Born August 19, 1957, in Reseda, CA, Donovan attended the American Theater of Arts in Los Angeles before working for a number of theaters in Los Angeles and New York. Donovan's first starring role came in the 1984 drama Hard Choices, which also starred John Sayles and J.T. Walsh. 1991 marked his first collaboration with Hartley, as he starred in both Surviving Desire (made for PBS' American Playhouse) and Trust. The latter became an art house favorite, helping to establish Hartley's reputation. The following year, Donovan made his next film with Hartley, 1992's Simple Men.
Following his role in Hartley's critically acclaimed Amateur (1994), Donovan performed in a steady number of films throughout the rest of the decade. For Hartley, he appeared in Flirt (1995) and The Book of Life (1999), in which he played a modern-day Christ opposite PJ Harvey's Magdalena. Other notable work for the versatile actor included his role as Nicole Kidman's consumptive confidant in The Portrait of a Lady (1996); a turn as a divorced gay father in the unsettling Hollow Reed (1996); the part of Holly Hunter's philandering husband in Living Out Loud (1998); and his triumphantly understated portrayal of Christina Ricci's too-tolerant half-brother in Don Roos' black comedy The Opposite of Sex (1998). It was this last role, in particular, that helped to thrust Donovan a little further into the spotlight, introducing him to an audience that was eager to learn more about this multi-talented, multifaceted actor.