When Donnie Darko first came out in 2001, it wasn’t an instant hit. Among other things, the understandable lull in theater audiences following the attacks on September 11 and the bleakness of the film really hurt the appeal of the movie; especially a bleak film that deals with an airplane incident, regardless of how minor it was. The cast was also relatively unknown, save for a few stars, and the director, Richard Kelly, was a completely new face on the block. Nothing about it really screamed box office success. It wasn’t until it hit the DVD racks that people got hooked. It hit home with a generation of angsty teenagers, and the curiousness of the film registered with the cerebral film fans. Hell, it helped create a generation of cerebral film fans. There was ambiguity, philosophical discussions, and interesting science-fiction elements. It checked a lot of the boxes. Although there is an argument to be made that many of the surface elements of the film are shallower than they’re sold to us, we tend to think that there is more about this film than meets the eye.
This is a film that’s been dissected to bits. We don’t want to recover old ground by talking about the little ins and outs of the plot and dialogue. Instead, we decided to look at the cast members and characters of the film. We wanted to see if we can learn anything more about the film through them. We also wanted to see how Donnie Darko has lived on in the actors, what connections did they have before, and what they have done since. It might be pointless, but it might be something new to know about a film we’ve all seen numerous times. There are so many big names in the cast list, many of whom were barely even in the film and just breaking into the industry. Here are 15 Degrees of Donnie Darko: Crazy Connections You’ve Never Considered.
15. An Independence Day Reunion
Mary McDonnell, the actress who played Rose Darko, Donnie’s mom, was one of the bigger stars in the film. Yet, when she was picked up Donnie Darko, she had been in a little valley in her career. She hadn’t starred in any big films for several years prior. In fact, the last big role she had before this film was in Independence Day, in which she played the First Lady. If you remember, in that film, it was Randy Quaid who saved the day by sacrificing himself for the sake of mankind. Kind of like Donnie in a way. It’s neat that Quaid’s character was saved by his son in Independence Day, Miguel Casse, played by actor James Duvall, the same actor behind the bunny suit in Donnie Darko.
14. Under The Influence
There is no doubt that the horror genre played a large role in getting Donnie Darko made. The Richard Kelly-directed psychological thriller wears its influences proudly on its sleeve. We see a blend between a Steven Spielberg film and a Stephen King story, much like we saw more recently in Stranger Things. Perhaps Donnie Darko was darker and not as reference-heavy, but there were noticeable allusions to both Spielberg and King. We see the guys on their bikes one Halloween night, which was clearly meant to conjure up images of E.T. the Extraterrestrial. We also see several King references, such as Rose Darko reading the novel It right at the very beginning of the film. There’s also the clown villain at the end of the film. Interestingly, Drew Barrymore is another link between these influences, appearing in E.T., Cat’s Eye, and Firestarter. Each of these three films are intimately connected to Stranger Things as well, which shows just how much these two projects have in common.
13. Beth Grant And Patrick Swayze
In Donnie Darko, Kitty (Beth Grant) is intensely devoted to Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) and his teachings. Now, obviously, this is in service of the role, but these two actors were good friends before this film was ever made. They first officially worked together on To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything Julie Newmar, but Grant has a nice story of how she and Swayze (nicknamed Buddy) first became friends.
“Patrick Swayze was in an acting class with me. We were working on [Who’s Afraid Of] Virginia Woolf together, and there was this beautiful blonde who was playing Honey—and I’m playing loudmouthed Martha—and she was so gorgeous, and the two guys were flirting and having fun with her, and so I started crying. Buddy came over and said, ‘Don’t you know that you’re beautiful? Don’t you know that these women are beautiful?’ It meant so much to me, because he was already sort of a star. He had done The Outsiders already—he was certainly the star of our class—and for a big, sexy, horseback-ridin’ Texan to come over and tell me that I’m beautiful, and look me right in the eye and make me accept that there’s a beauty in the characters I play meant so much to me. Fast-forward to when Buddy and I did To Wong Foo together. He comes to town as the transvestite, and he completely redoes me. There’s the scene where I come down, I’ve got a boa, and my hair is in curls. I’ve been Loretta, the town drunk—referred to as “Baby Ugly”—and now I’m gorgeous. I was doing her very campy, and Buddy came over and whispered, ‘Hey, this is a little bit like that day [in class] when we were rehearsing that scene.’ I immediately teared up. It became a completely different scene. Instead of being campy, I played her more moved to have her inner beauty brought out by these transvestites. That came from Buddy.”
