Usually cast as quintessential New Yorkers, the light-haired actor became quickly identified for his straightforward yet unemotional portrayals. The California native, however, had begun his career as a stage actor while a student at The American Theatre Arts in L.A. Relocating to NYC in 1983, Donovan landed his first screen role alongside Margaret Klenck and John Sayles in Rick King's indie "Hard Choices" (1984). But it was his turn as Matthew Slaughter, an angry computer technician who carries around a 40-year-old grenade in Hal Hartley's quirky comedy-drama "Trust" (1990) that established him as a lead in independent films. He essayed similar types in other Hartley works including "Simple Men" (1992), as one of the men who fall under the charms of Karen Sillas' Kate, and the short "Flirt" (1993), which the director used in 1995 to anchor a triptych of variations on the same theme. As the amnesiac Thomas in "Amateur" (1994), Donovan was the film's catalyst linking the stories of a nun turned pornographer with that of a vengeful porno star.
Donovan has also worked with other independent filmmakers. In 1994, he reteamed with Rick King for the direct-to-video "Quick", playing a mild-mannered accountant caught up in mob dealings. As usual, the actor brought wit to his performance as an Everyman coping under extraordinary circumstances. Later that same year, he was another beleaguered type, this time the nephew of vampire hunter Van Helsing (Peter Fonda) in Michael Almereyda's take on the Dracula legend, "Nadja". So it was almost shocking to critics and audiences when Jane Campion cast Donovan as the tubercular Englishman Ralph Touchette in "The Portrait of a Lady" (1996). Mustachioed and somewhat unrecognizable, the actor brought welcome charm, warmth and tenderness to this somewhat muddled adaptation of the Henry James novel. Donovan's scenes with Sir John Gielgud and Nicole Kidman were among the highlights of the picture and his work earned him a citation as Best Supporting Actor from the National Society of Film Critics (who also cited Tony Shalhoub for his work in "Big Night"). Continuing to challenge audience expectations, Donovan next portrayed another Englishman, a gay doctor battling his ex-wife (Joely Richardson) for custody of their son, in the based-on-fact drama "The Hollow Reed" (1996), then segued to playing a psychic transsexual in "Heaven" (1997).
Making occasional forays to the small screen, Donovan debut on TV in the 1987 CBS miniseries "At Mother's Request". Perhaps his best-known work, though, was in Hal Hartley's "Surviving Desire", 1992 presentation on PBS' "American Playhouse", in which he portrayed a depressed college teacher who embarks on an affair with a student. Donovan has also had small roles in two special episodes of "The Adventures of Pete and Pete" (Nickelodeon, 1992), was another bookkeeper involved with shady dealings in "Scam" (Showtime, 1993) and co-starred with Valerie Bertinelli, Harry Hamlin and Karen Sillas in the kidnap drama "Night Sins" (CBS, 1997).