Barry Levinson’s “The Bay” features Kether Donohue as Donna Thompson, a wannabe reporter interning for a local news station whose first assignment happens to be covering the Independence Day festival in Claridge, Maryland, a town located just alongside the Chesapeake Bay. While she and her cameraman are getting footage of the town dunk tank and crab eating contest, something is brewing in the water nearby, or rather at that point, inside the Claridge residents. All of a sudden, the townsfolk start breaking out in terrible rashes, losing their minds and, ultimately, dropping dead, and Donna is right there in the middle of the mayhem.
“The Bay” has a lot of characters and a lot of horrific scenarios, but what makes Donna’s ordeal stand out from the lot is that she’s the one guiding us through the experience. With “The Bay” due for a November 2nd debut, Donohue took the time to dish on the responsibility of pulling all the found footage together, working with Academy Award winning director Barry Levinson, a deleted scene from the film, her hopes of reuniting with “Pitch Perfect” producer Elizabeth Banks and much more. Check it all out in the interview below.
You’re certainly a seasoned actress, but are just stepping into the spotlight, so can you tell me a bit about your background?
Kether Donohue: I always knew that I wanted to be a performer from a very young age, like when I was just walking and talking. I’d already expressed interest in dancing, singing and acting, and my mom is a pre-K teacher, so she was always in-tune with guiding me and helping me towards achieving my goals. I think when I was like 7, 8 or 9, I asked my mom if she could enroll me in acting class. I grew up in New York City, so there were a lot of really great acting schools, and I went to Weist-Barron Kids Love Acting Program and there was a bunch of agencies at class one day and one of them asked me to come in with my mom for an interview, so I went in and they wanted to sign me. It’s funny, I’ll never forget my first audition. It was for the movie “Madeline” and I auditioned for Madeline, which I thought I was gonna get because I was really short and I was like, ‘Oh, I have this! I’m the shortest kid in my class and Madeline is short.’ I didn’t end up getting the role, but it was kind of my first taste of the professional world of acting. I was going on auditions and little go-sees for some modeling jobs and commercial auditions and things of that nature, and I really loved it, but then when it came time for me to go to college I ended up staying in New York and attending Fordham University. I still had an agent and it was still important for me to pursue acting, but it was also very important for me to get a college degree. I ended up staying in college for way over four years so I could finish, [laughs] because I was juggling it with doing work, and when I graduated Fordham, I was able to dedicate all of my time and energy to acting and I’ve been very fortunate and grateful that I’ve been able to make a living doing it since I graduated.
Is there a moment when you said to yourself, ‘I’m doing this. This is a legitimate career now?’
A lot of my friends are actors, too, and we talk about this all the time, about how you never really feel satisfied or you never really feel like, ‘Oh, I made it,’ or ‘I’m doing it!’ Yes, there’s absolutely moments when you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m so grateful my hard work has paid off,’ and, ‘Wow, I’m actually on this set with these amazingly talented people, making money doing this and getting recognition for my work.’ There’s absolutely great moments of bliss and satisfaction, but at the end of the day, when you finish a job, you are still hustling and hitting the pavement everyday auditioning. You’re always looking for your next job, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s fun and I think actors do like that sense of challenge and always striving to be a better artist. When I’m on set with Barry Levinson, I was certainly like, ‘Wow! I’m doing pretty well here!’ So, of course, there are moments when you take it all in.
It’s funny because it’s that same sensation on this side of the business. I interviewed Barry the other week, but then it was over and onto the next thing.
Totally! It’s literally like you’re always back to square one, not in a negative way. No one can’t take your past work away from you and they help build your career, but at the end of the job, you are unemployed and you are looking for work. There is that sense of danger almost, but kind of in an exciting, exhilarating way.
So how did “The Bay” come your way? Did you audition for the role?
A lot of actors say all the work is in LA and, for me, I find that whenever I’m in New York City and it’s during summer, I book the majority of my work there. [Laughs] So I was in New York during the summertime and I just went in to audition for “The Bay,” just like any other audition. My manager just sent me an e-mail like, ‘Hey, you’re auditioning for this character on this day at this casting office.’ The funny thing was, I was originally supposed to audition for Kristen Connolly’s character, but two days before my audition, I had a dream that I was a news reporter in an animation. The animation is kind of the part that doesn’t make sense, but it’s a dream. I had an experience in a dream that I was holding a microphone and that I was reporting the news and then the next day, my manager called me and he was like, ‘The casting office also wants to bring you in for Donna Thompson, the reporter,’ and I was like, ‘Get the f*ck out of here! I had a dream last night that I was a reporter!’ And he’s like, ‘All right, all right. I don’t have time to listen to your dream.’ And then when I booked the role he’s like, ‘Didn’t you have a dream that you were a reporter?’ I’m like, ‘I told you! You should listen to my dreams more often.’
I just went in for the audition with the casting director and she put me on tape. Barry wasn’t in the room. It was really just me and the casting director, and she really worked with me. The audition process is a very delicate process. Sometimes you’ll just do one take and it’s great, but I did one take and the casting director liked it, but she was like, ‘Barry is looking for people who could be really really real and natural, and like it doesn’t even look like they’re acting.’ So she’s like, ‘Let’s do this again and feel free to improvise and do anything you need to do to make it feel 100% believable.’ We kept doing a bunch of takes until we got it right. I was really grateful that she put that much time and energy into working on it with me. And then the next day I literally got a call from my agent that said, ‘Barry watched all the tapes and you’re booked for the role. He loved your tape.’ I was like, ‘What? No callback?’ I almost felt like I robbed a bank or something! It was incredible!