12. The Mystery Man And Woman
In Donnie Darko, there are two mysterious characters floating about. They are shown and highlighted as suspicious, but we never really find out who they are. At least, their identities are not made obvious. The first is the Mystery Man or the Man in the Red Jogging Suit. He is played by Tom Tangen. This character, who can be seen later in uniform at another point in the film, is an FAA agent who is sent to look in on the Darko family and household to try and learn what really happened. The Mystery Woman is played by Joan Blair. This woman is seen watching and taking notes of the Sparkle Motion performance. Kelly himself has spoken about this woman, stating that she is a talent scout for Star Search.
11. The New Bullies On The Block
When Richard Kelly was trying to get this film made, he knew he had to do it on a shoestring budget. He cast many low-key actors, and several of them became huge stars because of it. While Donnie Darko wasn’t Jake Gyllenhaal‘s first role, it was the role that made him famous. It was one of his sister’s (Maggie Gyllenhaal) first big films as well. But two of the biggest unknowns from the main Donnie Darko cast members were the bullies Seth Devlin and Ricky Danforth, played by Alex Greenwald and Seth Rogen, respectively. Rogen would go on to become a megastar in the film industry, and Greenwald would focus his efforts on music and fronting the band Phantom Planet. You’re probably familiar with the theme song to The O.C. “California,” which is their biggest hit. He’s also Brie Larson‘s partner.
10. The Magic School Bus
Remember Donnie’s friend, Ronald? You would be forgiven for not recognizing him by name or face, but he’s actually an incredibly successful person. His name is Stuart Stone, and he’s famous for a few things. He runs the longest-running podcast of all time, the TSM Radio Show. He also has a wildly successful rap group, and he’s got a stellar resume of live-action acting and voice acting. Voice acting is where he’s made most of his money, though. Most famously, Stone is the voice behind Ralphie from The Magic School Bus. This is the same guy who was talking about smurfs gang-banging Smurfette. Now, it all makes sense why he and Donnie exit out of the back of the bus. Stone runs that school bus.
9. A Series Of Lasts
Like many of the actors in Donnie Darko, Jolene Purdy, the actress behind Cherita Chen, has made herself quite the career after playing the soft-spoken Chen. While she has done a number of incredible projects, such as playing Stephanie Hapakuka in Orange is the New Black, she has never gone back to film. In fact, Donnie Darko is the first and only film Purdy has ever done. Another actress who never went back to film is Patience Cleveland, the one who played Grandma Death or Roberta Sparrow. Sadly, Cleveland passed away a few years after Donnie Darko in 2004.
8. Rabbits Everywhere
At first glance, most people believe that Donnie Darko is referencing the 1950 Jimmy Stewart film, Harvey, in which Stewart talks to an imaginary man-sized rabbit. But, Richard Kelly has said that he had not seen that movie. In fact, he said he was more influenced by the rabbits in Watership Down. There are many other rabbit references throughout the film. One of the main songs, “The Killing Moon,” is a song by Echo & The Bunnymen. We also see a stuffed rabbit on the couch in the Darko house, a Volkswagen Rabbit pass Gretchen, a picture of Donnie dressed as a rabbit during a previous Halloween, and a bunny on the table in the Darko house. There are also a few loose connections with other movies with the word Rabbit in the title. Two of the actresses in Donnie Darko acted in the few examples. Rabbit Test and Get to Know Your Rabbit starred Patience Cleveland and Katharine Ross, respectively.
7. Donnie Brings It On
We all love Bring It On. If you don’t, you’re doing something wrong. Now, as for the second, third, and all the other installments that followed the first, well, we won’t be vouching for those. But, we find it very interesting and a little amusing that both the Donnie Darko and the Bring It On franchises acted as launching pads for several actors’ film careers. Truthfully, none of the actors listed have had the most glorious film careers, but they’ve each carved out nice resumes. Take Holmes Osborne, for example, he played Donnie’s father in Donnie Darko and Torrance’s dad in Bring It On. Then, there’s Jerry Trainor. You would know him best as Spencer Shay from iCarly. But before all that, he was in Bring It on Again. Like so many actors, Donnie Darko was his first ever film role. Another actor who got her first ever live-action film role in Donnie Darko was Ashley Tisdale. She, too, was in a Bring It On film and its sequel, In It to Win It.
