard, and Michael Wilson who directed The Best Man, was also my director last year off-Broadway. That is how I got this job. He didn’t even require an audition for this, because working for him off-Broadway was my audition for this. Several other actors in the company, their experience was the same thing. Michael just called them and said, “We have worked together, you are right for this part. If you want it, it is yours.” So the opportunity to work with great directors who are very smart and have a lot on the ball, are creative and influential in the film community; allows me to get the same kind of interaction with amazing people as a journalist and an actor, and I think that is why I enjoy both of them so much.
HC NYU: Do you enjoy doing films or theatre more?
DH: It is just different. It is lovely to have the combination: to be able to do an episode of a television show or to do a film, because then it is there. My daughter a few months ago called me up because she was just watching Ally McBeal, and she went “there’s Mom!” because she hadn’t remembered that I had done an episode where I played a receptionist. And so one nice thing about film or television is that it is there and it stays there and you get to see it again and other people get to see it who aren’t physically in New York at that time, like to see The Best Man, although it has been done for the archives at Lincoln Center, so it will sort of go into the history books of Broadway. But theatre is more of a live, happening now experience and only for the people in that house. It is nice because it goes chronological and goes top to bottom and you tell the whole story. And you have risks. Maybe the scenery falls, maybe somebody trips, maybe the lights don’t work. You have to deal with things as they happen and that is part of the risk. But there is an energy of telling the whole story all at once. But all of them are wonderful. And as far as theatre, I have done The Vagina Monologues in the 90s and then hadn’t done much theatre until last year, and I did two off-Broadway shows last year and now this one. So I would definitely love to do more theatre, no question about it. But I love the opportunity to do films or television shows.
HC NYU: So you already have an amazing career – what made you want to be a teacher as well, and why NYU in particular?
DH: Well, I met Marcia Rock, and she is a very impressive woman and very persuasive, and she offered me the opportunity. And I had taught years ago at my first television job in Utica, New York at WKTV, and I anchored news and reported in the afternoons and evenings and in the mornings I would teach journalism at Utica College. And I enjoyed that very much. In fact, subsequently, years later, when I first came to channel 11, I walked in and one of the producers said, “I was your student at Utica College!” And I said, “Oh, I hope I gave you an A!” So Marlene Sanders was my adjunct professor, and people like her and wonderful teachers had helped me develop my standards and my abilities as a journalist, and it is so nice to be able to pass that on to young people. And also, it keeps you youthful, because young people will often be on the cutting edge of things like social networks and things like that, and so to keep up with your students, you find yourself keeping up with the technology that they are involved with. So I find that it is a two-way street to be a professor. And even at CUNY TV, we have young professors and I am mentoring one of them and enjoying that very much to see what he comes up with and maybe making a few suggestions, and enjoying what he is able to do. And I find that I learn from the people that I teach, so that is a pretty awesome deal.
HC NYU: What advice do you have for NYU students who aspire to have a career similar to yours – that covers both acting and journalism?
DH: Well, they are really two different things. Acting is not a good back-up job in general. I found out early on when I would do episodes of Law & Order, and I would be doing them with great actors like Tovah Feldshuh and she was always looking for the next job. It is a little bit like being a freelance journalist. You have to sell the idea of yourself or sell the idea of the story every single time before you get to do the story. So it is harder in a way to work like that as opposed to when you have a regular place that you go and a regular office and if you keep up with what is new in the news, then you don’t have to sell the story, except maybe to your producers as a good story for the broadcast. But acting is not a good back-up job. You have to want it extremely badly. And it is really good to have something else that you love that you care about doing, whether it is art, whether it is business. Something else that can help sustain you financially and emotionally because acting really does involve a lot of rejections. So I think that for people who are going to go that path, they ought to have something else that they do that can sustain them and make getting a particular job less desperate. And it is great to become a director and get to know the guts of how something like this is done. And then if you still want to become an actor, then you know so much more about what you can bring to a play or a film.
As a journalist, for young people, I know that this is an incredibly hard time to get work and what I have always said is get that internship. And do whatever is required. I have swept the floors when I was a young person, and got people coffee. Nothing is below you. If you are a production assistant, the idea is that you have to do at least some mundane jobs so that the people who are running the show have time to get everything done. And the trade-off for you is that you get a front-row seat, and also when somebody gets sick and you know how to do it, you are there! That is kind of what happens. When I was in Utica, New York, I was the first woman in their news operation. And there was a summer replacement woman and we were working together because we knew that we were going to be doing the weekend show together, just the two of us. So we didn’t remind our director that one of us was going to be doing sports, because this was the early 70s and we knew for sure that he was going to bring in the sportscaster. So I did the sports, and I was so nervous, because I knew that if I didn’t do it right, no woman would do sports again for five years in Utica. So I talked the right speed because I was nervous, and I did plan, and I worked hard, and it went well. And opportunity comes to you if you are there, if you are physically present. So the chance to be an intern and to have low-level jobs in news organizations that you admire is a wonderful opportunity. So I would say grab that, and then show your stuff.