So you were so excited, but did you ever get that feeling, ‘Now I have the role, but how am I going to pull it off?’
Oh my God, absolutely! I don’t know who said it, but I heard a quote once that a very big actor said, ‘I would be nervous if I wasn’t nervous before a role,’ and I think that’s very true. You almost kind of know you’re doing the right thing when you get really f*cking scared right beforehand. [Laughs] It’s your body’s way of telling you that this is a challenge and you really need to rise to the occasion. If you’re doing a job where you’re like, ‘Oh, this is just a walk in the park,’ what’s the fun it that?
A few weeks before filming, I was getting my nails done with my great aunt, and I kind of heard my phone buzzing, but I ignored it, but then I finally looked at my phone and I saw missed calls from South Carolina, so I was like, ‘Oh my God, this must be the production of ‘The Bay!’ I listened to the message and it was like, ‘Hi, this is blah blah blah, I have Barry Levinson on the line to speak with you,’ and I was like, ‘Um, Aunt Jessie, I’m sorry, I really have to go. Barry Levinson just called me.’ She was like, [mimicking an older woman] ‘Oh! You better take that!’ I left the nail salon and called him and he was like, ‘Hey, I just want to say hi and talk to you before we start filming.’ It was really great because he was very collaborative. He comes up with ideas, but he wants to hear your ideas, too. It was never in the script that my character was an intern at a news station. My character was actually supposed to be a more seasoned reporter in her 30s or something, but Barry liked my audition tape and he thought it would be funny if I was a younger, inexperienced student at American University interning at a news station, trying to be a reporter. He was like, ‘Just come up with any sort of improv you can about how that could fit into your character, finding the humor in the fact that you don’t know how to report, but you really wanna do a good job at it.’ My friend had worked with Barry before and he was like, ‘Yeah, I’m just warning you, put your improv shoes on because Barry loves improv.’
How about being the character responsible for holding this whole narrative together? “The Bay” is one big story broken down into a number of different perspectives, but Donna is the one holding it all together.
Yes and no. It was pressure in a good way. I just wanted to do the best I could. Barry is so easy to work with that he never makes you feel that pressure. He’s very warm and fatherly, and when you work with him, you take it scene-by-scene and step-by-step. It’s not like when you’re doing one scene you’re thinking, ‘Oh God, I have to carry this whole movie.’ You’re just trying to stay present and focus on each aspect of the story because at the end of the day, that’s what’s gonna tie everything together.
Was there any one scene of yours that you found most difficult to shoot? It’s interesting because you find yourself in extreme situations as an actress – performing to a computer or in the middle of a 4th of July party with tons of extras and makeup.
It didn’t make it into the film. I hope they put it in the DVD extras. But at one point, my character got the disease and so I spent two hours in makeup putting the rashes on my face. That was cool, but that was challenging because the scene that we shot with that, I could barely move my mouth. It was kind of Donna feeling the effects of getting the disease.
What did it look like on set? I’m a big fan of found footage, but most found footage films don’t apply the term literally. Here, however, you’re stitching together what could really be found footage from consumer cameras. So, for example, when you’re Skyping, are you really just talking to a computer camera?
That’s the thing that I think fans should be really excited about. Nothing about this movie was glitzy Hollywood glamor. For example, when I took pictures on set and came back and showed my friends, my friends were like, ‘Wait, is this a real set?’ It really wasn’t like glitzy Hollywood glamor with all these lights and everything. It really was iPhone cameras and, in my case, whatever camera my cameraman was using to film me. There really weren’t any big deal lights or cameras. It really was very true to the story.
How was it when you saw the full feature for the first time? I’m sure you were only on set for your portions and this movie has a lot more going on, so did anything surprise you?
Yeah, and the funny thing was, Barry didn’t want any of the actors to read the script before we went on set. We were only supposed to know our storylines, which is smart because as the reporter, I don’t really know what’s going on with anybody and that’s what makes my storyline captivating is that I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. I think I was just so filled with adrenaline that night when I saw the movie, I almost felt like it was the feeling you get before you go on stage when you’re doing theater. It’s 15,000 people in the audience at Toronto [International Film Festival] and I’d never seen the movie. I think I need to see the movie again for sure to really take everything in because the first time you see it, you’re just so excited that you can’t even concentrate. But I loved the movie! What was great was that I really got sucked into the story and I kind of forgot that I was even watching myself or people that I knew.
Did you go home and buy a water purifier?
[Laughs] Actually, at Toronto, they gave away some gifts and one of them was a water bottle with a filter, which I filled up right away.
Hopefully this will open more doors for you, so what’s next? Anything you’ve got your eye on?
I hope it opens some doors! I’m excited! It’s only days away before the movie comes out and I was very fortunate that “Pitch Perfect” came out around the same time. It’s nice to have those two back to back. I know Elizabeth Banks, one of the producers of “Pitch Perfect,” is producing some new comedies in the future and I definitely want to talk to her about working with her on some project in the future because I think there’s some stuff that I‘m right for. Other than that, me and my fiancée, Nick Gaglia, he’s a director and producer, we actually made a film together called “Altered States of Plaine” that’s a psychological thriller. It’s playing all over Latin America right now and it’ll be coming to the states soon. But yeah, other than that, I’m just trying to read as many scripts as possible and just try to do something different that I’ve never done before.