6. Fran Kranz The Clown
If you’re a fan of Joss Whedon‘s work, then you know who Fran Kranz is. Kranz has starred in several Whedon projects, including Dollhouse, Cabin in the Woods, and Much Ado About Nothing. Well, Kranz was just one more star who made his film debut in Donnie Darko. He was the guy in the clown suit who was the passenger in Frank’s car when they hit Gretchen (Jena Malone). He’s also the guy who, perhaps unintentionally, referenced Stephen King’s It. Kranz may not be in the remake of It, but he will be in the upcoming film The Dark Tower, playing the role of Pimli.
5. Chicago Hope Reunion
While Donnie Darko reunited the cast and crew from various other films, there was no reunion quite like that of Chicago Hope. For a show that was only on for six seasons, it’s actually remarkable how many cast members from the hospital drama were reunited on the set of Donnie Darko. Each of the following actors had roles on both projects—Jena Malone, Lee Weaver, David St. James, Patience Cleveland, Phyllis Lyons, Arthur Taxier, and Phil Hawn. That’s seven different actors who had credited roles on both Donnie Darko and Chicago Hope. We have to assume that both projects shared a casting director or that maybe Richard Kelly is just a huge Chicago Hope fan. That or Hollywood is really as small a town as they say it is.
4. Mary McDonnell And Graham Greene
In the film, Donnie’s mother (Mary McDonnell) asks Kitty (Beth Grant) if she has ever heard of the author Graham Greene. You’ll remember that Greene is the author of the short story that some are up-in-arms against in the film “The Destructors.” Well, when Kitty is asked about this, she says she has seen Bonanza. This is meant to be funny because she’s confusing Graham with Lorne Greene, the actor who was in the Bonanza series. There’s an interesting trail of bread crumbs here associated with the Greenes. Sam Raimi, who Richard Kelly reached out to ask if he would allow The Evil Dead to be shown in the theater scene, is actually married to one of Lorne Greene’s daughters, Gillian. Even more interesting, there is a Canadian actor named Graham Greene who was most famously in Dances with Wolves alongside Mary McDonnell. Curiouser and curiouser.
3. The Other Links
While these other links might not be as interesting, there have been several other Donnie Darko reunions since the film was first released. Jerry Trainor and David St. James would later reconnect on iCarly, the show that boosted their fame. Both Daveigh Chase and Phyllis Lyons would go on to star in The Ring franchise, with Chase as the villain, Samara. While Donnie Darko was the meeting place for many of these actors who would work together down the line, Beth Grant and Jake Gyllenhaal shared a history before they got together on Donnie Darko. Gyllenhaal had previously done City Slickers, one his first roles. Grant took the baton from him and starred in City Slickers II. Even though they weren’t in the same film, they still have that slickers connection.
2. The Stepford Wives and Donnie Darko
One of the main conflicts in Donnie Darko is between the tradition and simplicity of the suburban lifestyle versus that of modernity. We see on one side, the traditionalists Kitty (Beth Grant) and Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). On the other, the modernists, like Rose Darko and Karen Pomeroy. Immediately, before we learn anything unsavory about the traditionalists, we already see them as antagonists. This is because we’ve seen this trope many times before. We are familiar with the alien and all-too-perfect suburbanites from such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Burbs, and of course, The Stepford Wives. Interestingly, the star of the original The Stepford Wives was Katharine Ross, the actress who played Donnie’s psychiatrist.
1. Battles Of The S*xes
There’s an element of Donnie Darko that has not been examined in really any depth, and that is how gender and s*x is explored in film. There’s something strange at work in this town. Take Karen Pomeroy, the teacher played by Drew Barrymore. She tells Gretchen to “sit next to the boy you think is the cutest,” as if she’s conducting an experiment. She is even named for the famed s*x researcher, Wardell Pomeroy. Pomeroy worked at the Kinsey Institute and specialized in adolescent s*xuality. We see several of the characters who are colored by their gender. The females in the film are all victims to an extent. Even the strongest of them, like Pomeroy, are victimized in the end. The males, on the other hand, are mostly violent, abusive, and s*xually active, much like the rabbits Donnie discusses after watching Watership Down. Listen to the conversation that Donnie has with his friends about Smurfette. His two pals suggest that Smurfette is only a tool for male pleasure, whereas Donnie argues that s*x isn’t a concern in Smurf Village, that the Smurfs are all as*xual. This stands in stark contrast with the highly s*xualized town that Donnie Darko is set within, the ironically-named the director, Middles*x.
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