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Tom Hanks wouldn’t suspect it but, years ago, he contributed to a “christening” of sorts. It was 1990, and 18-year-old Jon Donahue’s first night as manager at the Ritz, a single-screen theater in his hometown of Binghamton, New York. While racing through rainy streets to get a Joe Versus the Volcano reel from one theater to another, he dropped it in a puddle, washing away any hope of getting it screened on time. In full panic mode, Donahue scooped up the soaking Tom Hanks’ comedy, rushed back to the Ritz projection room and ran the film on rewind, whipping the drenched reel dry. It screened perfectly, foreshadowing Donahue’s future and a reprisal of Hanks’ baptismal role.
Today Donahue is one of Hollywood’s most sought-after stand-ins. His attention-driven technique earns him work with the likes of Pierce Brosnan, Ray Romano, Will Ferrell, John Krasinski, Bradley Cooper, Matthew Perry — and Tom Hanks.
It began with a boyhood dream of doing anything to be an actor. That included skippering the Jaws boat at Universal Orlando. Or making Booger Gak and Slime — the green ooze dumped on kids’ heads — for Nickelodeon. “Putting Gakmeister on my résumé got me into news reporting,” he says.
His boyish good looks and wacky humor also helped nab him a reporting position at WBNG-TV News in New York, where he scored a Nickelodeon interview due to his Gak connections.
Any industry gig would have pleased the aspiring actor, so when offered a stand-in job on E.R., he grabbed it. “The show became my acting school,” says Donahue. “A stand-in doesn’t just stand in one spot. You have to hit your actor’s marks so that lights and camera angles can be adjusted. When blocking changes, you have to let your actors know.”
Three years later, he earned his first feature film as Matthew Perry’s stand-in on The Whole Ten Yards. During filming, he had to make off-screen “sex noises” for Perry to react to. “My acting studies boost my stand-in skills, so I can meaningfully deliver off-camera lines to the actors on camera,” he says.
Doing improv and auditioning between gigs sharpen his delivery. “Stand-ins usually run straightforward dialogue. I deliver lines the way I think a director intends them to be delivered, so the actors can react to something solid.”
In 2003, he found himself standing in on The Ladykillers for his reel savior: Hanks. Donahue went all out. “To match Tom on camera, I grew a goatee and had my hair lightened. The more I resemble the actor, the more it helps the cinematographer and crew.” Joining Hanks again on Charlie Wilson’s War, he also got his first contracted part. “I am an actor,” says Donahue. “That’s what I do. One of my biggest thrills was doing improv with Robin Williams on the set of License to Wed. My Owen Wilson impression was his favorite.”
Don’t get him wrong. Donahue loves being Hanks’ right-hand man. Their bond continues in Angels and Demons, where Donahue scored another small role. “Shooting above Rome in a helicopter and getting free gelato all day because I was dressed like Tom — not a bad gig.”
Neither is sitting in for Captain Kirk. As Chris Pine’s stand-in on the new Star Trek movie, Donahue was stoked when planting himself in the captain’s chair. “There’s no better way for a struggling actor to pay the bills than going to Rome and outer space in the same year.”